The pretermission of Confederate statues and flags in the Deep South should serve as a reminder of the central role West Virginia played in helping the Union win the Civil War.
Most accounts center on the strategic importance of the B&O railroad, as it was considered “Lincoln’s Lifeline” from the west carrying troops, material and foodstuffs to the eastern theaters.
Its importance was underscored by Stonewall Jackson’s Great Train Raid in 1861, followed by the Romney Expedition in 1862 and the Jones-Imboden Raid in the early months of 1863.
Confederate General Robert E. Lee famously stated that the destruction of the intricate Cheat River railroad trestle bridge in Preston County alone would be “worth to me an army.”
But it was the lesser-known success of the Grand Army of West Virginia’s campaign in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864 that significantly helped turn the tide of the war.
As the most technologically advanced agricultural region in all of North America, the Shenandoah Valley was recognized as the “Breadbasket of the Confederacy” and the lynchpin to the Southern war effort, especially during the wintertime siege of Petersburg and Richmond in 1864.
A scorched-earth campaign, known as “The Burning” was orchestrated by General Ulysses S. Grant from Union headquarters in Charles Town, West Virginia. That campaign served to bring the war to the civilian economy, thereby undermining the Confederate logistical supply chain.
To put it into historical context, one year earlier, on June 20, 1863, when loyalist West Virginia was admitted into the Union, the South was actually winning the war. Statehood predated the battles of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and Vicksburg, Mississippi.
In fact, Gen. Robert E. Lee’s decisive victory at Chancellorsville, Virginia, just weeks before, left the entire state vulnerable to his Army of Northern Virginia — the Confederacy’s most powerful and feared.
Additional Confederate battlefield victories in the Shenandoah Valley mere days before statehood created widespread panic in eastern counties, especially after Union troops retreated to protect Washington.
Fears were further compounded on rumors of Lee’s northern invasion route — on the very day West Virginia entered the union — as the entire army stood on the threshold of West Virginia’s vulnerable northern population centers.
Lee could have advanced his army toward Wheeling and destroyed the new state’s capitol. Instead he advanced toward Gettysburg, conducting a demoralizing burning of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, along the way.
The South’s plan for stalemate was working, especially given the fact that President Abraham Lincoln’s chances for re-election were considered insuperable after the Conscription Riots in northern cities, coupled with his opponent, Gen. George McLellan’s popular campaign as the “peace candidate.”
Recognizing this inevitability, Lincoln promoted Grant to commander of all Union forces. Grant then targeted Petersburg and Richmond while Gen. William T. Sherman would employ the concept of total war across Georgia and South Carolina. Sherman modeled his campaign on the Grand Army of West Virginia’s proving ground in the Shenandoah Valley.
The success of this coordinated strategy propelled Lincoln to re-election in the fall of 1864 and advanced the 13th Amendment, which had been stalled in the U.S. House of Representatives, that abolished slavery.
The secession of West Virginia from the Confederate States of America was a bitter pill, especially since Virginia was the economic and geopolitical center of the Confederacy with Richmond as its capital city.
Immediately at the end of the war in 1865, with the city in ruins and the Commonwealth’s infrastructure laid waste, resentful Virginia passed legislation nullifying West Virginia’s statehood.
A subsequent act of Congress in 1866 codifying the post-war additions of Jefferson and Berkeley Counties further embittered Virginia lawmakers, who then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which affirmed the transfer and de facto statehood in Virginia v. West Virginia (1871).
It would not be until another appeal Virginia v. West Virginia (1911) that the Commonwealth finally acquiesced to statehood by accepting payment for one-third of the antebellum infrastructure debt.
On West Virginia Day, it is important to remember the role that West Virginia played in Union military victories, the re-election of President Lincoln and, ultimately, the preservation of the United States of America.
Howard Swint is a commercial property broker and hobby historian. He can be reached at Howard.Swint@colliers.com.