160 Years Ago: The First Wheeling Convention

By mid-May 1861, the secession crisis in Virginia had reached a boiling point. In response to U.S. President Abraham Lincoln calling for a volunteer army to suppress the rebellion in the Deep South, on April 17th delegates at the Virginia Secession Convention in Richmond passed an ordinance of secession, pending the results of a popular referendum to be held on May 23rd.

Pro-secession Virginia militia did not wait and seized the Federal Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry and the Gosport Navy Yard. Seeing the writing on the wall, Lincoln extended the blockade of the seven original Confederate States to include the ports of Virginia and North Carolina. On May 6th, U.S. Navy ships exchanged fire with a Virginia battery off Gloucester Point.

Fifty-five of the delegates at the Virginia Secession Convention had voted against secession. Some, like Jubal A. Early, would fall into line with the majority, but many delegates from western Virginia were outraged by the result. Virginians living west of the Allegheny Mountains and along the Ohio River had strong economic ties to Northern states, and slave ownership was uncommon. Others were German immigrants with no affinity for Virginia’s Anglo-American planter class.

Delegates from twenty-seven western counties called for a separate convention to be held at Washington Hall in Wheeling, Virginia on the Ohio River. They met from May 13 to May 15, 1861. Much of the agenda was taken up by an argument over which delegates should be admitted to the convention. When that question was settled, the delegates argued over what action should be taken in response to the secession crisis. Radicals like John S. Carlile wanted western Virginia to immediately form its own state, effectively seceding from secession.

The majority, however, took a wait and see approach. They called for a second convention to be held if the May 23rd referendum went against them. With that settled, the convention adjourned with three cheers for the Union and a singing of the Star Spangled Banner. The delegates returned home to urge their neighbors to vote against secession.

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