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Civil War: Parkersburg played a major role in W.Va.’s birth

September 18, 2013

We have now celebrated our state's birthday of 150 years ago - in the midst of a horrible Civil War.

Only one month earlier, the destructive Confederate raid had demolished the B&O Railroad outside Parkersburg and destroyed the oilfield at Burning Springs, not to mention the thousands of cattle and horses stolen from local residents. Parkersburg was in constant fear of Confederate raids.

In the midst of all this and earlier turmoil, northwestern leaders methodically managed to put together a new state, and Parkersburg leaders played the most important role in that process. It is important to celebrate and remember those leaders. No other part of the Northwest came close to furnishing this level of talent who gave their all to save the area from secession. Our goal has been to document their accomplishments and make sure that future generations of historians remember them. Those men were nine in number:

First, Gen. J.J. Jackson played a major role in delaying Virginia's Secession vote by announcing the "Northwest" would not secede with eastern Virginia. This forced the radicals in Richmond to go to South Carolina to get Fort Sumter fired on, persuading members to switch votes for secession. Jackson was summoned to the White House by President Lincoln to receive praise for his pro-union speeches. Jackson then went to the First Wheeling Convention and opposed Carlile and those who wanted to immediately form a new state. After this he retired from politics.

Second, A.I. Boreman was not just the first governor of West Virginia. He worked hard to persuade reluctant north westerners to stay with the Union, by speaking and writing letters in those critical months before secession. Boreman was active in Wheeling with the new Reformed Government and was appointed to head the Second Wheeling Convention, and it was that convention that operated throughout the statehood process.

Third, P.G. Van Winkle was a local attorney, was son-in-law of W.P. Rathbone, owner of Burning Springs Oilfield (he had his own oil company), and was the local organizer of the Northwestern Virginia Railroad between Parkersburg and Grafton. Van Winkle played a major role in the Second Wheeling Convention and was elected to the Governor's Advisory Commission. Not only was he a major contributor to the convention, Van Winkle put up $10,000 to pay for the expenses of the convention. He is given credit for writing the new state's constitution. He ran against Boreman for governor but was elected and became the first West Virginia senator.

Fourth, Jacob Beeson Blair was a Parkersburg attorney and oilman out on the Staunton to Parkersburg Turnpike. He left that business to attend the First Wheeling Convention and was elected by the reformed legislature as a member of the U. S. House of Representatives. He worked to get the statehood bill through Congress and was the key to persuading Lincoln to sign the statehood bill.

Fifth, Dr. J.W. Moss was a local Parkersburg physician. He was elected to chair the tumultuous first Wheeling Convention, pitting the forces of Jackson against John Carlile. He presided over the compromise to adjourn and meet again after the Virginia secession vote. He was elected to the Reformed Virginia legislature but resigned and joined the Union Army as a surgeon. He later died in the service.

Sixth, W.E. Stevenson was a Parkersburg farmer, president of the Reformed Government Senate and active in Pierpont's government during war. He became the effective second elected governor of the new West Virginia, succeeding Boreman.

Seventh, George W. Henderson, known as owner of an active plantation, he was persuaded by Boreman to become an ardent Unionist and supporter of keeping the northwest Virginia out of the Confederacy, even though many in his family were on the other side. He was a member of the Wood County delegation to the First Wheeling Convention, and then elected to replace Moss in the Reformed Virginia House of Delegates. He voted to approve the new Constitution for submission to U.S. Congress.

Eighth, J.H. Diss Debarr was a resident of Parkersburg, was politically involved in the activities of statehood, was a close friend of Boreman's and Van Winkle's and accompanied them throughout the statehood process. He was an artist and left a great legacy by sketching political scenes, events and people. He was present in Washington when Lincoln signed the new state Constitution. He became commissioner of immigration in the New State and prepared a comprehensive guide to the resources and potential of the new state.

Ninth, John J. Jackson Jr. was a Parkersburg attorney and son of Gen. J.J. Jackson. He became U.S. District Judge in Wheeling. He became a major statehood supporter and was the judicial enforcer for laws and regulations of the reformed and new state. For example, Jackson ruled the loyalty oath of the reformed government was valid to be used to exclude non-signers from holding public office or practicing law.

It is hard to imagine the difficulties these men went through. Parkersburg at that time was just out of the wilderness. There were no paved roads, telephones, airplanes or electric lights. Neighbors, friends and relatives were on different sides of the war, with many committed with their lives or their children's lives on the line for the cause in which they fervently believed. No other state in the Union was born in such turmoil, except the original thirteen.

What we remember about this period of our history is important. Let us review the important issues in the process.

The primary goal of the statehood process was to stay in the Union. As Boreman said, "We know what freedoms and liberties we have in the Union, why risk that for an unknown in the Confederacy?" While slavery was an issue, preserving the Union was all encompassing.

Slavery was assumed to be almost a non-issue in the northwest. That was because most of the slaves had already fled to Ohio and Pennsylvania, aided by abolitionists in the Underground Railroad. One reason for not including the Shenandoah Valley, for example, was it still had a large slave-owner population and would have tipped the political balance in the new state toward the Confederacy. However the Northern Shenandoah counties were retained to enable Union protection of the critical B&O Railroad. Thus our eastern panhandle.

There are those, particularly Virginia historians, who claim that West Virginia only exists because of the military might of the federal government. Not true. The politicians in the Northwest decided to delay the statehood process by years just to make it legal. They intentionally kept Virginia in the Union to allow Virginia to give permission for West Virginia to be formed out of its territory, required by the Constitution. The easier way would have been to just declare a new state and petition Congress and the president for approval. This would probably been disapproved out of hand. However, in the methodical way it was done, Congress approved and seated the senators and congressmen from the "Reformed Virginia Government."

Remember, Confederate Virginia removed itself from the Union and had no rights under the U.S. Constitution. It was Northwestern politicians who kept us in the Union, with Constitutional protections. Modern Virginia historians should keep this in mind when they criticize West Virginia's legality. The founders of West Virginia used a careful, methodical, legal process to create the new state, which was upheld by Congress, the president and the Supreme Court. All done in the midst of a major civil war.

We give plaudits to The News and Sentinel for the excellent special edition recognizing West Virginia's 150th birthday!

David McKain is director of the Gas and Oil Museum and Henderson Hall.

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