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.
"We are surrounded here by traitors," wrote Edward M. Norton on Sept. 5, 1861 to U.S. Attorney General Edward Bates. Since the previous winter, Norton had watched with dismay as Wheeling men joined the Confederate cause, either by enlisting in the army or being elected to the Confederate Congress.
In early August, the U.S. Congress had passed the Confiscation Act of 1861, permitting the takeover of property being used to benefit the Confederacy. By writing to the attorney general, Norton was seeking assurance that he could put that law into effect in Wheeling without exceeding his legal power.
Norton and his two brothers had moved to Wheeling from Pennsylvania in 1847 and had established the Top Mill, one of the early iron mills in the city. He had been a delegate to the Chicago Convention, which nominated Abraham Lincoln for president, and afterwards was appointed to the position of U.S. marshal. It was in that role that Norton wrote his letter. Apparently the response to the letter was positive, since Norton quickly began going after property owned by Confederate sympathizers.
In late September 1861, he seized a pair of bay horses owned by Wheeling attorney Charles Wells Russell. One of Wheeling's most distinguished lawyers, Russell is remembered as having been the attorney who argued the Wheeling bridge case before the U.S. Supreme Court when Pittsburgh sought to have the Suspension Bridge removed. Russell also had been at the forefront of ensuring that the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad arrived at Wheeling as its Ohio River destination. Bridge engineer Charles Ellet was his major ally.
But Russell's sympathies were with the South. By the fall of 1861, he had already left Wheeling and eventually served for four years as a member of the Confederate Congress from Virginia.
On Oct. 26, 1861, Norton seized Russell's house at 75 12th St. under the same law. That house, which still stands, was later used as headquarters for Gen. William Rosecrans and his staff of the Army of Western Virginia.
Norton next went after the property of another well-known Wheeling citizen. On Oct. 31, he confiscated the home of Dr. Matthew Houston, located "on 4th between Union and Monroe" (now known as Chapline, between 11th and 12th streets). Houston was one of the founders of Wheeling Hospital and one of the most prominent doctors in town. He had already left town and later served as a surgeon in the Confederate Army.
Norton's zeal against Confederates didn't stop with confiscating property. On Oct. 6, 1861, he arrested Ellie Poole, a teacher at the Fourth Ward School in East Wheeling, "upon information which led him to believe that the lady was engaged in some treasonable correspondence." Feigning illness, Ellie was allowed to remain under guard in her home at 82 Clay St. (now18th Street).
During the night she escaped and fled down river, and her amazing saga continued. She traveled by steamboat to Cincinnati and then on to Louisville. There, she found that the well-known detective Delos "Yankee" Bligh was pursuing her. Seeking to elude Bligh, Ellie boarded a train headed for Vincennes, Ind. Bligh boarded the same train, however, and arrested Ellie. She is said to have had some $7500 in Confederate money with her - a very considerable amount for that time.
Bligh took her back to Louisville and brought her before Gen. William T. Sherman. From there, Ellie was sent to Washington, D.C., where she was placed under house arrest with the infamous Rose Greenhow and several other women accused of spying for the Confederacy. While in "Greenhow Prison," Ellie and another detainee reportedly amused themselves with "fainting fits" and enjoyed the attention - and brandy - brought by the guards.
After a few months under house arrest, Ellie reluctantly signed a loyalty oath and went to Lynchburg, Va. There she met her future husband, a Confederate soldier, and spent the rest of her life. When the official reports of the war were compiled years later, a section on the issue of Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus mentioned Ellie Poole by name and referred to her arrest as being justified because she was a "shrewd and dangerous spy."
Union fervor was strong in Wheeling throughout October and the rest of the year. The men who had enlisted for three-month service had mustered out in August, and most had almost immediately re-enlisted for three more years. Wives, mothers and sweethearts prepared elaborate dinners for departing soldiers. Meanwhile, "sesesh" prisoners were paraded on their way from the Island to winter confinement in the Athenaeum, a repurposed theater on the corner of 16th and Market streets.
Newspaper articles promoted the idea of a separate state and expressed disdain toward the government in Richmond. One article, for example, told of an insane woman from Ritchietown who was sent to an asylum in Columbus. "Until the asylum at Weston is completed, we shall be compelled to send all subjects to Columbus. We can't send them to Staunton [Va.], and it wouldn't do to send them there, if we could. The people down there are all crazy."
The newspapers of the day also reported disapproval of soldiers who blocked the sidewalk, forcing pedestrians to walk in the muddy street. And drunkenness among the soldiers reached such a level that city council passed an ordinance forbidding the sale of alcohol to anyone in uniform.
Toward the end of October, an article reported that three local wagon-makers - Busby, Little & Co; Joshua Bodley and Moffit & McNabb - were hired by the federal government to make wagons and ambulances, and Washington Cline was reported to be busy forging chains for government service.
On a lighter note, another article from October 1861 reported an improvement in ladies' hooped skirts. A greatly increased number of standards, placed closely around bottom of the skirt, reportedly made it harder for a heel to catch in the skirt, "adding much to the general strength and durability." The article noted that the idea had originated with a woman "of course" and that hooped skirts had reached perfection.