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.
Civil War events and skirmishes often provide interesting glimpses into little known local happenings - including how George Washington became a Civil War spoil ultimately landing in Wheeling.
From June 10-14, 1864, Union Gen. David Hunter occupied the Shenandoah Valley town of Lexington, Va., resulting in ruin and destruction. On June 12, Yankee troops burned nearby Virginia Military Institute and Hunter's soldiers pulled down a locally-revered, life-size statue of George Washington as a spoil of war.
In this vintage photograph from the Virginia Military Institute Archives, cadets and townspeople stand in front of the George Washington statue at VMI in 1866. The statue was returned to VMI from Wheeling where it had been held during the final years of the Civil War.
The VMI statue was a replica of Jean-Antoine Houdon's Washington statue featured prominently at Virginia State Capitol's Rotunda in Richmond. For eight years, Washington's iconic image stood unmolested in a place of honor on VMI's campus.
Col. David Hunter Strother (later known as Porte Crayon) convinced Gen. Hunter to send the statue to Wheeling (instead of the U.S. Military Institute at West Point) later observing, "the statue was a fine work of art standing naked and unprotected under the ruined walls of the Institute, liable to be crushed by their fall." Strother observed that, "as I looked at the dignified and noble countenance I felt indignant that this effigy should be left to adorn a country whose inhabitants were striving to destroy a government which he founded."
The captured statue was packed and loaded onto a wagon and later transferred to a Baltimore and Ohio railroad car for its trip to Wheeling. The statue arrived safely in Wheeling on July 2, 1864 although some Southerners were misinformed that it was broken into pieces and ruined because the enemy was unable to negotiate the mountain passes of Virginia.
At the time of the statue's arrival, a Sanitary Fair, designed to raise money for the care of sick soldiers and prisoners, was underway on Wheeling Island. Organizers of the fair (which opened on June 28) featured displays and other patriotic venues. The Washington statue was prominently displayed in the fair's Great Hall where it was promised by the local newspaper to be worth the price of admission. It remained on public display until the fair's closure on July 9.
However, not all parties endorsed the pilfering of the marble treasure. The New York News noted the deed was "an act of vandalism without earthly excuse - it is a theft that nothing cannot palliate - disgraceful to the age, and doubly so to the country that will suffer such a sacrifice to go unwhipped of justice."
The Wheeling Intelligencer editor, Archibald W. Campbell, on July 4 wrote, "We must confess that we see nothing in the enterprise to commend. We could not feel like congratulating the Fair on Saturday on the possession of this trophy. The bringing of it away from Lexington was an act of vandalism that must be objectionable to all right thinking people, irrespective of their hatred for the rebels."
At the Sanitary Fair's conclusion, the statue was relocated from Wheeling Island to West Virginia's temporary Capitol building grounds at Linsly Institute where, from July 1864 until just after the Civil War's conclusion in April 1865, it remained on public display.
On Oct. 14, 1865, Strother, in his post-war capacity as adjutant general of the Virginia Militia, wrote to West Virginia Gov. Arthur I. Boreman recommending return of the statue. Boreman did not oppose return of the statue, but decided that the West Virginia Legislature should authorize its removal from Wheeling. The Legislature agreed to return the statue.
On Jan. 27, 1866, Wheeling Daily Register editors published Washington's Second Farewell Address full of satirical references and written from the anthropomorphic viewpoint of the statue. Passages harkening to the routing of VMI, wryly invoked "the warm, burning invitation of Major General Hunter," a reference to the fires set by Hunter's men. Or, the reference to the statue's uprooting, "... and honored me with a floor of one of his army wagons" as well as witty asides such as "... For myself, I felt too heavy at heart to stir," a reference to the statue's weight.
The statue noted, "... under these pleasant and fragrant circumstances, I arrived at the seat of your Capital, and was duly installed in my present unmerited and unsought position," no doubt a reference to the ignoble journey in the Army wagon.
In his Second Farewell Address, Washington (the statue) noted, "For more than 18 months I have been a solitary sentinel at your Capitol. Your Governor has frequently passed and re-passed me without a word. I cannot feel at home here. I wish to return to that sacred spot from whence I was drafted by that heartless Hunter." The Register editors cheekily added, "But you must have noticed from the cast of my countenance and general frame that I have an iron constitution and you will remember that the age in which my composition was moulded has conduced to bronze my complexion, so that, those gentle and delicate lines of embrazonment, which usually illumine fair features, cannot now be traced in mine," all humorous references to statues and monuments.
The statuesque Washington concluded his address, "Therefore relying on the generosity of Governor Boreman and the legal wisdom of the Senator referred to, with a conscience, though hardened now, yet void of offence; in the hope of a speedy restoration of all my country, and of my place on the pedestal from which I was rudely torn, I bid you, all an affectionate farewell."
Upon completion of the necessary transportation logistics, Boreman was presented with a receipt for "one bronze statue which was taken from the Virginia Military Institute by General Hunter during the late war."
On Sept. 10, 1866, former Virginia Gov. John Letcher (whose home was burned by Hunter's men) spoke for several hours at the statue's VMI re-inauguration ceremony. Thus, after a two-year absence, the statue of Gen. George Washington (perhaps one of the Civil War's most improbable prisoners of war) was returned to its rightful site where it continues to be afforded a place of honor and respect from both Yankees and Rebels.