War Weariness Hits Wheeling in Sept. 1863

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

September 1863 began with Union advances against the Confederacy on many different fronts. The naval blockade of Confederate ports tightened; Mobile, Ala., and Fort Smith, Ark., were taken.

While Union forces skirmished often, but with little success against Lee’s army in northern Virginia, Union armies advanced into eastern Tennessee with Burnside occupying Knoxville and Rosecrans seizing Chattanooga, then moving into Georgia. All went well until the Battle of Chickamauga on Sept. 19-21, when the Braggs’ Confederates defeated Rosecrans’ forces. The Confederates laid siege to both Union armies and for a time it appeared both might be lost.

Placed in charge of all operations in the West, Ulysses Grant reinforced the Union army in Chattanooga with 15,000 soldiers from the northeast, most of whom traveled through Benwood and Wheeling by rail. Reinforced, the Union armies broke the sieges by the end of the year.

Along West Virginia’s eastern border a series of hard-fought campaigns took place between August and December. Gen. William Averill began a Union raid into Confederate territory that resulted in the battle of Rocky Gap on Aug. 26-27.

Averill had been ordered to seize the law library in Lewisburg for use by the West Virginia Legislature in Wheeling. He failed to achieve his main objective and had to retreat due to insufficient number of men and ammunition. The Union had 27 killed, 125 wounded and 67 missing; Confederates suffered 20 dead, 129 wounded and 18 missing.

Wheeling men were among those killed and wounded. A detailed account of the campaign, written by the chaplain of the 3rd West Virginia Mounted Infantry, appeared in the Daily Intelligencer on Sept. 10, 1863, a week before Averill sent in his own battle report. The chaplain was highly critical of the Union commanders for many reasons, but especially for beginning the campaign without adequate ammunition, horseshoes and nails and launching attacks on the morning of Aug. 27, before retreating. The chaplain was placed under arrest by Averill, after his account appeared.

Union woes continued. Early in the morning of Sept. 12, Confederates under John Hanse McNeill overran five companies of Union troops at Moorefield resulting in the death, wounding and capture of almost 230 men. Again, Wheeling men were among those lost.

While Wheeling remained relatively untouched by wartime violence, there were riots, beatings, robberies and murders in nearby areas carried out by bushwackers (rebel guerrillas) and undisciplined Union soldiers. At the end of September, civilian James Frazier got into a quarrel with a soldier in the Cambridge, Ohio, train station. Frazier fled to his brother Tom’s store with 30 soldiers in pursuit.

There, the argument resumed and led to the wounding of two soldiers. The Frazier brothers fled to a house a half mile away, but the soldiers followed and killed Tom, but James escaped.

Late on the evening of Sept. 21, 30 rebels arrived at the home of the Glaze family in Roane County looking for Union soldiers home on leave and murdered four men they found in an outbuilding, but several escaped to raise the alarm. The next day, Union troops caught up with some of the band and killed two of them. The article in the Daily Intelligencer ended with the observation, “It is thought there can be no peace in Roane County until one or other of the parties is extinguished. They cannot live together.”

Both houses of the West Virginia Legislature met in Wheeling during the month of September and debated and passed legislation ranging from setting up a system to regulate physicians through licensure, a confiscation law permitting the government to seize the property of West Virginians convicted of aiding the rebellion, financing road construction, to restructuring electoral districts. Both Unionists, associated with the Republican party, and Peace Democrats carried out political rallies.

August and September 1863 saw little rainfall and the river level stayed consistently below 2 feet in the main channel and river traffic was possible only for the smallest of steamboats. However, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad reopened to full operations after having been partially shut down by Confederate raids.

Wheeling remained prosperous and with the legislature meeting daily, there was much activity in town. Entertainment was provided by the Sanford Minstrels, which played to packed houses at Washington Hall from Sept. 7-12.

The troupe offered comic skits, music and several burlesque plays, including an Ethiopian Opera.

A week after Sanford’s Minstrels left for Pittsburgh, Professor Anderson and his wife, Marian, arrived for a week’s stint at Washington Hall. Anderson and his wife gave lectures and conducted experiments to entertain their audiences. He was a magician and an escape artist. One stunt had him bound hand and foot by members of the audience, briefly covered by a cloak, and when the cloak was taken off he was free but the knots were still tied.