“Overflowing with patriotic love for the Old Dominion and old rye whiskey…”: Western Virginia Militia Witness the Execution of John Brown

Situated more than 200 miles and some fourteen hours by rail from Harpers Ferry, Wheeling, Virginia would seem far removed from the cataclysmic events of October 1859. Yet John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry shook Wheeling – one of the largest cities in the state and second only to Richmond in political and industrial importance – to its core. Brown had frequented the northern panhandle and neighboring eastern Ohio in previous decades and established business relationships as a wool merchant. The Baltimore & Ohio train detained by Brown and his men during the raid had been traveling from Wheeling to Baltimore with numerous Wheeling residents aboard. Even one of Brown’s raiders, Dangerfield Newby, had lived just across the river from Wheeling in Bridgeport, Ohio and was a familiar face in the area. Brown’s strike against slavery was likewise a direct threat to the established slave market in Wheeling, which annually drove thousands of dollars into the local economy. Distance was no matter – to Wheeling, John Brown’s Raid at Harpers Ferry was personal.

Following Brown’s unsuccessful raid and capture, fears of invading abolitionist armies and attempts to free Brown and his fellow prisoners prompted Virginia Governor Henry Wise to issue a call for both Federal troops and Virginia militia companies to be present for Brown’s hanging on December 02, 1859. While the majority of the militia companies on-hand were from Northern and tidewater Virginia, Wheeling would supply two companies of men to represent Western Virginia at the execution.

The Virginia State Fencibles (known as the Wheeling Fencibles) had been organized in Wheeling in February 1853, and by 1859 counted some 60 men in its ranks, the roster including men from a number of Wheeling’s most prominent families. In December 1854 the Virginia Riflemen (also known as the Wheeling Rifles or German Rifles) were organized as Wheeling’s second militia company. Commanded by Mexican War veteran and German immigrant Captain Edward Plankey, the company included many skilled artisans from the heavily German Centre Market area of the city.

George C. Trimble sporting the uniform of the Wheeling Fencibles worn at John Brown’s execution. Trimble would later serve in the 1st Virginia Infantry and 11th West Virginia Infantry (Courtesy Linda Cunningham Fluharty Collection)

On November 26, 1859 approximately 100 men of the Fencibles and Riflemen convened at the Athenaeum, a large theatre in downtown Wheeling that doubled as an armory for the companies. Described by the Wheeling Daily Intelligencer as only “slightly military,” the men went “scampering about hunting muskets and soldier clothes.”[i] A resident of the city, dubbed ‘Mr. Lumberlegs’ – described both as “an old German of unsound mind” and an “erratic and unfortunate individual” – was outfitted with a sign reading ‘For Charlestown via Harpers Ferry’ and was made to march in front of the companies from the Athenaeum to the B&O depot, where a large crowd had gathered to meet the citizen soldiers.[ii] The newspaper recalled that “the soldiers jocularly shook hands with their friends and bade them take care of their families,” with some onlookers requesting locks of hair from the soldiers should they “faint on field, or hill or river.”[iii] The train departed that afternoon, arriving at Harpers Ferry on the morning of November 27. An additional volunteer company of 22 men organized by Colonel James S. Wheat would depart Wheeling the following day.

Several prominent Wheeling residents are known to have paid bounties to take the place of militiamen to be present at the execution. Chief among them was Charles W. Russell, a prominent Wheeling attorney who would later serve four years in the Confederate Congress. Also securing a place with the Fencibles was Joseph H. Pendleton, another prominent attorney who would go on to serve as a Major in the 23rd Virginia Infantry.

The companies would remain in Harpers Ferry for twelve hours, allowing ample time for the curious men to examine the engine house and sites associated with the late raid. The men noted “bullet-holes in the doors and the post, and also in the wall…and also the place when John Brown’s son was killed.”[iv] One of the Wheeling militiamen would note that while at Harpers Ferry the men “drilled some and drank more.”[v] There the men also received a supply of cartridges before marching to Charles Town that afternoon. On arriving in town the companies were quartered at Zion Episcopal Church, several blocks from the jail where John Brown and the other prisoners were being held. Townspeople had prepared the church with some bedding and a load of straw, the men sleeping on pews and the floor.

Zion Episcopal Church in Charles Town where the Fencibles and Rifles were quartered. (washingtonheritagetrail.com)

The companies were assigned to guard duty around Charles Town in the days leading up to the execution. They complained of a shortage of lager beer and stogies – accordingly several kegs of each were sent east on the B&O from Wheeling. The men likewise complained of limited rations, as those in command at Charles Town apparently were unaware that the Wheeling companies were making the trip until they had arrived in Harpers Ferry. “We are all well, and enjoying ourselves much,” reported one militiaman.[vi] Another militiamen reported that Charles Town was “bristling with bayonets – filled with martial strains – and overflowing with patriotic love for the Old Dominion and old rye whiskey, the two most plentiful things here.”[vii]

On November 30 the companies received word of their duties for the coming execution, scheduled for Friday, December 02. The Fencibles were detailed in what was considered a position of honor – as an escort guard for the wagon carrying Brown to the gallows. The Rifles were assigned to more general guard and picket duty around the perimeter of the execution. The men were directed to be on their arms by Thursday night. On December 1 several of the Fencibles served as an escort for Brown’s wife, Mary, who visited with her husband in the Charles Town jail for the final time.

Fencibles (shown at left) guarding Brown’s wagon on the way to the gallows – Frank Leslie’s Illustrated – December 17, 1859 (West Virginia State Archives)

The Fencibles were drawn up at the jail on the morning of December 2, and on Brown exiting the jail the company marched next to the wagon carrying him to the gallows, located approximately one half mile to the rear of the jail. The Fencibles were joined with the Petersburg Grays, Monticello Guards and Fauquier Cavalry in transporting Brown. On arriving at the execution site the Fencibles were placed ten yards in front of the platform – essentially a front row seat to the morbid show. Following the execution the men returned to their quarters at the Episcopal Church.

Fencibles (in the shako hats) shown drawn up directly in front of the gallows. Sketch by David Hunter Strother (VMI Archives)

The companies would spend the next three days on continued guard duty around Charles Town before taking up the line of march to Harpers Ferry at 5pm on December 05. The men would catch an express train for Wheeling, arriving home on the morning of December 06. They were greeted by a band and a crowd of onlookers, though one of the Fencibles recalled receiving some criticism. John W. Orr, who served as a First Sergeant at Charles Town, related in a 1903 interview that “on our return we received hisses from some of the abolitionists. We had been sworn to protect our State as far as it was our ability and we had done so.”[viii]

Numerous Fencibles would go on to cast votes for secession and enlist in the Confederate army, the majority serving in the Stonewall Brigade in the 27th Virginia Infantry. Still others were enlist for the Federal cause. Fencibles Private George W. Elerick – sixth great uncle of this author – would relocate from Wheeling to Iowa and served as a Captain in the 30th Iowa Infantry. Likewise many of the Rifles would enlist during the war. Rifles Captain Edward Plankey would serve as a Captain in the 2nd West Virginia Infantry until his resignation in 1863. As for Wheeling, the martial scenes of the autumn of 1859 would soon be repeated as thousands of soldiers would arrive, depart and occupy the city through 1865.

[i] Wheeling Daily Intelligencer – November 28, 1859
[ii] ibid; Daily Intelligencer – June 3, 1864
[iii] ibid
[iv] Wheeling Daily Intelligencer – December 1, 1859
[v] Wheeling Daily Intelligencer – December 3, 1859
[vi] ibid
[vii] Wheeling Daily Intelligencer – December 3, 1859
[viii] The Times Dispatch [Richmond, VA] – October 11, 1903

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