WELLSBURG - As West Virginia celebrates the 150th anniversary of its entry into statehood, it may be difficult for some to imagine its permanent status as a state was hotly debated, and even its name was among several pondered.
These and other details of how West Virginia became the 35th U.S. state in the midst of the Civil War are revealed in "Born of Rebellion: West Virginia Statehood," a traveling exhibit visiting the Brooke County Museum and Cultural Center during the next two weeks.
The exhibit covers four areas: Divergence, sectional differences between western and eastern Virginia; the Civil War and its part in the state's creation; the Birth of West Virginia, including the process of its becoming a state; and Statehood, when its final boundaries were decided by the U.S. Supreme Court and the question arose as to whether its formation was constitutional.
WEST VIRGINIA’S ORIGINS — Kathryn and Tom Mitchell of Weirton read abut the role the Civil War played in the establishment of West Virginia as a state while visiting the “Born of Rebellion: West Virginia Statehood” exhibit at the Brooke County Museum and Cultural Center. The temporary exhibit continues from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday during the next two weeks and from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday and Nov. 10 and 11. -- Warren Scott
Funded by Columbia Gas Transmission, a NiSource Company, and the We the People program of the National Endowment for the Humanities, among many others, the exhibit was created with the help of graphics arts students at West Virginia University who used photos, maps and other illustrations to highlight various issues that played a part in West Virginia's birth.
It also offers an interactive feature - visitors may cast a vote as to whether it was constitutional for West Virginia to be made a state.
"Really, according to the U.S. Constitution, what they did was illegal," said Tom Mitchell of Weirton, who visited the museum recently with his wife, Kathryn.
Ruby Greathouse, the museum's volunteer curator, noted under the Constitution, a region of a state may not become its own state without the original state's consent.
The exhibit reveals the federal government based its admission of West Virginia largely on the support of a pro-Union state government established for Virginia after state officials in Virginia moved to join other southern states in seceding from the U.S.
Known as the Reorganized Government of Virginia, the Wheeling-based pro-Union legislature existed at the same time as the pro-Confederate Virginia Assembly.
The exhibit reveals West Virginia's claim to statehood in 1861 was hotly debated by President Abraham Lincoln's cabinet, members of which were evenly split on the issue, and Lincoln himself was concerned about the precedent it set, though he signed into law legislation supporting its statehood in 1862.
More recently the issue was the focus of a 2003 debate aired on C-SPAN and an article in the California Law Review.
On a lighter note, other names that were considered for the state were: Kanawha, Allegheny, New Virginia and Augusta.
The exhibit notes that even before the Civil War, residents of western and eastern Virginia were divided on several issues, including whether the growing western region was sufficiently represented in the Virginia Assembly.
Reflecting on the differences that separated many Americans then and now, Kathryn Mitchell said, "I suppose we're lucky that we've only been through one civil war. Look at other countries."
Mitchell said she was impressed by the museum's permanent exhibits, which include recreations of an 1890s kitchen and one-room schoolhouse, and the photo guides displayed by each that identifies for visitors various artifacts displayed in each.
"It's unbelievable - everything is so organized - it's amazing," she said.
The museum's acquisition of a .36-caliber rifle made in Wellsburg sometime before 1824 also has drawn interest from visitors.
They included Rich Gardner of Weirton, who brought a book on gunsmiths of Western Pennsylvania that included a short biography on the rifle's maker, John M. McCamant. It revealed that McCamant lived in Washington County, Pa., before moving to Wellsburg.
According to the book, McCamant made muskets for the Virginia Militia from 1811 to 1813 and later moved to Perry County, Ohio, where he had three sons, Jacob, John and Samuel, who became gunsmiths themselves.
Gardner said the design of the McCamant gun is similar to other firearms produced in Western Pennsylvania. He noted since gunsmiths learn their trade from other gunsmiths, it's not unusual for their work to share common traits.
Gardner said his interest in antique firearms was sparked in part by the discovery of an ancestor, Thomas Birkhimer, who was a gunsmith in Greene County, Pa., and Zanesville.
The rifle was sold to the museum for $1,000, much less than its market value, by John Mort, a midwesterner who purchased it through the estate sale of a friend.
Greathouse said Mort sought out the Brooke County Museum after discovering the names "McCamant" and "Wellsburgh," the spelling for the city in its early days, on its silver or brass plates.
"He said he felt it was time for the gun to come home," Greathouse said.
She said Mort did much to secure the 54-inch long firearm, packing it in a wooden box sealed with 36 screws on each side, before mailing it by Federal Express.
The rifle is displayed at the museum with other antique firearms, including an 1858 Springfield rifle owned by Patrick Gass, a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition who settled in Wellsburg later in his life.
(Scott can be contacted at email@example.com)