August Was a Quiet Month for Soldiers
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.
By Aug. 1, 1863, it seemed as though Wheeling residents could at long last breathe a sigh of relief. July had been taxing on the nerves – battles, raids and riots dominated the headlines for much of the month.
Wheeling soldiers had figured prominently throughout the Gettysburg campaign and a number of blacks recruited just across the river in Belmont and Jefferson counties had participated in the devastating assault on Fort Wagner. Ethnic tensions in New York City had boiled over into a deadly riot and John Hunt Morgan’s Confederate cavalry had come dangerously close to Wheeling before finally being captured in late July. Surely August would offer a reprieve.
Militarily speaking, August was a quiet month compared to what July had offered and what September was bound to bring. The Army of the Potomac and Army of Northern Virginia would jockey for position along the Rapidan and Rappahannock rivers. Federal forces around Charleston initiated a prolonged bombardment of Confederate fortifications ringing Charleston Harbor, including the famed Fort Sumter.
On Aug. 21, Confederate partisan William Clarke Quantrill and his guerrilla band sacked Lawrence, Kan., killing more than 180 civilian men and boys and burning much of the town.
Three years earlier, Quantrill perpetrated what was perhaps the first of his many murders when he shot Chalkley Lipsey, who had been born near Wheeling in 1838.
More than military events, news of the unrelenting heat dominated the headlines in August of 1863. Thermometers stood near 100 degrees in the shade through most of the month as swarms of flies tormented civilians and animals alike. On Aug. 29, The Intelligencer reported large dust clouds blowing through the city as well as a noticeable green hue to the river.
The warm days paired with little rain had caused the Ohio River to drop down to nearly just 20 inches, effectively shutting down river commerce. Hot days were exacerbated by a depleting supply of ice within the city. It was noted that since April, more than 15 tons of ice had “disappeared” before being used.
The provost guard conducted a brisk business during the month of August. The government was offering $10 for each deserter arrested, and subsequently the Athenaeum was quickly filled with horse thieves and those soldiers who had absented themselves from their command.
On Aug. 22, The Intelligencer reported a gang of six Knights of the Golden Circle from Marshall County as having been arrested and confined in the Athenaeum. The Knights of the Golden Circle was a secret society associated with Copperhead and pro-Confederate movements in northern states.
One Intelligencer writer bemoaned the fact that no less than 20 requests had been received from ladies wishing to visit some of Morgan’s raiders jailed in the Athenaeum, while no requests were received to visit the Union soldiers jailed there.
Two cases from the Athenaeum merited particular attention during the month of August. On Aug. 2, it was reported that John Houston, a native of Washington County, Pa., and deserter from the Ringgold Cavalry, had apparently been attempting an escape when he was shot by Samuel Coats, a guard at the jail. The motive for the shooting was immediately called into question and Coats was himself jailed at the Athenaeum while the case was investigated, where he would remain until April of 1864. Houston was buried in the city cemetery.
In mid-August, another Federal deserter, G.W. Thompson, was captured in Bridgeport and jailed in the Athenaeum. Thompson was apparently a notorious character, having previously escaped captors numerous times, even going so far as to jump out of a moving train. Later in the month, Thompson would send a letter to The Intelligencer wherein he refuted some of the information published about him, complaining that he had been “sacrificed on the altar of newspaperdom.” While he admitted to jumping out of the train, Thompson stated the train had been stationary, not moving.
We can’t be sure, but perhaps the month of August gave Wheeling residents some hope. Abraham Lincoln had declared Aug. 6 a national day of Thanksgiving following the Federal victories of July, allowing for some hope that the Union may yet prevail. In mid-August, the B&O railroad reopened a direct route from Baltimore to Wheeling, reinvigorating farmers and merchants who relied on the railroad for business and trade.
During August, the citizens of Wheeling held a festival in honor of Carlin’s battery, which raised enough money to purchase new instruments for the battery band. Those members of the battery that had been captured at the battle of Winchester were scheduled to be exchanged in late August, giving mothers hope that their sons may yet return home.
Unfortunately, any hope aroused in August would be dashed in September, which would bring more reverses for the Union and one of the costliest battles of the war.