State’s First Birthday Was Lost in Shuffle

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 pages of the Daily Intelligencer in Wheeling were virtually silent in June of 1864 about the first birthday of the new state of West Virginia. June 20 was not proclaimed to be of much importance, it seemed, being overshadowed tremendously by two major events that occurred in the city of Wheeling just before and slightly after that date.

Of course, the Civil War was still being fought and the newspapers that month were full of reports from the field, obituary announcements of the fallen and official gubernatorial proclamations naming dozens of persons as enemies of the state.

Editors Campbell and McDermot dutifully pushed Lincoln and Johnson for president and vice president as their newspaper covered the national union (Republican) nominations at the Baltimore Convention June 7-8. As well, Campbell that month gave an early endorsement to the state’s first governor, Arthur I. Boreman, to be renominated at the State Convention in August.

Despite the somber war dispatches, the newspapers in June 1864 were dominated by reports, and advertisements, for upcoming entertainments, one billed as the largest exhibition in the world, and the other an unprecedented charitable undertaking that came to be called “the Wheeling Sanitary Fair.”

Imagine the excitement in town when a full two columns of newspaper space, top to bottom, were filled with details about Thayer & Noyes’ United States Circus and Van Amburgh & Co.’s Mammoth Menagerie and Egyptian Caravan. “Combined for the Season of 1864, with One Price Admission. The Wonders of Animated Nature Consolidated with the only Legitimate Circus ever organized -Moral and Refined Amusement.”

This exciting exhibition would be on Wheeling Island Saturday, June 18, for two shows: 2 and 7 p.m. Admission was 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for children under 12. And just who, or what, would be there? The ad stipulated the following: “equestrians, acrobats, gymnasts, jesters, clowns, contortionists, equilibrists and general performers. Trained horses, ponies and mules; lions, tigers, leopards, bears, hyenas, wolves, monkeys, baboons and birds of all kinds.”

But wait: that constituted just the small print; reserved for the ad’s major headlines was “the mammoth War Elephant Hannibal, the largest animal in the world, weighing nearly 1,600 pounds.” Also to be seen: a hippopotamus, a white polar bear, an African ostrich, snow white peacocks and Japanese Maskin Swine, the first ever imported to America. “For the special amusement of Ladies and Children,” Mr. Noyes “will exhibit his great performing monkey, Victor.” A famed brass band drawn by 12 Arabian steeds would lead a “cavalcade, a moving panorama of over a mile in length.”

The advertisement in question would be repeated at least a half-dozen times in various locations of several newspaper editions. Clearly, though, as always, advertising works. This is what The Intelligencer had to say about the event in the June 20 edition:

“The parade of the Circus and Menagerie on Saturday, through the principal streets, was a great event for the rising generation. The streets and sidewalks were crowded with children, many of whom crowded in dangerous proximity to the large elephant Hannibal, lifting up his gold foiled covering and dancing in great joy about his immense pins. A terrible dust was kicked up by the wagons, horses and mules and the town was startled from its propriety for about an hour.”

Elsewhere in the same edition, it was reported, “Thayer & Noyes’ Circus and Menagerie exhibited on the Island Saturday afternoon and evening. Never did we see such a crowd as assembled underneath the pavilion on Saturday afternoon. There were not less than five thousand persons, men, women and children of all colors and conditions, and babies in arms by the hundred.

“The afternoon was intensely hot, and the sun poured down with great fierceness upon the great tent full of humanity, which soon turned as red as the ‘snout’ of a turkey gobbler, and muslin and linen garments were completely saturated with perspiration.

“The peddlers of circus water (lemonade) were yelling, and the babies and the monkeys squealing and crying. The people crowded about the ring so that there was great delay in getting ready for the performance. Several persons fainted, and all who could force a passage through the crowd left before the performance had fairly commenced. In the evening the crowd was not so great, and the exhibition was witnessed with more satisfaction.”

The other event apparently had preoccupied Wheeling residents for weeks before the appearance of the circus and menagerie. The Daily Intelligencer on June 8 reported: “The patriotic citizens of Wheeling, determined not to be behind other cities in the great work of furnishing means for the benefit of the Sanitary and Christian Commissions, are making extensive preparations for holding a fair to be opened on the 28th …”

The United States Sanitary Commission was a private relief agency created by federal legislation on June 18, 1861, to support sick and wounded soldiers of the U.S. Army during the Civil War. It operated across the North and raised an estimated $25 million in revenue and in-kind contributions to support the cause. Thousands volunteered. The first Sanitary Fair was held in Chicago from Oct. 27-Nov. 7, 1863.

The Daily Intelligencer columns trumpeted Wheeling’s event thusly: “Grand Patriotic Festival and Fair, on behalf of the Sanitary Commission, Christian Commission and Soldiers’ Aid Societies, to be held in the Fair Buildings, commencing June 28, 1864, and continuing for one week, including a Grand Celebration on the Fourth of July.”

Throughout the month, the newspaper reported, in detail, on the names of individuals and groups that donated money to the Sanitary Fair. Special pleas were extended for help from “farmers, manufacturers, mechanics and workingmen, merchants, ladies, ministers of the gospel, citizens of neighboring towns and children” who were urged to “Save your pocket money and spend it at the Patriotic Festival. There it will bring you all it is worth and heal many a wound beside.” At the fair, you could buy refreshments, bouquets and useful and fancy articles. On the stage to be erected would be “recherche amusements and entertainments of various kinds” each evening. Special pleas were made for donation of items to be displayed in the “Curiosity Shop and Gallery of Fine Arts.”

On June 25, the newspaper reminded its readers “there remains but little time” to donate to the fair. “Nearly all of our people here are giving liberally of their means and their time. Indeed the fair has become the absorbing business of the city.” In the June 30 edition, The Intelligencer reported “the sale of tickets was quite as good as was anticipated” for the opening day.

Highlights of the event included the Grand Bazaar where fairgoers could see, and perhaps buy, just about any item they might need, from socks to cutlery to toy horses for the children. There were exhibitions by glassblowers and the newspaper pointed out, “A printing press from this office was in operation and attracted some attention from those unfamiliar with the black art.” On display was a nail machine “worked by Master William Beymer, a mere child, whose father was recently killed in the service of his country.”

Apparently, many of the more unique items donated were the subject of raffles, with chances being sold by young ladies overseeing the booths. Voluminous details were reported on the fair buildings, including the dining hall and the floral hall, which contained a French garden scene, complete with a house surrounded by woods, flowers, grass, shrubbery and fountains.

The USS Monitor was an iron-hulled steamship built during the Civil War, the first ironclad warship commissioned by the Union Navy. A replica, the little Monitor, could be found in Monitor Hall, “on the opposite corner of the street from the Fair buildings, in the Atheneum prison yard. Any and every single part of the model, multiplied by twenty-four, will produce the original Monitor.” A canal was constructed in the hall to display the little Monitor.

There was quite an historical artifact in the Gallery of Fine Arts and Curiosities: “an old cross cut saw, used for sawing the logs with which Fort Henry was built in 1777, where Wheeling now stands;” a bible printed in 1530 and General Washington’s piano.

However, a note of caution was made also: “We understand that there was a fresh arrival of pickpockets in the city yesterday. Persons visiting the fair will govern themselves accordingly.”

In the Monday, July 4, edition, the editors took note that the decision was made to continue the fair for the entire week. “Everything goes swimmingly at the Fair. The result promises to exceed all original calculations. Saturday and Saturday night the halls were crowded and the receipts in all the departments are represented as large.”

But the editors received a letter with some suggestions to improve the fair, and said, “We introduce them to our readers with our hearty endorsement.” The correspondent urged merchants and shopkeepers to “close up business promptly and universally at 6 p.m.” to allow their employees to attend the evening fair activities. More importantly, the writer discussed “the present price of admission. Very many of our citizens think it too high, and it is too high.” The writer pointed out, “We are largely a community of the middle class … and if the price was put at one half the present rates, I think there is no doubt, but more money would be realized in the end.”