City of Wheeling Goes to War

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.

Life went on in Wheeling in September 1861 despite the war. Although it brought excitement to the town, the war barely caused a ripple in the day-to-day life of the city that month.

At the beginning of the month, Camp Carlile had only 300 men stationed on its ragged turf although Confederate prisoners were often stockaded there.

Two prisoners from Parkersburg (“neither of them had clothes enough on their persons to wad a gun”) were among those imprisoned at the site.

The prisoners wrote to the newspaper complaining about conditions at the camp, but a reporter who investigated was stuck in the rear with a bayonet by guards and let it be known that the men seemed happy enough. They were playing horseshoes when he visited. By the third week in September, Camp Carlile had been completely renovated with new tents. Nine hundred men were now accommodated there and Col. Anasanell of the 1st Virginia Calvary was in charge.

The Pierpont Guards went scouting in Triadelphia and, after searching several houses, brought back a number of rifles that they took from secessionists.

Fashions for fall called for capes with no trimming since such luxury had suddenly become too expensive.

It was decided that the state constitutional convention would be held in Wheeling on Nov. 15, and 39 counties would be represented. If the people adopted the constitution, and the Legislature granted its consent, then the state could apply for admission to the Union. There were many letters to the editor complaining about the proposed name of “Kanawha.” Many stated that it was too hard to spell, too hard to pronounce (even today people from that area can only manage to get out two of the syllables) and was a concession to politicians from that area. Wheeling folks were “true Virginians” and wanted the world to know it. They felt the name West Virginia conveyed that patriotism.

The emperor of Russia sent a letter to President Lincoln wishing success with the war. This powerful ally promised that the Russians would not allow any European countries to interfere in our government.

The existence of “Wheeling dollars” was denied by The Intelligencer until a week later when a soldier wrote to the paper saying he had been paid by the quartermaster in Wheeling dollars and ads for local stores began to proclaim that they would accept the paper currency. These bills were issued by a U.S. mint and showed the charter number of the banks authorized to issue them which included the First National Bank of Wheeling and the Merchants and Mechanics Bank. (The Coin Hobby shop in Bridgeport has some examples of this currency.) The Custom House was holding between $250,000 and $500,000 in gold to be used to pay the soldiers.

Still more volunteers were needed, and the newspaper ran the following: “Attention volunteers!!! Your citizens are in peril. Let every man that has the arm and nerve for a soldier fly to the rescue. Neither laggards nor cowards are wanted.” Joseph Thoburn by order of Gen. Kelly signed the notice. The call was answered by Ann Watson who tried to enlist, but was instead arrested for “parading in men’s clothes.”

Among the notable citizens of the Wheeling area who did sign up were Dr. Robert Hazlett who served as a surgeon for the duration of the war; August Rolf, a successful businessman who served on the Board of County Commissioners; Henry Hornbrook, whose father was an aide de camp to governors Pierpont and Boreman and whose uncle owned the land which is now Wheeling Park; William Arthur and John Arthur, Wheeling brothers who held various positions in the city; the Curtis family of West Liberty who distinguished themselves in battle; Milton Worls, ancestor of Randy Worls of Oglebay Foundation; and Felix Crago, a teacher and later president of West Liberty College (now University).

Dr. John Frissell performed surgery on Gen. Kelly and successfully removed the ball that had been lodged in his shoulder since the “affair” at Philippi. It was reported to be quite painful, but healing well.

A donation of $800 ($20,400 in today’s money) was sent to Mayor Andrew J. Sweeney from the citizens of San Francisco to be used to support the widows and orphans of the First Virginia Regiment.

As is usual in the fall, county fairs were held at Washington, Pa. and Belmont County, although it was reported that the Ohio fair “didn’t amount to much.” On a more serious side, Sept. 26 was set aside by President Lincoln as a day of fasting and prayer. All stores were closed and churches were open. The people of Wheeling solemnly observed the day.

At the beginning of the month, the river had been at 4 feet ,10 inches, but after very heavy downfalls it rose to 37 feet, putting most of the island, including Camp Carlile, under water. This was one of the many “Great Pumpkin Floods” which were so named due to the large number of pumpkins torn from the vines in the farmers’ fields and filling the river. One of the guy wires of the Suspension Bridge was swept away and “enough driftwood was passed down to keep the Southern Confederates in fuel for six months.” The flood destroyed all cornfields in the valley of Wheeling Creek “for three or four miles west of Bridgeport” and great numbers of barns, outhouses and logs filled the river from shore to shore.

Life went on in the “little” city of 14,000 people as the war raged elsewhere, but the gravity of the times was still obvious. In his message to Congress, President Lincoln stated, “And having thus chosen our course, without guile and with pure purpose, let us renew our trust in God, and go forward without fear and with manly hearts.”