Our History & Our Heritage By Bill Kiefer

The first time that I ever walked into the Hancock County Courthouse was the fall of 1968. I was amazed. I felt like I was walking back into another era. The stone exterior; the balcony in the courtroom; the smallness of the building made me feel like I had been transported to a small southern locale. In all honesty, in my mind it reminded me of the movies “To kill a Mockingbird” and “Hurry Sundown.” But when viewed from its front exterior, the statue, clearly of a Civil War soldier, on a monument, dedicated to the County’s veterans of America’s Civil War, naming them, their units, and the actions in which they fought made it quite obvious that I was not in “the south.”
The roles played in the Civil War by Hancock County, the Panhandle, neighboring portions of Ohio and Pennsylvania, and Virginia/West Virginia itself, are exceedingly complicated. For a while I have intended to write more about this period…but one can’t really write about Hancock County and the four hundred and sixty men who fought on the Union side, without putting the war itself and the County into some sort of perspective.
When war broke out it 1861, the Country was quite young, only eighty-five years had elapsed since the Declaration of Independence; only eighty years since the British surrender at Yorktown; only seventy-two years since Washington was inaugurated as the first President. True the Country had grown. The 1860 census said that there were 31,443,000 people in the thirty-three states and ten territories. Of those, 3,953,000 were slaves. Virginia, of which Hancock County was part, was the most populous southern state (5th overall) with a population of 1,596,000 which included 491,000 enslaved persons. Hancock County had a population of 4,445, which included 2 slaves. Brooke County had a population of 5,494 of which 18 were slaves. Our neighbors, Beaver and Washington Counties in PA had a combined population of about 76,000. In Ohio, Jefferson and Columbiana had a combined population of approximately 60,000 persons. Neither of our neighbors had slaves among their populace.
Virginia had held a state Constitutional Convention in 1850-1851. It was deeply divided on the issues of how representation was accorded, (i.e. should slaves be counted in the basis for political representation although they counted for little else); and property taxation, slaves under twelve were exempt from tax, those over twelve could be valued at a maximum of $300. Additionally many eastern agricultural products were exempt from taxation, while western Virginia wool was taxed. Westerners, felt that most tax revenues were spent in eastern Virginia and that they were being short changed. By 1860 the eastern – western political divide in Virginia had grown. With Lincoln’s election to the Presidency, calls from eastern Virginia for succession increased. In December 1860, the Wellsburg Herald newspaper urged those in the northern panhandle to be against secession on the basis that it would “create a misshapen wedge of slave territory thrust up between two sections of free soil.” Militarily and otherwise that might not have been a good position to be in.
South Carolina had passed a resolution seceding from the Union on December 20, 1860. Virginia first voted on the secession issue on April 4, 1861, and voted not to secede. The war commenced on April 12, 1861 with the shelling of Fort Sumter a federal military installation located in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. The Fort was surrendered to the South Carolina militia on the 13th. However, immediately following the action at Fort Sumter, President Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to serve for ninety days to put down the “Rebellion.” This action shifted opinion in Virginia and on April 17, 1861, Virginia’s legislative body voted to secede subject to a state-wide referendum to be held on May 15, 1861. The referendum passed on a two to one basis. There were many allegations that in those counties east of the Blue Ridge Mountains, voting by those who opposed secession was repressed. However the vote in the Northern Panhandle was 6828 to 431 against secession.
The Referendum did not resolve matters for the western part of the state. During the first fifteen days of June 1861, at a convention held at Wheeling a “restored” government of Virginia was created, which would in 1863 obtain statehood for the western portions of Virginia as the state of West Virginia.
In response to Lincoln’s call for volunteers, On May 17, 1861, Captain B. W. Chapman recruited Company I of the First Regiment West Virginia Volunteer Infantry. Company I contained fifty–five volunteers from Hancock County. The regiment was composed of a number of companies that also included volunteers from Brooke, Ohio, and Marshall Counties. One must keep in mind, this Company was joining a “West Virginia” Regiment formed to resist aggression from the portions of Virginia which had seceded from the Union. They saw themselves as being under the separate government sitting at Wheeling which was loyal to the Union. Their first action was at Philippi in Barbour County, on June 3, 1861.
For more on this topic see: “This Bastard New Virginia: Slavery, West Virginia Exceptionalism, and the Secession Crisis,” William A. Link, West Virginia History, Vol. 3, No. 1, 2009.