West Virginia History 101 For Journalists
Posted on 07.02.16 by Danny Glover @ 4:24 pm

The ignorance of the media when it comes to West Virginia never ceases to amaze those of us who are from the Mountain State. We’re impressed when journalists, especially those who cover sports, even know that West Virginia and Virginia are separate states or that Charleston is the name of our state capital, not just a coastal city in South Carolina.

This week, two members of the media (broadly speaking to include Hollywood) displayed their ignorance of West Virginia’s history on the same day, both of them in reference to the state’s birth during the Civil War. The culprits were:

  • Philip Bump, a political blogger for The Washington Post, who referenced West Virginia’s secession from Virginia within the context of a discussion about Britain’s vote to leave the European Union;
  • And Gary Ross, director of the new movie “Free State of Jones,” who isn’t a journalist but who made his faux pas in a video for The Huffington Post about myths of the Civil War.

With their commentaries in mind, now is a good time to revisit one of the most interesting statehood stories in American history. Consider this the CliffsNotes version of West Virginia history for the dummies in the media and entertainment complex.

In fairness to Bump, he was technically correct when he said “Congress consented to the creation of West Virginia as a new American state,” but he left out important context. The Congress that consented included a reconstituted Virginia delegation with a pro-West Virginia slant. The Virginia that existed before the Civil War joined the Confederacy and had no votes in Congress. Neither did any of the Southern states that presumably would have voted against West Virginia statehood.

The war, in other words, created a political and constitutional mess that tilted the balance of power in favor of West Virginia statehood.

Although ardent abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, R-Pa., voted to create West Virginia, he thought it was “a mockery” to say that splitting Virginia was constitutional. President Abraham Lincoln also had doubts. He thought the idea was “dreaded as a precedent” but also “made expedient by a war.” His answer to charges that the Union in effect endorsed secession in one case while going to war over it in another: In West Virginia’s case, it was “secession in favor of the Constitution.”

I understand why Bump didn’t include all of that information. His story was about the potential legality of secession in America today, and West Virginia’s path to statehood was only one aspect of that topic. But his shorthand account of the events could mislead people into thinking West Virginia’s secession from Virginia wasn’t controversial. It was. The Supreme Court didn’t settle the issue until a 6-3 ruling in 1870.

Ross’ gaffe was more egregious than Bump’s. In trying to dispel one myth that “the South was monolithic” during the Civil War, he repeated another one — that “the State of West Virginia broke off from the State of Virginia because they were not in agreement with the goals of the Confederacy.”

That simplistic analysis is similar to arguing that the Civil War was about states’ rights instead of slavery, one of the myths that Ross tackled. Southern rebellion was more of an expediency for western Virginians to accomplish a goal they had long desired than it was a rejection of the Confederacy.

This is evident in the number of West Virginians who fought for the Confederacy — 18,000 of them compared with 32,000 for the Union. The one thing that even those who are ignorant of West Virginia associate with the state is the Hatfield-McCoy feud. What many of them don’t know, or have forgotten, is that the feud has its roots in the Civil War and that “Devil Anse” Hatfield of West Virginia fought for the Confederacy.

The division of the country over slavery in general, and Virginia’s decision to side with the South in particular, just created an atmosphere for a rebellion within the rebellion. West Virginians always were and always will be different from Virginians, and the war gave our ancestors the political clout they needed to create a geographical split that had existed along economical, ancestral and cultural lines for generations. Ross’ myth-busting video for The Huffington Post distorted that reality.

The mistakes that Bump and Ross made weren’t as superficial as getting the name of West Virginia wrong or forgetting about its capital city. But coming as they did only seven days after West Virginia Day, they were worth noting.

Maybe in the future journalists who care enough to research West Virginia history before they write or talk about it will find this blog post and get some much-needed education.


Filed under: Blogging and History and Media and People and West Virginia
Comments:

1 Comment »

  1. Hello, yes, I’ve seen similar comments in the media both about Brexit and State of Jones. I just wanted to correct something- the number of soldiers for WV is about even, 20,000 to each side. Shepherd Univ. did a soldier count a few years ago and Mark Snell wrote “West Virginia and the Civil War” in 2011, you can read his accounting of soldier numbers on page 28.

    Another aspect of the war in WV is the very large number of civilians that were sent to Camp Chase in Ohio, my estimate is between 2-3,000 civilians. That is a huge number. I have been enumerating the names from the camp registers, which you can access on my website. Best, Bob

    Comment by Bob Arrington — July 3, 2016 @ 12:37 pm

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