Defending a Western Border: Governor Henry Wise Arms Virginia’s Border Following John Brown’s Raid
“Living as they do upon the border of a border state and having scarcely enough of the institution of slavery in their midst to justify the name, it is apparent that it will be an inviting point of attack on the part of northern fanaticism which is always vigilant & keen-sighted in its attempts to undermine the social system of the south.” – Albert Gallatin Jenkins
While hostile attitudes continued to simmer in distant Kansas, it was John Brown’s October 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry that truly brought the fight over slavery home to the breadbasket of Virginia and the doorstep of the capital. Both United States troops and local Virginia militia raced to Harpers Ferry to suppress the raid, and in the weeks that followed militia companies from across the Old Dominion took up arms to protect their state from invasion.
Indeed, rumors of invasion flooded Virginia newspapers and the desk of Governor Henry Wise in the period between Brown’s capture and execution. Supposed sightings of armed men crossing the Ohio River; of Brown’s son, John Brown, Jr, at Parkersburg, Virginia; and of shipments of arms intercepted at the state border, stoked the fears of the bloodshed recently visited on Harpers Ferry spreading across the state. One resident of southeastern Ohio apprised Wise of a rumored conspiracy existing in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York to rescue Brown and his captured compatriots, urging the governor to use the information “to preserve peace between the states.”
On his return from Harpers Ferry, Wise addressed assembled militiamen at Richmond, speaking to “rumors of insurrection, invasion, robbery and murder, by ruffians on our border,” and urging his citizens to “organize and take arms in their hands, and to practice the use of arms.” He promised to “cause depots to be established for fixed ammunition along our borders, and at every available point.”
In late November, Wise informed the governors of the northern states bordering Virginia that it was his intention to preserve “the peace of our coterminous borders,” even if it meant pursuing the “invaders of our jurisdiction into yours.” If he was satisfied with the response from Maryland and Pennsylvania, he was disappointed with the response of Ohio Governor Salmon P. Chase, who cautioned Wise that the laws of Ohio “cannot consent…to the invasion of her territory by armed bodies from other states, even for the purpose of pursuing and arresting fugitives from justice.”
In another address, this one before the Virginia legislature, Wise called on the state to provide for “arming of the border from Point of Rocks to Wheeling.” While Republican and Unionist sentiments were perhaps louder in Wheeling than anywhere in the state, the city had also sent two companies of militia to be present at Brown’s execution on December 2, 1859. Wise was elated that the city “has shown her truth to Virginia” and “was proud of the corps she was prompt to send to prove it.”  The legislature responded to Wise’s call by increasing militia spending by nearly half a million dollars in 1860.
While calling for the state to provide for the defense, Wise had already secured armaments for Virginia’s western border (acknowledging as much in the same address when he asked the legislature to cover the expenses “already made for defense”). This visible and controversial show of force along Virginia’s western border – where Wise supposed an invasion most likely to enter the Commonwealth – rippled into the coming Civil War that soon divided Virginia, east and west.
In early December 1859, numerous brass cannon were shipped across the state of Virginia on the Baltimore & Ohio and Northwestern Virginia Railroad to Parkersburg, a city of some 2,500 residents on the Ohio River. From Parkersburg, the cannon were to be distributed to prominent points in the border counties to the north and south via the Ohio River, though one newspaper account suggests that several passing boats had “refused to take the cannon now lying at that point, owing to their immense weight.”
The cannon were placed at the river communities of Guyandotte, Point Pleasant, Parkersburg, and Sistersville, looming angrily across the river at the Ohio shoreline. This sudden show of force confused and alarmed the neighboring Ohioans, many of whom had business and financial interests tied more closely to Virginia and points south than to their own state capital at Columbus or points north.
“For what is all this? Whom to shoot?” asked one Ohio newspaper, arguing that “the truth is, along all this part of the Ohio River – say, for fifty miles below this to a hundred above – the people are on friendly and intimate terms.” In response to the Parkersburg Gazette calling on the legislature of Virginia to defend against invasion, the Marietta Home News asked “Well, good man, what’s up? Who are you afeard of? No one from our side of the river desires the least harm to befall you,” instead quipping that the guns had been placed “for the purpose no doubt, of celebrating the glorious Fourth in a loud, becoming manner.”
Others poked fun at the Virginian’s fears of invasion. In response to the placement of the cannon at Parkersburg, a resident of neighboring Belpre, Ohio “got two large wooden churns and placed them on the bank of the river, elevated with their muzzles toward the latter place, ready to scatter destruction on the negro drivers.” The Wheeling Intelligencer decried the arrival of the cannon, relating:
“The South is arming its frontiers. They’ve got cannon at Parkersburg. But we did not dream that the North was also preparing for the…conflict until we were informed of the fact by a bulletin from the seat of war. The gallant citizens of Belpre, determined that the Virginians shall not point cannon at them with impunity, have mounted a number of [milk] churns on wheels on the Ohio bank! If Governor Wise should come to Parkersburg, he would see these dreadful weapons taking deadly aim, not only at that devastated city, but at the whole South, institutions and all.”
The much rumored and feared invasion of Virginia did not occur until late May 1861, at which point Salmon P. Chase’s successor to the Ohio governorship, William Dennison, sounded more like Henry Wise than Chase when he vowed to defend Ohio “beyond, rather than on her border.” By that point Wise’s guns had become more ornamental than fearsome, the Parkersburg city council even forming a committee in the summer of 1860 tasked with finding a public place for the them to be displayed.
Following the outbreak of civil war, on May 30, 1861, a detachment of 50 troops from Camp Carlile in Wheeling secured steamboat conveyance to Sistersville, Virginia, where it was discovered that the two cannon at that place had been concealed by secessionists. The cannon were captured and returned to Wheeling where they were put on public display at Camp Carlile. One was later shipped to Ceredo, in Wayne County, Virginia, “to be used for the defence of the Union men,” while the other was used at the camp the following year in training Carlin’s Battery D, 1st West Virginia Light Artillery.
The Parkersburg guns claimed their first blood in August 1862 during a visit from Governor Francis Pierpont, when the premature discharge of a gun killed one and wounded another. The cannon were later utilized at Parkersburg’s Fort Boreman defenses, where on July 11, 1863, another accidental discharge claimed the life of a soldier from the 11th West Virginia Infantry and grievously wounded another. These two instances were seemingly the only bloodshed wrought by Wise’s cannon.
Governor Wise’s defenses of the Ohio River border counties in late 1859 – early 1860 harkened of the showdown along the Missouri-Kansas border during the Bleeding Kansas conflict, and presaged the hostilities that would soon grip Virginia and the nation. One of the guns recovered from Sistersville in May 1861 was believed to exist locally in West Virginia into the 1990s, though the whereabouts of any of the Henry Wise cannon are today unknown.
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