Opinion: West Virginia was essential to saving the Union during the Civil War

By Howard Swint

Literally from the very first week of the Civil War, West(ern) Virginians helped save the Union and by doing so set the foundation for President Lincoln’s proclamation of West Virginia statehood two years later.

Howard Swint

That’s because during those earliest days Washington was immediately surrounded by Confederates forces that had severed the city by land, sea and rail leaving only the telegraph lines along the B&O Railroad as Lincoln’s sole means of communication with Union commanders.

When Fort Sumter fell on April 13, 1861, Lincoln was faced with a series of events in rapid succession that compelled his War Department to call for 75,000 troops, in part, to defend Washington which then triggered Virginia’s near-immediate vote for secession two days later.

This highly anticipated action signaled Commonwealth militia in Charles Town to take the federal armory in Harpers Ferry and seize control of the strategic mainline bridge of the B&O Railroad and C&O Canal at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers.

As the armory burned the night of April 18, still-mustering federal troops from northeastern cities boarded trains in route to Baltimore where their arrival the next day sparked rioting by thousands of Southern sympathizers intent on stopping their passage to Washington.

That night, Maryland Governor Thomas Hicks took the extreme measure of ordering the destruction of five railroad bridges on the North Central and the PW&B rail lines serving north Baltimore to prevent federal reinforcements.

As all the telegraph lines collocated along their rights-of-way were also destroyed, Lincoln’s War Department was unaware that the strategically positioned federal navy yard in Norfolk, Virginia, also fell and with it a reliable supply route via the Potomac River.

In less than a week, the Lincoln Administration’s greatest fear had been realized as Washington was now cut off completely from critical troop reinforcements as well as all-important communications with the Union’s northeastern population centers.

Henry Villard of the New York Herald reported, “Literally, it was as though the government of a great nation had been suddenly removed to an island in mid-ocean in a state of entire isolation … the circumstances were so favorable (for) a seizure that might have resulted in the immediate triumph of the insurrection.”

With three sides of the District of Columbia tightly bound by bellicose Maryland and increasing numbers of Virginia Militia gun emplacements visible across the Potomac River, the Lincoln cabinet barricaded in the Treasury and Interior buildings, food was requisitioned from stores by the War Department, and the city’s grand hotels emptied.

Ironically, commercial rail service along the B&O mainline from western terminuses Wheeling and Parkersburg continued to operate under the control of West(ern) Virginia Unionists who held strong ties to the growing industrial economy in the north.

These same trains also continued to operate further down the line in Maryland north of Washington despite Confederate control as forces were commanded to placate the townspeople, also dependent on the railroad, to gain their alliance.

The arrangement allowed sporadic telegraph operations (tacitly intercepted by Confederate military strategists) to continue to the Union War Department, earning the B&O Railroad its early sobriquet “Lincoln’s Lifeline.”

The fact that virtually all the mainline, the engineering marvel of its day, and its spurs to Washington and Annapolis lay below the Mason Dixon Line perplexed Union strategists as its entire length would have to be secured for troop movement and resupply of war materiel.

The Confederacy also saw it as essential to their war effort, too, especially for the transportation of industrial minerals used in the production of arms, munitions, and related supply logistics.

But in that first week, commanding Gen. Robert E. Lee found to his amazement that trans-Allegheny Virginians did not share his Tidewater allegiance as the subsequent Campaign for Western Virginia – the very first of the Civil War – resulted in a decisive Union military victory that freed Lincoln to concentrate forces nearer to Washington.

Lee would be summarily demoted while the B&O Railroad would becoming a linear battlefield with 23 destroyed bridges, the capture or scuttling of 56 locomotives and 386 railcars, and destruction of over 100 miles of telegraph line – all before the end of 1861.

The dire situation the Lincoln Administration would face in those early days would climax with the imprisonment of Maryland legislators who enacted laws prohibiting northern troops from traversing the state, as well as the arrest of sitting Maryland Congressman Henry May.

As it was the first time a President would suspend the writ of habeas corpus, U. S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney, a Maryland native who had held the office since 1836, immediately found the action an infringement on those rights reserved to Congress and ruled it unconstitutional.

Lincoln ignored the decision. 

When Congress later deliberated the question of whether West Virginia could lawfully be admitted into the Union, the Lincoln Administration pressed forward as it had brooked far weightier extralegal issues than an ill-placed semicolon in the already-sullied Constitution.

The fact that Washington would later again be threatened by Confederate forces that were actually winning the war when West Virginia was granted statehood further reinforced Lincoln’s wartime powers view that loyalist West(ern) Virginians and their B&O Railroad were essential to saving the Union.

— Swint is a commercial property broker who can be reached at [email protected].

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