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Statehood Day uncelebrated in Charleston 150 years ago

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.

"Charleston was a fine town before the war and had a very cultivated society," he wrote in his diary. "The war broke it up, but now the town is gaining again and will ultimately recover its former prosperity."

In a March 1863 letter to his mother, Hayes wrote that his Charleston encampment was located in "a beautiful valley, from Piatt (the Union camp at present-day Belle) down to its mouth. Make West Virginia a free state, and Charleston ought to be a sort of Pittsburgh."

But Hayes soon discovered Charleston was reluctant to sever its Confederate roots.

On April 5, an officer under Hayes' command was in Charleston, where he "heard a couple of ladies singing Secesh [secessionist] songs, as if for his ear, in a fine dwelling in town," the colonel wrote in his diary.

"Joe got his revenge by obtaining an order to use three rooms for hospital patients. The announcement drew grief and dismay, since [the ladies] fear small pox," Hayes wrote. "I think Joe repents his victory, now."

In June 1863, Charleston was considered safe enough from attack that Hayes arranged for his wife, mother-in-law, and four sons to travel on the steamboat Market Boy from Cincinnati to spend time with him at Camp White.

Here, the family "rowed skiffs, fished, sailed little ships and enjoyed camp life generally," Hayes wrote in his diary.

While statehood was ushered in with a memorable celebration in Wheeling on June 20, Hayes made no note of any observance, military or civilian, taking place here on that date.

"There are no references to any ceremony happening in Charleston on that date," said Terry Lowry, a historian with the West Virginia State Archives. "There are no newspaper accounts in existence that we can find covering Charleston" on June 20, 1863, Lowry said.

A diary entry from the wife of a soldier in the 23rd Ohio did mention "a welcome rain pouring down" on that date, Lowry said.

Four days after Arthur I. Boreman was inaugurated as West Virginia's first governor, tragedy struck the Hayes family. The future president's youngest son, Joesph, died of dysentery in Hayes' cabin at Camp White.

"Poor little darling!" Hayes wrote. "A sweet, bright boy. I have seen so little of him, born since the war, that I do not realize a loss" on the scale suffered by his wife.

On July 4, 1863, two weeks after West Virginia became the nation's 35th state, the 12 Union cannons at Fort Scammon opened fire for the first and only time during the Civil War, in a salute to the nation's Independence Day, and to news of the recent Union victory at Vicksburg, Miss.Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.


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