Wheeling Was Home To Army Hospital

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.

The beginning of April 1864 saw Wheeling citizens engaging in speculation of “condemned horses,” offered for sale by the government. A total of 116 horses were sold quickly; some with plans to fatten them up and sell back to the government, others, to simply resell to local citizens. For days, it was noted that these horses could be seen throughout the streets of Wheeling – a sad-looking lot.

Around town, hefty criticism was given to the nation’s flags flying on Market Street. First listed was the flag flying over the McLure House, described as “only equaled in raggedness, filthiness and all that is unseemly by the tattered and torn rag which floats at the mast head from Washington Hall.” The flag at Washington Hall was as bad, if not worse, with its stars and stripes torn to shreds. Authorities at both establishments were berated by the newspaper for the sorry state of their nation’s insignia.

It was about this time that the government began looking to Wheeling for the establishment of a post hospital due to its location and accessibility. A hospital had been run out of the Atheneum, but had filled quickly. The Sanitary Commission supplied the soldiers with quilts, sheets, pillows and other comforts, in order to ease their suffering, but soldiers were still dying.

Early in April, saw an outbreak of measles within its walls, killing several soldiers like Joseph Whiteman Phillips and Charles Cocherill.

Both were from other areas of West Virginia, but were buried in the Peninsula Cemetery.

The Soldier’s Aid Society removed 45 of the patients from the Atheneum to the Catholic hospital in North Wheeling at the end of March; by April, they were searching for a new location. At one point, the Houston house on Fourth Street was considered, and then the south wing of the Catholic Hospital in North Wheeling (known today as Wheeling Hospital) because its location was more logical in terms of location and size.

Dr. John Kirker, who had been in charge of the Grafton Hospital, came to Wheeling on April 7 to take charge of the new post hospital. By the end of April, the decision was made. The post hospital was to be run permanently out of a wing in the Catholic Hospital. On April 29, $1,000 worth of goods were transferred to the Catholic Hospital by a Mr. Price, a member of the Sanitary Commission for the City of Wheeling. A similar donation had been made to the Sanitary Commission through J. Marshall Hagans of Morgantown for the sum of $63.40. This was the first such donation that would be made toward the care of sick and incapacitated soldiers that would be housed there.

After the country’s experience with the horrific battles of Gettysburg and the bloody campaigns that followed, the government was having trouble finding the ability to responsibly care for the sick and wounded soldiers. The spring of 1864 was no different. After the Wilderness campaign and several disastrous conflicts elsewhere, Wheeling’s post hospital filled to capacity in a very short time. By summer, the entire hospital was taken over and made ready for soldiers.

The month of April saw another interesting incident that was sensationalized by local newspapers. Referred to as the “Dusky Briggs Affair,” it involved a local widow and a Confederate soldier imprisoned in Wheeling.

This young man, George Dusky, a notorious Confederate and son of an infamous bushwhacker, had been imprisoned in Wheeling earlier in the year after having been captured in Braxton County. This was not the first time Dusky spent time in jail in Wheeling, having escaped after feigning an illness, being moved to the Spriggs Hospital, and managing to smuggle himself out a window. He was known as an “enterprising cutthroat.”

A certain widow, Mollie Briggs, had somehow managed to make an acquaintance with this nefarious fellow and form a strong attachment to him. She would visit with him and bring him packages that would help ease his time in prison. After one incident, when she had attempted to smuggle contraband to him, she was banned from coming to his aid again.

This did not deter the widow. One evening, about 10 o’clock, a guardsman heard a suspicious sound outside one of the prison walls and went to investigate by candlelight. It was there he found Briggs with a ladder and pole, trying to ease a package through an outside window into Dusky’s prison cell.

The guardsman attempted to seize Briggs; falling to the ground, the package spilled and sprayed them both with nitric acid, seriously burning them both. To top it off, Briggs broke her leg above the knee.

Later released under bail, the poor widow suffered for many months with her broken bone and burns. It is unknown whatever became of their love affair. She did earn the title of an “uncompromising rebel.”

In other news around town, a certain man learned that it was unwise to gallop quite so fast. Moses Hughes, guilty of galloping his horse across the Suspension Bridge and through the streets of the Island, was detained and arrested by Officer Richardson. He was taken before Ald. Robertson and fined $11! The newspaper commented, “Fast riding has become a very costly exercise.”

Speaking of arrests: One of the editors of The Intelligencer, though not named, had the uncomfortable experience of being notified that he should consider himself under arrest by Maj. Gen. Sigel. It seemed that earlier in the year, the editor had published a letter that was considered contraband of war. Thankfully, it took only a few quick telegrams and some explanation to clear the matter up and he was acquitted of all charges.

Quite ironically, a soldier by the name of “Jeff Davis” was arrested in North Wheeling for disorderly conduct. And yet another attempted escape from the Atheneum, also known as Abraham Lincoln’s Bastille, occurred.

This particular prisoner, housed on the second floor of the building, cut a hole in the floor about 12 inches square and quietly as he could, dropped through to the floor below. The room underneath was dark; unbeknownst to him, a sleeping soldier lie directly beneath the hole he had cut. His efforts to escape earned him a new home in the “Bastille” – this time in a four-by six-foot cell.