The General Comes to Town
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 bells of First Presbyterian Church rang in the New Year on Jan. 1, 1862, the Wheeling Daily Intelligencer wrote: “A Year that opened in National peace and prosperity closes in the face of the tramp and clangor of war and all its desolations. Now many brave men have fallen in battle and how much pain and anguish has been felt by the loved ones at home. What a world of solemn thought there is in all of this!” The war that they said would last only three months had lasted eight months by the dawn of 1862 and no end was in sight.
At the bustling Customs House, the Constitutional Convention was slow to get going on the first day of the year, with only 10 persons present. They declared an informal adjournment until the following day. The month would involve debates about everything from county representation, officials’ term limits, tax policies, and on Jan. 27, Gordon Batelle first proposed gradual emancipation of slaves into their debates.
While the convention was busy ironing out details for the new state, rumors spread far and wide about what went on within the walls of the Customs House. An account from Richmond stated, “We hear from the Pierpont dynasty at Wheeling that the bogus Virginia Convention recently in session in that town has resorted to a measure of punishment against secessionists which is without a parallel in the history of legislation.
An ordinance has been adopted divorcing all refugee husbands from their wives, and all refugee wives from their husbands declaring that no citizens of Virginia can remain united in lawful matrimony to a citizen of Pierpont’s Commonwealth.”
The previous month, Brig. Gen. William S. Rosecrans had arrived in Wheeling on the steamer Prima Donna on Dec. 4, 1861, to take up temporary residence in Room 141 at the McLure Hotel. Rosecrans planned to spend the winter in Wheeling with his family. At the time of his arrival, he commanded all of the forces in western Virginia. The newspaper noted, “He seems to be a man of stirring energy, with very little of the red tape about him.”
His headquarters were not determined on his arrival, but the houses of C.W. Russell and E.H. Fitzhugh were under consideration. Also considered favorably was the house of Dr. Stanton, who had relocated to Mississippi the year before, but “there were difficulties considering the furnishings in the house.” When a place was chosen, Rosecrans moved into the Charles Wells Russell house at 75 12th St., which would serve as headquarters for the Army of Western Virginia for the duration of their stay in Wheeling.
Rosecrans was born in Ohio and attended West Point where he began his military career. There, he roomed with James Longstreet and A.P. Stewart. After graduation, he began working as a civil engineer, eventually taking over mining concerns in western Virginia. When the Civil War began, he was a colonel aide-de-camp to Gen. George McClellan and took part in the Battle of Rich Mountain and Corrick’s Ford, then he was promoted to major general and commanded the Army of Western Virginia.
Rosecrans’ “bodyguards,” which consisted of 100 mounted men, arrived on Jan. 18, 1862. The horses were kept in the government stables that were near the Hempfield Railroad depot.
Though a war was happening, there was still entertainment to be had in the city. The Athenaeum building, or rather the portion originally designed for theatrical purposes, was leased by a group of men from Philadelphia who planned to renovate and re-open in late January – all while there were prisoners being kept in other parts of the building, housed in rooms beneath the stage and boxes, though customers were assured that this would not affect the quality of the shows.
There were many events the citizens of this city would host to fundraise for the war effort. The ladies of Second Presbyterian Church hosted a supper for the benefit of the Young Men’s Christian Association to “aid them in carrying out their special objects, with a particular reference toward supplying our soldiers in western Virginia with Bibles and Testimonials and other moral and religious reading.” Also, the ladies of the Union Aid Society gave a supper at Washington Hall where Rosecrans made an appearance with a portion of his staff in full dress uniform to support their efforts.
Soldiers were daily arriving or moving through the city. On Jan. 14, 1862, 100 infirm soldiers arrived from Romney and housed in the Sprigg House Hospital. Also mentioned in the January newspaper was ambulance production: “Busbey, Little and Hays are making about 100 ambulances for the army. The ambulances are to be drawn by two horses and by four, the old two-wheeled, one-horse vehicles, having been weighed in the balance and found wanting. The ambulances manufactured by this firm are of the very best material and are not excelled in finish or durability. Gen. Rosecrans has pronounced them the very thing.”
A total of 3,000 soldiers crossed the river from Bellaire to Benwood. They would cross the river one regiment at a time.
One particular regiment of soldiers was quartered in Benwood, detained on their journey to Patterson’s Creek near Cumberland. The river was quickly rising due to heavy rains, and the soldiers watched as the residents of Benwood abandoned their homes along the river to seek higher ground. After the residents had left, the soldiers, unaware of the reason why the homes were being vacated, moved themselves into the houses and soon had the “fires burning up again brightly and cheerfully.”
They laid down on their newfound beds, and fell asleep. “By 2 a.m., they were awoken by cries of ‘water, water everywhere.’ Some clambered upon the roofs of the houses, others gained foot-holds upon the window sills and “such another yelling for lifeboats, steamboats, skiffs, planks and water crafts of all sorts, was never heard. The boys were finally all rescued safely.”