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.
In April 1862, one year to the month after Sumter fell, Wheeling found herself the capital city of loyal Virginia with Gov. Francis Pierpont installed in the Custom House.
Soldiers and civilians jostled each other in busy streets, alternately dusty or muddy depending on rainfall. While members of the Fourth Regiment, Virginia Militia assembled at street corners to elect officers, the Mountain Department's chief quartermaster placed ads seeking 1,500 strong horses and 2,000 mules. Suitable animals were assigned to Capt. Frank Buell, commander of the First Virginia Volunteer Artillery, better known as the "Pierpont Battery," who took them to Wheeling Island to be trained to "conduct themselves in a fight."
The B&O Railroad between Wheeling and Baltimore, a vital artery for troops and supplies, was reopened after bridges damaged by rebel "bushwackers" were repaired and troops had been committed to protecting the route.
To celebrate the arrival of the first passenger train from Baltimore, the Pierpont Battery fired a 100-gun salute.
Gen. Rosecrans, who had been headquartered in the city since December, left for Washington. While he was still at the McLure, his officers expressed their sentiments, promising to "forever honor him as the man, the soldier and the Christian." Gen. Fremont's staff arrived on April 6.
Despite the increasing ubiquity of the war, Wheeling's civilians persevered. The town remained home to an array of retail establishments selling everything from cigars and snuff to Ayer's Sarsaparilla for purifying the blood; from jeans and hoop skirts to horse buckets and "Jenny Lind keelers" (tubs for butter-making). At Washington Hall, where the opening session of the Second Wheeling Convention that eventually established the Restored Government of Virginia had met, the celebrated cantatrice, Madame Anna Bishop, performed. Across the Ohio River, a pack of 20 or more well-bred hounds followed by nattily-clad men on horseback could often be seen chasing foxes toward the river.
At mid-month, U.S. Sen. John Carlile, the vocal Unionist and driving force behind the establishment of the Restored Government, got into a well-publicized fistfight with U.S. Marshal Norton outside Merchant's and Mechanic's Bank. "The two distinguished gentlemen," the Wheeling Daily Intelligencer reported, "clinched and proceeded to strike and wool one another [until] they were separated." Inspired more by pugilist "Young Sam" Scranton, who started a boxing school on Main Street, than by Sen. Carlile's unseemly street brawling, a "Wheeling Gymnasium" was created on the second floor of Paxton's Row, for men who desired invigorating exercise - some "German Turnerism."
It had been less than two months since delegates in convention at the Custom House had unanimously approved a constitution for the proposed new state. On April 3, the document was submitted to the people of Virginia's western counties, who overwhelmingly approved by a vote of 18,862 to 514. In Ohio County, the vote was 1,023 for and 31 against.
Included on the same ballot was the controversial issue of the gradual emancipation of slaves - the "Free State" question. The Intelligencer came out in favor of the concept as an expedient step for the admission of West Virginia, lest "all our efforts ... prove a splendid farce and we shall be under the rule of the rebels of the east." The people of Wheeling resoundingly agreed, voting in favor 617 to 29. South Wheeling was especially adamant, approving 129 to 2. "Ritchietown always covers herself with glory," The Intelligencer crowed. "She is the greatest state in the Union - She voted right up to handle yesterday on the Free State question."
The Athenaeum, Wheeling's theater turned makeshift military prison, was packed to capacity with suspected bushwackers, traitors and spies. Visible from the south-facing windows of the Custom House where the new constitution had recently been drafted, the Anthenaeum was, at best, a prison of dubious security. In late March, an inmate aptly named Swindler, on the pretense of "using the privy" (inexplicably located outside prison walls) duped a guard and escaped.
Prisoner Swayne's escape a few days later reads like a Keystone Kops script. Exploiting the established gullibility of the guards, Swayne feigned sickness and jumped from the roof leaving his shoes atop the now infamous privy, "so the soldiers might have something by which to remember him." He "struck out for the Hempfield Railroad in his stocking feet," stopping at the home of a Mr. Britt who, inexplicably, fed him breakfast. Swayne was eating when a guard arrived. Snatching the guard's rifle, Swayne shot and missed. The guard returned fire with his revolver, missing both shots at the fleeing fugitive. Britt then grabbed his squirrel rifle and pursued Swayne, caught him and returned him to the Anthenaeum where he was "bucked and gagged."
Other "secession sympathizers" were imprisoned for singing "treasonable songs" or denouncing the Wheeling Government. By late April, the Anthenaeum had become so overcrowded with real and imagined enemies of the state that inmates were regularly hauled away to Camp Chase.
The disloyalty paranoia was evident in the multitude of federal court proceedings involving accused traitors. Both Fremont and Pierpont committed themselves to punishing disloyalty. "A rigid censorship" was to be instituted "in all the counties over which the Wheeling Government has jurisdiction." Anyone in a licensed business, including physicians, dentists, bankers and keepers of toll bridges, was required to recite the Oath of Allegiance (and to mean it).
Regarding the war itself, the newspapers almost daily printed letters received from "our Wheeling boys" at various fronts. The town was still abuzz with news of the recent skirmishing near Winchester, where many Wheeling men were fighting with the loyal First Virginia against Stonewall Jackson's forces in what would become known in military legend as the Shenandoah Valley Campaign.
Wheeling businessman Augustus Pollack - who had recently opened a notion and fancy goods store on Main Street - translated, for The Intelligencer, a vivid letter from a fellow German immigrant serving in the First Virginia: "The stoutest heart is awestricken by the appalling spectacle on a battle field at night, the former uninterrupted stillness of sleeping nature ... changed to the theatre where unfortunate beings, mangled and crippled, are stretched on the ground dampened by their late blood, with wounds wide open, groaning, wailing, helpless, evoking a kind Creator to terminate their existence."
Another Wheeling soldier reported 27 "Shriver Grays" a Confederate regiment composed largely of Wheeling men killed or captured at Winchester. Among the dead was William Robertson, whose two brothers fought for the Union in the same battle. "As soon as the two loyal boys heard of the death of their brother William," The Intelligencer reported, "they pushed on to the house where he was lying. But soldiers were in the act of burying him."
April 1862 also saw the horrific carnage of the battle known in the North as Pittsburg Landing and in the South as Shiloh. On April 6, Confederate forces under Gens. Beauregard and Johnston attacked Union forces under Gen. Grant at Shiloh, Tenn. Grant's army was nearly defeated. But a quote making the rounds in the newspapers provided the epilogue: "Beauregard's 'victory' at Pittsburg Landing is ... like that described by 'John Phoenix.' ... 'I held the enemy down by my nose, which I had inserted between his teeth for that purpose.'"
The federals rallied when reinforcements arrived and the tide turned. Drained by their efforts, the Union troops failed to pursue the retreating Confederates. Shiloh was a bloodbath: 13,000 of 63,000 Union and 11,000 of 40,000 Confederate troops were killed or wounded.
Maj. Wallace of Martinsville (Martins Ferry) commanded the 15th Ohio, mostly Belmont County troops, at Pittsburg Landing. "He [Wallace] was everywhere conspicuous on the bloody field," a soldier wrote, "and always in the thickest of the fray." Numerous Martinsville soldiers were killed in the battle.
The chaplain of 78th Ohio wrote poignantly to his uncle in Wheeling: "The vast armies dashed against each other as two angry thunder clouds ... But oh the horrid battlefield after the battle. Think of from 5,000 to 6,000 of our fellow men scattered like leaves all over the ground in every imaginable position and condition, cold in death ... think of a vast body of men dead, dying, mangled, bleeding and wailing and you have the results of our great battle."
A captain in the chaplain's brigade was devastated to recognize one of the dead rebels as his brother. "Overwhelming was the tide of anguish as it roiled over the surviving brother's heart." A father who enlisted with his two sons found them both dead side-by-side on the field. "Long did he sit and gaze upon his dead and sigh." A German regiment of the 58th Ohio lost nearly 100 men. "A large German stood over a fellow soldier whose face was horribly mangled by a cannonball ... and continued to say in broken English, 'He was my best friend. He was my best friend.'"
As April turned to May, the Pierpont Battery marched down Main Street to board a B&O train that would take them to Franklin, Va., to join Gen. Fremont. As the troops passed a shoe house near the Suspension Bridge, a woman of "secesh persuasion" pulled an American flag out of a window, sparking outrage. Unfazed, the battery marched on, presenting, as The Intelligencer beamed, "a very warlike appearance as it moved through the streets."