March 1863: The Fight for W.Va.’s Constitutional Statehood Is Won

Editor’s Note: This article is part of an occasional series on the Civil War sesquicentennial provided by members of the Wheeling Civil War 150 Committee.

By March 1863, the war had lasted almost two years and the people of both North and South were war weary and frustrated by the lack of any clear breakthrough. The stresses of war and domestic tragedies were evident in news stories of the day.

Wheeling was troubled by burglaries, robberies, murders, fires and the transport through the city of war prisoners, deserters who ended up at the Atheneum prison in downtown Wheeling.

Military leaders of both North and South worked to rebuild their depleted armies after the fierce battles of December 1862 and to prepare for the battles to come. The Union navy tightened its blockade of southern ports and occupied coastal areas of the Confederacy. No major battles occurred in the country during March, but numerous skirmishes did take place causing considerable loss of life and destruction of property.

On March 3, 1863, Congress passed a conscription bill. All males between 20 and 45 were liable for military service except for the unfit and those exempted. One could buy a substitute for $300 and more than 70 percent of men drafted did so. The law led to serious protests in northern states and riots in New York City, but it had little effect in northwestern Virginia where more than enough men volunteered to fill the quota. Commenting on those opposed to the draft, The Intelligencer sarcastically listed ways to avoid military service: go to Canada, go crazy, drink six gallons of whiskey, cut off your forefinger or plunk down $300.

Business in Wheeling remained prosperous, but the federal government’s seizure of many of the steamboats on the river for the war effort hampered shipping and contributed to rising prices. Butter rose to 30-35 cents a pound, eggs to 18 to 20 cents a dozen and potatoes at $1 a bushel. Two chickens cost 25 cents. Quoting letters received from Richmond, The Intelligencer claimed prices were much worse in the blockaded Confederacy with butter at Richmond costing $2.75 a pound and cornmeal $5 a bushel.

The people of Wheeling were entertained late Friday morning, March 13, when more than 1,000 gathered on the hill above the city to observe the public hanging of Robert “Doc” Pool, convicted of the killing of Adam Buch, a Wheeling barkeep. A festive atmosphere prevailed as Pool said goodbye to fellow prisoners and was conveyed through the crowd in a cart to the place of execution. Hymns were sung, prayers recited and Pool gave a brief speech urging people to renounce sin and love God. When asked by Sheriff Loring if he was ready, Pool answered, “The quicker the better.” After Pool had been hanging about an hour, he was declared dead by two physicians. While “Doc” Pool was dying in Wheeling, his younger brother, Alexander, was in a Parkersburg jail awaiting trial for the murder of a fellow soldier.

More wholesome entertainment was provided by an exhibition of J. Insco William’s “Panorama of the Bible,” a set of pictures depicting scenes of the Bible covering 4,000 square yards. The exhibition at Washington Hall from March 19-31 could be viewed for 25 cents by adults and 15 cents by children. A 40-page book showing each biblical scene with scriptural explanatory text was available. A Cincinnati artist, Williams was creating a 10,000-square-foot panorama inspired by the Civil War at the time of the Bible exhibit.

When Lincoln and Congress approved of West Virginians’ request to establish a new state in December 1862, they did so with the condition that the state constitution be amended to require the gradual emancipation of slaves. The Wheeling Convention reconvened, Feb. 12-20, amended the constitution and asked the people to approve of the change by referendum on March 26.

The Convention authorized the publication of an “Address of the Delegates to their Constituents” to acquaint the voters with the main objections to the constitution and their refuting arguments, and 10,000 copies of the “Address” were distributed throughout western Virginia.

Numerous meetings were held between the close of the Convention and voting day by both supporters and opponents. The Intelligencer strongly supported speakers favoring the constitution, called New Staters, such as Sen. Waitman Willey and Peter Van Winkle, while criticizing those opposed like Sen. John Carlile and the former Democratic congressman from Ohio County, Sherrard Clemens.

Along the Ohio River the anti-New State proponents like Clemens frequently found their meetings and speeches disrupted, sometimes with violence by New Staters. The Intelligencer derisively branded New State opponents like Clemens as Copperheads (poisonous snakes) or butternuts (Confederates used dye from butternut, white walnut, to dye their homespun uniforms, usually a yellowish tan). In areas where pro-Southern sentiment was strong, New Staters faced similar sentiment. In Wheeling, The Intelligencer constantly traded insults with Henry Moore’s Wheeling Press during this month of campaigning, and The Intelligencer gloated over the closing of its rival on March 23.

When it became clear that the voters would approve the amended constitution, Carlile and Clemens urged their supporters to boycott the election claiming the vote could not be fair as there would be no secret ballots and intimidation would occur. Francis Pierpont, governor of the Restored Government of Virginia, guaranteed that Union troops would ensure a free and fair election.

The official results of the March 26 referendum showed 28,321 voting in favor to 572 opposing the amended constitution. Election officials threw out 422 affirmative votes as being improperly cast. The vote in Ohio County was 1,806 yes to eight no.

Voting was very light in many eastern and southern counties and no results came in from Calhoun, Logan, McDowell, Mercer, Pocohantas, Raleigh, Webster or Wyoming counties. Nonetheless, after receiving the official election result, Lincoln announced that West Virginia would be recognized as the nation’s 35th state on June 20, 1863.