Slavery and the Creation of West Virginia

Scholars have long known that slavery, or the relative lack of such, played a key part in the creation of West Virginia during the Civil War. Thursday’s Disunion in the New York Times puts that fact in an interesting light with Susan Schulten’s piece entitled “How a Map Divided Virginia.” The map in question was issued by the United States Coast Survey in late Spring 1861 utilizing 1860 Census data and can be seen immediately below.


According to Susan Schulten, the Coast Survey map was “the first ever to display Census statistics cartographically.” She indicates it used “a method of shading to represent “human” topography. The map has no legend, yet it is immediately clear that the darker areas represent a heavier density of slavery within the population. This technique visualized the stark inequality within Virginia, and it reinforced that message by ranking each county according to its dependence upon slavery in the chart on the left.

Schulten asserts this map was part of a larger effort by the Lincoln Administration to use census data and the Census Bureau in a partisan manner to encourage Unionist sentiment. She writes:

Anticipating the needs of a possible war, the Coast Survey established a separate lithographic division in May 1861 just to keep up with the demand for its maps. But this map of slavery was also made possible the Census superintendent, who funneled the data collected from the 1860 enumeration directly to the Survey several months before releasing it to the public. Indeed, Superintendent Joseph Kennedy had already turned the Census office into a clearinghouse for Union propaganda: in an attempt to capitalize on divisions within Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia, Kennedy asked Census workers to gauge Unionist sentiment within those states, and — with the help of William Seward and Charles Francis Adams — organized a massive mailing to undercut secessionist sentiment there. Thus he was only too happy to supply the survey with the necessary data for its map of slavery.

So the purpose of Coast Survey map was to encourage pro-Union sentiment in western Virginia by highlighting how little it was enmeshed in the peculiar institution compared to the rest of the Commonwealth. Susan Schulten shows that later versions of the map actually encouraged separate, loyal statehood by captioning the area as “Kanawha”–an early name for what became West Virginia.

The Coast Survey map also reiterates the insight of the table presented in the April 17 edition of Civil War Emancipation. This table showed a strong connection between the percentage of slaves in a state’s population and when or if the state seceded. Secession took place first in the Lower South, where the concentration of slaves was the greatest. They were joined, after Lincoln’s call for volunteers in the wake of the attack on Fort Sumter, by the four states in the Upper South with the highest percentage of slaves in their population in that region. Yet four other slave states in the Upper South with smaller concentrations of slaves chose not to secede.

Not just states had different percentages of slaves. Within many southern states certain areas had considerable concentrations of slaves and others not. The latter places tended to be where geography, climate, or other factors made impractical plantation agriculture. Since slaves could not be used profitably, there were relatively few in West Virginia, a mountainous region ill-suited for the production of staple crops. Other areas like it existed, mostly in Upper South, but in the Deep South as well. It was no coincidence they often were hotbeds of Unionist sentiment.

Clearly, the 1861 Coast Survey map makes manifest yet again the connection between slavery and the Civil War. Produced essentially as a piece of propaganda, it nonetheless highlighted the very real connection between slavery and secession, even as it sought to remind West Virginians of their relatively loose connection to the peculiar institution and thereby reinforce their loyalty to the Union. So, if the Civil War was about states’ rights then why did the Lincoln administration so early in the conflict produce a map for Virginia focused on geographical distribution of slavery?

About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at
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