“But, sir, it seems that we love the Union too well. That seems to me the measure of our offence. If it be treason to love the Union, we learned that treason from you.”Waitman T. Willey at the Virginia Secession Convention
Late April, 1863. Waitman Willey was on the run, headed over fifty miles from his home, his wife, and his children. His destination was Wheeling, Virginia, location of the provisional capital of the Restored Government of Virginia. Virginia, it turns out was under attack, by Virginians. A fact almost as ludicrous as the United States being under attack by Americans. But that was the state of affairs in the mid 1860’s as Senator Waitman T. Willey fled his Monongahela home that was under attack by invading Confederate forces. But, this wasn’t the first time Willey had been in danger and on the run.
This is the story of a man who escaped the confederate wrath, a woman who dined with the enemy, and a state born amidst civil war.
Waitman Thomas Willey began his life in a small cabin in Farmington, Virginia, present day Marion County, West Virginia. He was determined in the pursuit of his education, leaving his home and walking forty miles to Madison College in Union, Pennsylvania. He graduated, was admitted to the bar, and in 1833 began a law practice in Morgantown, Virginia. He soon began a life of public service, and spent over 50 years taking on many political roles. One of these roles included being a delegate to the 1850-1851 Virginia Constitutional Convention. In 1869, Willey was selected to be a delegate to the Virginia Secession Convention, representing the north-western part of the state.
Richmond, Virginia. Delegates from every corner of the state of Virginia gathered to vote on the ordinance of secession from the union. The delegates stood in turn speaking to their comrades on this issue at hand. Eventually Willey stood, stood against secession, stood for what he believed, stood for the union. He spoke in his usual eloquent manner.
“But, sir, it seems that we love the Union too well. That seems to me the measure of our offence. If it be treason to love the Union, we learned that treason from you, sure – we learned it from your great men from your Jeffersons, from your Madisons, your Monroes, and from others of equally illustrious dead.”
He asked his fellow statesmen, “Will you bring this desolation upon us? Will you expose our wives and children to the ravages of civil war?” This speech given among his comrades gained him many enemies.
When the time came, Willey cast his vote. As the majority voted for succession, Waitman T. Willey stood his ground. He was one of the few men voting against succession. Many of the Western delegate to the convention had voted against secession, and they, along with Willey, fled the convention immediately. On his way home, Willey was threatened violently by a band of vigilantes.
A few short months later, Waitman Willey traveled to Wheeling. In what was the First Wheeling Convention, western delegates discussed what action to take in response to Virginia’s secession. The decision eventually came forth – complete separation from the Virginia that lay on the other side of the Blue Ridge Mountains. At first, Willey did not support the formation of a new state. He called it triple treason: treason against the United States, treason against Virginia, and treason against the Confederate States of America. But he soon came to support the new state and became a strong advocate of the cause. Soon, Senator Waitman Willey found himself burdened with a seemingly large task. He was the one to deliver the statehood request to Congress and the President himself. It seemed that as the nation was split in two so was the state of Virginia. One divide would be mended, the other to remain more permanent.
May 1862, the first version of the statehood was drafted, but there was one more reserve many Congressmen still had – the issue of slavery. Virginia was a slave state, and there were still families in western Virginia who owned or had owned slaves, Willey being one of them. It seemed that the people of western Virginia would not be given their wish unless they eradicated slavery from their lands. Willey understood this and drafted what would be known as the Willey Amendment. It was a compromise which called for the gradual emancipation of slaves in the new state, and it was this compromise that sealed the deal.
In July 1862, the West Virginia statehood bill passed the U.S. Senate, and in December it passed the U.S. House of Representatives. On the last day of the year 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the West Virginia Statehood Bill. Two months later, delegates of the West Virginia Constitutional Convention accept the Willey Amendment.
In April 1863, President Lincoln issued a proclamation:
“Whereas, by the Act of Congress approved the 31st day of December, last, the State of West Virginia was declared to be one of the United States of America, and was admitted into the Union on an equal footing with the original State in all respects.”
The citizens of Secessionist Virginia resented the actions taken by the fellow statesmen. And soon they took action. In what became known as the Jones-Imboden Raid, Confederate forces invaded West Virginia. For one month, the invading generals, William E. “Grumble” Jones and John D. Imboden, reported traveling over 700 miles, capturing almost 700 prisoners, 1,000 cattle, and 1,200 horses, and burning 150,000 barrels of oil and 16 railroad bridges, a tunnel, and several train cars and boats. Early in the raid, the confederates entered Morgantown, and Waitman Willey was made a target. They planned, among larger objectives, to capture Willey as a prisoner of war, and burn his house to the ground. Fortunately he was warned by a friend James C. McGrew. Willey hurried to his beautiful home, hid the horses and cattle in the woods, and buried the hams in the backyard. He bid farewell to his wife and children and ran for this life.
As predicted, the Confederates came knocking on the door of the Willey Mansion. Waitman’s wife, Elizabeth answered the door and gave the confederate what for. She reportedly told them,
“Mr. Willey is not here, and he won’t be as long as you are around. So you rebels can just act like gentlemen and turn around and head for home.”
The confederate officer was affronted and told his men to burn the house down. Elizabeth jumped at this and retorted, “There’s no need to burn our home, and your men look too tired to build a fire. So do you for that matter. It looks like you and your men could stand a fine, hot meal and a little rest. Not to speak of some soap and water. We’ve got running water in this house. What do you say? We’ll make you a meal, me and the girls, and the slaves, and let you rest a bit. And you can do the same for your horses without having to look all day for the grain.”
Mrs. Willey spoke the truth. The Willey house was the first house in Morgantown to be equipped with running water, and it was in this house, that still stands today, that one woman dined with the enemy.
Mrs. Willey saved her beloved home that day, a great feat in deed. Her husband, on the other hand, saved the state. Waitman T. Willey is often referred to as the “Father of West Virginia.” Indeed, his role in the formation of the state of West Virginia was crucial to its development. Willey spent over 50 years in serving as county clerk, circuit court clerk, Virginia Senator, and one of the two men first elected as West Virginia Senators.
Waitman T. Willey stood amidst his fellow statesmen in June of 1863 when West Virginia was officially proclaimed the 35th state of the United States. As a 35-gun salute was given, another star was added to the field of blue upon this nation’s flag, and Waitman T. Willey saw all that his efforts had accomplished.
Thank you for reading! Please let me know what you think and if you have any wild, wonderful, weird, or forgotten stories from West Virginia’s Past.
With special thanks to the efforts of the West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture, and History’s West Virginia Archives and History, and the West Virginia Encyclopedia.
- Grimm, Jeanne “Waitman Willey.” e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 09 December 2015. Web. 27 November 2019.
- Grubb, Dora Kay. “The Life of Waitman T. Willey.” WV News, 6 Mar. 2019, https://www.wvnews.com/fairmontnews/lifestyles/the-life-of-waitman-t-willey/article_84f96102-290c-5748-be56-d94eba148005.html.
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