Spring, 1861: Confederates attacked Fort Sumter, new President Abraham Lincoln mobilized the Union army and Virginia joined the wave of southern states voting to secede from the United States.
Delegates to the secession convention from northwest Virginia, who had opposed the split from the U.S., quickly left Richmond and returned home. As the war hit Virginia over the next few months, Union troops experienced early success in what is today West Virginia. The gains established the reputation of Union Gen. George McClellan, who subsequently left the front when he was handed command of the Army of the Potomac. It also gave those northwest Virginia delegates the opportunity to meet in Wheeling for two conventions and begin the process of forming a new state.
One obvious question loomed over the proceedings: Where should the delegates draw the boundary between Virginia and the new state? The answer involves railroads, slavery, troop movements during the war and, as always seems to be the case, politics.
“There was a group that wanted West Virginia to be reasonably small,” says historian Kenneth Noe of Auburn University. “They weren’t eager to go much farther than Charleston. There was another group that really wanted all of western Virginia down to North Carolina and Tennessee. Practically, it became a question of what could they actually control.”
Those decisions made by a small group of northwest Virginians in the 1860s continue to affect those who live in the mountains along the West Virginia border today.