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West Virginia in 1861

West Virginia in 1861

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West Virginia in 1861

The new state of West Virginia in 1861

Map taken from Battles and Leaders of the Civil War: I: Sumter to Shiloh, p.129. The same map is also printed on Battles and Leaders of the Civil War: II: North to Antietam , p.279

Return To: American Civil War Subject Index - Philippi - Rich Mountain - Corrick's Ford - Gauley Bridge - Cheat Mountain - Carnifex Ferry

West Virginia Statehood, June 20, 1863

Among the historical records of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate are documents that illustrate the important role Congress plays in the creation of states. For West Virginia, the road to statehood was a unique one.

Disputes over the borders of Virginia began in the early 17th century with conflicting royal charters that granted overlapping territory to multiple entities. It was not until the Virginia Constitution was ratified in 1776 that the borders solidified. However, clarifying the borders did not resolve long-standing regional tensions within the state. Voting rights in Virginia were based on property holdings and many residents of western Virginia felt underrepresented as most did not own enough property to vote. In 1861 the tensions between eastern and western Virginians came to an impasse following the secession of many southern states from the Union, the battle of Fort Sumter, and President Abraham Lincoln’s call for troops from each state. The Virginia state legislature passed the Order of Secession on April 17, and Virginians voted to ratify secession on May 23. Less than a month later, Pro-Union Virginians voted to form a second government, the Restored Government of Virginia, on June 17. In August, the Restored Government of Virginia voted to approve the creation of a new state, West Virginia. According to Article IV, Section III of the U.S. Constitution, no new state can be formed from the territory of an existing state without the latter’s consent.

The West Virginia Constitution was ratified by voters on November 26, 1861. In May 1862, Senator Waitman T. Willey (Unionist-VA) submitted a bill, S. 365, to Congress for the admission of West Virginia to the Union. He then proposed an amendment to the bill calling for West Virginia to amend their constitution to include the gradual emancipation of slaves in the state. On July 14, the Senate approved West Virginia’s admission to the Union, with statehood conditioned on its approval of the Willey Amendment. The House approved the bill in December. Lincoln signed the bill admitting West Virginia to the Union, on December 31. On March 26, 1863, West Virginia ratified the revised constitution to include the gradual emancipation of slaves. President Lincoln proclaimed that West Virginia would officially be recognized as a state on June 20, 1863.

Colonial period and Virginia’s dominion

The second charter of Virginia in 1609 provided for settlement of that colony’s western frontiers. Exploration and trade were further encouraged by Gov. William Berkeley after 1660. The Blue Ridge was reached in 1670, and in 1671 another expedition encountered the first westward-flowing stream, the New River, in southwestern Virginia. The expedition descended that river to Peter’s Falls on the future Virginia–West Virginia border and claimed for England all the land drained by the New River and its tributaries. Subsequent trans-Allegheny frontier settlement was handicapped by such factors as mountain barriers, Native American resistance, conflicting English and French claims in the Ohio River valley, and disputed land titles. The French and Indian War settled the British and French claim to the area. In 1763 the French ceded to the victorious British all lands west of the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River. In the same year, the British delimited a Royal Proclamation Line that created an Indian reservation in the trans-Appalachian west and prohibited colonial expansion.

Despite these obstacles, the population expanded westward, and discontent with the government east of the mountains became endemic. A 14th colony, to be named Vandalia, was proposed in 1769, and several years later residents of western lands claimed by Virginia and Pennsylvania moved to establish a 14th state, Westsylvania these initiatives indicated an early interest in a separate government for the trans-Allegheny country. Dissatisfaction among the pioneers in that region mounted in the cultural, social, economic, and political realms. The frontier residents, who came from many areas, were distinctly different from the aristocratic eastern settlers. Furthermore, topographic, soil, and climatic differences rendered slavery economically unsound, and cultural heritage made it undesirable. In addition, representation in the legislature and taxation policy decidedly favoured eastern Virginia.

John Brown’s raid

Years before the Civil War, on October 16, 1859, a man named John Brown crept into Harpers Ferry, then Virginia, where the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers meet. He was an abolitionist and was willing to take a violent path to end the enslavement of African Americans in the United States. His plan was to ultimately arm enslaved men in the South and have them fight for freedom. Brown and his men captured the city, cut off the railroad bridges, and secured a federal arsenal of weapons. But soon, Brown was surrounded by federal troops led by Lieutenant Colonel (and later Confederate General) Robert E. Lee, then arrested, tried for treason, and hanged. “John Brown’s raid contributed greatly to the coming of civil war to the United States, and without that war, the state of West Virginia would probably never have been created,” historian John Alexander Williams writes in West Virginia: A History.

West Virginia in 1861 - History

The New River Gorge Bridge by A.E. Crane

Before the Europeans arrived, Native American tribes lived in the region. These tribes included the Shawnee, Cherokee, and the Iroquois. The Shawnee were the dominant tribe when Europeans first arrived. They lived in dome-shaped homes called wigwams. For food they hunted all sorts of game such as deer, bear, rabbit, bison, and geese. They also grew corn, sunflowers, and squash. The Shawnee were pushed out of the region in the late 1600s by the Iroquois tribes from the north.

West Virginia was originally part of the Virginia Colony established by England in 1606. The settlement of Jamestown was established in 1607 and soon people began to settle eastern Virginia. West Virginia, however, was considered the frontier for some time. In the last 1600s, explorers entered the land and began to make maps of the territory.

Settlers began to arrive in the 1700s. Many of these early settlers were of German descent and came from Pennsylvania in the north looking for new lands. In 1726, they established the settlement of New Mecklenburg. Later, in 1762, it would become the city of Shepherdstown, the oldest town in West Virginia. These early settlers had to deal with hostile Native Americans who considered West Virginia their hunting grounds. Many of the early settlements were destroyed during the French and Indian War.

West Virginia was part of the Virginia Colony during the Revolutionary War. The region tried to split off and form its own state during the revolution. They petitioned the Second Continental Congress to join the Union as a 14th state called "Westsylvania", but the petition was denied.

Harpers Ferry by Unknown

Splitting from Virginia

West Virginia had always been separated physically from Virginia by the Appalachian Mountains. As a result, it was a very different area in terms of culture and economics. When Virginia seceded from the Union in 1861 and joined the Confederacy, many West Virginians disagreed and wanted to remain in the Union. West Virginia seceded from Virginia later that year at the Wheeling Convention and remained loyal to the Union during the war. They applied to become a separate state and, on June 20, 1863, West Virginia became the 35th state.

Although West Virginia split from Virginia and remained in the Union, there were West Virginians who fought on both sides of the war. The Union maintained control of much of the state throughout the war, but there were still many battles inside the state including the Battle of Shepherdstown, the Battle of Harpers Ferry, and the Battle of Droop Mountain.

The Hatfield Clan are famous
for their feud with the McCoys
(photo by Unknown)

West Virginia

After archaeologists discovered spear points used to hunt extinct species such as mastodons and mammoths, they realized that people have lived in what’s now West Virginia at least 10,500 years. Many thousands of years after these ancient people lived, Native American tribes including the Cherokee, Iroquois, Manahoac, Meherrin, Monacan, Nottaway, Shawnee, Occaneechi, Tutelo, and Saponi populated the land.

After the British arrived in the 1600s, the area that now encompasses West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, and parts of North Carolina, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New York was all called Virginia. In 1730, Virginia’s British-controlled government offered a thousand acres free to each European family willing to move to the area that would become West Virginia. As a result, Native Americans’ homelands were taken, and tribes began supporting the French in a land war against the British (often called the French and Indian War) from 1756 until 1763.

The British won that battle, so West Virginia was still part of Virginia during the Revolutionary War of 1775 to 1783. But at the beginning of the Civil War (1861-1865), West Virginia refused to secede (withdraw) from the Union along with the rest of the state. John Brown, an abolitionist—someone who wanted to abolish slavery—staged a famous raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859. Brown hoped weapons gained in the raid would be used in the fight against slavery, but his raid failed. West Virginia separated from Virginia in 1861, and two years later, it became its own state.


West Virginia was originally going to be called "Kanawha," a name that honors a Native American tribe. However, even though the region separated from Virginia, officials still wanted that as part of its new name. (Virginia was named after a nickname of Queen Elizabeth I, who ruled in the late 1500s.)

West Virginia is called the Mountain State because it’s the only state completely within the Appalachian Mountain region, and its average elevation is higher than any other state east of the Mississippi River!

People, Locations, Episodes

On this date in 1861, West Virginia began the Secessionist Convention that would result in its breaking away from the Confederate state of Virginia, the only state to form by secession and one of three states to secede from another state. It was a key American Civil War "border state."

Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States a year earlier with virtually no support from the South. His election resulted in the country's southernmost states leaving the Union and forming the Confederate States of America. On April 17, 1861, days after Lincoln's order to seize Fort Sumter in South Carolina, a convention of Virginians voted to submit a secession bill to the people. Led by Virginia's John S. Carlile (shown) of Clarksburg, western delegates marched out of the Secession Convention, vowing to form a state government loyal to the Union.

Many of these delegates called for a pro-Union convention, which met in Wheeling on May 13, 1861. Ten days later a majority of Virginia voters approved the Ordinance of Secession. Following a Union victory at the Battle of Philippi and the subsequent occupation of northwestern Virginia by General George B. McClellan, the Second Wheeling Convention met between June 11 and June 25, 1861.

On October 24 of that year, residents of 39 counties in western Virginia approved the formation of a new Unionist state. The accuracy of these election results has been questioned since Union troops were camped out at many of the polls to prevent Confederate sympathizers from voting.

At the Constitutional Convention, which met in Wheeling from November 26 1861 to February 1862, delegates selected the counties for inclusion in the new state of West Virginia. From the initial list, Confederate troops and a large number of local Confederate sympathizers excluded most of the counties in the Shenandoah Valley. In the end, 50 counties were selected (all of present-day West Virginia's counties except Mineral, Grant, Lincoln, Summers, and Mingo, which were formed after statehood).

The honesty of these election results has been questioned since the Union army then occupied the area and Union troops were stationed at many of the polls to prevent Confederate sympathizers from voting. The instrument was ratified (18,162 for and 514 against) on April 11, 1862. West Virginia was admitted to the Union as a separate state on June 20, 1863.

Delegates formed the Restored, or Reorganized, Government of Virginia, and chose Francis H. Pierpont as governor. President Lincoln recognized the Restored Government as the legitimate government. Carlile and Waitman T. Willey became United States senators and Jacob B. Blair, William G. Brown, and Kellian V. Whaley became congressmen representing pro-Union Virginia.

Most of the eastern and southern counties did not support statehood but were included for political, economic, and military purposes. The mountain range west of the Blue Ridge became the eastern border of West Virginia to provide a defense against Confederate invasion. One of the most controversial decisions involved the Eastern Panhandle counties, which supported the Confederacy. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroads, which ran through the Eastern Panhandle, were extremely important for the economy and troop movements. The inclusion of these counties removed the entire railroad from the Confederacy.

In terms of the constitution itself, the subject of slavery produced the most controversy. Delegate Gordon Battelle proposed the gradual emancipation of slaves already in the state and freedom to all children born to slaves after July 4, 1865. Although some delegates opposed Battelle's position, they knew they could not create a pro-slavery document and gain approval from Congress. Following much debate and give and take, the stipulation written into the constitution banned the introduction of slaves or free Blacks into the state of West Virginia but did not address the issue of immediate or gradual emancipation.

The United States Constitution says a new state must gain approval from the original state, which never occurred in the case of West Virginia.

The Encyclopedia Britannica, Fifteenth Edition.
Copyright 1996 Encyclopedia Britannica Inc.
ISBN 0-85229-633-0

West Virginia County Histories

West Virginia was the only state in the Union to secede from a Confederate state (Virginia) during the American Civil War. In Richmond on April 17, 1861, the 49 delegates from the future state of West Virginia voted 17 in favor of the Ordinance of Secession of Virginia from the United States, 30 against and 2 abstentions.

Almost immediately after the vote to proceed with secession from the Union prevailed in the Virginia General Assembly, a mass meeting at Clarksburg recommended that each county in northwestern Virginia send delegates to a convention to meet in Wheeling on May 13, 1861. When this First Wheeling Convention met, 425 delegates from 25 counties were present, though more than one-third of the delegates were from the northern panhandle area, but soon there was a division of sentiment.

Some delegates favored the immediate formation of a new state, while others argued that, as Virginia’s secession had not yet been passed by the required referendum, such action would constitute revolution against the United States. It was decided that if the ordinance were adopted (of which there was little doubt), another convention including the members-elect of the legislature should meet at Wheeling in June. At the election on May 23, 1861, secession was ratified by a large majority in the state as a whole, but in the western counties 34,677 voted against and 19,121 voted for secession.

The Wheeling Convention reassembled on August 20, 1861, and called for a popular vote on the formation of a new state and for a convention to frame a constitution if the vote should be favorable. At the October 24, 1861 election, 18,408 votes were cast for the new state and only 781 against.

On May 13 the state legislature of the reorganized government approved the formation of the new state. An application for admission to the Union was made to Congress, and on December 31, 1862, an enabling act was approved by Presisdent Abraham Lincoln admitting West Virginia, on the condition that a provision for the gradual abolition of slavery be inserted in its constitution.

Learn about the battles that took place in West Virginia after the state seceded from Virginia to join the Union

I'm Phil Caskey, 2016 Civil War Trust National Teacher of the Year, proud Martinsburg West Virginia native and a social studies educator at University High School in Morgantown. To know West Virginia's history one must first understand Virginia's history until secession that is. In June 1861, when Virginia decided to secede from the Union, most of the votes against secession came from what was the Western and Northwestern parts of Western Virginia. From that moment on the statehood movement was on and on June 20, 1863, West Virginia became the 35th state in the Union.

Some 50,000 West Virginians are believed to have participated in the American Civil War, including 32,000 for then Union and 18,000 for the Confederacy. And both sides fought at famed battles such as Antietam and Gettysburg. Famed West Virginia units include a 3rd West Virginia Cavalry and the 7th West Virginia Infantry. Famous Confederate units that fought out of present day West Virginia would have been the famed fisrt Virginia brigade, the infamous Stonewall Brigade, where my ancestor William fought for the 2nd Virginia Regiment.

West Virginia was home to the first land battle in the American Civil War. In June 1861, at the Battle of Philippi, the first fight in the Shenandoah Valley was the Battle of Falling Waters, in July 1861, just prior to first Manassas or first Bull Run. Here in Harper's Ferry-- site of the second national federal armory, John Brown's raid-- one of the Union's key logistical hubs. Stonewall Jackson captured 13,000 Union troops during the Maryland campaign of 1862, marking the largest amount of Union troops to surrender there in the entire war.

Speaking of Stonewall Jackson, one of the war's most iconic commanders on either side, he was a Clarksburg, West Virginia native. Other famous West Virginians include Confederate spy Belle Boyd, out of Martinsburg. And Union General Jesse Reno out of Wheeling. Also, Robert E. Lee's famed horse Traveler was from West Virginia. West Virginia, the orphan state of the American Civil War, the Mountain State and a 35th state in the Union.

West Virginia in 1861 - History

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

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

Comparative wealth between slaveholding and non-slaveholding adult male heads of households, by district 13

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.

West Virginia in 1861 - History

Immediately after the three months men were discharged, on August 30, Dr. Joseph Thoburn, the former surgeon of the regiment, received the appointment of colonel for the purpose of reorganizing the regiment, which event was consummated about October 30, 1861. The regiment began its career in the three years’ service by four companies being sent to the Little Kanawha, Wirt County, Virginia, to suppress insurrection and dispel a band of marauders known as moccasin rangers, who were devastating the country in the oil region about November 12, where they became a part of the command of General Kelley who was then occupying this advance position as a part of the defense line of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Here, again, that wonderful history of which much has been written, but of which there remains much that never shall be told, was enacted. From the beginning of Kelley’s first command at Romney to the close of the last scenes of the war at Appomattox, a part of this regiment participated in every engagement fought in the valley or the great campaigns which became a part of the history of the war, other than the army of the Potomac.

A short summary may give a faint idea of what the service of this regiment was. From Romney, in the winter of 1861 and 1862, to Patterson’s Creek, where General Lander assumed the command of that grand division of men afterward known as Shields’ Division, thrown together as a distinctive army afterwards to Paw Paw Tunnel, where the lamented Lander died and then by the coming of General Shields, they began to weave history which stretched onward, covering the first battle of Winchester, March 23, 1862, where Stonewall Jackson was routed and driven from the field.

On June 9, at Port Republic, the troops of this division won for themselves an imperishable name. No battle of the war has crowded into it so much heroism and gallantry on the field, where our forces were greatly outnumbered. Our 3000 accomplished on that field that wonderful defense which the Confederates claim was the result of 10,000 men present. In July 1862, the regiment went with a part of the divisions to join that of General Rickets, a part of McDowell’s corps, Army of Virginia, in which command it participated in the battles of Cedar Mountain, Rappahannock Station, Thoroughfare Gap and the second battle of Bull Run, August 29 and 30.

At the close of the Bull Run campaign, the regiment was assigned to duty in the defense of Washington, being stationed at Arlington Heights. At this time it is worthy of note to say that the regiment came out of the second battle of Bull Run without a commissioned officer on duty. Sergeant Major Johnson commanded the regiment and marched it from Fairfax Station to Arlington Heights.

In October, 1862, the regiment was transferred from the defense of Washington to the Department of West Virginia, where they assisted in opening the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad to Harper’s Ferry, and took post at North Mountain, being assigned to the Second Brigade of the First Division of the Eighth Army Corps. During the summer of 1863, they participated in the campaigns of that department, making many long and difficult marches, co-operating with the forces on the flank of Meade’s army, during the Gettisburg campaign, taking post in August at Petersburg, West Virginia. On September the 11, at Moorefield, five companies of the regiment were captured by the Confederate forces under McNeill, with a part of Imboden’s command. These five companies were taken to Richmond, a portion of the men being exchanged during the winter of 1863-64, but the eight officers there captured, excepting Captain Reed, Company H, were held prisoners of war until the close of the Rebellion.

The winter of 1863-64 was memorable in the regiment’s history for the service rendered in the defense of the line of railroad, in resisting Confederate raids and preventing destruction of property. On the 25th of February, 1864, the regiment was sent to Wheeling on veteran furlough, and on the 1st of April it again entered active service, joining Sullivan’s command at Webster, West Virginia, where it was attached to the Second Brigade, commanded by Colonel Thoburn. In May, 1864, it participated in Sigel’s campaign in the Shenandoah Valley, taking part in the battles of New Market, May 14 and 15, and continuing in the same organization during the campaign of General Hunter, bearing an honorable part in the battles of Piedmont, June 5, and Lynchburg, June 17 and 18, retreating from Lynchburg to the Kanawha Valley.

In July and August it participated in the campaigns of General Crook against the Confederate General Early, in the Shenandoah Valley, and took part in the battle of Snicker’s Ferry, July 18, and Winchester, July 24. In the months of August, September and October, it formed a part of the Army of West Virginia, in General Sheridan’s department, and was actively engaged at Cedar Creek, August 12 at Berryville, September3 at Charlestown, August 22 and at Halltown, August 26 at the battle of Opequon, September 19 Fisher’s Hill, September 23, and Cedar Creek, October 19.

In this last engagement, Colonel Thoburn was killed, he being then in command of the First Division of the Army of West Virginia. On October 29, the regiment was sent to Cumberland, Maryland, where the three years’ men not veteranizing were mustered out and the veterans were consolidated with part of the Fourth West Virginia Infantry, forming the Second Regiment of West Virginia Veteran Volunteers. In reviewing the history of this regiment, the field and staff, as composed at its organization, was Joseph Thoburn, colonel Henry B. Hubbard, lieutenant-colonel, discharged on account of wounds, October 23, 1862 Isaac H. Duval, major, promoted to colonel of the Ninth Virginia Infantry, September 9, 1862 Jacob Weddel, major, November 1862, also lieutenant-colonel, December 4, 1862 E. W. Stevens, major, December 4, 1862 James McElroy was the first adjutant of the regiment, November 13, 1861. He was succeeded by John W. Dougherty. Dougherty and McElroy both succeeding to captaincies in the regiment, Henry J. Johnson became adjutant, September 23, 1862. W. T. Singleton was the quartermaster, Dr. David Bagley, surgeon, and the following named persons were assistant surgeons at different dates: A. W. D. Kraft, S. B. Stidger, James L. Gillespie, John English. Revs. Gordon Battelle and Wm. R. Howe served the regiment as chaplains.


The many changes which occurred in the line officers of the regiment would require too much space in this short article. Suffice it is to say that when the regiment closed its three years’ term of service, not a single captain of the original ten was mustered out with his company. Most of the companies were commanded by men who either started as lieutenants, or had been promoted from the ranks.

Some of the Names Worthy to be Mentioned as Connected with the Regiment:

Col. Benjamin F. Kelley

Col. Benjamin F. Kelley was the first colonel. Mention being made of his service and wounds, we have here to add that he was nominated by President Lincoln to be a brigadier-general of volunteers at the same time at which General Grant and a number of others who became illustrious in the War of the Rebellion were named for like positions. General Kelley was confirmed by the Senate and as a brigadier-general he commanded many important armies during the progress of the war. He was the only brigadier-general that ever commanded a department as such, through the entire war, notably the Department of West Virginia in the summer of 1864. He was brevetted major-general and leaves a record for fidelity and devotion to the cause of the Union, sharing in the establishment of a new State-West Virginia. He now sleeps among more than 14,000 of his comrades at Arlington, where future citizens shall view his resting place and talk of his lift service in the cause of liberty.

Col. Joseph Thoburn

But few names in the annals of was have clustered around them memories so strange and inexplainable as that of this gallant and loyal son of Virginia. He was on many battlefields, a leader worthy of his star, but facts over which political destinies seemed to hang, had kept from him the well-earned distinction of general, while he commanded a division of the army as a colonel longer than any man in the great Rebellions. It is said by a writer who is familiar with the records of the War Department, that this fact cannot be disputed. Colonel Thoburn was perhaps as well known as any colonel in the war although his services were confined exclusively to the soil of Virginia, yet he came in touch and in contact with the commanders of all the Eastern armies and held subordinate positions above his rank, temporarily commanding brigades and divisions at different times. He was a man of conscientious principles, lovable in his disposition and brave to a fault. He never lacked in popular esteem among the rank and file of the army. His death was announced by General Sheridan as a great calamity. West Virginia has no greater honor to perform than that of placing, somewhere within her borders, a suitable testimonial to the character of this man.

Isaac H. Duval

Isaac H. Duval, of Wellsburg, West Virginia, who entered the service as major in the three months’ service with the First Virginia Infantry, re-entered the service in the same capacity with the regiment at the beginning of the three years’ term. His genius as a soldier very soon brought him into prominence when the active hostilities of the war began to show of what metal men were made. Of all the names borne on the rolls of the First Virginia Infantry, perhaps the ideal soldier was found in the person of this man. Very early in 1862, Governor Peirpoint selected him as colonel of the Ninth West Virginia Volunteers. His soldierly bearing soon marked its characteristics upon the regiment, and it became known throughout the Army of West Virginia that there was none better than the Ninth. In the conflicts that followed in the campaigns of 1863-64, Colonel Duval was promoted to the rank of brigadier-general and upon him devolved important commands during that history made famous by Sheridan and Crook, which shall live in the annals of time. It is a strange coincidence that at the surrender of the last troops in the Department of West Virginia, it should fall to the lot of one of West Virginia’s sons to receive the sword of the commander of the capitulating forces, when the climax of war was ended. General Duval, upon whom rested the command of Hancock’s corps (General Hancock being absent), being stationed at Staunton, Virginia, at the time of the capitulation of Lee’s army, threw his troops in the way of the Confederate General Rosser, who in the command of Lee’s cavalry attempted to make his way west with a sufficient force to continue active operations, but was brought to bay and compelled to surrender. General Duval has lived to enjoy the honor and esteem of the people of West Virginia, he having represented them in the lower House of Congress, and in many ways filled places of trust and honor.

Among the subordinate officers there were many who entered the service as unknown striplings or boys from the schools and the shops, who placed themselves at the heads of companies and other subordinate commands that were as honorable to their service, by reason of their youth and opportunities, as though they had succeeded to greater commands.

Rank and File

In the rank and file there were men as true and loyal, as ever bore arms in the defense of liberty and free government. It may not be amiss to state that of the per cent. of battleflags captured a greater number in proportion to the troops in the filed than by the troops of any other State. The names of many of the First West Virginia Infantry are enshrined forever on fields that shall live as among the marked spots where the conflicts of men took place in the War of the Rebellion. It would be doing injustice to others that any should be named, for among the unknown who fell and sleep in unmarked graves, West Virginia’s greatest glory in unhonored and unsung, but we can all say: “All hail to the sons of the storm-born State, who gave their lives that liberty might live and that West Virginia may ever continue among the family of States.”

[Source: Loyal West Virginia 1861-1865, by Theodore Lang]

SERVICE.–Expedition to Blue’s Gap January 6-7, 1862. Hanging Rock Pass, Blue’s Gap, January 7. Moved to Patterson Creek January 10, and duty there till February 6. Moved to Paw Paw Tunnel February 5-13. Advance on Winchester March 1-15. Reconnoissance to Strasburg March 18-21. Battle of Winchester March 22-23. Pursuit of Jackson March 24-April 4. Edenburg March 27. Occupation of Mt. Jackson April 1. New Market April 17. Columbia Bridge May 5. March to Falmouth, Va., May 12-21, and to Port Republic May 25-June 7. Gaines’ Cross Roads, near Front Royal, May 31. White Plains June 1. Front Royal June 3. Port Republic June 9. March to Cloud’s Mills, near Alexandria, June 10-27. Camp there till July 24. Battle of Cedar Mountain August 9. Pope’s Campaign in Northern Virginia August 16-September 2. Rappahannock Station August 20-23. Sulphur Springs August 26. Thoroughfare Gap August 28. Groveton August 29. Bull Run August 30. In the Defences of Washington till October 11. Moved to Wheeling, W. Va., October 11-13, and duty there to November 27. Moved to Cumberland, Md., November 27-28, thence to Romney December 8. Moved to North Mountain, and duty there till March 6, 1863. At Mechanicsville Gap till June 14. Moved to New Creek Station, thence to Cumberland, Md., June 14-20. Moved to Hancock, thence to Williamsport July 13. At Back Creek July 28. To Winchester August 3, thence to Romney and to Petersburg August 15. Operating against guerrillas and Imboden’s and McNeil’s forces till January 10, 1864. Moorefield September 5 and 11, 1863 (Cos. “B,” “D.” “E,” “F” and “H”) mostly captured by McNeil. Descent on Salem December 16, 1863. Guard train from Petersburg to McDowell December 10-23. Retreat from, Petersburg to New Creek January 10-12, 1864. Operations in Hampshire and Hardy Counties against Rosser January 27-February 7. Veterans on furlough February and March. Moved to Grafton April 18, thence to Martinsburg April 19-22. Sigel’s Expedition to New Market April 30-May 16. Mt. Jackson May 14. New Market May 15. At Cedar Creek May 16-June 1. Advance to Staunton June 1-6. Piedmont, Mt. Crawford June 5. Occupation of Staunton June 6. Hunter’s Raid on Lynchburg June 10-July 1. Lexington June 11. Lynchburg June 17-18. Retreat to Gauley Bridge June 18-29. Moved to the Shenandoah Valley July 5-17. Snicker’s Ferry July 17-18. Battle of Winchester July 23-24. Sheridan’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign August to November. Cedar Creek August 12. Charlestown August 22-24. Halltown August 26. Berryville September 3-4. Battle of Opequan, Winchester, September 19. Fisher’s Hill September 22. Battle of Cedar Creek October 19. Ordered to Cumberland, Md., October 29, and duty there till December.

Consolidated with 4th West Virginia Infantry to form 2nd West Virginia Veteran Infantry December 10, 1864.

Source: Compendium of the War of the Rebellion, by Frederick Dyer]

Regiment lost during service 3 Officers and 51 Enlisted men killed and mortally wounded and 2 Officers and 136 Enlisted men by disease. Total 192.

See also 2nd West Virginia Veteran Infantry.

[Source: Compendium of the War of the Rebellion, by Frederick Dyer]

McKee, Thomas H. “The Text of Loyalty in the State of Virginia in 1861.” In War Papers (MOLLUS, DC, Paper 90). 10 p. (10 photocopied pages). E464M5.1991v45. U.S. Army Military History Institute, Carlisle, PA.

“Views and Reviews of the Civil War.” In War Papers (MOLLUS, DC, Paper 63). 11 p. (11 photocopied pages). E464M5.1991v45. U.S. Army Military History Institute, Carlisle, PA.

Rawling, Charles J. History of the First Regiment, Virginia Infantry Being a Narrative of the Military Movements in the Mountains of Virginia…. Phila: Lippincott, 1887.

History of the 1st West Virginia Infantry. Online Version. Courtesy of Linda Fluharty Cunningham.

Winters, Joshua Civil War Letters and Diary of…: A Private in the Union Army, Company G, First Western Virginia Volunteer Infantry. [Ed by Elizabeth D. Swiger] Parsons, WV: McClain, 1991.

The First West Virginia Infantry from West Virginia History, Volume 55 (1996), pp. 41-94.

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