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.
January 1864 found most of the nation, including Wheeling, in the grip of a very cold and snowy winter. The Ohio River froze over, bringing a halt to boat traffic for nearly a month.
Those who wanted to cross the river had to walk across the ice, a dangerous method of travel at both the start and end of the big freeze. While dozens of skirmishes occurred between Union and Confederate armies, no significant battles took place and the severe cold hampered both sides.
Important national news centered on increased discussion in the North on how to treat the seceded states once Union forces achieved victory.
In Arkansas, citizens voted on a new pro-Union Constitution on Jan. 19; three days later, Isaac Murphy was chosen as provisional governor. In Union-controlled areas of Tennessee, people called for a constitutional convention and an end to slavery. Meanwhile, President Abraham Lincoln called for the continued payment of bounties to army volunteers and, in Congress, the 13th amendment to the Constitution, which would end slavery, was proposed as a joint resolution.
In Wheeling, the most important political issue was the Jan. 25 election of top city officials. The election was hotly contested between those who belonged to a conservative establishment against a strongly pro-Unionist slate. Among the positions to be filled were mayor, city sergeant, treasurer, supervisor of water works, wharf master and members of both houses of the City Council. In the 1860s, Wheeling's city council was divided into two chambers and important legislation had to pass both bodies to become law.
The Daily Intelligencer exulted that the Unionist ticket was almost completely successful, yet complained that voters should be chastened that so many voted for the opposition and were ignorant or complicit with the disloyal. In January 1865, the election would swing the other way and the Unionist candidates lost out.
The Daily Register claimed that the election was flawed because some soldiers stationed at the Atheneum, who were not citizens of Wheeling, were allowed to vote and that corruption marred the voting, especially in the fourth ward. The Register told the story of one young boy who had been sent by his grandfather to pick up a ballot which favored the establishment ticket and twice had his grandfather's ballot taken from him and replaced with a Unionist ballot. In each case, supporters of the establishment slate intervened to make sure that the correct ballot was eventually cast.
A second election issue arose over who had the right to vote in the election. According to the city of Wheeling's regulations, all ballots had to be cast in person, so that soldiers from Wheeling who could not be in the city for the election to cast their ballot were disenfranchised. But according to West Virginia's 1863 constitution, all cities and towns must permit citizens the opportunity to cast ballots in person or by mail.
First, both chambers of the city council voted to follow the city's rules, but reversed that vote to follow the state constitution on Jan. 23, only to change again the next day and require the voter to hand in his ballot personally. The Daily Intelligencer favored following the constitution, while The Daily Register vehemently supported the traditional procedure required by the city's rules.
On Jan. 13, the Wheeling Board of Health issued its annual report on the causes of death during 1863. Of the 389 people who died, 208 were male, 176 were female and for five the gender was not stated. More than 53 percent who died were 5 years of age or younger. While 83 causes of death were listed, the most common were inflammation of the lungs, cholera infantum, convulsions, softening of the brain and diphtheria. Only three individuals were murdered.
The report was less than clear on the cause of death of people like Casper Miller. The trial of Frederick Miller for the killing of Casper Miller (not related) concluded on Jan. 8. Both men worked at the Belmont Nail Works and, on Aug. 28, 1863, an argument broke out when Frederick upset a wheelbarrow full of bricks that Casper was pushing. The men exchanged words and threw bricks at one another. Casper was struck in the forehead and died in September of swelling of the brain.
The state put four witnesses on the stand; the defense presented 11, most of whom were character witnesses. Joseph Vogler testified that he was at Casper's house the day he died and that Casper agreed to forgive Frederick and would shake his hand. Frederick came to Casper's home, but as Casper reached out his hand to Frederick, he went into convulsions and passed away. After considering the case for 30 minutes, the jury reached a verdict of not guilty.
There was considerable entertainment available to start the new year. A German concert and ball was held in Union Hall on New Year's Eve. The Sanford troupe of comedians and musicians entertained at Washington Hall on Jan. 1-2. Low-brow fare featuring the Townshead Exhibition at Washington Hall ran from Jan. 6 through Jan. 13. For a cost of 15 cents, one could see the 8-foot Arabian giant, the 400-pound Colossal girl, a family of Albinos, a monster snake that was 20 feet long and 19 inches thick, and the Great Nondescript - yes, it is a mystery. High-brow fare followed on Jan. 14 with a classical music concert featuring the famous Brignold and Gottshalk orchestra at Washington Hall. The Ramsey troupe performed on Jan. 16 and Jan. 18 to cap the month's entertainment.
Both Wheeling newspapers gave extensive coverage to the escape of the Confederate raider John Hunt Morgan and a few of his fellow prisoners from Camp Chase in Columbus. The papers gave Morgan's own account of their tunneling out of the prison and escape to Dixie.