When I first heard about this class, I was both excited and intimidated. The idea of communicating with people from different universities, doing a semester-long research project, and building a website around it seemed challenging but worth it. I was interested in secession because of the current division in our political system and around the world. It seems likely that we will face the problem of secession with increasing regularity over the next few years, especially within the European Union, though of course it can be argued that a split from the EU does not constitute secession.
From the beginning I had had my heart set on the idea of studying an Appalachian secession movement, especially one that contradicted stereotypes about the region. I had heard rumors of resistance to the Confederacy in western North Carolina. Kendall was interested in the idea as well, so that is where we first concentrated our research. Unfortunately, on really diving into the research we struggled to find an organized secession movement within North Carolina. Perhaps if we had started researching during Winter Break we would have discovered this earlier, but by the time it came to decide we had not found a good candidate. West Virginia secession fit many of the criteria we had in mind so we decided to research that instead.
While the readings focused on religion were not especially relevant to our project, some of the more political movements were. The State of Franklin in particular influenced how I thought about secession in Appalachia, particularly the fact that emphasizing certain facts could produce wildly differing interpretations. Whether the Franklinites were freedom-lovers avoiding government intervention or colonists focused on eradicating Cherokees depends entirely on which aspects you choose to highlight.
Our serious research began with scholarly articles on West Virginia secession. While this movement is familiar to many historians, it was largely new to us, and that necessitated some background knowledge before getting into the nuances. We used these scholarly articles to situate ourselves within the movement, and to gain some familiarity with the different interpretations of it. We learned fairly quickly that these interpretations were more complex than pro-Union counties seeking to rejoin the fatherland. There were deep divides between the western Virginia Appalachians and the eastern part of the state, just as there are in every state that intersects with these mountains. Many others have speculated on the causes of this divide, but we decided to confine ourselves to documenting the observable differences and concentrate on analysis of the movement itself.
Over Spring Break we had planned to visit the West Virginia and Regional History Center at the University of West Virginia. I had also been planning to visit Frederick, Maryland for some time to see my family but especially my grandfather, who has Parkinson’s and has been declining for some time. I intended to come back on Thursday evening, giving us time to visit the archives on Friday and come back on Saturday. Kendall also had to visit her grandfather, who was in the hospital, and this ended up preventing her from getting back in time to visit the archives.While this was a blow to our plans and we explored other options for visiting archives in person, we ultimately decided to conduct most of our research using digital archives.
The sites wvculture.org and the West Virginia and Regional History Center’s “West Virginia History On View” were both invaluable to me in this effort. Wvculture.org provided comprehensive explanations of events, with aggregates of connected primary sources. Virginia Memory was also helpful for finding some primary sources. West Virginia History On View provided many of the photographs for the site. Lori Hostuttler from the West Virginia Regional and History Center also helped by sending us some of the resources we requested based on online descriptions of the archive’s contents.
Much of the research took place while we were constructing the website, and especially as we encountered gaps in our knowledge that we needed to fill in order to make a coherent narrative. We began by researching the Causes, Events, and Aftermath of the movement. While the singular event is a more common approach when using this model, West Virginia secession was drawn out over several years. It seemed limiting to define the secession as a single event such as Lincoln signing West Virginia statehood into law. The heart of the movement was the Wheeling Conventions, though these were entangled with the complicated legality of the secession and setting up the Restored Government of Virginia.
Our vision for the website when we started and what we ended up with were different, and this is probably for the better. I had envisioned a clean, minimalist website with three main pages covering the secession in a linear manner, and with black and white photographs of people, buildings and battles illustrating every page. As we moved through this project some of this vision had to be discarded. When we explored this movement we discovered complicating factors such as legality and border disputes that rendered a linear narrative incomplete. Having three main pages meant that they were far too long and inaccessible to readers unused to reading history texts. Another important change was discarding my commitment to using only photographs from the era. Tony mentioned that we could consider using images from Wikipedia, and this was a breakthrough. I had not previously considered using Wikipedia as a source, probably due to years of academic pressure and pride in avoiding it. However, images are images, and as long as they are properly cited using them is going to get you farther than academic snobbery. I want to thank Tony for his suggestion, as it pushed me out of my stubbornness and made for a better project.
In the end, I am proud of the project we have put together. Kendall has been a great research partner. I can’t say how thankful I am to have had someone who was always willing to do her portion of the work, give me feedback on my contributions, and help me out if I was having a bad day. Having a supportive friend to do research, commiserate, and laugh with has made this project so much better than it would have been otherwise. Thank you, Kendall.
Thank you also to everyone in the class who has given us feedback and made our discussions so enjoyable, and to our professors for your help. We couldn’t have done this without you.