Author Interview--Scott A. MacKenzie (The Fifth Border State) Part 2

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we continue our conversation with Scott A. MacKenzie to talk about his new book, The Fifth Border State: Slavery, Emancipation, and the Formation of West Virginia, 1829–1872, published by West Virginia University Press in January 2023.

Part 1

Let’s turn to slavery then, how does slavery impact the separation between the two Virginias and how much of an issue was slavery long-term?

SAM: Slavery played the fundamental role in how West Virginia became a state.  Despite constituting as little as two percent of the population in 1860, with free people of color another one percent, the white majority supported enslavement and unfreedom as much as any in the slaveholding states.  I venture that the paucity of enslaved persons made whites more comfortable with pro-slavery since than say in  Tidewater Virginia.  If anything, slavery was the glue which held Virginia’s disparate regions together.  The northwest certainly used the issue to unify the state in the 1830 and 1850 constitutional debates, succeeding in the latter.  The notion that the region criticized the institution comes from the Intelligencer, which as I stated above did not represent the region.  Their delegates in the 1861 secession convention fervent support for slavery held Virginia in the Union for months.  Yet, when the war began and the state declared its separation, a substantial number of white northwestern Virginians believed that secession risked slavery by inviting anarchy, so they chose to remain in the Union as the best way to preserve it.

Their actions closely resemble those taken by the four existing border states.  While Lincoln had to use military force in Maryland and Missouri, he respected Delaware and Kentucky’s rights to decide for themselves.  The same applied to northwestern Virginia.  After waiting for the state to vote on secession in late May, federal troops occupied the region with strict orders from General McClellan to protect slavery.  His successor General Rosecrans repeated this policy.  Their pledges convinced John S. Carlile that the northwest should form a new loyal slave state untainted by treason.  He succeeded when the new state submitted its constitution in early 1862, but Lincoln’s plan for border state emancipation upended his achievement.  He failed to prevent the radicals, who exploited the escapes by the enslaved from the region, from ending slavery.  Instead of abolishing slavery from low numbers or inherent opposition to the institution, West Virginia was first among the border states to end the institution.  Maryland and Missouri soon followed, while Kentucky and Delaware stubbornly maintained it.  The freedpeople would, however, play little role in the state’s redemption.  The radical Unionists tried to avoid the race issue as they contended with conservatives and former rebels, who exploited it, for power.  As in the other border states, West Virginia’s small Black population received little support for the next century.

What is the role of the U.S. occupation of the region early in the conflict and rebel failures to regain control of the mountainous region? Would West Virginia exist if U.S. forces had not occupied the region?

SAM: The military occupation of northwestern Virginia had two purposes.  The first was to fight the rebels and later the guerrillas.  When federal troops arrived in May and June 1861, they fanned out quickly to defeat insurgents at Philippi and later at Allegheny Mountain and Cheat Mountain.  The area’s railroads and steamboat connections, which belied claims that eastern Virginia neglected the region’s development, gave them a priceless advantage that Confederate armies operating out of the Shenandoah Valley lacked.  They also suffered from command problems.  Generals John Floyd and Henry Wise refusal to cooperate, and Robert E. Lee’s failure to coordinate them, cost them the entire region in the fall of 1861.  Union troops still faced the guerrilla menace for the duration of the war, but their victory at Droop Mountain in November 1863 secured West Virginia to the Union for all time.

The second purpose was political.  West Virginia would never have existed without the agenda which the United States Army brought with them in 1861.  Military protection allowed white Unionists to flourish much like it had in the other border states.  It was not, as a recent book claimed, simply to protect the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.  It allowed the Wheeling Conventions to go forth in May and June to form the Reorganized Government of Virginia, which in turn resumed administration in the counties.  The federal and state courts also operated.  Yet, the soldiers also came with orders to protect slavery.  This stance reassured Unionists that the federal government would protect their rights to property.  The enslaved had other ideas, of course, and used these soldiers to escape bondage.  Still, John S. Carlile used this policy to start the idea for separate statehood in August.  By convincing Unionists that a new state protected slavery, the movement took off rapidly.  No one, however, could evade the emancipation issue forever.  As in the other border states, the Union Army became a harbinger of ending slavery.  Regardless of efforts by the new state government to preserve slavery, the enslaved saw federal soldiers as their means to freedom. By then, of course, it was too late for conservatives and rebels to stop West Virginia from forming.  

Of course, for the enslaved, statehood unexpectedly brought a major change—how does the actual statehood decision work out and how did emancipation become part of that decision? How do you reinterpret this important moment in the state’s founding?

SAM: Actually, statehood brought no changes for the enslaved. The practice was still legal despite the moves toward gradual emancipation.  Escaping was their only option.  Many did.  The information about their departures is limited, however, and points as much to white Unionists continuing their bondage as Confederates seeking to regain the area.  Michael Woods’ fine 2015 article cited numerous examples of federal soldiers motivating the enslaved to leave for free territory.  For example, one unit of 90-day volunteers brought many Blacks with them home upon expiration of their enlistments.  The Guerilla, a Confederate newspaper printed in Charleston during the brief occupation in the fall of 1862, reported that ‘several hundred’ Blacks coasted down the Kanawha River as their army approached.  The remainder in each case, sadly, continued to suffer long after West Virginia became a state.

On the other hand, white support for emancipation proved decisive for the statehood movement.  I divide this process into two stages.  The first or conservative phase occurred between June 1861 and February 1862.  Carlile’s early effort to make West Virginia a slave state succeeded in turning his idea into a reality via the constitutional convention.  Keeping slavery off the table allowed the proceedings to continue.  When a pair of delegates raised the issue, they clamped down on it.   A near-miss occurred when the convention voted 24-23 to reject an anti-slavery motion.  A rapid compromise permitted the new state constitution to go to the voters.  The second phase came immediately afterwards.  The close vote indicated that the state’s Unionists had split into radical and conservative factions.  The radicals, led by Waitman T. Willey, responded to internal pressures created by conservatives placing connections with rebel family and friends ahead of their allegiances, supported Lincoln’s plan for border state emancipation and later the Emancipation Proclamation. The president happily signed the statehood bill for their support.  It was therefore decisive for whites seeking statehood.  

Part of what is new about your approach is that you classify West Virginia as a border state—what does that mean for the history of the state? How does that change perspective? There is a growing trend to classify the Indian Territory as a border state too—how does West Virginia fit into this conversation? As a final piece of a long question, how would Reconstruction fit into a reenvisioning of West Virginia as a borderland?

SAM: It means first and foremost that West Virginia was not a unique experience of the Civil War Era.  The state’s entire culture has revolved around being the anti-Virginia, a long-alienated society that broke free of their oppressor in 1861.  Instead, the northwest acted as part of a broader region that historians call the Border States.  My book definitively adds West Virginia to the traditional view of that group of four, or should I say five.  That ought to satisfy the current debate on adding other states or regions to the borderland.  We have seen recent works by Christopher Phillips and Matt Stanley reviving Edward C. Smith’s 1927 view of a western border that merges Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois with Kentucky and Missouri.   One could add Kansas and even Nebraska which, like West Virginia, became a state because of the war.  The Indian Territory is an unusual case.  The others all straddled the border between free and slave states.  If we include Kansas, which entered the Union as a free state in January 1861, then a perhaps we could add the Indian Territory where slavery was legal. If not, then it ought to be seen as an adjunct to the Upper South states.  During the war, it had five Indian national governments instead of a central administration, most of whom sided with the Confederacy in June and July 1861.  Lastly, West Virginia did not experience Reconstruction.  Like Maryland and Missouri, it went through redemption whereby conservative factions combined with former Confederates to purge the wartime government for supporting emancipation.    

What discovery surprised you the most?

SAM: I found that previous historians skipped over much existing evidence.  My favorite came in an oft-quoted speech from Daniel Webster where he asked what northwestern Virginians had to gain by leaving the Union.  The statemakers in 1861 and subsequent historians used this as if it predicted and legitimized resistance to secession.  The problem is they did not read the rest of the speech.  He gave it in 1851 when dedicating the Capitol building in Washington after the ordeals of the Compromise debates of the previous year and shortly after Virginia enacted its new democratic constitution. I read the entire speech.  The previous sentences indicate that Webster meant the opposite.  He praised Virginia as a model for the rest of the country about unifying in spite of differences.  I was surprised that no one before had caught this discrepancy.  Little wonder that Virginia later named a county after him which is still there today albeit in West Virginia.  Second, previous historians read the West Virginia constitutional minutes in a thematic way.  This manner relegates slavery to but one of many issues.  I re-read them chronologically to see where slavery popped up in their debates.  It turned out that the delegates tried to avoid the topic at all costs.  When they finally voted on it in February 1862, it failed by one vote.  It could have disrupted the entire statehood movement.  A compromise banning Blacks from the state saved the day, but not for long.  Finally, Lincoln’s cabinet left written opinions on the matter.  Previous accounts lost themselves in these sometimes lengthy legalistic essays.  Yet, Lincoln’s was the one that mattered.  His simple yet effective brief provided perfect proof of what I argued.  He dismissed the constitutional wrangling from his cabinet.  If rebellious citizens absented themselves from the process, instead of merely neglecting to vote, then acknowledging their views amounted to “absurd conclusions.”  Moreover, he praised the West Virginians for not only remaining loyal to the Union but supporting his emancipation plans in Congress.  It was ideal for me, yet previous accounts failed to connect West Virginia’s statehood with other issues.

What are your future projects?

SAM: I remain very active as an independent scholar.  I just finished an essay on Lincoln and the Border States for a forthcoming Blackwell Companion volume on Abraham Lincoln.  I would like to publish an article on the Manitoba Post of the Grand Army of the Republic too.  I am pondering two book projects.  One is dear to my heart: Union Ally about on Canada and the Civil War Era.  Like West Virginia, the subject has had many old and bad histories written about its formation in 1867. The popular idea is that the menace of American retaliation against the British North American colonies compelled them to unite under a single government.  My 2017 article “But There was no War” rejects this view by pointing to the absence of any threat from the United States against Canada during and after the war.  I also wish to study the Civil War veterans who lived there and belonged to the eight G.A.R. posts in the country.  The other is Our War, Our State on Civil War memory in West Virginia.  I want to answer a pair of questions raised in The Fifth Border State: if the history of the state’s formation is so wrong, then why did it persist for so long and how did its white and Black residents express it?  So far, I believe that white radical and conservative Unionists and former rebels combined to form a unique memory of the war that deliberately minimized their internal differences within while blaming Virginia for causing the problems and avoiding slavery altogether.  Blacks of course had their own view.  So, I have much to do.