General Benjamin F. Kelley doesn’t get a lot of attention in Civil War historiography. His military career was primarily confined to western Maryland and West Virginia, where he spent the war years dueling with the likes of Mosby, McCausland, Imboden, Jones, Jenkins and McNeill. In fact, all that some may know of Kelley was his capture while in bed in Cumberland, Maryland in February 1865. And yet through much of the war Kelley was tasked with keeping open the critical Baltimore & Ohio rail line, Abraham Lincoln’s lifeline to the west. A thankless job, but much relied on Kelley’s vigilant eye on the B&O.
Kelley was a native of New Hampshire, but as a young man moved to Wheeling, Virginia, where he worked as a freight agent for the B&O. He married into a prominent Wheeling family, the Goshorn’s, and went into a mercantile and dry goods partnership with his brother-in-law, William Goshorn. While Wheeling was home to an active slave market (the only slave market north of the Mason Dixon line, as far as this author can tell), there were relatively few slaves living in Ohio County, which was typical of Virginia’s northwestern counties. Yet by 1860 the Goshorn family owned at least six slaves, one of whom would gain the family national attention.
William Goshorn had purchased Lucy Bagby for $600 in Richmond in January 1852, returning her with him to Wheeling where she lived until her escape in December 1860. Bagby traveled as far as Cleveland, where she was arrested the following month, with William and his father (and Ben Kelley’s father-in-law) John Goshorn traveling there to reclaim their ‘property.’ The case made national news, and with Bagby turned over to Goshorn, she became the last slave returned to slavery under the Fugitive Slave Act.
With the May 1861 secession referendum in Virginia, Wheeling was a divided city. While it would soon host two conventions to consider forming a new state (and would ultimately become the first capitol of the state of West Virginia), Wheeling was also recruiting troops for the Confederacy. The Goshorn family would cast votes in favor of secession and were branded as traitors, with their names, addresses and businesses printed on broadsides around the city, as if to invite retribution.
All of this must have been weighing on Kelley as he returned to Wheeling in the spring of 1861 to raise the 1st Virginia Infantry for Federal service. He had relocated to Philadelphia several years earlier to continue work with the B&O and to be nearer to his wife, Isabella Goshorn Kelley, who was residing there at an asylum. With Isabella’s death in 1860 and the outbreak of the war, Kelley was free to return to Virginia in hopes of protecting his beloved railroad. Kelley became a national celebrity after being grievously wounded during the minor (though highly publicized) engagement at Philippi on June 3, 1861. The victory and wound – thought to be mortal – earned Kelley a brigadier general commission.
Kelley spent the summer of 1861 convalescing at the Goshorn estate. That a federal officer was recuperating at the home of his southern-sympathizing in-laws was surely not lost on the local populace. Kelley’s brother-in-law, John Goshorn Jr., was arrested in Wheeling on August 30, 1861 in party with four recently paroled Confederate prisoners who had been captured the month before at the Battle of Corrick’s Ford. Goshorn was quickly released while the prisoners were returned to confinement.
Kelley would recover from his Philippi wound and rack up a number of victories at minor engagements during the war. He would alternately command various departments within the same geographic area, including the Railroad District of the Mountain Department, the Defenses of Harpers Ferry and Cumberland, and the Department of West Virginia, ending the war as a Brevet Major General.
And while Kelley’s star was on the rise, 1862 was a hard year for his brother-in-law, William Goshorn. In late May 1862 twelve southern sympathizers were arrested in Wheeling. Among the number were several prominent citizens, including George W. Thompson, a circuit judge, former congressman and US attorney; Alfred Hughes, a noted physician; and William Goshorn. Judge Thompson’s son, William P. Thompson, was serving as Lieutenant Colonel of the 19th Virginia Cavalry. Hughes was a correspondent for the Baltimore Exchange, a pro-Confederacy newspaper. His sister, Dr. Eliza Hughes, the first female graduate of a medical school in what is now West Virginia, would also be arrested in 1862. And Goshorn, though brother-in-law to a Federal general, remained a defiant southern sympathizer.
- The detainees were offered their freedom upon taking the oath of allegiance. Goshorn, Thompson, and Hughes all declined and were confined at the Athenaeum prison. On June 5 they were again offered the oath, and on refusal were transferred to Camp Chase in Columbus, Ohio as ‘political prisoners.’ Camp Chase was in fact none too pleased to have the prison filled with civilians. A July 1862 inspection of the prison camp sent to Colonel William Hoffman, Commissary General of Prisoners, reported “it cannot be your desire that this camp should be filled to overflowing with political prisoners (made by half depopulating a section of country where the inhabitants are often compelled to expressions of apparent sympathy) arrested on frivolous charges, to be supported by the General Government and endure a long confinement.”[i]
Goshorn wrote home throughout his confinement. He quickly found an acquaintance in the camp’s examiner of letters, William Gray, who had been editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer during the Lucy Bagby case. Gray had returned to Wheeling with Goshorn in early 1861 to cover the case and had been entertained at the Goshorn home. On June 29, 1862, Goshorn described Camp Chase as “much crowded, having I believe one thousand & thirty prisoners crowded into shanties 16 by 20 feet, our mess having 16 in it. There is hardly a sprig of grass in camp, but one small tree and that is dead.” He regretted that he was “more fleshy than when I left home, begin to look rather brown and hard. Have not shaved since I left home.” He closed by boasting “If I keep my health I think I can stand all the persecution my persecutors can pile on.”[ii]
Keeping one’s health up in a place like Camp Chase was no easy task, and the following month Goshorn’s health began to fail. A July 29 letter from Priscilla Goshorn to her husband bemoans that she “received your letter last evening telling us you had been quite sick. I hope you will soon be better. It is hard to bear having you a prisoner, but to be one and sick is much harder.” She implored her husband to “not get sad and disheartened. All will be well.” She offered him no news as “it might make this letter contraband.”[iii]
As his health began to decline, by mid-August Goshorn agreed to take the oath of allegiance. In an August 21, 1862 letter to David Tod, Governor of Ohio, Major Joseph Darr, the provost marshal who had arrested Goshorn in Wheeling, requested that Goshorn be released upon taking the oath, which he understood Goshorn was prepared to do. Darr admits to Tod that Goshorn is a brother-in-law of General Kelley, and that Darr understood Goshorn to boast that “someone besides Colonel Hoffman [Commissary General of Prisoners] had control of his case,” perhaps inferring that Goshorn was seeking Kelley’s help. Even still, this author has found no evidence that Kelley interjected himself on Goshorn’s behalf. One wonders about the relationship between the two men – former partners and brothers-in-law – in the years following the war.[iv]
As for the other political prisoners sent to Camp Chase with Goshorn, Judge Thompson was released in September 1862 without taking the oath after securing a prisoner exchange for himself. Dr. Alfred Hughes was exchanged in December 1862 and departed Wheeling for Richmond, where he remained until late 1865, spending the remainder of his life in Baltimore. Several artifacts from Hughes’ confinement at Camp Chase are held within the collections of the Museum of the Confederacy.
The relationship between Kelley and Goshorn was not unique. The Civil War is replete with stories of divided families. John Buford’s cousin, Abraham Buford, served a brigadier general in the Confederacy. J.E.B. Stuart’s father-in-law, Philip St. George Cooke, remained with the Union while his son-in-law went south. Even Mary Todd Lincoln had brothers serving in the Confederacy. Today’s hyper-charged, partisan political environment harkens back to the tension that divided families during the Civil War. We would all do well to again find the better angels of our nature.
[i] O.R., Series II, 4:196
[ii] June 29, 1862. William Goshorn to Bell Goshorn. Wheeling University Archives.
[iii] July 29, 1862. Priscilla Goshorn to William Goshorn. Wheeling University Archives.
[iv] O.R., Series II, 4:416