Invasion of Western Virginia! Butler’s Advance; Taney’s Challenge

Monday, May 27, 1861

Just after dawn, the 1st Virginia (US) under Col. Kelley marched across the suspension bridge from Ohio to Wheeling, western Virginia. Hundreds of loyal Unionist citizens rose early to see their boys off. Many of the 1st Virginia were from Wheeling, so wives and mothers hugged and kissed their dear ones good-bye.

Most wore blue jeans and old work clothes. Cartridge boxes were in short supply, so the boys stuffed as many rounds of ammunition into however many pockets they could find. Upon inspection, company sergeants found that many of the men had loaded their weapons backwards, with the ball behind the powder charge. These were the greenest of troops.

They piled themselves into empty boxcars at the B&O Depot. Some could barely keep their eyes open from the drilling the regiment did the night before, but others sang “The Star Spangled Banner” and “Dixie” as the train pulled away from the station and headed southeast to Fairmont, 70 miles down the line.1

In Parkersburg, the two Ohio regiments arrived in the morning from Marietta, Ohio and boarded a train to head east towards Grafton, a distance of 80 miles. This would not be an easy ride. Along the road, many bridges had been vandalized and required some repairs to render them passable.2

The Rebels had anticipated the Union troops using both branches of the B&O line (Wheeling to Grafton and Parkersburg to Grafton) and had taken precautions to destroy as many bridges as possible. Along the Wheeling branch, only two bridges were destroyed, both within 35 miles of Grafton, but all along the Parkersburg branch, many more were taken out, causing the Ohio troops under Col. Steedman to crawl along at a snail’s pace.

In Grafton, Confederate Col. Porterfield had received word that a mass of Federal troops were converging on his camp. By evening, reports of as many as 3,000 troops in Mannington (only 30 miles away) reached the Colonel. He immediately telegraphed General Johnston in Harpers Ferry asking to be reinforced. Johnston replied that he could send no troops.3

The Union plan was for the Ohio troops under Steedman to move into Grafton while the western Virginia troops under Kelley were to halt at Fairmont and await further instructions. By the end of the first night, Steedman was probably only 30 miles outside Parkersburg while Kelley had made it to Mannington, becoming the obvious threat to the Rebel position in Grafton.4


Butler Advances and the Contraband Problem

Meanwhile, Union General Benjamin Butler and several regiments set out by boat for Newport News, eight miles away from their base at Fortress Monroe (near Norfolk, Virginia). Butler wished to extend his camp and to place heavy artillery along the banks to command the mouth of the James River. The force landed there and set up camp without any opposition aside from the Rebel battery at Sewell’s Point, which fired one shot at the troops.

Butler originally wished for more land because he wanted more troops and now that he had more land, he again requested more troops.

The General also had the “contraband” question still on his mind. “The inhabitants of Virginia are using their negroes in the batteries,” wrote Butler. Since he had arrived, escaped slaves had come to the fort seeking asylum. Originally, he wished to use the escaped slaves as paid labor, but more recently, they had been coming with their families. He was completely unsure of what to do and was again asking for direction in this matter.

Butler argued that without these slaves, the Rebels could not wage any type of war. Therefore, since they were viewed as property, they could be confiscated as contraband (which amounted to freeing the slaves).5


Taney Snubbed by Cadwalader

Chief Justice Taney had called Union General Cadwalader to appear before his court in Baltimore concerning John Merryman, who had been arrested on the 25th for treasonous acts. Because Lincoln had suspended the writ of Habeas Corpus, Merryman was being held without charges. Taney wished to challenge that and ordered Cadwalader to bring Merryman so he could be lawfully charged.

Cadwalader, however, refused to show up, sending an aide-de-camp in his stead. Merryman remained behind bars at Fort McHenry.

Taney was unhappy at being thwarted and ordered that Cadwalader was in contempt in refusing to appear before the court with Merryman. He again ordered both to appear before him the following day.6


Lincoln Calls Shenanigans on Missouri

In Washington, Lincoln caught wind of the Price-Harney Truce calling for a seize fire between Unionists and Secessionists in Missouri. He wrote to Harney that even though there was a “pledge of the State authorities to cooperate in preserving peace in Missouri, loyal citizens in great numbers continue to be driven from their homes.”

It was Harney’s duty, said Lincoln, to put a stop to them “summarily by the force under your command.” Though many of the State troops and politicians of Missouri had sworn an oath to the Union, it was “not to be relied upon,” as they had “already falsified their professions too often, and are too far committed to secession to be entitled to your confidence.”

Lincoln closed the letter with an order: “The authority of the United States is paramount, and whenever it is apparent that a movement, whether by color of State authority or not, is hostile, you will not hesitate to put it down.”

As far as the President was concerned, there was no truce.7

  1. “A Day at the Races; The First Virginia (U.S.) Infantry at the Battle of Philippi” by Mark E. Bell from the collection: Civil War; The Early Battles, Savas Publishing Company, 1997. []
  2. Rebels at the Gate by W. Hunter Lesser. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p51-52. []
  4. I’ve not come across anything to tell me exactly where Steedman’s men were at this point. Actually, nothing much is said of them by McClellan other than that they were delayed by the bridges. They would not reach Clarksburg until the 30th. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p52-53. []
  6. American State Trials: Volume 9 edited by John Davison Lawson, Thomas Law Books, 1918. []
  7. Letter from Lorenzo Thomas to William S. Harney, Washington, D. C., May 27, 1861. It was believed that Lincoln wrote the letter and Thomas signed it, though no original copy was ever found. Either way, these were Lincoln’s orders. []
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Invasion of Western Virginia! Butler’s Advance; Taney’s Challenge by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International
  1. I am not sure when you started using the maps to show the day’s action. I am sure it has been a while. It is a very good addition, and a nice touch to use the contemporary maps. It has been very helpful, espcially in following the action in (not yet West) Virginia. It is also amazing to get the sense of logistics and the challenges of the day. I mean, seriously, Steedman only made it 30 miles? Why didn’t he just take the 50???

    Keep up the good work. I look forward to your posts each day like no other.


    • Thanks! I love doing the maps. A lot of town names have changed since then, so using contemporary was actually the easiest.

      I’d love to check out the old railroad running east from Parkersburg sometime. Would be a lot of fun.

      Also, in Steadman’s defense, taking Route 50 east from Parkersburg is a horrible, horrible experience. I used to travel from Morgantown to Parkersburg a lot and that stretch of 50 was, for some reason, completely unbearable. Since then, I’ve traveled across the country several times, still, that bit of US 50 is my least favorite bit of noninterestate road ever. Ryan, who sometimes posts on here, will agree. I’d much rather take a slow moving train that could be, at any moment, ambushed by Rebels over driving US 50 east from Parkersburg any day. 🙂