A brief, brief history:
The creation of West Virginia as a direct result of the Civil War is nothing new to even casual observers of U.S. history circa 1860. Union troops, headed by George McClellan, drove from the nation’s capital and cut off Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army from the northwestern territories of Virginia. Unionists in Wheeling, few of which were elected officials, no longer under occupied control by Confederate forces, acted quickly to form an impromptu meeting known as the Wheeling Convention of 1861. The first movement of the convention was that the Ordinance of Secession that had removed Virginia from the Union–including the territories represented at the Wheeling Convention–was nullified. The second provision was the creation of the Restored government of Virginia, which resulted in the Union recognizing a provisional government of Virginia–headquartered in Wheeling–and prompted a constitutional convention that effectively created the state of West Virginia.
Why it matters:
For those of us who aren’t history buffs, this recounting of what is probably one of the least important outcomes of the Civil War–compared to the ending of slavery, enfranchisement of African Americans, Reconstruction, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, etc.–might seem, well, unimportant. However, when we fast-forward our conversation to today and start to examine state and national politics, there is perhaps not another state that today sees continued influences from the Civil War as strongly as West Virginia.
You see, after the Civil War had ended in the rest of the country, it continued in West Virginia. Like many of the mid-Atlantic states, caught in the midst of the country’s ideological rift, West Virginia saw some of the most fractious outbreaks of violence and infighting between pro-Union West Virginians and pro-Confederacy West Virginians. This was as extreme as family members killing family members. Even once the war had ended and the physical violence subsided, the conflict between ideologies continued. Many West Virginians living today will say that their grandparents–and occasionally their parents–were “still fighting the war.” Although the Civil War concluded 150 years ago, the political identity of many of today’s West Virginians is often derived from whether their ancestors wore a blue or grey uniform in 1861.
Counties held by the Confederacy in 1863 (shaded) [Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1863WVmap.png]
In terms of geography, pro-South West Virginians–who were historically Democrats–resided largely in the southern part of the state and in rural areas. Meanwhile, the pro-Union Republicans were based in the north and the cities. Today, areas with Republican-heavy vote margins are often found in counties and towns with names attributed to Union leaders. The most Republican county in West Virginia is Grant County, named, of course, for Union-hero-turned-president Ulysses S. Grant. High areas of Democratic representation are found in counties like Calhoun and others named for prominent Southern Democrats.
While the population of West Virginia has remained amongst the most ideologically conservative of any state, party affiliation has remained nearly 2-to-1 in favor of the Democrats over the last several decades. In recent years Republicans have seen success in narrowing this gap, with just over 30 percent of voters registered to the Democrats’ 45 percent (http://www.sos.wv.gov/elections/history/Pages/Voter_Registration.aspx). These numbers–shocking to many–come from a state that neither Obama nor Clinton won a single county in 2012 and 2016, respectively.
2012 and 2016 Presidential Election in West Virginia (source:http://www.politico.com/2016-election/results/map/president/west-virginia/)
While Republican presidential candidates have fared well over the last 17 years, state Republicans have only recently found their footing. Democrats held control of the state legislature for more than 80 years (yes, 80 years), seeing the fall of the House of Delegates–the lower chamber of the state legislature–in 2010 and the State Senate in 2014. In many ways, the politics of West Virginia is today what the rest of the South was 20-30 years ago.
Where we go from here:
The purpose of this blog is to analyze what this writer considers one of the most politically interesting and perplexing states in the nation. West Virginia is rife with its own problems, and is often a state forgotten in the larger conversation. The historical notes may be dry, but are important to our broader understanding of the state’s current political climate and makeup. From here, posts will cover a wide range of topics including the state’s fascinating people and politicians, its numerous issues, and current events.
“Wild, Wonderful West Virginia” is a window–a direct line–to the downtrodden, neglected voices of America. They helped bring about the rise of Donald Trump and pray for the disruption of the status quo because, when we talk about Americans who need change, it is them. My hope is that this blog will help those outside of the state to see what motivates and agitates the people of West Virginia, to help bridge the gap between our understanding and their worldview, and to–hopefully– contribute to fixing what has been broken in America for far too long.