John E. Stealey III: W.Va.’s tortuous road to emancipation

By By John E. Stealey III
Library of Congress
A Thomas Nast illustration celebrates the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, 150 years ago.

This year is the 150th anniversary of the emancipation of all slaves in West Virginia. All West Virginians of good will should recognize and celebrate this important Civil War event. Few know of the tortuous path toward the emancipation of more than 18,000 Mountain State souls and how and when their freedom occurred. It is an important, complicated story.

State constitutional convention delegates and legislators had several opportunities to achieve total emancipation before 1865 and failed to do so. Like many desirable social and political outcomes involving individual freedoms and civil rights, the national government always provided the impulse for the state to act.

In the state constitutional convention of 1862-1863, the Rev. Mr. Gordon Battelle of Ohio County introduced resolutions that banned slaves from entering the state and provided for the gradual and equitable removal of slavery from the state on a future Fourth of July. Despite Battelle’s and a few delegates’ best efforts to secure approval of the proposal, the convention gagged any committee or convention action. Some delegates simply opposed freeing slaves, and others feared what effect adoption might have on congressional passage of a statehood bill. Four border slave states might oppose the statehood bill with emancipation provisions. The convention ducked the issue by only prohibiting additional slaves and free persons of color from permanent residence in the state.

When the West Virginia Bill was introduced into the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, statehood supporters soon discovered that passage was improbable without adequate provisions affecting slavery. Eventually Sen. Waitman Thomas Willey of Morgantown introduced an amendment written by Rep. William G. Brown of Kingwood that children born of slaves after July 4, 1863, would be free and no slave shall be permitted to come into the state for permanent residence. Sen. James Henry Lane of Kansas successfully amended the Willey proposal to provide a more comprehensive emancipation. Slave children under 10 years of age on July 4, 1863 would become free at 21, and those over 10 and under 21 on the same date would become free at age 25. The Brown/Lane/Willey Amendment became part of the final West Virginia bill signed by President Abraham Lincoln subject to its adoption by a reconvened constitutional convention. The convention adopted the Brown/Lane/Willey Amendment in February 1863, and voters ratified the amended constitution in March.

West Virginia entered the federal union as a slave state. It had a slave code adapted from the Virginia model governing chattels. No slave born previously to July 4, 1863, could be free until 1867. Slaves over 21 on the operable date remained slaves. Without subsequent action, the Mountain State might have had slavery until World War I.

Before final enactment of the statehood bill in December 1862, President Abraham Lincoln and his administration developed a policy to deal with slavery in rebellious states and areas. On Sept. 22, 1862, after the battle of Antietam, he issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation that promised that the slaves would be freed in the rebellious states when conquered if the areas continued their insurrection. The proclamation excepted the 48 counties of West Virginia and Berkeley County from its provisions. Therefore, the final Emancipation Proclamation issued Jan. 1, 1863, applied in West Virginia only to Jefferson County, which had more slaves than any other county.

During the war, individual African Americans in West Virginia possessed agency outside of legislative halls and executive offices. Considerable numbers of slaves emancipated themselves by fleeing from their owners, often to neighboring free states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio, and some enlisted in the Union Army.

As the Union Army seized more and more Confederate territory and applied the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation, President Lincoln, Secretary of State William Henry Seward, and many Republican congressional leaders perceived the inconsistency of slaves becoming free in the South while the institution continued in the loyal Border States and the loyal areas excepted from the operation of the Emancipation Proclamation. They proposed the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that prohibited slavery and involuntary servitude in the U. S. and in anyplace subject to its jurisdiction.

Informed West Virginians could anticipate what the future held for slavery when the U.S. Senate passed the amendment in April 1864. The proposal failed to secure the necessary two-thirds majority for passage in the House in June. Proponents continued to push congressmen for support of the measure until it passed on Jan. 31, 1865. The next day, slightly more than two months before the rebel surrender at Appomattox, President Lincoln signed the joint resolution submitting the amendment to the states for ratification.

The Third West Virginia Legislature was prepared to act to free slaves. On Jan. 23, 1865, it had instructed the state’s senators and representatives to favor the amendment to abolish slavery. It also appointed a joint legislative committee to inquire into the expediency and constitutionality of immediately abolishing state slavery and to report an appropriate bill or otherwise.

Three days after presidential submission, the Legislature adopted the appropriate resolution ratifying the Thirteenth Amendment. On the same day, the body abolished slavery immediately in the state. The majestic words were: “All persons held to service for labor as slaves in this state, are hereby declared free” and “There shall hereafter be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in this State” except as punishment for a crime.

During the momentous events of a devastating civil war, West Virginia had established itself in 1863 and became a free state 10 months before national ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment on Dec. 18, 1865. Because of Emancipation Day, Feb. 3, 1865, for Mountain State whites and African Americans there was no return to a society that existed in 1861.

John E. Stealey III is Distinguished Professor, Emeritus, of History at Shepherd University.

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