Matters of Expediency: Wheeling in January 1863

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.

Abraham Lincoln signed two documents of interest to the people of Wheeling over the New Year’s holiday of 1862-63.

On New Year’s Eve, he signed the West Virginia statehood bill, and less than 24 hours later on New Year’s Day, he signed the final version of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Despite the mythology attached to them over subsequent decades, at the time, both measures were viewed by the president as “expedient” means by which to advance the Union’s war effort.

Introduced on Sept. 22, 1862 after the Union “victory” at Antietam, the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation promised that on Jan. 1, 1863, “all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, henceforward, and forever free…”

The morning of the day in question found the president shaking hundreds of hands at a New Year’s Day “levee.” He worried aloud that if his signature on the final Emancipation Proclamation showed any signs of a trembling hand, people might conclude that he harbored “compunctions.” He signed boldly, reportedly declaring, “I never in my life felt more certain that I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper.”

But Lincoln knew it was not enough. In his popular new film about the 16th president, Stephen Spielberg presents an Abraham Lincoln deeply concerned about the ratification of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, because it “… settles the fate for all coming time, not only of the millions in bondage but of unborn millions to come … We must cure ourselves of slavery. This amendment is that cure.” Spielberg’s Lincoln clearly views the amendment as the curative, moral step untaken by his Emancipation Proclamation (merely “a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing [the] rebellion”) to link the end of slavery with the unfulfilled Founders’ proposition that “all men are created equal.”

In reality, the Emancipation Proclamation was just an unadorned step in an expedient direction, but on Jan. 3, 1863, the Wheeling Daily Intelligencer expressed its support: “True to the moral instincts of his nature, true to his solemn oath to preserve the Government, Abraham Lincoln has issued his proclamation … a very plain and easily understood document … momentous in its import and destined yet to be so conspicuous in everlasting history…”

Yet, what was to become the new state of West Virginia was specifically exempted. Emancipation would apply only in the states in rebellion, including “Virginia, (except the 48 counties designated as West Virginia … and which excepted parts, are for the present, left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.)” Despite Lincoln’s signature on the statehood bill only hours before, the final admission of West Virginia would require a compromise on slavery known as the “Willey Amendment,” which featured gradual emancipation. Of course, the 1865 ratification of the 13th Amendment would render the entire issue moot.

Spotting a golden marketing opportunity, Wheeling merchants took full advantage of the attention paid to the emancipation saga. Augustus Pollack, for example, began running a regular advertisement under the heading, “Another Proclamation” in which he offered “at less than New York prices” hoop skirts, portfolios for the army, children’s carriages, undershirts and drawers, among other items.

Like the Emancipation Proclamation, President Lincoln’s decision to sign the West Virginia statehood bill was also motivated by expediency. Another military defeat at Fredericksburg convinced Lincoln of the timeliness of statehood, a move sure to weaken the Old Dominion while strengthening the Union.

On Jan. 3, the pro-statehood Intelligencer thanked the president profusely for “Our Greatest New Year’s Gift. New Year’s Day was made truly and perpetually memorable to the people of West Virginia by the act of the President … signing their New State bill … People gathered in the streets and the word passed like electricity from mouth to mouth … The old cannon was again brought out … and again the hills and dells of our grand old river valley were made to wake the echoes that told the joy of a people made free … The president’s name will henceforth be canonized by the people of West Virginia as the redeemer of their country and themselves … ‘God bless Abraham Lincoln!'”

Elsewhere in the city, New Year’s Day passed with “a good deal of drunkenness – a fact attributable not so much to the quantity of the liquor consumed as to it execrable quality.”

In contrast to Wheeling’s celebratory mood, most of the nation would remember that New Year’s holiday for the bloody Battle of Stones River (second Murfreesboro), where troops under Gen. Rosecrans held their ground against a Confederate assault led by Gen. Braxton Bragg. More than 3,000 men were killed, among them Henry Sharp, a Wheeling boy serving in the 2nd Ohio Regiment. An additional 16,000 men were wounded, among them Lt. Col. Frank Askew, a St. Clairsville resident serving in the 15th Ohio Regiment, who “distinguished himself by deeds of heroism and punished the enemy severely.”

By Jan. 8, “the first train from Baltimore over the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, since the last destruction by the rebels,” arrived in Wheeling. “If Stonewall Jackson and his crowd will only manage to mind their own business,” The Intelligencer observed, “the road will soon be in as good condition as ever.”

By mid-month, Wheeling’s weather turned foul with “three inches of slush upon the sidewalks, which soaked through the heaviest cowhide boots.” A cold spell gripped the city, closing up “Wheeling Creek with ice.” Despite the foul weather, Wheeling’s legendary lawlessness continued unabated. The Intelligencer published a series of reports concerning a “ghastly and horrible ghost … perambulating around East Wheeling” near the Hempfield Railroad depot. It wore a cowl and “heavy skins” presenting an “outre appearance.” Armed ghost hunters began scouring the alleys in search of the phantom. The East Wheeling ghost created a sensation and spawned imitators. “There is scarcely a section of the city now but can boast of its ghost,” The Intelligencer reported.

Gangs of “garrotters,” who choked and robbed their victims, joined the apparitions in terrorizing the city. When one of them garroted a printer who worked for The Intelligencer, the editors could not resist observing that “the individual must have been insane or drunk for certainly no sober person with anything like a decent supply of the commonest horse sense would attempt to rob a printer.”

Later in January, the “notorious ruffian” John Brady of Wheeling was stabbed three times and killed by a man named Lockwood aboard the steamer St. Patrick. Brady had been “cutting, slashing and beating people about this city for a number of years,” and was known along the rivers as a “wrecker and pirate … a very violent man, particularly when under the influence of liquor.”

On a more positive note, Capt. Downing established a horse hospital on Wheeling Island for “dilapidated and indigent horses,” employing a revolutionary “hydropathic” system to rehabilitate the animals. Most reportedly emerged “like new horses,” which did not escape the notice of Secretary of War Stanton, who authorized Capt. Downing to rehabilitate all of the “superannuated horses in Western Virginia.”

Despite Downing’s success, the residents of Wheeling Island attempted to “secede” from the city. A petition signed by “nearly all of the property owners” on Wheeling Island was submitted to the House of Delegates to “exclude the Island from the limits of the city.” The petitioners claimed they had to submit to “burdensome taxation” while being unable to “enjoy any of the benefit of city improvements (such as water, gas, etc.).”

Business remained brisk for Provost Marshal Major Joseph Darr at Wheeling’s military prison, the Athenaeum. Thirty-three prisoners captured near Winchester arrived from Cumberland on Jan. 3, and 10 more from Braxton County on Jan. 8. The notorious female prisoner, Harry Fitsalleu (Marion McKinsey), refused to wear women’s clothing purchased for her by Major Darr, “but clings to the cavalry pea-jacket and pantaloons in which she soldiered through the Kanawha Valley. The reason assigned is that she is not provided with hoops.” A second female prisoner, Mary Jane Green, who was jailed for cutting down federal telegraph wires and handling rebel mail, soon joined Fitsalleu. Both women were said to be “very rebellious.” A 17-year-old cavalry soldier, Mary Jane Prater, joined the group on Jan. 23. “In view of the late mutiny upon this account among the female prisoners,” Major Darr prudently asked her if she would wear female clothing without hoops. She said she would “see how she looked first.” Darr promptly sent her to the city jail for “safe keeping.”

Ellen Brady, a pastry cook at the McLure House, was accused of “handling rebel mail matter … and suspicious conversation with prominent rebels who appear to be making a tool of her.” She was arrested but released after taking the oath of allegiance.

Near the end of January, in a speech about the new state, Gov. Pierpont made an appeal to Wheeling’s working class: “I wish I could speak to the heart of every Irishman and German in this community. I would … try to help them see what their interests were and their duty as patriots and American citizens. These men [the statehood opponents] were running around telling their tales. They have worked these Germans and Irishmen till they have made fortunes out of them and if ever an opportunity offered they would deprive them of their rights and franchises of citizens.”

Though their reaction was not noted in the January 1863 Intelligencer, Wheeling’s African American community continued to celebrate “Emancipation Day” well into the 20th century, usually on or near the anniversary of the Sept. 22, 1862 preliminary proclamation. The 1896 observance was typical. After a parade of various black fraternal societies over the Suspension Bridge, the festivities took place at the state fairgrounds on the Island, and featured speeches by dignitaries, horse racing, bicycle racing, sack racing, wheelbarrow racing and baseball games. An evening banquet and dance featuring the music of the opera house band was held at Turner’s hall. Lincoln School principal J. McHenry Jones served as master of ceremonies.