Confederate West Virginia has always been an enigma. A bright fellow riding through Monroe County was intrigued by the Confederate monument in a field near Union. This biker-hiker-writer Michael Abraham wondered why. For clues, he went straight to local historians ‘Bud’ Robertson and Stuart McGeehee. In his thoughtful book, The Spine of the Virginias (2010, Pocahontas Press; Blacksburg, Virginia) he lets these experts tell a harrowing tale of why West Virginia will probably always fly Confederate flags.
Our schools told us that we seceded from Virginia. Public Broadcasting and National Public Radio tell us the same thing in Boston accents as they brag about telling “West Virginia’s story.” Mr. Abraham’s experts tell it more as a story of colonization.
A colonizing power usually cites some slick but fake argument for extending its rule over a minority: “enlightened government” the United States declared as it wrested Puerto Rico from Spain, for example. When Lincoln called up 75,000 volunteers to invade South Carolina he was simply collecting taxes in his First Inaugural, then at Gettysburg he was simply saving the Union, then in his Second Inaugural he was fighting slavery—at least in the Confederacy. The slavery argument has been the real clincher. We’re still stuck with it. Really?
Shakespeare devoted his play Hamlet to the old problem of lying to cover up killing and stealing. Lusting after his brother Hamlet’s kingdom (and his wife), Claudius (‘claws’) killed his brother Hamlet by pouring poison into his ear. As his new kingdom grew more and more rotten (like him), he had to pour a lot of poison into a lot of ears (his media) to hide his crimes. He didn’t count on young Hamlet, whose father returned from the grave to tell the truth. In the end, Claudius was forced to drink his own poison. His flag was removed.
So, the Confederate soldier on the monument returns from his grave to warn us about the truth. It’s still hard to convince others who grew up pledging allegiance to another flag every morning. Political strategist Machiavelli warns that a crooked ruler needs only to use his schools and his media to spread fake facts and false history. The ruler must never allow honest historians to be interviewed on the national news. Then he and his cronies can rob the crowds as they please.
So, the media and the schools have it that western Virginians were good Americans, opposed to slavery and secession and really wanted to be part of the Union. This is an obvious crowd-pleaser. It is simplistic enough to be easily remembered. It suits the moral lesson that, as usual, the good Northerners defeat the evil Southerners, pitilessly relegated to the ash-heap of history, just like TV and the movies (more media). Case closed, no studies of economy, finance, law or geography needed (or desired). This version fits well with multiple choice tests. And it has gained sway in the national discourse, if not outside the US.
The actual story, as usual, is messier and more complex. It is also thornier to recall for the longer-to-grade essay exam. And the teachers cannot legally teach it, we’re told. But we’re not in school, so here we go.
In 1860 the mountainous counties of northwestern Virginia cared little about slavery. Even in the southern counties McDowell had 10% slaves, Mercer 150 of a total population of 4500. So much for the slavery argument. To both the USA and the CSA, however, these counties were strategic. They had immense wealth, principally in timber, oil and coal. Running to within 100 miles of the Canadian border, they nearly cut the Union in two. The B & O Railroad, running across northwestern Virginia, provided a vital link between the Yankee states and the West. (This explains why the first battle of the War took place at Philippi ‘West’ Virginia.)
So, without slavery, why were these counties secessionist? Like North Carolina, Arkansas and Tennessee, Virginia had seceded not over slavery or high tariffs but over the ‘right’ of the federal government to coerce a state and its people. This was an argument the independent people of the western counties could agree with, and they supported the Southern independence movement as a result. Then, too, the Confederate states were paying 90% of the federal taxes and wanted out.
Furthermore, like the rest of the new Confederates, western Virginians were horrified by the hijacking of the federal government by Northern industrialists and bankers in 1860. Money had totally bought out the law. A railroad corporate lawyer, Abraham Lincoln, president, swore to defeat the Democratic states even in the North, i.e., New York State, Ohio and the so-called Copperhead states in the West. To the so-called Radical Republicans this was a real civil war. They had to subjugate the Democratic Party representing the workers’ interests. The world was shocked. Even the pope called Lincoln a “tyrant and a usurper” and sent President Jefferson Davis a crown of thorns.
The South wanted no part of this takeover, especially as a helpless minority. Patrick Henry’s dire warning about rule by a corrupt majority to the north was coming true, even worse. The border between the CSA and the USA was to become a hotbed of war. Like Hamlet, Southerners serving in the Union Army would be pitted against their own kith and kin. General Lee (today called a traitor in the national media) had to resign his commission in the US Army so as not to help subject his native Virginia to the rule of Northern bankers. In the Sound of Music, Captain von Trapp was similarly forced to flee the Nazis.
At first, Confederate commanders in northwestern Virginia disrupted Union traffic running over Confederate territory, confiscating 1500 horses, loads of oil, etc. Soon, however, with the help of Republican businessmen in Wheeling (in the northern panhandle), the Union army moved to set up a military screen just south of the B & O Railroad. North of this line the locals worked with the US Congress to create a small pro-Union territory.
In order to create a viable Union ‘state’ the US House Ways and Means Committee gleefully added more counties to the south (coal, oil and natural gas territory) and east (agricultural land). The Wheelingites were horrified: They would be overwhelmed by the Confederate counties. And in case they lost the War, they might be subject to confiscation and retribution in the new state they had helped to create.
Despite the free hand granted him by his ultra-liberal Lieber military code (which encouraged war crimes in the name of victory), Lincoln worried about how the crowd would view the constitutionality and logic of carving a new state from Virginia. The Constitution that he had sworn to uphold requires the consent of the mother state, now located in a foreign country kept beyond his reach by hostile armies.
The situation was dire. In 1861, and even more so in 1862, it appeared as though the Confederate States would possibly win their independence. If something weren’t done quickly, all the wealth and strategic location of western Virginia would be lost to a foreign and increasingly hostile nation. So the deed had to be done hastily.
No worries. If nothing else, Lincoln’s government was inventive: Just create a “Restored Government of Virginia” in federally controlled areas near Washington. Appoint a governor, Francis Pierpont, and of course an ad hoc legislature. Propose one bill, devoted to the question of secession of the northwestern counties. Vote for it, get paid and go home. Democracy was somewhat crushed, of course. Twenty-two counties did not vote. One county “sent” one representative, some guy who elected himself, etc. But the whole thing worked like a charm, at least in the Union media. The cover-up was well under way.
As of June 20, 1863 the federal government declared West Virginia a new state. Its Unionist ‘progressive’ government was so bad that after restoration of voting rights in 1870 and until 1900, pro-Confederates took control of the government and all state offices. Their attempt to restore their counties to Virginia (the people’s will) was thwarted by Lincoln’s stacked US Supreme Court. The legislature did, however, replace the Unionist constitution with the Virginia constitution that still governs the state. (This is another chapter, one I know nothing about at this point.)
Big money, big companies, big lobbies, big government. Big flag. Little people. Big mess. Our history is about as sad as that of the Congo or Puerto Rico, other formerly wealthy colonies. We actual citizens have never enjoyed true political control of our state. Over half the land belongs to large corporations whose lobbies control the government. Our fabulous mineral wealth is disappearing, hauled out by Unionist railroads and now interstate highways. A quarter of our people are dependent on opioids, thanks to Big Pharma, and on the US government and its enabling welfare system. Nearly half of our black men are in prison. Obesity runs rampant, thanks to Sugar Daddy, another huge lobby. It’s only thanks to another once-wealthy Confederate state, Mississippi, that we are not first in poverty, lack of education and health care. Bereft of our resources, we are hung out to dry.
In legal limbo, ‘West’ Virginia did not democratically or legally secede. Neither was it annexed with any real popular support. Like India as a British colony, our people are seen as second-class citizens, if that. We are berated for our accents and behavior. And we are blamed for a system we did not create. Like the rest of the Confederate states we are in fact a colony.
Any resistance to the national power structure is quickly overcome. Labor unions that once attempted to protect the workers from wage slavery and peonage were defeated, notably at Blair Mountain, by state militias and federal troops. Now we are forced to pay federal taxes to support special interests that are not ours and the lobbies for industries that don’t support us. The fake ‘liberals’ are actually the wealthy cronies behind the mask of political correctness. Their serfs meanwhile wave Confederate flags in protest. Somehow the people can’t all be fooled.
How can we free ourselves from this nightmare? We could start with a state constitution guaranteeing that our laws reflect our collective will through two provisions, popular referendum and initiative. Any law contested by the people may be defeated or amended by referendum. New laws supportive of our economy and well-being are created through initiatives.
The combined effect would give our people a sense of civic responsibility and pride. In Switzerland, this form of government fosters a leveling of social classes. Here it would effectively curb the present elitist system with rich ‘haves,’ and poor peons. It would reduce our dependence on welfare and the US military for income and would reduce the grasp of the US military machine designed to pump our taxes into the pockets of the war and death industry.
In the end, our freedom could only be guaranteed by the restoration of an updated Confederate Constitution. Why? The Confederate Constitution was designed to protect the public from huge lobbies and is non-binding, leaving sovereignty to the states. The US Constitution was created to favor special interests and is binding and sovereign, making the rich richer and the poor poorer, the rich using its power to hog up the resources, forever.
Under the Confederate Constitution, the people and the states are left free, like in Switzerland. The Swiss have carved a country for themselves where they enjoy the freedoms we can only dream of: a cultural legacy in such things as monuments and art; freedom of speech; meaningful education, respectful of the history of the country; desire to protect the environment, etc. They have done this by making themselves the sovereign power. To attain their degree of independence we would have to do likewise.
It’s obvious that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans are interested in helping. They drive and are driven by wealthy lobbies. We would have to create our own party, perhaps from the existing Mountain Party. It’s clear we cannot continue down this path of assured destruction. We must tell our children the truth about our history and steer our media and schools away from control by the lobbies of death. But do it we must. Our future depends on a correct understanding of our history. Here’s to our Mountain Mama, free, unified, educated, wealthy and happy! It’s all in our hands.