On Christmas Eve, 1860, the sovereign state of South Carolina, Cameron Healey's home state, adopted a declaration of secession from the Union. The first state was gone; but it was clear that it would not be the last. By February 1, six more states had followed South Carolina's example: Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. A new country, the Confederate States of America, was being formed across the deep southern states where the perpetuation of slavery was considered essential for their economic survival. The questions on everyone's mind in Monongalia County centered on what Virginia would do. Would it join the others in rebellion? Could the Union be preserved and the dispute settled peacefully?
Hopes for a peaceful resolution ended on April 12, 1861 when Confederate troops under P.G.T. Beauregard opened fire on the Union garrison at Fort Sumter, Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. The hostilities had begun. Three days later, President Lincoln called for volunteers to suppress the rebellion, and the nation was plunged into civil war for the next four years.
If there were still any uncertainty that Virginia would choose the same path taken by its southern neighbors and withdraw from the Union, the mobilization of federal troops to put down the insurgency by force removed all doubt. On April 17, the Virginia Convention passed an ordinance of secession by a comparatively narrow margin of 88 to 55, subject to ratification of the voters in general election. Virginia had joined the Confederacy, and the capital was moved from Birmingham, Alabama to Richmond.
Before a federal invasion could be launched, Confederate forces tried to seize an early initiative the following day and began advancing on Harpers Ferry, an important rail junction at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, at the extreme corner of the Eastern Panhandle. The small town had both strategic and political importance. It was a major intersection for the Baltimore and Ohio and Winchester and Potomac Railroads, and it was the site of the United States Army Armory and Arsenal. For abolitionists, the location had special significance. Three years before, John Brown led an abortive raid on the armory, and although his action was unsuccessful, it became a rallying point for the anti-slavery movement in the north.
With the approach of southern troops, the Union garrison withdrew on the night of April 18 as a huge explosion erupted about them; they had set fire to the armory and arsenal to prevent its capture by the enemy. As the burning factory illuminated the night sky, a group of citizens from the town tried to save some of its equipment. Eventually, the rescued machinery was moved elsewhere, but Harpers Ferry was never used again for the storage or manufacture of ammunition. War had arrived in Virginia, but it was only a rehearsal for the drama about to unfold.
The passage of an ordinance of succession settled the question about where Virginia would stand in the national conflict, but it also led to a conflict within the state itself. There were deep divisions, both political and cultural, between the northwestern counties and the rest of the Commonwealth. At the Convention, the delegates from that region voted against succession 32 to 13. Immediately following the announcement of the results, a mass meeting was held in Clarksburg, the seat of Harrison County, south of Fairmont. A call went out to all the counties in northwestern Virginia to send delegates to a new convention that would be convened May 13 in Wheeling, a town in the northern panhandle on the Ohio River.
As the vote for succession indicated, sentiments within the northwestern corner of Virginia were far from unanimous. An irregular diagonal line, extending from the southwest, at the Kentucky border, to the northeast, along the Eastern Panhandle and the Maryland border, served as an imaginary boundary between the opposing factions within the region. The counties north of the line, especially those bordering Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Maryland were vehemently opposed to leaving the Union; those south of the line, forming a wide arc along the Alleghenies, were sympathetic to the Confederate cause.
Elsewhere in the nation, final boundaries were being drawn. By the second week in May, Arkansas and Tennessee had joined its sister states in rebellion; the southeastern corner of the United States was being torn asunder. Except for small skirmishes, the two opposing armies remained in place for a time; the major campaigns were months away. The Confederacy had established a defensive line from the Potomac River to Lexington, Kentucky; It looked formidable on military maps, but the troops were poorly equipped and too thinly dispersed; moreover, like an antique clay pipe, it was full of leaks. In northwestern Virginia, Union troops had crossed the border and were moving south to protect the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and insure that the coal fields coveted by northern factories remained out of Confederate hands.
After years of threats and speculation, war had arrived, but Rebecca Montague was not worried. She was pregnant with her fourth child; Frank, with an infant and three young children at home, would never be called to the army. And which army would he join in any case? They were northerners by birth and abolitionists by conviction, but their home lay in Confederate Virginia; they would never turn against their neighbors.
"So what will you do, Cameron?" Bevens asked. They were sitting on Frank's veranda overlooking the Monongahela, sharing cigars and a bottle of port after dinner as they often did.
"Do? I'm not going to do a damn thing. I was born in South Carolina, but Morgantown is my home. I have no intention of getting involved in this stupidity."
"Stupidity is it? Not exactly what I would have expected from a southern gentlemen such as yourself. What about all those Dixie traditions, valor, a code of honor and so forth?"
"Honor is the nonsense that old men talk about when they send young men off to die in order to resolve their disputes. I say give them swords or pistols and let them settle their own messy business. See if they mind spilling their own blood. They certainly have no objection to spilling someone else's."
"Here, here," Frank added. "Henry, please stop teasing the poor man. I notice that you haven't shared your own plans with the rest of us."
"No, I haven't. But the reason is simple. I have no plans, not at present. I'm certainly not planning to join the army," Bevens replied. "I'm a mine operator, not a toy soldier."
"I just received a letter from my mother," Cameron said. "Would you believe that my father has actually joined the state home guard. My God, he's sixty-seven years old, and his rheumatism is so bad he needs help mounting his own horse. Now he wants to lead a cavalry charge against the damn Yankees. Unbelievable."
They grew quiet for a while, each deep within his own thoughts. Then Frank asked, "What about the rest of your family, Cameron. How do they feel?"
Cameron looked away for a moment, his eyes following a coal barge on the river, but his mind lay elsewhere. "They'll probably go, too. Follow the family traditions and die for South Carolina. I've always been different from the rest of them. Northern schools and all. I mean, look, if all of this is really about slavery, how does it concern us? We have no slaves here."
"No, that's true. None to speak of up here, and not many in the southern counties, either. The only black folks around here are freemen like my household staff," Frank answered.
"I have no desire," Cameron continued,"to own another man. If someone does work for me, I pay for it and expect the same in return. Yes, my family has slaves, I'll admit to that, but they were always treated well. My neighbor's people, too. It's just hard for me to believe that people are going to kill each other over this."
"It doesn't matter if slaves are treated well," Frank said softly, "a man can't be treated fairly if he can't be free."
Both Frank Montague and Henry Bevens had been chosen to join the delegation representing Monongalia County at the May convention. When they arrived in Wheelling, the town was in turmoil. Long lines of carriages were arriving from the contested counties bringing refugees who were seeking the protection of the federal army. Columns of soldiers and vigilantes were parading along the congested streets, and armed patrols, military and civilian, were interrogating anyone they thought suspicious.
Frank and Bevens made their way slowly through the crowded, narrow alleys of the wharf district until they reached the convention site itself, the Custom House for the Western District of Virginia, an elegant, sand colored, three story brick building near the banks of the Ohio River. The streets outside the hall were quiet and orderly compared to the raging commotion inside. Whoever organized the meeting had no idea of the number of gesturing, screaming delegates who would jam the hall to its capacity and beyond. Rows of seats had been arranged across the large, open space facing the podium, but they had disappeared beneath a sea of swirling bodies in topcoats and hats, each delegate contesting the space occupied by another. The two men climbed the stairs and found standing room in the temporary balcony, normally an open area reserved for a legion of clerks processing applications for the importation of goods down the river.
"Everything according to perfect decorum," Bevens laughed.
"Henry, this whole town is dangerous, and nothing is worse than this convention hall. We should have brought weapons."
"I'm afraid that would have been ill advised, old friend. That armed mob outside would have sized us immediately as Confederate operatives. I'll accept a few bruises if I can leave alive."
Just then, Frank spotted Harris Bomford, a coal mine operator from Barbour County. "Harris, what the hell is going on in here? Can you make any sense of it?"
"Hello, Frank. Is that Henry with you?"
"Hello, Harris," Henry replied.
"Have you just arrived? Well, the last few speeches provoked the pandemonium you see whirling below us. The general sentiment on the floor is that the eastern part of the Commonwealth has betrayed everyone in the northwest for King Cotton. There are two movements afoot. One is to issue a proclamation that would disenfranchise the Richmond government. It would be declared illegal, and all of their recent actions, including, obviously, the ordinance of succession, would be held null and void."
"And the second?" Frank asked.
"The second proposal calls for the northwestern counties to succeed from Virginia and form a new state, one loyal to the government in Washington.
Suddenly, Bevens's attention became sharply focused. "Frank, are you thinking what I'm thinking?"
"I am if you see this as an opportunity to dissolve our contract with the railroad and acquire the mineral rights and possibly the property itself from a new state," Frank replied.
"That, my dear friend, is exactly what I'm thinking."
Frank turned back to Bomford. "Harris, do either of these proposals have a chance of passage?"
"That's hard to say, Frank. Right now, neither one is being considered. A general consensus is being formed on the floor that any action taken here today is flagrantly illegal, possibly even treason. Hence, the bellicosity you see below us.
"Until the general electorate has formally ratified the ordinance of succession, Virginia is still part of the United States. Consequently, this convention could be construed in Washington as an act of rebellion, not only against the government in Richmond, but against the United States itself. I'll grant you, though, that a statewide referendum will be a mere formality. Virginia is leaving, and war is coming."
"Harris, the referendum will be held in less than two weeks time. Isn't that abbreviated time frame of critical importance? Any questions about the illegality of this convention, given the inclinations of the general populace, seem rather academic to me. What's the real reason for wanting a delay? Isn't this tactic a little suspicious to you?"
"Yes, I agree that it does, Frank. And many of the delegates here are of the same opinion. Moreover, there are other problems with this assembly."
"And they are?"
"It's really a question of representation," Bomford began.
"Harris, the hall is about to burst. Who isn't represented?"
"Yes, the hall is packed, Frank. That's easy enough to see. There are four hundred and twenty-five delegates in attendance, representing twenty-five counties, but the overwhelming majority of the delegates have been chosen from pro-Union areas in the extreme northwest; at least a third of them come from communities here in the panhandle. The rest of northwestern Virginia has been excluded from the decision making process entirely. Anything accomplished here will cause more trouble. Mark my words on that score."
The three men turned their attention to the floor. The doors to the street had opened and two files of federal solders had entered and were taking up positions along the sides of the hall. The boisterous din on the floor had been reduced to a murmur, and then quiet itself fell over the assembly. A group of delegates approached the podium from a room in the rear. They huddled together for a moment, then one of the group, a distinguished looking fellow, a portly man of middle years, well dressed and exhibiting a thick, impeccably groomed white beard, stepped to the rostrum.
"Gentlemen, could I have your attention, please," he asked, clearly an unnecessary request; the rest of the delegates seemed frozen in place.
"We know that everyone in attendance shares our concerns about the actions taken in Richmond this past April 14. We understand your agitation. Two motions have been introduced here today, one to disassociate ourselves from the present government, to declare all of its pronouncements illegal, and to demand a reorganization."
With those words, the crowd erupted in stamping, clapping, and loud cheering beneath a canopy of top hats tossed in the air.
The speaker at the podium, nodded and motioned with his hands for quiet. When it had been restored, he continued. "The second motion is that the assembled counties here proclaim their own ordinance of secession from the Commonwealth of Virginia and apply to Washington for admittance into the Union as a new state.
"Please, gentlemen. Let me finish," he exhorted the noisy, milling crowd.
"But the citizens of Virginia have not yet affirmed the traitorous actions undertaken by Richmond, and all of us pray God that they will not. Gentlemen, until the electorate has determined otherwise, Virginia is still part of the United States.
"Now, we understand that everyone considers ratification a mere formality, but there are serious legal considerations. Were we to adopt either of these two proposals before the electorate has spoken, as they surely will on the twenty-third, our actions could be construed as an illegal usurpation of power. It would be an act of rebellion against the American government. We could be charged with treason.
"Therefore, we propose that this Convention stand in adjournment until early June when ratification will have been affirmed or denied. The motions presently on the floor can be taken up then."
This proposition led to a great deal of conversation on the floor, but it remained orderly, the volume of sound within reasonable limits. Then another man emerged from the group, clearly less of a spokesman than the dignitary who had preceded him to the podium. He advanced to the rostrum bearing a large and imposing wooden gavel. He pounded a block, repeated the motion, asked for a second which was immediately forthcoming, and proceeded to tally the results of a voice vote. The motion carried, and the convention was adjourned.
Frank and Bevens left the building. They had decided to return to Morgantown by an indirect route to avoid the columns of refugees clogging the approaches to the town. They would take a train to Pittsburgh and a steamboat down river.
As they were waiting at the Wheeling station, Frank turned to Bevens, "You know, Henry, we really should get Cameron involved with any negotiations with a new state government."
Bevens hesitated a moment, then replied, "Yes, Cameron."
Frank thought he knew what Bevens was thinking: that Cameron was undergoing a personal crisis since the fighting at Fort Sumter, and that his future plans, his protests to the contrary, were far from certain.