WHEELING, W.Va. – The frock-coated gentlemen with their top hats, scarf-like bow ties and waistcoats resembled characters out of a Charles Dickens novel and ladies, in their hoop skirts, tatted lace and coiled hair, looked oh, so elegant.
Gathered one day in late April in the Italianate Renaissance Revival building that is now known as West Virginia Independence Hall, they offered a glimpse of Americans of a certain station in life when the bustling city along the Ohio River and National Road was known as Wheeling, Va.
The 21st-century men and women costumed to resemble those of yesteryear were part of a public broadcasting production commemorating the 150th anniversary of West Virginia statehood. This project of filmmaker Chip Hitchcock, director of photography and co-producer, is scheduled to air on West Virginia Public Television on June 20, the 150th anniversary of the Mountain State’s statehood.
“They brought us here because we had the clothes,” said Bob O’Connor, an author of both historical novels and nonfiction of the Civil War era. “We’re not trying to fool anyone that we’re actors or anything.”
They speak no lines, but they’re not merely mannequins. In between takes, the costumed people showed that they not only dress the part, they are a font of information on West Virginia independence and topics related to the Civil War.
“A lot of people think the state was formed because of the Civil War, and it wasn’t at all,” said O’Connor, of Charles Town, W.Va., Jefferson County, in the eastern panhandle.
“When the state was formed in 1776 there was a provision in the Commonwealth of Virginia’s constitution that said you couldn’t vote unless you were a white man who owned 25 acres of tillable land or 50 acres of nontillable land.
“The people in the east tended to have land and the people in the west didn’t. Easterners dominated both the Virginia House and Senate. The legislature was very imbalanced. The first 31 governors of Virginia were from the eastern part of the state, and the west got left out of everything.”
Western Virginia, like Western Pennsylvania, was at one time the wild frontier of the American colonies. Western Pennsylvania had its Whiskey Rebellion, and Western Virginians weren’t happy with their lack of representation in Richmond.
“Newspapers started talking about secession from Virginia as early as the 1830s, long before the Civil War. When the Civil War came, that was just the last straw,” O’Connor said.
Travis Henline, site manager for the Independence Hall Museum at the West Virginia Division of Culture and History, agreed.
He called the Civil War, “the first opportunity for a generational notion of having a separate state” to come to fruition. “There’s an opportunity for people to act upon those notions, they seize upon it and amazingly, it worked out,” Henline said.
Although O’Connor correctly used the term “secession” when talking about the mood of the the people in the early 1800s, it’s a term that the state’s historians frown upon when discussing West Virginia statehood.
When officeholders in Virginia seceded from the United States and joined the Confederacy, they vacated their positions because they felt they were forming a brand new, foreign country.
So Virginia seceded from the Union. Western Virginia, maintained it was the remanant of the true Virginia, and therefore it did not secede.
Not everyone agreed with Virginia’s secession vote, and those who didn’t elected Francis Pierpont as their governor who presided in Wheeling, which was declared the capital of “the restored government of Virginia.”
“The westerners convene to debate a Constitution in 1861, and they spend their first three days trying to come up with a name,” Henline said.
“Some wanted nothing with Virginia in the name. Virginia had dishonored them by joining the confederacy. The second group harked back to colonial times, saying, ‘For 200 years we’ve been Virginians.’”
The alternate names proposed were Kanawha, Augusta, Vandalia, and Allegheny, for the Allegheny Mountains.
New Virginia and West Virginia were proposed by those who acknowledged their Virginian heritage.
In October 1861, residents of 39 counties in western Virginia approved the formation of a Unionist state, according to the West Virginia Archives and History Web page. “The United States Constitution says a new state must gain approval from the original state, which never occurred in the case of West Virginia. Since the Restored Government was considered the legal government of Virginia, it granted permission to itself May 13, 1862, to form the state of West Virginia.”
Congress approved a statehood bill in late 1862, and West Virginia citizens voted on the proposal. “Lincoln may have had his own reasons for creating the new state, knowing he could count on West Virginia’s support in the 1864 presidential election,” the website explains.
The 35th star for West Virginia was added to the Union flag on June 20, 1863.
“This is where it gets confusing,” Henline said. “You have the Confederate government in Richmond and the restored government in Wheeling. In 1863, after West Virginia statehood, Francis Pierpont moves to Alexandria, which was under military occupation during the Civil War. After the war, Pierpont continues to govern from Richmond for three years during Reconstruction.”
As a footnote to the Civil War, Virginia wanted West Virginia to return two eastern panhandle counties. In 1871, the United States Supreme Court ruled that Jefferson and Berkeley counties would remain in West Virginia.
Had it not been for local preservationists, there may have been no West Virginia Independence Hall where re-enactors could assemble to mark the sesquicentennial on June 20, “West Virginia Day.”
It was nearly reduced to rubble during the 20th Century.
The U.S. Custom House in Wheeling, (then) Va., opened in 1859 with a post office on the first floor, customs house on the second floor and federal district court on the third floor.
In 1861, when Virginia seceded from the United States to join the Confederacy, until 1863, the building served as the capital of the Commonwealth of Virginia and birthplace of West Virginia.
In 1907, the edifice was sold to private interests when a new federal building was constructed, so the customs house became the home of a bank, a business school, restaurant, liquor store, barber shop and nightclub, Hazel Atlas Glass and a life insurance company, according to a display in the museum, which focuses both on West Virginia statehood and the Civil War.
By 1964, it was so dilapidated that it became a candidate for demolition, but under the name West Virginia Independence Hall, it opened as a public museum in 1981.
West Virginia Independence Hall, 1528 Market St., Wheeling, is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Closed Sundays and state holidays. Admission is free. 304-238-1300 or 1-800-CALL WVA.