The Civil War created West Virginia, and this state's tormented record in the ghastly conflict is being retraced in many observations of the war's 150th anniversary. Events will peak June 20, the date of the Mountain State's birth.
Most people know that John Brown's failed 1859 attack on Harpers Ferry, Va., helped polarize the slaveholding South against the slave-free North and made the war inevitable.
But most don't know that a clique of New England abolitionists, "the Secret Six," covertly funded Brown's doomed crusade, first in Kansas and later in Virginia. The circle of wealthy and influential intellectuals even hid Brown in their homes while he was wanted for murder for attacking slavery advocates in Kansas.
The six slavery-fighters were: Boston physician Samuel Howe, whose wife Julia Ward Howe wrote the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" -- Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, who called democracy "government of all the people, by all the people, for all the people," a phrase adapted famously by Abraham Lincoln -- millionaire abolitionist Gerrit Smith -- Harvard-educated thinker Franklin Sanborn, who taught Ralph Waldo Emerson's children -- philanthropist George Stearns -- and Unitarian preacher Thomas Higginson, editor of the Atlantic Monthly.
Higginson was the fiercest radical among the six. After Brown was captured, some other conspirators in the Secret Six fled to Canada to avoid arrest. Smith denied involvement and committed himself to a mental asylum. Parker remained in Europe until his death.
But Higginson defended Brown publicly -- and secretly plotted an armed attack to rescue Brown from his jail in what is now the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia. Brown was hanged before the rescue could occur.
Last week, a New York Times historical account described how Higginson became a colonel in the Union Army and led a regiment of freed slaves to capture Jacksonville, Fla., in 1863. He hoped to trigger an insurrection by Southern slaves -- just as Brown had attempted at Harpers Ferry. But his attempt likewise failed.
West Virginia's stormy history is deeply entwined with the story of America.