Why wasn't West Virginia returned to Virginia after the Civil War?

If the US Civil War made clear that individual states cannot secede from the Union, then how is it legal for a portion of a state to secede from another state? Shouldn’t Viriginia be able to reclaim its western counties, and if not, doesn’t this set a dangerous precedent for the future? What is to stop individual counties in other states from declaring their “independence” from the state they are in?

Well, I think it wasn’t so much that West Virginia seceded as that it said it wouldn’t secede, which the Union was grateful to allow. I think if any more states secede, any counties that do not wish to will be allowed to form their own nonsecessionist state.

The State of Virginia consented to the separation. Of course, it was delegates reorganizing the state government in Wheeling after the former government in Richmond constructively resigned en masse by passing Secession. But5 they conformed to the Constitutional requirements – sort of. Here’s the Ordinance providing for Reorganization; the link at the bottom of the page takes you through the political methodology used to separate the loyalist Virginia from the seceded section, and constitute a new state out of it.

The short answer: West Virginia didn’t want to go back to Virginia and for the most part Virginia didn’t want them back and had said “bye bye” when the left. The Civil War was the reason for their split off but it wasn’t at all the beginning of their problems; WV is located completely within the Appalachians and is thus not suited for plantations or large scale agriculture beyond the farms, while Virginia was a place of huge plantations before and after the war and the legislature ALWAYS acted in interest of the cash farmers. West Virginians were extremely p.o.d at the notion of their taxes going mainly to support infrastructure for Virginia main. Virginia farmers hated the thoughts of paying for roads and infrastructure in west Virginia as well because the mountains made it super expensive.

Virginia actually did want West Virginia reattached after the war but mainly due to the issue of pre-War debts and because of the coal, and being economically devastated they needed all the financial help they could get in rebuilding. Basically the U.S. said “They’re a state now, they don’t have to go back if they don’t wanna”.

Another geographical factor was its self determining geography. Several counties unofficially seceded from their parent states during the war- in Alabama Winston County (in the northwest) declared itself “The Free State of Winston”, Jones County MS became “The Free State of Jones” but was more widely known- not just by enemies- as “The Kingdom of Jones” (it’s ‘king’ being Newton Knight- staunch unionist and abolitionist [had a freed slave who was little short of a second wife {the first being still alive} with whom he had many children and lived openly], guerilla in service of the Union), and Shelbyville Tennessee and many other regions refused to cooperate with the Confederate governments of their states. There was no question of these being separate when the war ended however- they’d have all been landlocked within a separate state, which would create no end of difficulties. West Virginia however didn’t have this problem; they bordered other states.

Interestingly there was a significant secessionist movement in NYC during the Civil War (and at other times as well), particularly among the first generation and immigrants who hated having to serve in the war they didn’t feel affected NYC one way or the other. Some wanted to secede from New York state at very least, some wanted NYC to be essentially a city state unto itself, and there were newspapers and political platforms devoted to this. Obviously it was never more than a loud minority, but the draft riots were in part fueled by the secessionists.

Nevada was also formed during the Civil War. It pulled away from the Utah Territory and from Deseret (the Mormon state- never recognized by the U.S.- that included parts of Colorado, all of Utah and Nevada, north New Mexico and Arizona and some of eastern California) and was made an actual state. In part this was to piss off Brigham Young, in part it was because of the incredible silver deposits there (get those taxes), and largely because it was mostly pro-Union and non Mormon in the midst of Mormonism (which basically had a “Whoever wins at least they’re leaving us alone for a while” take on the Civil War) and pro-Confederate southwest; it was a good idea to have a base in case the war ever moved to the far west. Nevada’s Attorney General was Orion Clemens, formerly a Missouri publisher, who invited his kid brother Sam- a deserter from the Confederate militia who didn’t particularly want to serve either side- to come with him.

Sadly, West Virginia was kind of orphaned as a result of its separation. Southerners don’t consider it a Southern state, northerners don’t consider it northern, and no one with a straight face considers it “midwestern.” It’s Appalachian, of course, but it’s the only Appalachian state that’s nothing but Appalachian.

Since no other state has been carved out of an existing state in the past, let’s say at least 100 years if not more, I’m not losing sleep over “dangerous precedents”.

In the early 80s, there was movement by the 8 lower counties of New Jersey to secede from the northern part of the state, but it amounted to little more than comical theatrics.

There’s also been an on-again-off-again movement here to split California into North and South California, but it’s never gotten very far either.

And there was plenty of precedent before this:
[li]Alabama & Mississippi were both parts split off from Georgia.[/li][li]Maine was formed from the northern part of Massachusetts.[/li][li]The midwest states (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and part of Wisconsin and Minnesota) were formed from the Northwest territory that was previously part of Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, and Virginia (their claims to this land overlapped, in several places).[/li][/ul]

Plus I doubt there’s a single state in the Union- certainly not one of any size- that hasn’t redesigned its counties many times (making new counties out of bits of other ones, redrawing the boundaries, etc.). It was basically the same with states- this place that used to have a person every 20 miles now has lots of people, let’s pull it off and redistrict it.

West Virginia of course got 2 U.S. senators when it became a state; that’s another reason they really didn’t want to go back.

Maine was formed from the northern part of Massachusetts.


That’s always been the weirdest one to me: two large land masses that don’t touch and are divided by another state, yet are the same state.

Map of U.S. 1783-1803: as you can see, most states had changed boundaries many times by the Civil War and within the memories of most of the older residents. To this day both North and South Carolina claim Andrew Jackson as a native son because he was born on a border that was still being disputed for decades after he was born.

There was also the State of Franklin, a sovereign entity located in what’s now E. Tennessee and W. North Carolina. It was never admitted into the Union or formally recognized by the U.S. government but it was referred to in many Federal documents and they did deal with Franklin’s legislature and government during its short existence.

When West Virginia split off from Virginia, Virginia was not in a position to argue the point because it was in a state of rebellion against the federal government. It couldn’t defend its claims as a state of the union while denying that it was a state of the union. So West Virginia became a state in the absense of any opposition.

And once West Virginia was recognized as a state, its statehood protected it from being reunited back into Virginia. After the war ended and Virginia was once again an American state, it had no more claim to West Virginia then New York had to Vermont. West Virginia, like Kentucky, was a new state that had been formed out of territory that had once been part of Virginia.

Indeed, the pro-Southern mayor of NYC at the time, Fernando Wood, said quite seriously that his city ought to consider declaring neutrality or even seceding. (New York merchants had a lot of business interests in the South, and really took a financial hit when Southern plutocrats abrogated their debts after Ft. Sumter). Since much of the Federal budget at the time came from tariffs collected in the Port of New York, this could have been a big deal. Lincoln laughed it off, though, and said he “thought the front door wouldn’t be detaching itself from the house just yet.”

Stop stirring up trouble, we don’t want it back. Remember that at various points Virginia claimed land in a huge band that went all the way out to the mid-west, so a lot of states were formed from what was at one time, vaguely, “Virginia.”

Some are hoping that a new state - South Western Virginia - will split off so we won’t have to deal with the conflicts between of the urbanized north and east and the rural south and west.

I don’t think that Southerners opinions and especially of a state that so prominent in the Confederacy as Virginia would be given much weight in the immdiet aftermath of the war.

As was pointed out, this was hardly confined to the case of West Virginia. I grew up just a few miles from the site of the Yohogania County Courthouse, an outpost set up by the Commonwealth of Virginia in disputed territory to stake its claim there.

Just a few years later, Pennsylvania and Virginia agreed to extend the Mason-Dixon line westward, and this area is now much of the Pittsburgh metropolitan area.

The shortest answer to the OP is just to cite Article IV, Section 3 of the Constitution.

It’s legal because the concept of doing so was always legal. (The methodology may have been wonky but nobody was in a position to complain.) How can something be a dangerous precedent if it’s in the Constitution?

Of course, to be deliberately snarky, not bothering to read the Constitution or understand what it says is indeed dangerous.

California did once try to split in two but was denied by congress.
The date was 1864 - so West Virginia did arguably set a precedent.
But given Congress’s power to deny I would hardly call the precedent dangerous.

The other posters have it covered but a more simplified version was:

  1. 11 states leave the union. They are no longer represented in Congress. No senators and no representatives.

  2. So a bunch of people in what is then western Virginia, meet in Wheeling (which is actually pretty far north) and say "Well since there is no one representing Virginia in the US Congress we’ll do it.

  3. The US Congress says "Since the elected congressmen of Virgina have left and there is no one there anymore, we’ll replace those elected US Senators and Representatives, with the new ones elected by the people in Wheeling.

–Point to remember each house of congress sets its own rules. Even if a state elects a person 100% fairly, each house can refuse to seat that duly elected member or expell them according to the rules the House and Senate set for themselves.

  1. So now the original elected government of Virginia has left DC and since the US doesn’t recognize the states right to secede, from the view of the US Government, Virigina is still in the Union, they just have no representation in Congress. So Congress admits those newly elected members from the Wheeling meeting.

  2. Back in Wheeling a bunch of people want to form their own state. They do all the necessary things to get it done.

  3. The people wanting to form the new state ASK the Virginia government (set up by the Wheeling Convention, now the offical recognized government as far as the US Congress is concerned) for permission to form a new state and leave Virginia.

  4. They get this permission (surprise, surprise) and leave and form their own state and get it. It’s all very official

Now as far as I can tell, no actual seating of Congressman by the Wheeling convention (for their reogranized Virigina) was done, but the approval made for this seating.

This is done all the time in the world. For instance in WWII, the Soviet Union puts “advisors” into Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, in opposition to the duly elected governments. Then the Soviet Union recognizes the “advisors” as the de jure (legal) government. Then this government put in by the Soviets asks the Soviet Union to annex them.

The USA did a similar thing in Panama. When Columbia (Panama was a Columbian province then), wanted to much to allow the US to build the Panama Canal, the US encouraged the Panamanians to revolt. The US sent gunboats to prevent Columbia from stopping the revolt, then the US recognized Panama as independent and signed a deal to build the canal.

A US State’s legal government is determained by the sitting of it’s Congressmen. The US Constitution says that each state is entitled to a “Republican” form of government. (Meaning a republic style as opposed to say, a monarchy). A few times in the past people have sued saying their state government isn’t a republic style government. The US Supreme Court has always said "If Congress (which remember makes its own rules) seats the Sentaors and Representatives, that in itself is a recognition that the state meets the defintion of having a republic style government.

Hereis Wood’s NYC secession proposal.

Keep in mind that prior to the railroads, it was much easier to travel by water than by land. So it wasn’t uncommon to see places that were close by water, but far overland be part of the same political unit. Because of the shape of Massachusetts bay, Maine isn’t that far from Boston. The same thing is going on with the part of Virginia on the Chesapeake penninsula.