Cumberland Times-News

Columns

February 1, 2014

Those people had plenty to argue about

Tomorrow is the 99th anniversary of a minor footnote in American history but an important date in West Virginia history.

It was on Feb. 3, 1865, that slavery was abolished in the Mountain State. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution that ended slavery altogether in the U.S. was adopted 10 months later, in December 1865. Maryland had abolished slavery on Nov. 1, 1864.

The Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Lincoln on Jan. 1, 1863, did not free all of the slaves — only those in the areas that were still in rebellion.

It did not free slaves in Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware and the western counties of Virginia that became West Virginia, all of which remained in the Union during the Civil War, or in parts of Virginia, Louisiana and Tennessee that by then were under Union control.

One can argue that it had no practical effect on slavery in places where the Confederacy still ruled because it could not be enforced.

The practical effect was one thing. The psychological effect was another, entirely. It energized and gave hope to the slaves who heard about it. Newly found hope is a powerful thing.

There were 4 million slaves in America in 1860, the year before the Civil War started. Their combined value was greater than that of America’s banks, railroads and factories combined — about $4 billion (more than $11 trillion today, according to a conversion table that was one of numerous resources I have consulted).

More than half a million slaves escaped to the North during the war, and about 150,000 enlisted in the Union Army. Another half-million slaves were in states that hadn’t seceded or areas that were controlled by the Union.

Why was the war fought? Some say it was because of slavery, others say it was over states’ rights. That question will never be answered to everyone’s satisfaction — just as folks will continue to debate about what people like Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman and Stonewall Jackson really thought about slavery. (You might be surprised ... and some of what you will find is contradictory.)

There were harsh disagreements about the power, size and influence of the central government over the states; the legislative balance of power; who should or should not be a citizen; civil rights and liberties; taxes and tariffs that would benefit some states while hurting others; property rights; freedom of speech; freedom of the press, and the loyalties of individual citizens. Slavery, in one way or another, was a factor in most of those issues..

Also, America was divided into two dominant cultures that despised each other.

Little has changed. While slavery is no longer an issue, we still argue passionately about the same things. Elements of today’s dominant cultures — conservatism and progressivism — display a growing disdain and lack of civility toward each other that’s eerily reminiscent of pre-Civil War America.

Lincoln could have avoided the war by letting the seceding states go, but he believed the Union had to be preserved — by force if necessary. Ultimately, he also was convinced that abolition of slavery had to be a goal of the war.

Virginia — from which West Virginia was amputated — had more in common with the culture and economy of the North than those of the Deep South and was reluctant to secede.

Its leaders tried until the end to find a compromise that would preserve the Union. Less than two weeks before the war began at Fort Sumter, its convention voted 88-45 against recommending secession to the state’s voters.

After Fort Sumter, Lincoln issued a call for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion. (Many believe that Fort Sumter gave Lincoln the excuse he wanted to launch the Civil War on grounds that the other side started it.)

Virginia’s quota was to be three regiments of 2,340 men. That’s when Virginia’s convention voted 88-55 to recommend secession. Of the 47 delegates from counties that now are in West Virginia, 32 voted against secession, 11 voted for it and four abstained.

Opponents of secession argued that Virginia would become the main battlefield in the coming war and that its people would suffer grievously. They were very much right.

Among the anti-secession delegates were Edward McCarty Armstrong, Waitman T. Willey and John S. Carlile.

Armstrong was a prominent landowner in New Creek, W.Va., which after the Civil War became Keyser. Armstrong Street in Keyser is named after him. He stayed loyal to Virginia, moved to the eastern part of the state and joined the Confederate Army.

Willey and Carlile sided with the Union and became legislators for the Reorganized Government of Virginia, which was located in Wheeling and eventually created the state of West Virginia.

As U.S. Senators, they wrote legislation that would admit West Virginia as the 35th state.

Willey voted for that bill and is revered as one of the state’s founding fathers. Carlile — who had been one of the strongest proponents of statehood — voted against it for reasons for that are still debated and became a pariah.

Carlile was a slaveowner. He believed slavery should be addressed in the West Virginia constitution that would be voted upon by its citizens — not by Congress. He may have voted against the bill because it called for the gradual abolition of slavery, which was the only condition under which Congress would approve statehood.  

Others say he changed his mind and wanted Virginia to remain undivided, with the Wheeling legislature recognized as its true government.

No one knows for sure. It was a small part of a complicated time in American history that is fascinating to the point of becoming addictive.

In 1860, there were 666 slaves and 467 free blacks in Allegany County. Hampshire County, W.Va., which at that time included what is now Mineral County, had more than 1,000 slaves.

Hampshire County was divided after the war because the eastern half (present-day Hampshire County) had sided with the Confederacy, while the western half (what’s now Mineral County) was loyal to the Union.

The legislature moved the county seat from Romney to New Creek (what’s now Keyser) during the war in 1863 for the same reason.

I have been to a house near Burlington, W.Va., that was part of the Underground Railroad and visited a slave cemetery near Little Orleans. In the yard behind the home where two of my relatives lived in Cumberland was a shack that once housed a slave.

The late Willie Wolfe wrote in his history of Keyser that in the 1820s, one family in the town had at least 40 slaves, and another family chained theirs to trees and flogged them.

I have many friends who in all likelihood are descendants of slaves. Some are like family.

They would have been worth fighting for.

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