CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- One month from today, after a long buildup, West Virginia will stage an extravaganza marking the 150th anniversary of the state's birth. Thoughtful people should take time to ponder the deep significance of the Mountain State's heritage.
West Virginia was the only state created directly by the horrible struggle over slavery -- a tragedy that claimed more than 600,000 American lives, the worst war toll the nation ever suffered. It was a time of deadly passions and cruel slaughter.
You might argue that the Civil War actually began in this state in 1859 when zealot John Brown raided the U.S. armory at Harper's Ferry in an attempt to trigger a slave revolt against white masters. He failed, but he polarized northern abolitionists and southern slaveholders so much that armed conflict became unstoppable.
Virginia wavered, but when South Carolina fired on Fort Sumter and President Lincoln called for federal troops, Virginia's assembly stampeded to join the revolt against the United States.
However, mountainous western counties of Virginia -- long mistreated by wealthier tidewater interests -- rebelled against the rebellion. After voting against succession, many western delegates fled Richmond fearing death. They returned home and helped spawn efforts to split the west into a new state loyal to the union.
As Howard Swint wrote in Sunday's paper, the founders risked ruin or execution from raiding southern brigades and from Confederate-minded neighbors.
First, the founders created a Restored Government of Virginia, with Francis Pierpont as governor. Then Congress approved statehood, and Arthur Boreman from Parkersburg was elected first governor. President Lincoln proclaimed the 35th state effective June 20, 1863.
The breakaway was far from unanimous. The Kanawha Valley had been a slavery stronghold, and much of the state felt southern sympathy. Thomas Jackson from the Clarksburg area became the Confederacy's legendary "Stonewall." George S. Patton from Charleston -- grandfather of the celebrated World War II general -- likewise fought for slavery. Both died in combat. "Tiger John" McCausland from Mason County raised Confederate troops, raided throughout West Virginia and burned Chambersburg, Pa.
The first battles of the Civil War happened in this state -- at Philippi on June 3, 1861, Rich Mountain on July 11, etc. Charleston changed hands four times during the war, and much of the city burned during a Confederate onslaught in the fall of 1862. The Eastern Panhandle was more hotly contested -- and Romney changed hands an amazing 56 times.
Two future U.S. presidents -- William McKinley and Rutherford Hayes -- commanded a Union camp at the mouth of Charleston's Ferry Branch at different times.The Civil War is a vast and many-faceted subject. John McClurken of Mountain State Publishing in Martinsburg says "at least one book about the war is published every day." West Virginia's upcoming 150th anniversary celebration can't possibly tell the whole story -- but everyone should learn at least part of the intriguing history.