Cumberland Times-News

Opinion

June 29, 2013

‘All drunk and a number of speeches’

Here’s a considerably shortened version of my Civil War speech last Sunday in Keyser, and the answer to the question I asked you:

West Virginia was the 35th state admitted to the Union. The 35-star flag was not made official by Congress until July 4, 1863, the day after the Battle of Gettysburg ended.

Did any Union regiments have a 35-star American Flag at Gettysburg?

At least one — the 7th West Virginia Volunteer Infantry. After they heard West Virginia had become a state, some of them paid a nighttime visit to the camp of an Ohio or Indiana regiment, cut a star out of its flag and sewed it into their own 34-star flag.

How ‘bout them Eers?

Keyser was called New Creek Station when it was introduced to the Civil War on June 19, 1861 — 16 days after the war’s first land battle in Philippi. Confederates burned the 21st Bridge, where the railroad tracks crossed the Potomac River east of town. It’s called the 21st Bridge because that’s how many miles it is from Cumberland.

In his book, “The Civil War in Maryland,” Daniel Carroll Toomey said the town was in a panic. There were 28 militiamen guarding the bridge, and the rebels ran them off.

Col. Lew Wallace (who later wrote Ben-Hur) was in command of the Union garrison. He sent for help, withdrew his troops from town and sent his belongings to Bedford for safekeeping. When reinforcements arrived and the rebels left without coming into town, life went back to normal ... for a while. Future President Rutherford B. Hayes also was in command here.

The Union fort that occupied the present site of Potomac State College is called Fort Kelley on a Confederate map and Fort Fuller on a Union map.

It was built by the 23rd Illinois Infantry, Col. James A. Mulligan’s Irish Brigade, which camped on St. Cloud Street between Orchard and Gilmore streets. I have read that this town’s first Roman Catholic Mass was celebrated by Father Butler, their chaplain.

The brigade named the fort after Allen Fuller, the adjutant general of Illinois. It might also have been named for Union Brigadier Gen. Benjamin Franklin Kelley (who with Gen. George Crook was captured in Cumberland by McNeill’s Rangers near the end of the war).

Edward McCarty Armstrong — for whom Armstrong Street in Keyser is named — was a prominent businessman who lived in a mansion on the site of the old Keyser High School. He had a store and post office at the corner of Main and Armstrong streets.

Armstrong was a delegate in the Virginia legislature and voted against secession, but moved east and became a colonel in the Confederate Army.

About 600 Confederates under Major Gen. Thomas Lafayette Rosser raided Fort Fuller in November 1863. Rosser was a first-rate soldier who later was a brigadier general in charge of training American volunteers during the Spanish-American War.

Some of his Rebels entered Fort Fuller in Union uniforms and could have been executed as spies if captured. They found that most of the Yankees were sleeping or eating lunch.

The fort was taken, looted and burned, and about 400 prisoners taken. (Two of my Heironimus relatives from Hampshire County were part of that fracas with the Rebel cavalry.)

In his 1906 book, “From Baltimore, Md., to Charleston, W.Va.,” J.R. Schaeffer said many stray Union soldiers and citizens jumped into the Potomac River and swam to the other side while being shot at, then fled to the mountains — many of them without hats or boots. Other accounts say the Union soldiers bravely held their ground until the Confederates decided they couldn’t take the town and withdrew.

A Confederate soldier killed in the downtown area was buried on the grounds of the old Keyser High School. I don’t know who he was or what became of his remains.

Fort Fuller’s commander, Col. George Latham, was court-martialed and dishonorably discharged from the army. However, Rosser’s raid happened two weeks after the election. That’s why, a few months later, Latham was West Virginia’s Second District Representative to Congress.

We have local reminders of the Civil War. Fried Meat Ridge Road may be called that because Confederates hijacked a Union supply train that was headed toward New Creek in December 1863 and feasted on the food they captured. (A friend of mine reminded me of another version, which says one side burned its supplies to keep them from being captured.)

Gen. Joe Hooker of the Union Army had an encampment in what we know as Hooker Hollow. Fort Avenue leads up to what’s now Potomac State, and that’s where the fort was. People in Keyser were calling that area Fort Hill long before anyone ever heard of that high school in Cumberland.

A friend of mine recently visited Nancy Hanks’ birthplace. Not everyone knows she was Lincoln’s mother. He said the experience ... the scenic beauty and the thought of the history that grew out of such a humble place ... was overwhelming.

The late Willie Wolfe wrote a “History of Keyser from 1737 to 1913.”

In it, he quotes the diary of William Purgitt, who wrote about the day it was learned Lee had surrendered to Grant: “Great rejoicing in this place. All drunk and a number of speeches delivered.” He said of the following day: “Dull. All stupid. Day passed very quietly.” I’ve had days like that.

My Keyser High classmate Denny Crum lived near Burlington in a house that was part of the Underground Railroad. He showed us the places where the runaways were hidden. I almost cried when I heard that the house burned down a number of years ago.

And there were slaves in our town. Willie Wolfe wrote that in the 1820s, one family had at least 40, and that another family on Welch Street sometimes chained theirs to trees and flogged them.

It is entirely possible that I went to high school and became friends with one or more of those slaves’ descendants.

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