Tensions Grew In July 1861

Editor’s Note: This article is part of an occasional series on the Civil War sesquicentennial provided by members of the Wheeling Civil War 150 Committee.

As the summer months of 1861 progressed, tensions mounted in the field, and began erupting. Early in the month, skirmishes erupted across western Virginia in such places like Harper’s Ferry, Glenville and Laurel Hill.

Early on a Sunday, July 2, an ugly-looking effigy of Jefferson Davis was discovered suspended on the flag pole at the First Ward Hose House in Wheeling. It hung on the pole all day Sunday and attracted a great deal of attention. It was labeled “Jeff Davis – a warning to traitors.”

An advertisement appeared in the Wheeling Register that Capt. Craig of the Quartermaster’s Office was interested in purchasing 100 draft war horses. The inspection of horses would happen at Camp Carlile on the Island. Very early on inspection day, hundreds of horses were reported “trotting and whinnying across both bridges to the Island.” Some of the horses looked as though they had been turned out to die and only resurrected for this occasion.

Others were tolerable specimens of the equine species, and some were really good. Good horses were purchased for the average amount of 100 dollars. The purchased horses were driven from town to Benwood where they were shipped to Grafton.

Wheeling received a number of arms donated to the city by the state of Massachusetts. Two-thousand arms were stored at the Custom House where they awaited the decision of the new governor of Virginia as how best to use them.

Meanwhile, troops were passing through the city of Wheeling on their way to other cities to the east. A cavalry company from Illinois en route to Grafton came through Wheeling. They crossed the bridge four abreast and marched down Market Street. At their head was a Wheeling German Brass Band. They were drawn up in front of the Custom House, where they were addressed by Gov. Francis Pierpont.

It was declared, “The custom house in Wheeling is now the grand center of attraction. It is not only a Custom House, a State house, and a Post Office but also an arsenal. Some 75 boxes of arms, in addition to those already there, were deposited yesterday. These will make a formidable armament when properly distributed, as they soon will be.”

Some time before, the Virginia Convention ordered the halt of work on the Weston Lunatic Asylum. They did this in order to save the $27,000 deposited in the local bank to fund the project. Capt. List was commissioned by Pierpont to take the money before “Letcher’s government would appropriate it elsewhere.” The expedition left Clarksburg on Saturday evening and arrived in Weston at 5 a.m. Sunday. They had at their forefront a band playing the Star Spangled Banner, to announce their early morning arrival.

Capt. List demanded the money in the name of the state of Virginia and it was handed over to him with no resistance. A six-man guard accompanied the money back to Wheeling where it was deposited in the Northwestern Bank ”and will be used by those to whom it truly belongs – the true State government.

The newspaper reported, “The loyal Government through Gen. McClellan and Capt. List put a stop to that arrangement by going down there and taking the money. We think this end of the State has made a pretty good thing out of it. We need money almost as badly as they do down at Richmond, and are in no particular need of a lunatic asylum. They can have all the lunatic asylums they want, if they will give us the money. Just now coin is infinitely preferable to crazy people.”

The battle of Corrick’s Ford in Tucker County on July 13 saw the war’s first casualty of a general. McClellan officially announced the death of Confederate Gen. Robert S. Garnett in a dispatch, “You will, ere this, no doubt, be informed of the unhappy fate of Gen. Garnett, who fell while acting the part of a gallant soldier.” On July 17, Gen. Garnett’s remains arrived in Wheeling en route to his home in Virginia. A metallic coffin was sent from Wheeling to Grafton to retrieve the body. “The depot was literally packed with people upon the arrival of the train, all being anxious to get a peep at the coffin.”

Union forces defeated the Confederates at the Battle of Rich Mountain on July 11. The newspaper reported, “A battle was fought yesterday afternoon at Rich Mountain, where the enemy, numbering about two thousand, under command of Col. Pegram were strongly entrenched. A desperate fight immediately ensued, which lasted about an hour and a half, resulting in the loss of 60 of the enemy killed, a large number wounded and prisoners – some of the latter are officers. The rebels retreated precipitously, leaving behind 6 cannon, large number of horses, wagons, and camp equipage and the loss on our side is about 20 killed and 40 wounded.

By the middle of July, the majority of Confederate forces were driven from the areas of modern-day West Virginia. It was this success, combined with confidence in Gen. McClellan’s skills that gave political leaders in Wheeling the impetus to continue with their plans of separating from eastern Virginia. The campaigns led in western Virginia earned McClellan a promotion and enormous popularity here in Wheeling. In fact, he was received in Wheeling on July 25, 1861, while returning to Washington after the Union’s defeat at the battle of Bull Run. The newspaper reported, ”Gen. McClellan was serenaded in front of the McLure House, and hundreds of people collected to see him.

Closer to home, Bethany had begun to organize a Home Guard that already numbered 45 (50 being the required quota to entitle them to arms). Capt. Boring, ”the head devil in secession mischief, was arrested and released on parole of honor. Center Wheeling formed a company called ”Pierpont Guards in honor of the governor. The company numbered 60 members and were provided with muskets, uniformed and equipped for service.

A letter appeared in the newspaper from prisoners on the Island; life as a prisoner at Camp Carlile did not sound too pleasant from the way it’s described. ”We the prisoners of Capt Planke’s Co., 2nd Regiment, VA militia, now on the Island, in the guardhouse, would most respectfully ask you, to publish the following in your paper: We have been here now for 3 weeks, sleeping on the bare ground, with neither straw below, nor cover above us, without clean shirts, not a chance to clean ourselves, consequently vermin will appear, and did so. Our rations are so short, that we hardly can keep from starving, and not even for money can we get any nourishment. WE have often asked, to enter complaint before the higher offices, but they never respected us; we ask no more, than to be treated like human beings and not worse than animals.