France, England Withdrew Support for the Confederacy

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 Wheeling-area residents prepared to celebrate Christmas, 1863, reports in The Daily Intelligencer reassured them one threat that had existed for much of the Civil War – intervention on the side of the Confederacy by England and France – appeared to have ended.

The Daily Intelligencer stated, “We remain in peace and friendship with foreign powers. The efforts of disloyal citizens of the United States to involve us in foreign wars, to aid in inexcusable insurrection have been unavailing. Her Britannic Majesty’s government, as was justly expected, have exercised their authority to prevent the departure of new hostile expeditions from British ports. The Emperor of France, as by a like proceeding, promptly indicated the neutrally which he proclaimed at the beginning of this contest.”

Disputes between England and France withstanding, they at least did not interfere too much in our Civil War except that England continued to allow the Confederacy to purchase ships that had been built there. They also persisted in hampering the Union’s blockade of shipping the vast amounts of cotton still produced in the South.

They did at least sign a treaty for the suppression of the African slave trade on Feb. 7, 1863, and ratified it in December. Perhaps Gov. Francis Pierpont’s message to the Legislature in Alexandria was in point to remind them and the South that “they have nothing to expect in the way of peace or prosperity until they get rid of the debris of slavery still left among them.”

In that hope, a “Council of Thirty Three” (representing the 33 states still in the Union) was appointed by Congress to ascertain “what it was the Southern states actually wanted – free trade or slavery.” An English statesman named Cobden commented, “The fact was it was the aristocracy of the South fighting against the democracy of the North.”

Rebecca Harding Davis, Wheeling author of “Life in the Iron Mills,” published a short story called “Paul Blecker” in Atlantic Monthly in December 1863. This was the story of two sisters who strove to overcome life’s hardships, but in the end were dependent on the men that they chose for satisfaction in life.

Robert Smalls, a 21-year-old enslaved wheelman, stole a Confederate ship (the CSS Planter), and taking the families of the other slaves of the ship aboard, sailed to Union ships blockading Charleston, S.C., where he not only turned over the ship but the Confederate code book! He became a Northern hero and was influential in persuading Lincoln to allow blacks to serve the Northern forces.

Since their three-year hitch was ending, soldiers were asked to re-enlist and the draft was enacted. West Virginia Gov. Arthur I. Boreman placed an article on the front page of The Daily Intelligencer, stating, “People of West Virginia our armies are victorious on all points – a number of states and parts of states have been recovered from the dominion of the enemy and the rebellion is rapidly on the wane, yet a great work remains to be done. You have responded most nobly whenever called heretofore and I take great pride in saying that I have no fear of your failure on this occasion.”

On a lighter note, life in Wheeling went on. The large number of pigs roaming the streets was called an “army of occupation” by a reporter. One pig entered a small home, found a bag of cornmeal under the bed, pulled it out to the street and began to feast. A man passing by identified the meal as having been stolen from him the night before. The lady of the house confessed that her husband had stolen the grain the night before out of need and then offered to pay the man for the meal. The reporter noted that the pig also belonged to the gentleman and that the pig “had a nose for detective work.”

The case of Thomas Higgs vs. John Goshorn over the sale of a young boy for $800 was noted by the newspaper as “probably the last negro sale case that will be heard in this city for several hundred years.”

The Daily Intelligencer described the city’s store windows as showing dozens of toys, including one called a “dancing Johnny,” a jointed figure of wood on strings.

Also in vogue was a move called “the Grecian Wiggle.” Ladies crossing gutters in hoop skirts were able, without touching their dresses, to “set the dress on a 45-degree angle on the right to the gutter and the Grecian part is to sling it 45 degrees to the left so as to escape the gutter. It is a beautiful movement uncommonly graceful, but it requires that a lady have no holes in her stockings.”

Skating on Big Wheeling Creek was noted as a current recreational event and the reporter was astounded to see women partaking in the pastime, but encouraged their efforts.

On the war front, 800 prisoners were exchanged at Fort Monroe and Gen. Averill’s cavalry tore up the Tennessee and Virginia railroad line after fording freezing rivers and hauling artillery over mountains. They found Confederate stores of wheat, corn, oats and flour, then took 200 prisoners with a loss of only 60 men. Gen. Rosecrans congratulated the West Virginia troops on this maneuver.

Harper’s Weekly carried this poignant reminder: “Ought it not be a Merry Christmas? Even with all the sorrow that hangs over so many households; even while the war still rages; even while there are still serious questions yet to be settled -ought it not be, and is it not a Merry Xmas?” Since the streets of our city were littered with the remains of thousands of Jackson crackers (fireworks) the day after Christmas and reporters noted the teeming crowds of strolling citizens on the day, it seems that Wheeling did indeed have a Merry Christmas.