Only Unionists in Grafton, (Western) Virginia; Sherman’s Offer and Help from Canada?

Wednesday, May 8, 1861

The town of Grafton in western Virginia was becoming the focal point for both sides of the War. Mostly, this was because it was a rail hub on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. Roads from Parkersburg and Wheeling (both important Ohio River towns) met with the road heading east to Harpers Ferry, Washington and Baltimore. Whichever side controlled Grafton, controlled the rail traffic to the Ohio River.

Confederate Major Boykin was ordered to raise troops in and around Grafton while Col. Porterfield was ordered to command the troops once they were raised.

Boykin had arrived on the 6th and quickly wrote to General Lee on the 7th that conditions were not favorable for the raising of troops.1 George Latham, the editor of a newly-established newspaper called The Western Virginian, was pushing for secession out of Virginia, out of the Confederacy and back into the United States.

He was hardly the only one. As Boykin realized, though Grafton was in Virginia, it was very much of the Union. Latham too it upon himself to write to the United States Secretary of War, Simon Cameron. Though he acknowledged that Grafton was “one of the strongest Union towns in this section of the state” and that there was not a single “avowed secessionist in our town,” he was worried that Grafton was to be a point of convergence for Confederate troops.

Latham was interested in raising troops of his own to defend Grafton. “We are now enrolling men and drilling every day, collecting such arms as may be had, and manufacturing cartridges, & c.,” wrote Latham, adding that they were “preparing for a fight if Governor Letchers troops attempt to occupy our town.” He had received word that 5,000 muskets were available in Wheeling, but that was 100 miles away.

“The Union men of Northwestern Virginia are becoming more firm every day,” said Latham in closing. “They want to see secession put down and the leaders hung.”2


General Lee Approves of Virginia’s First Shots

Virginia’s first shots fired in the Civil War the previous day were the cause of some alarm. Before the news would travel through the North, Virginia officials had to grapple with what it meant.

Colonel William B. Taliaferro, commander of the batteries at Gloucester Point, took command immediately after the exchange of shots between Lt. Brown’s battery and the USS Yankee. In fact, he took command of the battery because of the exchange.

When questioned, Lt. Brown said that he was only following the orders of Naval Captain William Whittle to fire upon any United States ship that drew too close. Whittle read the report, which was intended for the eyes of General Robert E. Lee, and wrote Lee a note of his own denying that he ever ordered the firing at Gloucester Point.

As for what Lee thought of the matter, according to a report from Capt. Samuel Barron of the Virginia Navy, the Major-General was not pleased that the ship had been fired upon from such a distance.3

However, Lee wrote himself to Col. Taliaferro, battery commander at Gloucester Point, who had written him on the 6th asking for orders about what to do if a ship would attempt to steam past his command. Lee replied that “when she shall have gotten within range, to fire a shot across her bows. Should this not deter her from proceeding on, you will fire one over her; and if she still persist, you will fire into her. Should the fire be returned, you will capture her, if possible.” 4


Sherman Offers with Stipulations

William Tecumseh Sherman had severed all ties with his former adopted-state of Louisiana, where he was the superintendent of a military school, and returned to his home in St. Louis. When he heard of Lincoln’s call for three-month volunteers, he wasn’t interested. But when three-year enlistments were being accepted, he decided to write to Washington and offer his services.

In writing to Secretary of War Simon Cameron, Sherman wrote that he “rightfully or wrongfully” felt “unwilling to take a mere private’s place.” Since he had served in Louisiana and California, the men were not “well enough acquainted with me to elect me to my appropriate place.”

“Should my services be needed,” Sherman wrote in closing, “the records of the War Department will enable you to designate the station in which I can render most service.”5


Help from Canada?

As Latham in western Virginia had proven, support for the Union wasn’t confined to just in the Union. It also wasn’t just confined to the United States. Joseph Dickson of Quebec and D. McDonald of Nova Scotia both wrote to Washington offering their services to the Union cause.

In both cases, Simon Cameron gave thanks for their patriotism, but could not accept their offers to help. Cameron expressed to McDonald of Nova Scotia that, while the offer of Nova Scotians to fight for the Union was appreciated, the Union was not hurting for lack of men. Rather, the difficulty lay in resisting “the pressure upon me to accept all who offer their services from the different States of the Union.”

He reminded Dickson that the United States was “engaged in a contest to put down rebellion, and it behooves us to exhibit to the world the power of the American Union to vindicate its authority by the hands of her own citizens.”6

  1. Both Boykin and Lee refer to this letter in the Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p827 and 830. The contents of his letter can be surmised from that, but I cannot find the actual letter. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p630. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p821. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p816. []
  5. Memoirs of General William T. Sherman, Volume 1 by William Tecumseh Sherman, D. Appleton and Company, 1875. []
  6. Official Records, Series 3, Vol. 1, p176. []
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Only Unionists in Grafton, (Western) Virginia; Sherman’s Offer and Help from Canada? by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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5 thoughts on “Only Unionists in Grafton, (Western) Virginia; Sherman’s Offer and Help from Canada?

  1. Eric –
    As you already know, I am a great fan of William Tecumseh Sherman. I love that he was gentleman enough to tender his offer of service directly to the Secretary of War, but humble enough to “suggest” a senior placement and wait for them to place him at an appropriate rank. He was truly a class act. As you will no doubt show later he was ruthless in executing his duties, but his purpose was the most noble. He felt that if war was necessary then it must be prosecuted efficiently and thoroughly.
    Have you read his complete memoirs? I am in the process of reading them, as well as other books of historical interest.

    – Sean

    1. I’m a pretty big fan too. I’ve tried to cover him, and over the next few days, Sherman pops up in a very Forrest Gump kind of way. When I first read about it, I was kind of shocked.

      He pops up again in Kentucky (in September – October) to unfortunate results.

      I’ve not read his full memoirs yet, but I do want to. I wonder if they’re on audiobook. That’s how I read for pleasure these days. My job allows me at least six hours of audiobook time each day. I cruise through things now. Love it.

  2. I previously lived in on the Ohio side of both Wheeling and Parkersburg, I still have family near Parkersburg and often taken the highway back right near Grafton.

    I currently live in Charles Town, WV about 8 miles away from Harpers Ferry and maybe 20 or so from Sharpsburg, MD(and the Antietam Battlefield).

    1. For the next few months, then, you’ll be right in the thick of things. I tried to cover the WV campaigns of ’61 the best I could. I hope that you’ll find it interesting.


  3. All the towns on the B&O Railroad had a heavy influx of northerners, Gratfton was nearly half non-native born. In Wheeling, 2 of three head of households were not native born. (see Ken Fones-Wolf’s essay in Reconstructing Appalachia).

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