CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- While West Virginia's statehood was celebrated with a parade, singing, flag-waving, speeches and a 35-gun salute in Wheeling, the state's first capital, there is no record of any statehood observance having taken place in the current capital of Charleston on June 20, 1863.
"There's no reference to any festivities or outward celebration having taken place here, which is kind of telling about how people were feeling at the time," said Billy Joe Peyton, chairman of the history department at West Virginia State University.
In June 1863, Charleston was a war-torn town of about 1,500, still deeply scarred from fighting that took place the previous September, when Confederate troops temporarily pushed a Union force out of town and back to the Ohio River during the Battle of Charleston.
"Our village presents a most forlorn and desolate appearance," Charleston banker J.C. McFarland wrote to a friend in March of 1863. McFarland wrote that fences were down throughout town, sidewalks were destroyed, and the charred walls of the Branch Bank of Virginia and the Kanawha House hotel had recently blown down in a windstorm.
Fire started by Confederate artillery or set by retreating federal troops during the Battle of Charleston also destroyed the town's Methodist church, two downtown stores, the Mercer Academy, and several warehouses and stables.
Union troops re-occupied the Kanawha River town in the early spring of 1863, with the 23rd Ohio Infantry establishing Camp White across the river from downtown Charleston and the mouth of the Elk River, at the site of what is now the Exxon bulk storage facility.
On June 20, 1863, "Charleston was a town very much divided by the war," Peyton said. "There was probably more Confederate sentiment overall," he said, but loyalties "were not being overtly expressed one way or the other by this time in 1863. My reading is that by then, everyone was hunkered down, biding their time, waiting to see how the war played out. Things were still up in the air."
Two future U.S. presidents were among the 800 or so members of the 23rd Ohio enjoying a break from hostilities at Camp White on June 20, 1863.
Col. Rutherford B. Hayes, who became the nation's 19th president 12 years after the war ended, was the regiment's commander. He arrived in town March 15, and remained here through most of 1863. Among officers in his command was Lt. William McKinley, who received a battlefield commission for courage under fire while a sergeant during the Battle of Antietam the previous year. McKinley would become America's 25th president.
According to Hayes' diary, McKinley accompanied him on a horseback tour of the area on a cold, frosty morning March 28. The two future presidents "rode out on the road to Coal Forks as far as Davis Creek, thence down the creek to the Guyandotte Pike, thence home," Hayes wrote. "Crossed the creek seven times."
McKinley helped oversee the construction of Fort Scammon, the bunker-ringed artillery position overlooking the mouth of the Elk River and downtown Charleston at the top of what is now known as Fort Hill.
"We have built a tolerably good fort which we can hold against superior forces perhaps a week or more," Hayes wrote in a May 17, 1863, letter. "We are in no danger here. ... We have a gunboat which will be useful as long as the river is navigable."
Hayes was apparently a fan of the future West Virginia capital.