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'Let's go, Mountaineers!' WVU war cry exemplifies spirit of West Virginians

| Friday, Nov. 23, 2012, 12:02 a.m.

It shouldn't be a surprise that some Keystone staters fought with the Mountaineers during the Civil War. Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia have always had a lot in common.

The Appalachian Mountains that run through both states attracted hardy, self-sufficient settlers who learned how to survive in harsh conditions. Once they crossed those mountains and planted family roots, they were isolated from the more “genteel” settlers along the East coast.

This lack of communication led to major differences of opinion — especially in government issues.

So fierce were those differences in Western Pennsylvania that there was a grassroots effort in the 1700s to split from the east to form a separate state called Westsylvania. However, the movement never gained enough momentum to succeed.

WV: Civil War Born

Not so in West Virginia, which was born in the chaos of the War Between the States.

Virginia had suffered East / West tensions since 1776, when its constitution granted voting rights solely to major landowners. This irritated the rugged western Virginians. They were mostly small farmers and many rented, not owned, the acres that they planted.

Bad blood began. Its temperature simmered slowly, growing hotter with the year. It finally came to a boil after the 1860 election of President Abraham Lincoln.

The southern states used slave labor on large plantations and some farms. They staunchly believed that Lincoln would put an end to the practice, destroying the southern way of life.

Slavery had been controversial between the North and South even before the American Revolution.

South Carolina was the first to secede from the U.S., not long after Lincoln's election. In April 1861, South Carolina opened fire on Fort Sumter, located along the state's Atlantic coast. One by one, southern states pulled out of the U.S., forming the Confederate States of America.

Virginia's Secession

That included Virginia when voters agreed to do so at the ballot box in May 1861.

Western Virginians had mixed feelings about slavery. Sources indicate that it did have some support, but most Westerners worked their own farms; slaves were few there. Sources note that some Western Virginians viewed slavery as immoral; others felt that slaves were doing free work that white people should be paid to do.

Led by John Carlile of Clarksburg, a contingency against secession swelled swiftly. In October 1861, 39 western counties voted to form a pro-Union state of their own.

Lincoln recognized the “Restored, Reorganized Government of Virginia” as legitimate and Francis Pierpont was installed as interim governor. At a constitutional convention in Wheeling, delegates selected the counties that would be included in the new state.

Fifty counties west of the Blue Ridge Mountains were selected (several others would be added later). The mountains were the state's eastern border and provided defense against Confederate invasion.

Panhandle Crux

One issue remained: The eastern panhandle of Virginia supported the Confederacy. It took a lot of persuasion to change that sentiment — but the new state desperately needed that panhandle. The B & O Railroad ran through it and was essential for Union troop and supply movement.

As for slavery, a compromise was reached. The bill creating the new state included a clause called the Willey Amendment. It ruled that on July 4, 1863, all slaves age 21 or older would be freed. Younger slaves were to gain freedom when they reached age 21.

On Dec. 31, 1862, President Lincoln signed the bill and it went to voters in March 1863.

On June 20, 1863, West Virginia was officially born. Sources estimate that more than 30,000 West Virginians fought for the Union, compared to approximately 10,000 for the Confederacy.

West Virginia is one of two states formed during the Civil War (the other was Nevada) — and the only state in U.S. history to have been formed by seceding from another state.

It took a lot of spark and spunk to accomplish statehood during a national crisis. But frontiersmen always have had vigor and guts. They survived by their wits.

It's no wonder, then, that West Virginia University's credo is simple and to the point: “Let's GOOOOOO, Mountaineers!”

Laura Szepesi is a freelance writer.

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