The Slaveholders’ War: The Secession Crisis in Kanawha County, Western Virginia, 1860-1861

Scott A. MacKenzie


West Virginia’s historians have tended to minimize the importance of slavery in the state’s formation. With fewer than fifteen thousand slaves in the forty-eight counties that formed the state in 1863, the scarcity of the institution appeared to have had little hold over the region. Charles Ambler and George E. Moore contrasted the slave-based plantation economy of eastern Virginia with that of the free labor-based small farms and factories in the west to explain the state’s formation. Richard Orr Curry’s revisionist work shared this view. The slavery issue, he argued, arose only during debates on emancipation at the statehood conventions, not before. Since then, scholars have placed individual counties under the microscope to examine sectional loyalties at the local level. With over two thousand slaves, one-sixth of the total in the forty-eight counties, Kanawha County provides a useful example to show how slavery affected political, social, and economic relations among its residents.


On the evening of October 11, 1860, a troop of mostly German “Wide Awakes” paraded their support for Abraham Lincoln in the north end of Wheeling. At Colonel Thoburn’s house, the German Company C of the Wide Awakes received a wreath for its valiant support of Republicanism. More is revealed when you read the article.

West Virginia’s historians have tended to minimize the importance of slavery in the state’s formation. With fewer than fifteen thousand slaves in the forty-eight counties that formed the state in 1863, the scarcity of the institution appeared to have had little hold over the region. Charles Ambler and George E. Moore contrasted the slave-based plantation economy of eastern Virginia with that of the free labor-based small farms and factories in the west to explain the state’s formation. Richard Orr Curry’s revisionist work shared this view. The slavery issue, he argued, arose only during debates on emancipation at the statehood conventions, not before. Since then, scholars have placed individual counties under the microscope to examine sectional loyalties at the local level. First, James H. Cook’s study of Harrison County argued that Unionists consisting of former Whigs and some Democrats tried to thwart secessionist forces led by local elites. They succeeded by only ten votes. Second, John W. Shaffer’s study of remote Barbour County argued that personal issues like marriage and kinship mattered more than wealth or community in choosing sides.1 Third, Ken Fones-Wolf revealed how the threat of free-labor ideology added to the strong kinship and community ties among the small number of Wheeling secessionists. These studies have identified many new issues that divided western Virginians on the issue of secession except one: slavery.

The time has come to bring slavery into the debate on how West Virginians chose sides in the Civil War. With over two thousand slaves, one-sixth of the total in the forty-eight counties, Kanawha County provides a useful example to show how slavery affected political, social, and economic relations among its residents. While salt furnaces substituted for cotton plantations there, local slaveholders exhibited many of the same traits as their eastern counterparts. The institution affected whites as much as slaves. As Eugene Genovese has pointed out, “the paternalism of the planters towards their slaves was reinforced by the semi-paternal relationship between the planters and their neighbors” that made the planters “the closest thing to feudal lords imaginable in a nineteenth-century bourgeois republic.”2 Other studies of Appalachia during this time place slaveholding as a major influence on allegiances. Peter Wallenstein on East Tennessee, Jonathan Sarris on north Georgia, and Martin Crawford on Ashe County in North Carolina each revealed how concentrations of wealth, especially of slaves, split the population into secessionists and cooperationists in 1860-1861.3 This essay argues that slavery and slaveholding exerted a powerful influence on sectional allegiances in western Virginia. It first explains how slaveholders dominated the county’s economy and its politics before the war. It then examines their use of pro-slavery arguments to win over the majority to support secession. Finally, a detailed comparison of Union and Confederate military records reveals the political, social, and economic differences between the two sides.

The salt business brought slavery to Kanawha County. Natural brine (salt water) deposits made the area one of the largest salt producers in the antebellum United States. Boiling the brine in large kettles separated the powder. Workers packed the powder into barrels, and loaded them on to steamboats for shipment down the Kanawha and Ohio Rivers. Kanawha’s furnaces trebled their production between 1829 and 1849, but declined to 1.2 million by 1857, the last year on record.4 This process employed a majority of the county’s free labor force, directly or indirectly. Of 3,424 white, free black, and mulatto workers listed in the 1860 census, 464, or 14 percent worked in the salt industry. Their jobs included coopers, well borers, engineers, sales agents, and inspectors. Miners and lumbermen dug coal and chopped wood for the furnaces, and flat- boat pilots and waggoners transported the barrels down the river to market. A further one third of the county’s labor force consisted of laborers possibly employed in the salt business. Those indirectly employed by the salt business included lawyers and clerks who handled bureaucratic issues, and merchants who delivered goods to the salt companies and their workers.5 In addition to providing food for the general population, farmers provided additional labor to the salt business. A historian of the salt business writes, “Some farmers in the valley supplemented their incomes by manufacturing copper stuff (staves, headings, and hoop poles) from their forest land.”6 The profitability of salt made a disproportionately small number of Kanawhans wealthy.

Much of that wealth found its way into slave property. A perpetual shortage of free labor forced the salt producers to use enslaved labor. The census listed 2,184 slaves and 241 owners in Kanawha County in 1860. Most owned between two and nineteen slaves. About 10 percent owned twenty or more, elevating them to planter status. One, Samuel J. Cabell, owned one hundred slaves, a rare find in western Virginia. Companies owned eleven additional slaves.7 Owners leased their slaves to work in the salt business as shippers, coopers, and packers.8 Some, like lawyer and politician George W. Summers, preferred that their slaves avoid jobs such as coal mining because of the danger.9 With the exception of Henry Ruffner’s 1847 pamphlet denouncing slavery,10 few Kanawhans voiced any objection to slavery. The historian of the salt business pointed out that the salt makers “did not hesitate to make the necessary choice. The evidence indicates that Kanawha producers preferred slave labor. There is no sign of ethical opposition or question in the matter.”11 All told, the largest and most economically productive slave population in western Virginia resided in Kanawha County.

Slavery and slaveholding affected every part of the county. No section, no matter how remote, lacked some connection with the institution. Figure 1 shows how slavery affected the county at the local level. Using the 1860 census and an old map allowed the identification and selection of six districts. They represent a cross-section of Kanawha society, including those involved in the salt production and exportation industry and those less involved. The four areas along the Kanawha River hosted the salt industry, including Coalsmouth near the border with Putnam County, the town of Charleston itself, Kanawha Salines (also known as Malden), and Cannelton on the Fayette County line. The other two, Sissonville and Clendenin (also known as Clifton), are far to the north of the river. Charleston and Kanawha Salines had the largest numbers of slaves with over four hundred each, and dozens of owners. Coalsmouth and Cannelton had fewer, 226 and sixty-one respectively. In contrast, Sissonville had only twenty-five slaves, six owned by town founder Henry C. Sisson and three by his son James. Clendenin had two owners and ten slaves. This sample represents the diverse slaveholding patterns throughout the county.

The mere presence of slaves and owners does not reveal the power that the institution had on society as a whole. A hint of that power lies in the comparison of wealth held by slaveholders and others. Table 1 compares the real-estate holdings and personal wealth of each community to that held by local slaveholders. In Sissonville and Clendenin, slavery had little impact, with between 28 and 6 percent of all real estate owned by slaveholders, and 19 and 20 percent of all personal wealth. Much of this discrepancy comes from the high number of landless persons in the area. The problem was much worse in the river areas, where slaveholders owned between 52 and 87 percent of all real estate, and between 68 and 90 percent of all personal property. Most of Kanawha’s wealth, therefore, lay in the hands of a select few who were deeply involved in the salt business.

Figure 1: The six districts of Kanawha County 12

Table 1

Comparative wealth between slaveholding and non-slaveholding adult male heads of households, by district13


Total Real

Slaveholder Real


Total Personal

Slaveholder Personal























Kanawha Salines














Town of Charleston







Total County







The slaveholders used their wealth to control Kanawha’s party politics. From the 1830s onwards, when exports reached their zenith, its people voted for the Whig Party and its platform of encouraging internal improvements and high protective tariffs. A 1911 county history reported that the “salt makers began to think that their special interests needed protection and that it required a Whig to attend to them, and they began to elect Whigs.”14 Between 1836 and 1859, Kanawhans gave the Whigs and their successors, the American (or Know-Nothing) and Virginia Opposition parties, between 59 and 82 percent of the vote in presidential, congressional, and gubernatorial elections. Kanawhans voted for the Whigs and their successors despite constant changes in population, the fortunes of the salt business, and the constant budding of new counties formed from its territory. The Democratic vote remained constant too, drawing support mostly from the mountain areas. Sissonville and Clendenin were the only places to give the Democrats a majority in the 1856 presidential, 1857 congressional, and 1859 gubernatorial elections.15 It is significant that the two areas least affected by slavery and slave ownership voted differently from the rest of the county, but, as we shall see, party politics had little influence on how Kanawhans chose sides in the Civil War.

Wealth allowed the slaveholders to dominate political offices. Kanawhans repeatedly rotated their wealthiest citizens through Kanawha’s elective offices, including delegates and senators to the state government in Richmond. Just twenty men held those offices between 1830 and 1860. One delegate, Isaac Noyes Smith, was the son of another delegate, Benjamin H. Smith. Many of the same men also held local offices such as sheriff, deputy sheriff, and commissioner of revenue.16 The expansion of the franchise in 1851 appears to have made no difference in this rotation. Moreover, service in Richmond allowed the men to make contacts in the east and use them to benefit the county. One of their major accomplishments was the bill approving the construction of the Covington and Ohio Railroad, which promised to expand Kanawha’s salt exports to the rest of the South and beyond. One large rally in September 1859 gathered many of the county’s prominent citizens.17 The constant repetition of the slaveholders through government offices made them accustomed to wielding authority. The Kanawha electorate appeared to have accepted this hegemony as normal politics. There appears to be no evidence of disparagement by the elites on to the majority, as David Hsiung discovered in upper East Tennessee.18 This lack of evidence does not mean that none existed.

With so many slaves, it should not be surprising that Kanawha’s slaveholders reacted with great alarm to John Brown’s raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, in October 1859. Local elites used the event to assert their leadership over the rest of the county in the name of security. At a large rally held on December 19, 1859, a nine-member committee drafted resolutions to express collective anger and resolve. The board resolved that Kanawhans “are ready and willing at all times to perform our part in carrying into effect any measures that Virginia and her sister Southern States may deem proper and expedient to adopt for the purpose of protecting and defending the Rights, Persons, Property and Honor of Slave-holding States.” The meeting accused the Republican Party of inciting anti-Southern opinions, exemplified by Hinton Rowan Helper’s book The Impending Crisis, which “plainly indicates a deadly hostility and bitter hatred on the part of the Black Republicans towards the South, and a fixed determination on their part to interfere with the institutions of the South.”19 Leaders of the meeting included Benjamin H. Smith, Spicer Patrick, James M. Laidley, James H. Fry, Nicholas Fitzhugh, John D. Lewis, John S. Swann, Thomas L. Broun, and Jacob Goshorn (the first mayor of Charleston). All but the last two owned slaves, and all lived either in the town or downriver in Kanawha Salines. In the initial shock of the raid, Kanawhans appeared to unite for the common defense. As the year ended, however, the slaveholders and their associates chose a separate path.

Some wealthy Kanawhans embraced a more direct form of politics in the wake of John Brown’s raid: forming militia companies. Ostensibly intended to provide an armed response in case of emergency, their real purpose was to gather similar-minded men together and assert their social status. The records left by one militia company, the Charleston Sharpshooters, indicated both their political purpose and elevated social status. Their commander, John Swann, came from Charleston where he owned ten slaves. Other officers, including John Taylor, Charles Ufferman, and Christopher C. Roy, also lived in the town but owned no slaves. The Sharpshooters maintained discipline by requiring regular attendance. Absences resulted in a fine of twenty-five cents, restricting membership to those with means. The Sharpshooters met in late 1859 to establish the political purpose. Their resolutions placed conditions on their continued support of the Union. One stated that their members would support secession if the Union became destructive of “the liberty, the persons or the property of this mother Commonwealth devolves upon her own sons alone and her sister states of the South for protection, [then] the Union is already at an end.”20 Other resolutions encouraged military preparations such as asking Richmond for weapons. It is unclear if the state ever met their requests. Noticeably absent are any pro-slavery statements.

Another militia, the Coal River Rifles based in Coalsmouth, likewise gathered in response to John Brown. Its resolutions published in the Kanawha Valley Star had a much clearer pro-slavery attitude. On December 17, 1859, its members denounced the treasonous attempts by “a band of fanatics of the North of this Union” to attack Virginia “with an avowed purpose to incite our Negroes to insurrection and to rebellion, and thereby to involve the citizens of this Commonwealth in all the horrors of servile war.”21 Like the Sharpshooters, the Coal River Rifles declared their intention to arm themselves in case of invasion. They also encouraged Richmond to finish the railroad for reasons of national security. Like the Sharpshooters, the Riflemen’s officers had close connections to slavery. Of the four officers mentioned in these resolutions, three owned slaves. Thomas Lewis and Benjamin S. Thompson each owned five, and J. Frazier Hansford owned three. Thompson lived nearby in Upper Forks of Coal, while the rest resided in Coalsmouth. It appears that the slaveholders worried that the non-slaveholders would not share their concerns to protect the institution. They shaped, at least temporarily, their propaganda to emphasize patriotism to Virginia above all other factors, while never mentioning slavery.

The most important of the militias was the Kanawha Riflemen, whose memorial today stands on Kanawha Boulevard in Charleston. Its members contained many of the county’s leading and wealthiest figures. Their captain, a local lawyer named George S. Patton, personally designed their uniforms and organized a brass band. Other members included Isaac Noyes Smith, James H. Fry, and Alfred Spicer Patrick, each the son of a former delegate. Indeed, Smith himself served in Richmond. The Riflemen made such an impression that, as their later regimental historian notes, they “were often invited to appear at parades, balls, and social functions, earning a reputation that they could dance as well as, and maybe better, than they could fight.”22 One member, Jonathan Rundle, who owned no slaves, placed his newspaper, the Kanawha Valley Star, at their disposal to promote the secessionist cause. Over the coming months, his paper provided some of the most ardent pro-secession editorials of any paper in western Virginia.23 Collectively, the militias represented a radical escalation in county politics. Although possessing negligible military skills, they acted as political rallying points for wealthy Kanawhans by assuming, but more like pretending, to assert responsibility for defending the county. These companies formed the basis for Kanawha’s secessionists.

For all their organization and presumed authority, the Kanawha militias had little impact on the 1860 presidential election. This election promised to be controversial because of the powerful Republican Party and its candidate, Abraham Lincoln of Illinois. The Republican platform pledged to protect slavery where it existed but to forbid it in the new western territories. Southern “fire-eaters” saw this as a direct attack on slavery. Moderates saw it as unnecessarily provocative, believing that the Constitution guaranteed them the legal right to take slave property anywhere they chose. As such, the Republican Party did not appear on the ballot in the South, including Kanawha County. The three remaining parties each campaigned on maintaining the status quo. The Constitutional Union Party under John Bell promised to restore national unity by respecting constitutional rights as written. Restoring national unity, the party platform read, required that “the rights of the People and of the States [are] re-established, and the Government again placed in that condition of justice, fraternity and equality, which, under the example and Constitution of our fathers, has solemnly bound every citizen.”24 This moderate policy sought to allay fears of a confrontation between North and South by appealing to their joint respect for the Constitution itself. True to their long-standing voting patterns, 1,176 or 68 percent of Kanawhans voted for Bell. The National Democrats under Stephen Douglas received fifty-two, while 513 voted for the Southern Democrats under John C. Breckinridge. The election caught their attention, but Kanawhans continued to act as they had before.25

Regardless, the national result started the secession crisis. The Republicans won the election without the Southern vote. Breckinridge won most of the South, but Bell won Virginia by a narrow margin, as well as Kentucky and Tennessee. Douglas won just Missouri and some of New Jersey’s electoral college votes. In response, many Southerners turned towards secession. The Lower South states of South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas openly discussed disunion. A more muted debate took place in the Upper South states of Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia, and in the Border South states of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware. The Southern response to the election of the moderate antislavery Lincoln started the most serious crisis in American history.

Kanawhans showed concern over the result but did not panic. Two days after the election, J. Edward Caldwell wrote to his Northern cousin Emily Bigelow about the post-election situation. He wrote, “There is a great deal of excitement here. . . . Most everyone expects that the Union will be dissolved if Lincoln is elected. I am very much afraid there will be some trouble kicked up between the North and the South which I should regret very much as in that case I would not be able to make you all a visit very soon.”26 Caldwell was correct in saying there would be some trouble kicked up between North and South, but he would not have to travel far to find it. Like the rest of Virginia, Kanawha County became a battleground between secessionists and Unionists. These sides replaced the old parties and competed for the county’s votes.

Unionism dominated the debate from the beginning. Rallies at the courthouse and elsewhere in the county provided Kanawhans the chance to express themselves on the question of disunion. William Clark Reynolds, a twenty-five-year-old clerk from Kanawha Salines, recorded several such meetings in his diary. On January 7, 1861, he reported a “Great Union-Disunion Meeting held in Charleston. Resolutions favoring a perpetuation of the Union were adopted.” He reported other meetings on January 24, where he “heard Fitzhugh and Brooson,” and on February 2 when he “heard Major [Andrew] Parks and Dr. [John] Parks (secessionists) at the Methodist Church.”27 The pro-secession Richmond Daily Dispatch reported a meeting in early January that called for a state convention on secession. The meeting embraced a platform around which Kanawhans could agree, opposing the “use of force by the General Government to compel or coerce a seceding State.” More importantly, the meeting emphasized the need for unity on this issue, since “we hold it to be the highest duty of each party most scrupulously to avoid any and every occasion of outbreak or collision.”28 The secessionists appealed to Kanawhans by invoking the things dearest to them, such as liberty and loyalty to Virginia, but avoided a discussion of slavery in order to broaden their appeal. An election for delegates to a Virginia constitutional convention, however, proved that Kanawhans opposed disunion.

The convention election in February 1861 was the first reliable gauge of the strength of secessionism in Virginia. The election had two ballots; the first for delegates to the convention to be held in Richmond two weeks later, and a second on whether or not to hold a popular referendum on the convention’s decision. Governor Letcher reluctantly agreed to hold a convention out of concern that the secessionists would exploit it. In the preceding two months, the seven Lower South states had seceded from the Union, and Virginia’s own disunionists eagerly sought their chance. The election turned out to be a decisive victory for the Unionists. Letcher’s biographer wrote that he “made no effort to hide his delight,” when he learned of the Unionist majority.29 A historian of secession reported that statewide “fewer than one-third of the 152 delegates elected favored secession.” In the reference ballot, in which a yes vote prevented any precipitous secession from the Union, Virginia as a whole voted 103,236 in favor of reference and 46,386 against. Eastern Virginians voted a very close 32,294 and 32,009, respectively, while the west voted 70,942 and 14,377 against a referendum.30 Despite the intrastate disparity, Unionism held firm across Virginia.

The February election revealed that the majority of Kanawhans opposed disunion. Of 2,187 votes cast in the election, Unionist George W. Summers received 2,012, chosen on 92 percent of all ballots cast. Spicer Patrick, also a Unionist, appeared on 1,730 ballots, or 79 percent of the totals. The two secessionist candidates, Nicholas Fitzhugh (a Rifleman) appeared on 421 ballots or 19 percent while John S. Swann (initially a Sharpshooter, later a Rifleman) appeared 210 times, or 10 percent. In other words, just 20 percent of Kanawha voters supported at least one secessionist candidate. William Reynolds of Kanawha Salines, who later joined the Confederate Army, recorded in his diary that he voted for Summers and Fitzhugh and “No Reference.”31 The latter did not indicate support for Union or secession. Both sides, with few exceptions, wanted a referendum on the matter. Kanawhans cast 1,793 ballots in the reference ballot, including 1,695 (95 percent) votes that favored reference and just 168 (5 percent) that opposed it.

Table 2

February 1861 convention election returns32





















Kanawha Salines



































County Total







It appears, however, that disunion had gained a foothold in slaveholding areas. As shown in Table 2, Fitzhugh placed second ahead of Patrick in Coalsmouth and Cannelton. The other slaveholding areas, Charleston and Kanawha Salines, remained solidly Unionist, indicating that slavery alone did not influence the decision. Sissonville and Clendenin voted almost unanimously for the Union. At the convention, Summers became one of Virginia’s leading Unionists, passionately defending the state’s role as a national leader. For all his eloquence, however, the attack on Fort Sumter and Lincoln’s call for troops convinced the convention to approve secession on April 17.33 The war now began in earnest.

Kanawha’s secessionist militias immediately assumed responsibility for governing and protecting the county. At a meeting of the Kanawha Riflemen on April 19, the unit urged Kanawhans of all parties to “hold ourselves ready to respond to every call that may be made on us to defend our State and section from hostile invasion; therefore, be it unanimously resolved.”34 Other secessionists spoke of defending Virginia’s honor against its enemies, namely the Lincoln government. Thomas B. Swann, a lawyer and member of the Riflemen, said “[Virginia] will now exhaust all her stores of war in maintaining her honor and driving the foe from her soil. To love the Black Republicans Lincoln-Union now, with which we are at war, is treason [to] Virginia—treason, which will live in the minds and be expected by the good and great generations unborn.”35 The militias prepared for a possible Union invasion of the Kanawha Valley.

The secessionists tried to use the Kanawha Valley Star in order to legitimize their actions. Its editorials abandoned their previous restraint on slavery. One editorial boasted of the superiority of Southerners and mountaineers over the North. “Should the abolitionists of Ohio send an invading army into western Virginia, not a soldier of them will ever return alive,” the editors said; “the mountain boys would shoot them down like dogs.”36 Another editorial told readers that the North had become so radicalized that they broke racial lines to attack them. “The Northern cities,” the editorial read, “in keeping with their usual fanaticism, are perfectly furious; any one who refuses to advocate coercion is in danger of losing his life. Federal soldiers are flocking into Washington City by thousands; Negroes are in the ranks with white men. Civil war is commenced, and it behooves every man who loves his species now calmly to consider how it can be stopped.”37 In fact, the Union Army never integrated during the war, and did not enlist African American soldiers until 1862. Since Kanawhans had access to newspapers from Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Wheeling, and the rival Kanawha ­Republican (for which no issues survived from this period), they must have seen through the Star’s obvious cant.

The secessionists also used rallies to mobilize the people. On May 6, they held a large meeting at the courthouse. The elites who supported disunion attended, including John Parks and Andrew Parks, and Riflemen George S. Patton, Thomas L. Broun, and James Ruffner. The presence of the long-serving county court clerk, Alexander W. Quarrier, allowed the meeting to appear official. George W. Summers and Spicer Patrick attended despite their election three months before as Unionist delegates. The meeting passed resolutions that described the coming war in the most provocative terms, as if to win over Unionists to their side. One read that the war threatened to be “one of the most murderous, exterminating, and barbarous character.” Another urged Kanawhans to abide by the results of the Virginia convention and “to promptly form and discipline companies of volunteers of their able-bodied men, and to the county courts to levy, or raise by issuing bonds, a sufficient amount of money, to equip and arm such volunteers, when raised.”38 The rallies and newspaper editorials had little effect on the population. Constant repetition of pro-slavery and patriotic themes wore out.

In the May 1861 referendum on secession, the vast majority of Kanawhans rejected disunion. The county voted 1,695 to 531 or three to one to reject the convention vote for secession. Like other parts of western Virginia, Kanawhans rejected the ordinance despite the favorable 78 percent to 22 percent statewide result.39 The secessionists’ campaign yielded a gain of only 5 percent over the February election in which eighty percent voted for Unionist delegates. A local level analysis reveals little change. In Table 3, the low slaveholding areas of Sissonville and Clendenin remained firmly Unionist, as did Charleston and Kanawha Salines. Coalsmouth and Cannelton again voted for disunion. In contrast to James Cook’s study of Harrison County, it appears that party politics had no role in determining support for secession. Unionists in that county came from a hurried realignment between old Whigs and some Democrats attempting to overturn the secessionist elites. The counties in upper northwestern Virginia may have had party systems with greater competition, but Kanawha did not. There appears to have been no change in voting patterns. Other factors such as kinship, community, and slavery made the difference.

Table 3

Comparing vote for secession with political party support, 1856-6140

1861 Secession







Kanawha Salines















Between the May election and the arrival of Union troops in July, secessionists encountered stiff resistance from the Unionist majority. On May 30, Confederate Colonel Christopher Q. Tompkins issued a desperate appeal for volunteers from Kanawha County to join his regiment. “Men of Virginia! Men of Kanawha! To Arms!” he pleaded. “The enemy has invaded your soil and threatens to overrun your country under the pretext of protection. You cannot serve two masters. You have not the right to repudiate allegiance to your own State.”41 Few heeded his call. Indeed, they became so desperate to assert their control over the county that they requested outside help. The Richmond government appointed former governor Henry A. Wise to command the forces in the Kanawha Valley. A wealthy planter from the eastern shore of Virginia, Wise had no sympathy for suspected turncoats. Kanawha secessionists placed great faith in him to restore their fortunes. The Kanawha Valley Star boasted, “Domestic traitors will now find their machinations thwarted and their treachery trod cut out of the soil which they infest. Gen. Wise leaves no doubt on this point; he holds the olive branch in one hand, and the drawn sword in the other; those hitherto disaffected must choose between them and that quickly.”42 Wise and the troops of his “Wise Legion” apparently acted quickly against local Unionists. A few days after his arrival, the Wheeling Daily Intelligencer reported that “the rebel troops in the Kanawha Valley are continually arresting and outraging Union men, and destroying their property. There is no doubt but that Wise is in the vicinity of Charleston in command of a force of 4,000 men, which is augmenting daily.”43 It is impossible to say whether this report is accurate or not. Any Confederate menace towards Unionists ended shortly thereafter when the Federal army arrived at the end of July.

Engraving of Camp of 5th Virginia Vol. Infantry, U.S.A. Source: West Virginia and Regional History Collection, West Virginia University Libraries.

There is no need to recount the military history of the western Virginia campaign, because it has received attention from other historians.44 What is important to know is that the Union forces defeated Confederate forces at the Battle of Scary Creek on July 17. By September, the rebels had retreated all the way to Greenbrier County, one hundred miles to the east. The Wheeling Daily Intelligencer recorded that Kanawhans welcomed Union troops into Charleston “with colors flying, and all stepping to martial music. Great cheering and excitement was manifested by the citizens while the column was passing.”45 The Union occupation of Kanawha County had begun.

Wise blamed his defeat on the state volunteers who deserted his command. In his report to the Confederate commander in western Virginia, General Robert E. Lee, Wise wrote that, in the retreat from Charleston to Lewisburg, his state volunteers “lost from three to five hundred by desertion. But one man deserted from the Legion.” The militia is, he described, “for nothing for warlike uses here.” He described the whole Kanawha Valley as “wholly disaffected and traitorous.”46 Wise, although upset after his defeat, accurately pointed out the true purposes of the Kanawha militia. He needed fighting troops, but instead he inherited militia companies whose aim was entirely political. For all the money spent on uniforms, weapons, and publishing fire-eating resolutions in the local newspaper, the militia companies failed either to win over their fellow citizens or to prevent the Union from reoccupying the county.

The enlistment of Kanawhans into the two armies provides an opportunity to see the differences between Unionists and secessionists. Within weeks of each other, Kanawhans enlisted in two army regiments. When Virginia seceded, several western militia companies joined to form the Confederate 22nd Virginia Regiment of Volunteers, led by Colonel Tompkins. When federal forces occupied the county in July, Kanawhans began to enlist in a Union regiment, the 8th Regiment of Virginia Volunteers. Military service records and the 1860 census yields reliable information on seventy-three men in the 8th and ninety-nine in the 22nd. Only those who volunteered at the start of the war in 1861 have been included in order to isolate those with the strongest political motivation to fight. Later recruits, who included conscripts, had the advantage of seeing how the war developed that the first volunteers lacked. For each group I analyzed and compared relevant socioeconomic information, including wealth (real, personal, and slave property), place of residence, occupation, nativity, and parents’ nativity where it could be identified. While these units did not include every Kanawhan in military service during the war, they represent the greatest concentrations of such men.

The principal difference between Union and Confederate soldiers was wealth. Confederates, overall, came from wealthier backgrounds than Unionists did. As a result, they could play a more direct role in county politics. Although universal male suffrage had existed since 1851, state law required that candidates for government offices post a monetary bond in order to prevent corruption. In 1858, for example, Enos Arnold posted a $75,000 bond in order to serve as a sheriff in Kanawha County. Since he did not possess such a sum, seven others, including Benjamin H. Smith, William J. Rand, and John Slack, helped him raise the money.47 This requirement kept the reins of power in the hands of a wealthy few. The assistance given by others allowed them to influence the officeholder. Table 4 uses levels of wealth to compare the property holdings of Union and Confederate soldiers. Most soldiers in each category had no property at all because they were members of households or were quite young. Some soldiers were eighteen years of age or younger.

Table 4

Comparative wealth of Union and Confederate volunteers in 186148









69 (95%)

53 (73%)

72 (73%)

59 (60%)


0 (0%)

17 (23%)

0 (0%)

3 (3%)


2 (3%)

5 (7%)

4 (4%)

13 (13%)


1 (1%)

0 (0%)

1 (1%)

4 (4%)


1 (1%)

1 (1%)

19 (19%)

18 (18%)

Likewise, more Confederate soldiers owned slaves than did Union soldiers. Of the 241 slave owners listed in the 1860 census, thirty-seven who either owned slaves themselves or came from families who did served in the 22nd. By contrast, only one slaveholder, Francis M. Cox, joined the Union Army. When compared to the county average for men of military age, Confederate soldiers had more wealth in both categories than Union soldiers. These patterns suggest that leading secessionists were either ­members or associates of the wealthy, salt-based, slave-owning elite. Moreover, it explains why they responded so enthusiastically to the pro-slavery appeals put forth by the militias. Slave ownership was simultaneously a mark of high status, economic prosperity, and a strong link between eastern and western Virginia.

Residence indicated that the Confederates had greater personal and professional connections to each other than Unionists did. Table 5 indicates that a majority of Confederates, sixty out of ninety-nine, came from the town of Charleston. By comparison, only one of the seventy-three Union soldiers, the same Francis M. Cox, came from Charleston. Other Confederates tended to come from those areas close to the river, and the salt industry that used slaves. Coalsmouth contributed two soldiers and Cannelton one, while Kanawha Salines supplied seven Union soldiers and five Confederates. In contrast, the two mountain communities of Clendenin and Sissonville produced a total of seventeen Unionists and one Confederate, James Norman of the Riflemen, whose occupation as a coal bank manager tied him to the salt business.

Table 5

Comparative residences across the six districts







Kanawha Salines















Kinship relations were strong among both Confederates and Unionists. Both units had large numbers of men with similar surnames, indicating they were either brothers or cousins. The Noyes family, related to Isaac Noyes, one of the first salt makers in the valley, had no less than eight members in the 22nd. Isaac Noyes Smith served as an officer. The Ruffner family, another wealthy family, had six. Spicer Patrick, formerly one of the county’s delegates to the constitutional convention, had two sons in the unit. Unionists too had groups of family members. The surnames Estep, Edens, Midkiff, and Comer appeared several times among soldiers in the 8th. These are just the most obvious connections and there may have been others. It is not clear from the sample if members of the same family joined different armies.

The occupations of Union and Confederate soldiers, along with wealth, residence, and kinship, indicate that the Confederates belonged to the elite. Confederate ranks included twenty clerks, broadly defined as those working in the offices of lawyers or companies. Twelve more were lawyers, representing one-third of the county’s thirty-two listed attorneys. Only seven farm managers, five farmers, and five laborers joined the 22nd Virginia. On the other hand, Union soldiers tended to hold unskilled occupations, including twenty-eight laborers, twelve farm laborers, five farmers, and four miners. A further twelve listed no occupation.

The presence of numerous clerks and lawyers in the 22nd, nearly a third of the Confederate total, reveals that the county’s Confederates were close to those who ran the county. Lawyers such as George S. Patton worked in and around the county court. Many prominent Kanawha political figures served in the 22nd. Isaac Noyes Smith and Nicholas Fitzhugh served as delegates to the Virginia General Assembly before the war. Enos Arnold and Andrew Moore, two of the county sheriffs, served in the 22nd. Despite their relative youth, indeed only Arnold and Fitzhugh were more than thirty years of age, these men attained significant political office. Their wealth and family connections made this possible. Smith, Patton, and Fitzhugh owned slaves, and only Smith lived outside of Charleston. These Confederates exemplified a small yet extremely influential group of people.49

General Cox, who commanded the Kanawha Department during the winter of 1861-1862, understood the connection between political allegiances, wealth, residence, and profession among Kanawhans. During his command, he frequently encountered the county elite and revealed much about them in his remarkably accurate postwar memoirs. Cox recognized the distinctions between wealth and secession in the county. He said: “The majority of the men of wealth and of the families recognized as socially eminent were avowed secessionists. They were a small minority of the whole people, but in all slave-holding communities social rank is so powerful that their influence was out of proportion to their numbers.” Even among Unionists, Cox recognized a generational gap among those with wealth, noting that “even the leaders of the Unionists found their own ‘house divided against itself,’ for scarce one of them but had a son in Wise’s legion, and the Twenty-second Virginia Regiment was largely composed of the young men of Charleston and the vicinity.”50 Cox ably summed up the relationship between wealth and political allegiance.

Both the Unionists and the Confederates were native Virginians. Nativity has been a widely discussed topic in West Virginia history. Early historians pointed out that the divergence between eastern and western Virginia was the sum of long-standing economic, political, and ethnic differences. The first Europeans in the west, Charles Ambler argued in 1910, started from German and Scots-Irish immigrants. Eastern Virginia consisted primarily of English stock.51 However, this view did not last long. In the 1920s, James McGregor pointed out that by 1860 the native-born population of western Virginia, those born in the United States, was almost 98 percent.52 Those of German and Irish birth outnumbered the English, but none could exert that much influence over the rest with barely 2 percent of the population. More recently, John W. Shaffer revived nativity as a measure of support for the Union or Confederacy. Instead of ethnic backgrounds, Shaffer measured the depth of nativity to Virginia to identify sectional allegiances. He argued that Confederates in Barbour County had deeper ties to Virginia than Unionists did. Seventy percent of Confederates had Virginia roots going back three generations, or dating back to their great-grandparents. Only 27 percent of Unionists had ties that deep.53 The others came from either the North, the South, or overseas.

In contrast to Shaffer’s findings regarding Barbour County, Kanawha’s Union soldiers had deeper roots to Virginia than the Confederates did. A full 96 percent of Union soldiers came from Virginia, compared to 85 percent of the Confederates. Of the Confederate volunteers 8 percent hailed from the North, 7 percent were born overseas, and 2 percent were born in other parts of the South. On the other hand, 3 percent of Union soldiers were born overseas; just one percent was born in the South, and none were Northerners. This divergence increases when looking back one generation. Surprisingly, the parents of Union soldiers came entirely from the South. Ninety-six percent were born in Virginia, while 4 percent came from other slave states. Table 6 compares the nativity of the men from each unit. Just 67 percent of the parents of Confederate soldiers came from Virginia, with 20 percent from the North. Five percent came from other Southern states, while 8 percent were foreign born. Union volunteers better fit the profile of the total county population, which was 95 percent Virginia-born, 2 percent born in the North, 2 percent foreign born, and 1 percent from elsewhere in the South.54 These data indicate that Kanawha’s Unionists had greater connections to Virginia than the Confederates did. This insight challenges findings for other counties as well as contemporary secessionist claims that the Confederacy represented the true interests of Virginia. Both sides, in fact, could make the same claim.

Table 6

Nativity for two generations of Union and Confederate volunteers 55


Union Soldiers

(Qty: 73)

Confederate Soldiers

(Qty: 99)

Union Parents

(Qty: 33)

Confederate Parents

(Qty: 40)






Other South















In conclusion, slavery influenced how West Virginians chose allegiances in the American Civil War. Slavery affected political, economic, and social relations among the white population, as Eugene Genovese so brilliantly pointed out. Kanawha slaveholders, the principal beneficiaries of the massive investments in slave labor for the salt business, had become accustomed to acting as the county’s leadership class. Between John Brown’s raid and Virginia’s secession, the slaveholders acted in defense of both their rule and their interest in slavery, and expected their neighbors to do the same. Those who also owned slaves responded positively. The rest, the vast majority, resisted as long as they could through political institutions such as the February candidates’ election and the May referendum. Voting patterns indicate that those living in areas of the county with large-scale slaveholding showed a greater tendency to support secession than those living in areas with less. Appeals to patriotism and to pro-slavery ideology failed to convince more Kanawhans to support secession.

A comparison of Kanawha’s Confederate and Union soldiers confirms these findings. The former came from a small group of wealthy, slaveholding men from the town of Charleston. Union soldiers were almost mirror opposites, residing away from slave areas along the river, and often having little or no wealth. Each group, interestingly, could boast of strong nativity to Virginia and having a strong degree of kinship ties. Slavery, therefore, was as powerful as kinship and community ties as a determinant of sectional allegiances because it lay at the basis of Kanawha society. However, the samples came from soldiers, who tended to be much younger than the average Unionist or secessionist. Plenty of others held those allegiances. Nevertheless, these soldiers reflect a strong overall trend that wealth, community, and slaveholding influenced Kanawhans’ choice of sides.

These findings have important consequences for West Virginia history. Previous scholars dismissed or at least minimized slavery as a factor in the state’s formation. The example of Kanawha County shows that it affected relations among whites as much as it did between whites and African Americans. Slaveholding privileged certain people. It not only made them wealthier than others, but also granted them political advantages. Those who had the time and money to participate in government had a different perspective on the world than others. When sectional tensions heightened fears for the future of slavery, so too did relations between slaveholders and non-slaveholders. The former needed the latter to protect the institution. Their resistance to secession led to a catastrophic collapse of society as people had known it. Some people stayed with Virginia, while others preferred a different course. In effect, slavery acted as a strong link between eastern and western Virginia. The idea of an anti-slavery west and a pro-slavery east is no longer completely tenable since many westerners profited from the institution. The presence of slavery in almost every county meant that some people had strong links to the east. Historians, therefore, ought to seriously consider, rather than reconsider, the influence of slavery on the formation of West Virginia.


This article was previously published in West Virginia History, Vol. 4, No. 1, 2010.

1 Charles Ambler, Sectionalism in Virginia, 1776-1861 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1910); George Ellis Moore, “Slavery as a Factor in the Formation of West Virginia,” West Virginia History 18:1 (Oct. 1956), 5-89; Richard Orr Curry, A House Divided: A Study of Statehood Politics and the Copperhead Movement in West Virginia (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1964); James H. Cook, “The Secession Crisis in Harrison County, West Virginia” (master’s thesis, West Virginia University, 1993); John W. Shaffer, Clash of Loyalties: A Border County in the Civil War (Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2003); Kenneth Fones-Wolf, “‘Traitors in Wheeling’: Secessionism in an Appalachian Unionist City,” Journal of Appalachian Studies 13: 1 (Spring 2007), 75-93.

2 Eugene Genovese, The Political Economy of Slavery: Studies in the Economy and Society of the Slave South, 2nd ed., with a new introduction (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1989), 30-31.

3 Peter Wallerstein, “‘Helping to Save the Union’: The Social Origins, Wartime Experiences, and Military Impact of White Union Troops from East Tennessee,” in The Civil War in Appalachia: Collected Essays, edited by Kenneth W. Noe and Shannon H. Wilson (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1997), 1-29; Jonathan Dean Sarris, A Separate Civil War: Communities in Conflict in the Mountain South (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006); Martin Crawford, Ashe County’s Civil War: Community and Society in the Appalachian South (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2001).

4 William S. Laidley, History of Charleston and Kanawha County, West Virginia, and Representative Citizens (Chicago: Richmond-Arnold Publishing, 1911), 138-39.

5 U. S. Department of the Interior, Census Office, Manuscript Census Schedules, Kanawha County, Virginia, Schedule 1: Free Population, National Archives Microfilm Series M-653, reel 1356 (hereafter cited as Kanawha County Census, 1860: Free Population).

6 John E. Stealey III, The Antebellum Kanawha Salt Business and Western Markets (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993), 123-24.

7 Census Office, Manuscript Census Schedules, 1860, Kanawha County, Virginia, Schedule 2: Slave Population, National Archives Microfilm Service M-653, reel 1392 (hereafter cited as Kanawha County Census, 1860: Slave Population).

8 Historical Census Browser, retrieved July 9, 2009, from the University of Virginia, Geospatial and Statistical Data Center:; In Up From Slavery (London: Oxford University Press, 1995), 16, Booker T. Washington recalled working in the Malden (Kanawha Salines) salt mills as a cooper after the war.

9 John E. Stealey, “The Salt Industry of the Great Kanawha Valley of Virginia: A Study in Ante-bellum Internal Commerce” (PhD diss., West Virginia University, 1970), 443-45.

10 Henry Ruffner, Address to the People of West Virginia; Showing that slavery is injurious to the public welfare, and that it may be gradually abolished, without detriment to the rights and interests of slaveholders. By A Slaveholder of West Virginia (Lexington, VA.: R. C. Noel, 1847).

11 Ibid., 156.

12 The map was created using Microsoft Paint. Its information comes from Kanawha County Census, 1860: Free Population, and the Kanawha County Census, 1860: Slave Population. The census listed eight other communities: Kanawha Court House, Upper Forks of Coal, Tyler Mountain, Carbonvale, Blue Creek, Shrewsbury, Jarrett’s Ford, and Paint Creek. Their locations could not be determined due to changes in place names over time. The other is a public domain map located at (accessed July 9, 2009).

13 Kanawha County Census, 1860: Free Population; Kanawha County Census, 1860: Slave Population; and John C. Inscoe, Mountain Masters, Slavery, and the Sectional Crisis in Western North Carolina (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1989), 122.

14 Laidley, History of Charleston and Kanawha County, 152.

15 Kanawha Valley Star, Nov. 11, 1856, June 2, 1857, and May 31, 1859.

16 Julius de Gruyter, The Kanawha Spectator, 2 vols. (Charleston, WV: William H. Erwin Jr., 1976), 2: 23. This book contains many articles from the Kanawha Valley Star and the Kanawha Republican. The impulse to rule continued while Kanawha’s Confederate soldiers were in eastern Virginia during the war. In January 1862, they elected Isaiah Welch and Thomas B. Swann to represent Kanawha in the Confederate Congress; Gallipolis Dispatch, Jan. 15, 1862.

17 Kanawha Valley Star, Sept. 12, 1859. The war delayed the railroad until 1873.

18 David Hsiung, Two Worlds in the Tennessee Mountains: Exploring the Origins of Appalachian Stereotypes (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1997), 6.

19 Kanawha Valley Star, Dec. 26, 1859. Italics in the original.

20 Kanawha Riflemen, Muster roll, Company 1, Aug. 1861 unit history, 1859-1861, Manuscript Collection, West Virginia State Archives. In spite of this catalog title, the document is titled “Charleston Sharpshooters, Organized November 1859” (hereafter cited as Charleston Sharpshooters Record Book).

21 Kanawha Valley Star, Dec. 26, 1859. These resolutions are in fact the only sources available for this unit.

22 Terry D. Lowry, 22nd Virginia Infantry (Lynchburg: H. E. Howard Inc., 1988), 3. Patton was the grandfather of the World War II general.

23 Charles Ambler echoed this sentiment in Sectionalism in Virginia, but with a different purpose. He described the Kanawha Valley Star as “an ardent pro-southern paper and many of its editorials were written for the purpose of allying eastern with western Virginia and increasing the strength of the Democrat Party” (315n44).

24 John T. Woolley and Gerhard Peters, The American Presidency Project [online], Santa Barbara, CA: University of California (hosted), Gerhard Peters (database), available from World Wide Web: (accessed July 9, 2009).

25 West Virginia State Archives, The 1860 Presidential Vote in Virginia, A State of Convenience: An Online Exhibit, (accessed July 9, 2009).

26 J. Ed. Caldwell, Kanawha Court House, to Emma Bigelow, Nov. 8, 1860, Manuscript Collection, West Virginia State Archives, Charleston.

27 William Clark Reynolds Diary, 1862, Civil War Collection, West Virginia State Archives, Charleston (hereafter cited as Reynolds Diary, West Virginia State Archives).

28 Richmond Daily Dispatch, Jan. 14, 1861.

29 F. N. Boney, John Letcher of Virginia: The Story of Virginia’s Civil War Governor (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1966), 107.

30 Daniel Crofts, Reluctant Confederates: Upper South Unionists in the Secession Crisis (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989), 140.

31 Reynolds Diary, West Virginia State Archives.

32 Kanawha Republican, Feb. 5, 1861. 86 percent is derived from adding the total votes for each candidate together (2,012+1,730+421+210=4,373), and dividing by the total from the two Unionist candidates (2,012+1,730 = 3,742). 3,742/4,373 = 85.5%, rounded up to 86 percent.

33 See George H. Reese, ed., Proceedings of the Virginia State Convention of 1861, 4 vols. (Richmond: Virginia State Library, 1965), 1: 617-18.

34 Kanawha Valley Star, Apr. 23, 1861.

35 Ibid.

36 Ibid.

37 Ibid.

38 Ibid., May 7, 1861.

39 Curry, A House Divided, 141-46. Curry had to estimate the vote for many counties because the returns had been lost. I have used them for counties other than Kanawha, which has a corrected account in the State Archives.

40 “Vote in Kanawha County on the Ordinance of Secession,” Artificial Statehood Collection, West Virginia State Archives, (accessed July 9, 2009).

41 Circular from Tompkins, May 30, 1861, U.S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1880), Series 1, vol. 2, chap. 9, 51, (hereafter cited as OR).

42 Kanawha Valley Star, July 2, 1861. Italics in the original.

43 Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, July 6, 1861.

44 Terry Lowry, The Battle of Scary Creek: Military Operations in the Kanawha Valley, April-July 1861, Revised (Charleston, WV: Quarrier Press, 1989).

45 Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, Aug. 2, 1861.

46 Henry Wise to Robert E. Lee, Aug. 1, 1861, OR, Series 1, vol. 2, chap. 9, 1011-12.

47 Kanawha Valley Star, July 27, 1858.

48 Enlistment data for the Union soldiers of the 8th Virginia Infantry Regiment are in the National Archives and Records Administration, General Services Administration, Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1780s-1917, Compiled Service Records of Volunteer Union Soldiers Who Served in Organizations from the State of West Virginia, RG 508A, Reels 68-84 (hereafter cited as Compiled Service Records, Union Soldiers). For the Confederate soldiers of the 22nd Virginia Infantry Regiment, see Laidley, History of Charleston and Kanawha County, 294-95; Terry D. Lowry, 22nd Virginia Infantry, 101-206; Kanawha Riflemen, Muster roll, Company 1, Aug. 1861; unit history, 1859-1861, Manuscript Collection, West Virginia State Archives, Charleston. Census data comes from Kanawha County Census, 1860: Free Population, and Kanawha County Census, 1860: Slave Population.

49 Laidley, History of Charleston and Kanawha County, 151; Kanawha County Census, 1860: Free Population.

50 Jacob D. Cox, “Military Reminiscences of the Civil War, Vol. 1, Apr. 1861-Nov. 1863,” Project Gutenberg, (accessed July 9, 2009).

51 Charles H. Ambler, “The Cleavage between Eastern and Western Virginia,” American Historical Review 15: 4 (July 1910), 762-63.

52 James C. McGregor, The Disruption of Virginia (New York: McMillan, 1922), 11.

53 John W. Shaffer, Clash of Loyalties, 44-45.

54 Kanawha County Census, 1860: Free Population.

55 Compiled Service Records, Union Soldiers; Laidley, History of Charleston and Kanawha County; Lowry, 22nd Virginia Infantry; Charleston Sharpshooters Record Book; Kanawha County Census, 1860: Free Population.