A State Born Of Civil War

Jun 23, 2013
Originally published on June 23, 2013 10:19 am

One hundred and fifty years ago this week, West Virginia became the 35th state in the union.

Born in in 1863, the middle of the Civil War, the state was created by patriots who didn't want to join the Confederacy — no mean feat considering the political climate of the time.

Western Virginians were fed up with their eastern-dominated government, says Joe Geiger, director of the West Virginia State Archives. He says they also felt they didn't get fair funding for education and infrastructure.

On top of that, western Virginians opposed slavery — only 4 percent of the state's slaves lived there.

"You would naturally assume that there was an opposition to slavery in western Virginia, and indeed there was," Geiger tells Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin. "But this was largely due to economic and political reasons, not moral ones."

So when the easterners in Richmond seceded from the union, western Virginians seized the opportunity to organize.

"I firmly believe that without the Civil War, we wouldn't have a West Virginia," Geiger says.


Interview Highlights

How West Virginia became a state

"What these folks do in Wheeling, these folks who are so determined to remain loyal to the union ... the first thing they do is try to create a union government, a replacement government for Virginia. In the end this is going to be key to West Virginia statehood, because according to the constitution, in order for a new state to be created from an existing state, the existing state has to give its permission."

What kind of people are West Virginians?

"West Virginia is the kind of state where you walk down the street and you speak to every person you see. You make eye contact, you smile; and I understand if you did that in New York, you might be looked at a little strangely.

"People care about one another, they take care of each other. We've had certainly different disasters and tragedies in our history, and the first thing that you see in response is people banding together to help one another."

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

One hundred and fifty years ago, West Virginia became the 35th state in the Union. Born in the middle of the Civil War in l863, the state was created by patriots who didn't want to join the Confederacy - no mean feat considering the political climate of the time. So, as West Virginians celebrate their sesquicentennial - yes, that is a real word - we are joined by Joe Geiger. He's the director of the West Virginia State Archives. Mr. Geiger, thanks for being with us.

JOE GEIGER: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: Happy West Virginia state birthday.

GEIGER: Thank you so much. We're real excited to celebrate our 150th anniversary as state.

MARTIN: So, for those of us who weren't paying that much attention in school, remind us exactly how and why West Virginia came about?

GEIGER: Well, largely because of the Civil War. I firmly believe that without the Civil War, we wouldn't have a West Virginia. Western Virginians believe that they didn't get enough funding from an eastern-dominated legislature for internal improvements, for education and things like this. And also, the economy was different in western Virginia. In terms of slaves, only 4 percent of Virginia's slaves were in present-day West Virginia. So, you would naturally assume that there was an opposition to slavery in western Virginia, and indeed there was. But this was largely due to economic and political reasons, not moral ones. Essentially, what happens is the government of Virginia, when they secede from the United States of America, it leaves that government vacant. And what these folks do in Wheeling, these people who are so determined to remain loyal to the Union, is they try to find a way to deal with this. And the first thing that they do is create a Union government, a replacement government, for Virginia. In the end, this is going to be the key to West Virginia statehood. Because, according to the Constitution, in order for a new state to be created from an existing state, that existing state has to give us permission.

MARTIN: For people who have never been to West Virginia, what are West Virginians like?

GEIGER: Well, West Virginia's the kind of state where you walk down the street and you speak to every person that you see. You make eye contact, you smile, and I understand that if you do that in New York, you might be looked at a little strangely. So, people care about one another. They take care of each other. We've had certainly different disasters and tragedies in our history, and the first thing that you see in response in West Virginians banding together to help one another.

MARTIN: Joe Geiger is the director of the West Virginia State Archive. Thank you so much for taking the time.

GEIGER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.