1860: Seeds Of Civil War Planted

Editor’s Note: The state of West Virginia and the City of Wheeling will celebrate 150 years of Civil War history in 2011 with a number of events beginning this spring. This is one of several articles written by local historian Margaret Brennan that will appear in the News-Register in the months leading up to the celebrations.

After the secession of South Carolina on Dec. 20, 1860, there seemed to be a collective intake of breath as the country tried to come to grips with what fast became an out-of-control chain of events.

The first domino had fallen and more would soon follow. South Carolina explained her actions in a declaration which saw “an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding states to the institution of slavery.”

The Daily Intelligencer printed a New York Post editorial which stated: “A few determined wicked men can make a great deal of trouble, as those perverse and obstinate South Carolina leaders prove.”

As the Senate pondered the situation, it also confirmed Edwin M. Stanton as Lincoln’s Attorney General.

Immediate attention was turned to the Fort Moultrie garrison in Charleston Harbor, as South Carolina immediately began to make threatening noises and set down demands. Adding to the tension was Mississippi, which indicated she would secede. All of this was happening at Christmas.

On Dec. 25, there was a strong editorial stating: “There is no affinity between Eastern and Western Virginia. There never was. There is a very widespread sentiment in favor of a division of the state at the Blue Ridge.”

On an ironic note, the Dec. 27 Wheeling paper reported from Pittsburgh that there was a large order of heavy guns from the Allegheny Arsenal to be shipped south. The question was posed: “Shall Pennsylvania be disarmed and Charleston allowed to seize on federal arms with which to overthrow the Union.”

How this was resolved is unclear but it was occurring in other places. A large handgun order was placed in Connecticut to be shipped south.

A strong editorial ran in the Dec.27 Daily Intelligencer warning the city of what could happen if Virginia became part of the Cotton Confederacy, given Wheeling’s trade routes went west and east rather than south.

“We would be a one-horse cow pasture in about a year or less.”

An interesting analyses of the Virginia slave trade appears in the Dec. 28 paper.

“The number of slaves in the state is about 475,000. The number annually exported (Virginia had more slaves than needed) is about 14,000, her most valuable product. At $500 per head, their value exceeds $7 milllion.”

On Dec. 28, the Wheeling paper reported: “A special dispatch this morning furnishes us the astounding news that the government troops have abandoned Fort Moultrie (on Dec. 26) and taken up their quarters in Fort Sumpter, further out in the harbor. The guns were spiked and the fort set on fire before being left.”

In the midst of all these tensions, everyday life continued. On Jan. 3, 1861, it was noted “there was about six feet of water in the river yesterday.”

It was said that “since the holidays, business has been universally dull in this city.”

Snow fell and brought out the sleighs and the boys on the sliding places.

“We heard the merry jingling of sleigh bells.”

On Jan. 7, it was reported that “the Union Men of Wheeling fired 100 guns in honor of Major Anderson for the gallant stand he is taking in the defense of Fort Sumpter.”

On Jan.8, a lengthy statement from Waitman to Willey of Morgantown was reprinted, in which he asks: “If secession commences, where will it end and when will it end. I shudder whenever I think of disunion.”

On Jan. 9, the Intelligencer noted a company of cavalry from Carlisle Barracks, Pa. arrived by train to protect the arsenal at Harpers Ferry. And on Jan. 12, the second shoe fell, when it was reported from the Mississippi Convention that “Mississippi by a nearly unanimous vote had seceded unconditionally from the Union.”

After that, it was off to the races. On Jan. 10, Florida seceded followed by Alabama on Jan. 11, Georgia, Jan. 19, Louisiana, Jan. 26, Texas, Feb. 1. The seven secessionist states held a convention in Montgomery, Ala., on Feb. 4.

Again, the question, “What would Virginia do?”

A bill to call a State Convention was passed on Jan. 9, with the election of delegates to be held Feb.4. It was reported from Richmond “the very air here is charged with the electric thunder of war, in the street, at the Capitol, in the bar room, at the dinner table, nothing is heard but resistance to the general government.”

This did not bode well for the future.