Wednesday, May 22, 1861
Throughout the beginning of the conflict, several claims of the first casualties had been expressed. There were the first Civil War death at Castle Pinckney, the murder of a Southern sympathizer in Ohio, the death in the Baltimore and St. Louis Riots and the deaths during the surrender of Fort Sumter. But this date marked the first death of one soldier at the hands of another.
Confederate Colonel George Porterfield had been sent to Grafton, western Virginia to raise troops. Upon his arrival, he found little love for the Confederacy. What men he found had to be encamped at Fetterman, two miles north of Grafton. He had recently moved his force to Pruntytown, five miles west of Grafton (both are situated on modern US Route 50).
Meanwhile, newspaper editor-turned Union Captain George Latham was raising pro-Union troops in Grafton. With Union and Confederate troops based within two miles of each other, some kind of contact was inevitable.
Latham had procured an incredibly large United States flag and had raised it over Grafton. The Union troops situated in the town were known as the Grafton Guards. They were awaiting Virginia’s popular vote confirming secession on the 23rd to officially offer their services to Union forces in Wheeling. On this date, the day before the vote, the 200-strong Confederate “Letcher Guards,” being appalled by the site of the flag, marched into Grafton to see to its removal.
Meeting them were throngs of Grafton’s citizenry. They were not cheering, however. According to one Rebel soldier, “they were shouting and cursing and abusing us dreadfully.”
As the troops moved down Main Street from the west, they stopped in front of the flag. Their captain ordered them to take down the “damn rag.” A young Unionist citizen then hurled a chair at the Rebel captain, knocking him from his horse. He picked himself up and was about to order his men to fire when he noticed the Grafton Guards stationed on the rooftops of the buildings up and down Main Street. Their guns were leveled at the Rebel troops.
This could quickly have developed into the first land battle of the Civil War. If the Rebel Letcher Guards would have fired into the crowd or the Unionist Grafton Guards would have fired from the rooftops, history may have played out in a slightly different way.
Not wishing to make headlines just yet, the Rebels began to retire. As they marched back down Main Street, a group of girls taunted and waved American flags at them. Soon a larger crowd appeared. The Letcher Guards were halted by the railroad hotel as the Unionist mob gathered around them, hurling curses and insults, but nothing more. The officers of the Letcher Guards stood between the men and the crowd, begging the Rebels to keep their cool and not to fire upon the citizens. After an hour stand off, the Rebels retired.
Later that evening, two soldiers of the Unionist Grafton Guards were returning to Grafton from Pruntytown where they were on a recruiting mission (or possibly scouting the Rebel position – the stories vary). A single bridge connected Grafton to Pruntytown. That bridge also served (and was actually closer to) Fetterman.
The two Union soldiers, Daniel Wilson and Thornsbury Baily Brown, had just crossed the bridge on the Northwest Turnpike (Modern US 50). This was a gutsy move since the Rebels had recently occupied Fetterman, but they had heard that the Rebels had left that town as well. As they approached the B&O Railroad crossing, they were ordered to halt.
Three Rebel soldiers could be seen through the darkness. Brown recognized one as Daniel Knight, a local ruffian who had gotten into a fight with Brown prior to the current political climate. According to some reports, Wilson ordered Brown to fire. In others, Brown exclaimed, “damn him, what right has he to stop us?” Either way, Brown drew his revolver and shot the Rebel, Knight, clipping his ear.
Knight reeled back, but was able to raise his flintlock loaded with buckshot and fired. The three balls hit Brown near his heart and he fell, mortally wounded. Daniel Wilson ran towards Grafton as another Rebel soldier fired at him, hitting him in the heel of the boot.
Thornbury Baily Brown was dead, the first Union soldier to be killed by a Confederate soldier.
Wilson informed Captain Latham of Brown’s death and it was decided to move the Union troops to outside of Grafton. Confederate Colonel Porterfield ordered Brown’s body to be returned to his friends.1
- Three books (Lee vs. McClellan; The First Campaign by Clayton R. Newell, Rebels at the Gates by Lesser, and The Civil War in Western Virginia by Cohen), a Master’s thesis paper (“A History of the Letcher Guards and the Twenty-Fifth Virginia Infantry Regiment” by Walter Rohrbacher)
and the Official Records (Series 1, Vol. 51, Part 2, p109) went into writing this account. The stories vary, but I’ve tried to deduce the most likely scenario. [↩]