Seceding from Secession: The Civil War, Politics, and the Creation of West Virginia

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Wittenberg/Sargus, Jr./Barrick
Pub Date:
June 2020
Hardcover, 6 x 9
43 images, 4 maps, 288 pp.
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Foreword by Frank J. Williams (former Chief Justice of Rhode Island)

Chapter 1: Sectional Differences

ZOOM Podcast With the Author


About the Book

“West Virginia was the child of the storm,” concluded early Mountaineer historian and Civil War veteran, Maj. Theodore F. Lang. The northwestern third of the Commonwealth of Virginia finally broke away in 1863 to form the Union’s 35th state. In Seceding from Secession: The Civil War, Politics, and the Creation of West Virginia, authors Eric J. Wittenberg, Edmund A. Sargus, and Penny L. Barrick chronicle those events in an unprecedented study of the social, legal, military, and political factors that converged to bring about the birth of the West Virginia.

President Abraham Lincoln, an astute lawyer in his own right, played a critical role in birthing the new state. The constitutionality of the mechanism by which the new state would be created concerned the president, and he polled every member of his entire cabinet before signing the bill. Seceding from Secession includes a detailed discussion of the 1871 U.S. Supreme Court decision Virginia v. West Virginia, in which former Lincoln cabinet member Salmon Chase presided as chief justice over the court that decided the constitutionality of the momentous event.

Seceding from Secession is grounded in a wide variety of sources and persuasively presented. Add in a brilliant Foreword by Frank J. Williams, former Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court and Chairman Emeritus of the Lincoln Forum, and it is an indispensable source for everyone interested in understanding the convergence of military, political, social, and legal events that brought about the birth of the state of West Virginia.




“Anyone interested in Civil War political history or the development of constitutional interpretation would do well to read this exceptional study.” - On Point, The Journal of Army History


Seceding from Secession traces the fascinating and little-known saga of how the state of West Virginia was carved from Virginia during the Civil War, and the legal battles over the constitutionality of that division that continued for the ensuing decade. This engaging narrative delves into the personalities and war-time currents that spurred West Virginia’s secession from the Confederacy and the thorny legal issues raised by the creation of this new state. As a historian and practicing attorney, I give this book five out of five stars for shedding new light on a momentous but neglected chapter in our nation’s history.” — Gordon C. Rhea, award-winning author of The Battle of the Wilderness, May 5–6, 1864


Seceding from Secession masterfully describes the birth of West Virginia. The new state forcibly withdrew from the Commonwealth of Virginia as the Civil War began. When the guns finally fell silent, a new battle started—this time in the United States Supreme Court. Virginia demanded a return of at least a portion of its lost territories and raised many of the issues that had ignited the cataclysmic war. An evenly split Supreme Court could not decide the issue, leaving the fate of West Virginia in limbo during the tumultuous Reconstruction Era. The lawsuit languished for five years as a newly empowered Congress passed legislation limiting the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction to hear major Constitutional issues dividing a now-reunited nation. In undisguised court packing, Congress reduced the size of the Supreme Court, hoping to prevent new appointments by a despised president. It was not until 1871, with a new president in office, that a reconstituted Supreme Court gave legal approval to the present-day West Virginia. The state—and the Supreme Court—survived its greatest existential threat.” — William Suter, Major General, U.S. Army (ret.) and Clerk of the United States Supreme Court, 1990–2013


“Eric Wittenberg, Federal District Judge Edmund A. Sargus, Jr. and Penny Barrick have made an enduring contribution to American political history with this book. Engaging, thoroughly researched and powerfully recounted, this story adds a new perspective to the Civil War era and the birth of a state that helped build a new Union.”  — Ken Gormley, award-winning author, President of Duquesne University, and editor of The Presidents and the Constitution: A Living History


"Seceding from Secession's greatest value lies in its lucid summaries of the social, political, economic, and legal contexts surrounding the formation and early history of West Virginia. The new standard treatment of the subject, this volume is a highly recommended resource for general and specialist readers alike." - Civil War Books and Authors


“Thoroughly researched, legally sound, and historically enlightening. Any Civil War scholar should add this book to their library.” – Civil War News


“An exemplary study, prodigiously researched, profusely illustrated, and masterfully crafted will prove useful to individuals interested in West Virginia’s formation, Civil War era political history, and how the United States government attempted to balance constitutional questions with the Union’s restoration.” – The Civil War Monitor


"An informative book . . . representing a significant contribution to the growing historiography surrounding West Virginia's role in the Civil War." - Journal of the Shenandoah Valley During the Civil War Era



Eric J. Wittenberg is an accomplished American Civil War cavalry historian and author. An attorney in Ohio, Wittenberg has authored nearly two dozen books on various Civil War subjects, with particular focus on cavalry operations, as well as three dozen articles in popular magazines such as North & South, Blue&Gray, America’s Civil War, and Gettysburg Magazine. His first book, Gettysburg’s Forgotten Cavalry Actions won the prestigious 1998 Bachelder-Coddington Literary Award (the second revised edition won the Army Historical Foundation’s Distinguished Writing Award, for Reprint, 2011). His 2014 book “The Devil’s to Pay”: John Buford at Gettysburg. A History and Walking Tour was awarded the Gettysburg Civil War Roundtable’s 2015 Book Award. Wittenberg is a favorite speaker at Civil War Roundtables, conducts tours of various Civil War battlefields, and is an active preservationist. He lives in Columbus with his wife Susan and their beloved dogs. Visit Eric J. Wittenberg’s website: . . . . Edmund A. Sargus, Jr. serves as a Federal district judge in Columbus, Ohio, worked as the U.S. Attorney heading Federal prosecutions in the district from 1993 through 1996, and since 2005 has been an adjunct professor at the Moritz College of Law at The Ohio State University, where he teaches Trial Advocacy and an evidence seminar. . . . Penny L. Barrick graduated summa cum laude from The Ohio State University with a B.S. in history education and later with a J.D., with honors, from The Ohio State University College of Law. She is a senior lawyer with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio. She has a love of Civil War history and particularly its intersection with constitutional law.