Many believed that most of the major combat in the coming war would take place in western Virginia. After all, this was where the vital Baltimore & Ohio Railroad connected the Atlantic Ocean to the Ohio River as it moved through such key points as Baltimore, Harpers Ferry, Grafton, Wheeling, and Parkersburg.
Major General George B. McClellan, headquartered at Cincinnati, commanded the Federal Department of Ohio, which included western Virginia. In early May, he had troops stationed at Wheeling Island (the Federals carefully avoided moving into western Virginia until the popular vote on Virginia’s secession took place on the 23rd). This emboldened the locals, most of whom were Unionists, to hold pro-Union meetings at Wheeling and at Kingwood in Preston County. They discussed carving out a new state for themselves based on the presumption that Virginians had committed treason by seceding and thus no longer had legal governance over them. Delegates were elected to a Convention of the Western Counties of Virginia, to take place in mid-May.
The Confederates, however, had no intention of allowing a portion of Virginia to break from the rest of the state. Major General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Virginia state militia, assigned Colonel George A. Porterfield to take command of the state forces in northwestern Virginia. Most of these forces were at Grafton. Porterfield was directed to defend Parkersburg and Moundsville, about 10 miles south of Wheeling.
As both sides worked to control the key town of Grafton, it appeared that the Federals had the upper hand. Colonel Thomas J. Jackson, commanding Confederate forces at Harpers Ferry, reported that Grafton was in a “state of rebellion” against the state, with residents garnering support from Pennsylvania and Ohio. Major Francis W. Boykin, tasked with recruiting Confederate forces at Grafton, informed General Lee that recruitment would be very difficult due to the strong Unionist sentiment in the area.
George Latham, the Unionist editor of The Western Virginian, wrote to Secretary of War Simon Cameron that Grafton was “one of the strongest Union towns in this section of the state.” He reported: “We are now enrolling men and drilling every day, collecting such arms as may be had, and manufacturing cartridges, &c.” Lathan assured Cameron that the troops were “preparing for a fight if (Virginia) Governor (John) Letcher’s troops attempt to occupy our town.” Latham concluded: “The Union men of Northwestern Virginia are becoming more firm every day. They want to see secession put down and the leaders hung.”
Boykin explored the area outside Grafton and reported to Lee that “the feeling in nearly all of our counties is very bitter and nothing is left undone by the adherents of the old Union.” If he was going to hold Grafton, he could not rely on locals to help. Lee expressed regret that western Virginians did not support their state, but he was reluctant to send reinforcements from the east because they could “irritate, instead of conciliating the population of that area.”
At Wheeling, the Union Convention assembled on the 13th. Radicals urged the northwestern counties to break from Virginia and form a new state, even though that would violate the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of maintaining each state’s sovereign borders. Conservatives argued that since the Richmond government had seceded, the western Virginians represented the true Unionist state government of Virginia. The Wheeling Intelligencer reported: “Let the world see that there was one green spot where unyielding patriotism rallied.” After three days, the delegates agreed to meet again after the Virginia state convention had decided on whether or not to secede.
As the convention took place, Colonel Porterfield arrived at Grafton to take Confederate command. Ominously, no Confederate officers or troops were at the station to greet him. He was only met with “great disaffection” and “opposition to the lawful action of the State authorities.” Porterfield found his small force a couple miles north at Fetterman, and he set about trying to concentrate what few troops were scattered throughout the neighboring counties.
To Porterfield’s dismay, he “found great diversity of opinion and much bitterness of feeling among the people of this region.” The people “are apparently upon the verge of civil war.” Porterfield believed that this was due to “a few bad men” encouraging “rebellion among the people” and who had “seized the guns and ammunition of the State, to be used against its authority.”
To the Confederates’ benefit, General McClellan informed Washington that the “Union men” in northwestern Virginia “lack courage.” By the 17th, most of McClellan’s command was still at Camp Dennison in Cincinnati, but McClellan hoped to raise 40,000 men to invade both Kentucky and western Virginia. Holding Kentucky was more important at this time, as Virginia had not yet held her popular vote on secession, and the Lincoln administration did not want to invade the state until secession was official. McClellan kept troops poised for invasion across the Ohio River from Wheeling and Parkersburg. He did not discourage western Virginians from forming their own volunteer units.
Newspaper editor Latham raised a pro-Union force to guard Grafton, which became known as the Grafton Guards. The Guards raised a large U.S. flag over the town, which angered the Confederates stationed two miles away. A force of about 200 men marched into Grafton to remove the flag, but they soon found themselves surrounded by the Unionist troops and a hostile citizenry. The Confederates withdrew, with one soldier recalling that the residents “were shouting and cursing and abusing us dreadfully.” A situation that could have devolved into deadly violence was averted for now.
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- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York: Vintage Books, 1958.
- Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee. Scribner, (Kindle Edition), 2008.
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