Seceding From Secession

This is a book by the award-winning historian Eric Wittenberg, Edmund Sargus, a federal district judge in Columbus, Ohio, and Penny Barrick, a senior attorney with the US District Court for the Southern District of Ohio.

The separation of the northwestern part of the state from the rest of Virginia was the culmination of decades of tensions between the two sections. “People in northwestern Virginia tended to align themselves with Pennsylvania and Ohio in political, financial and cultural matters, and not with the eastern part of the state: Pittsburgh is 60 miles from Wheeling, while Richmond is 320 miles away.” [p. 6] Like most things in the Civil War, slavery paid a role as well, though not to the extent it did for the secession of the confederate states. ” ‘The present-day West Virginia in 1860 had a white population of nearly 380,000, a Negro-slave population of approximately 18,000, and almost 3,000 persons of color,’ observed one authority. The 1860 census indicated that there were 490,865 slaves in Virginia, constituting 31% of the state’s entire population. Berkeley and Jefferson Counties, in what became the eastern panhandle of West Virginia, lay to the east of the Allegheny Mountains and relied on slave labor to work the plantations that drove their economies. The mountains served as a physical dividing line between the plantation economy of the east and the more commercial and industrial economy of northwestern Virginia. The entire northern and western areas of Virginia bordered on free soil, not slave states. Ironically, the dominance of the eastern portion of the state traced its roots to the slave economy. The east depended on slaves, ‘the possession of which could be guaranteed and secured only by giving to masters a voice in the government adequate to the protection of their interests,’ wrote Henry Dering of Morgantown in western Virginia to future U.S. Senator Waitman T. Willey in March 1861. ‘Talk about Northern oppression, talk about our rights being stolen from us by the North; it’s all stuff and dwindles into nothing when compared, to our situation in Western Virginia. The truth is the slavery oligarchy, are impudent boastful and tyrannical. It is the nature of the institution to make men so; and tho I am far from being an abolitionist, yet if they persist, in their course, the day may come when all Western Virginia will rise up, in her might and throw off the Shackles, which thro this very Divine institution, as they call it, has been pressing us down.’ ” [pp. 7-8] Religion and unequal taxation policies played roles as well. For example, the state constitution, framed under the domination of the eastern part of the state, taxed all property with the exception of enslaved people in proportion to its value while enslaved property was taxed at a much lower level.

A major strength of the book is the wealth of primary sources the authors either reproduce or directly quote. Among the resources the authors collected are proclamations, ordinances, court decisions, and letters. They give us the story of how West Virginia broke off from Virginia and continue it all the way to the final Supreme Court decision, in 1911, that laid all the claims and counterclaims to rest.

Unfortunately, the book’s editor let them down, which is surprising because Savas-Beattie is known for the quality of its output. The editing in this case appears to be an outlier. There are numerous typos in several areas of the book, especially in the foreword written by Frank Williams. For example, the book uses the present singular form of “to have” instead of the present plural form and spells “secession” as “succession” on page vii. In the Preface, on page xiv, “Allegheny” is misspelled, and on p. xv the writers say the foreword follows the preface, when in fact the preface followed the foreword. This reader found the errors distracting.

Eric Wittenberg is a seasoned writer, and it seems to be easy to identify which chapters he wrote, as there are a number without errors and which are well written, which is one of the hallmarks of Eric’s work. Some other chapters, though, do have typos and in some cases are choppy and don’t do a great job integrating the primary source quotes into the narrative.

While the writers do a great job in giving us the constitutional arguments used at the time, it would also have been nice to see their assessment. After all, the writers are a US district judge and two highly experienced, senior attorneys. Their assessments, based on their study and experience, would have been good additions to the book.

The historical information is excellent, and while one can get much of that information from other sources, the primary sources the authors gathered for us makes the book very useful for students of the war. The typos can be distracting, but I can still recommend this book for those who want to explore how West Virginia came to be. In gathering the primary source material they’ve done us a great service.

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