Civil War Period
The Civil War began on April 12, 1861 and for all practical purposes ended with General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. During that time, West Virginia became the thirty-fifth state in the Union on June 20, 1863 out of a portion ( 39 counties ) of the territory of Virginia. Mercer County was not one of those counties, and would serve no useful purpose here to discuss how or when Mercer County did become a constituent part of the state of West Virginia. Rather, what of the people who lived here and the lives they lived during that time?
About ninety percent of the residents living in Mercer County at the time of the Civil War were Virginians in origin. Therefore, in 1861, when Virginia voted to leave the Union, more than ninety percent of its population expressed the same sentiment, and about twenty-five percent of its population served at one time or another in the Confederate army. It is estimated that about forty percent of those who served were lost.
Among the Confederate military regiments in which men from the local area enlisted and served were the 24th Regiment Virginia Infantry, Colonel William Henderson French’s 17th Regiment Virginia Cavalry and the 8th Regiment Virginia Cavalry.
To get a total picture, it should be remembered that the counties of northwestern Virginia that left Virginia to form West Virginia were almost unanimously against leaving the Union while the counties below the Kanawha River, and particularly those in the New River Valley, were almost unanimously for secession. The result was that West Virginia, a southern state by reason of being below the Mason and Dixon Line was sympathetic to the Union cause.
Living in Mercer County at that time was very difficult. Both states of West Virginia ( a Union state ) and Virginia ( a Confederate state ) tried to control the lives of the people living here. All kinds of excesses occurred. It has been said that it was more dangerous to life, liberty and property to live here than it was to have been in either the Union or Confederate army.
After the Civil War, the Confederate soldier returned home ---- or to the place that was once his home. That for which he struggled and suffered had not been accomplished. Nothing was left for him but to live for the future ---- knowing that he faithfully discharged his duty in the past and would do the same in the future. He by no means received a hero’s welcome; instead, he and his family were compelled to suffer many abuses during the period of Reconstruction that followed.
The constitutional rights of the returning Confederate soldier were still essentially preserved by the new State’s Constitution of 1863. However, Gov. Arthur I. Boreman, West Virginia’s first governor, opposed the return of the ex-Confederate. He and his fellow pro-Union, hard-line Republican allies in the Legislature wished to rid the State of the ex-Confederate and all those sympathetic to the Southern cause. Aimed at those who had not already fled to seek refuge in neighboring border counties of Virginia, a number of measures were passed to “decitizenize” and disfranchise former Confederates and to ensure Republican control in the State.
In 1865, the Legislature proposed an amendment to the State Constitution of 1863 to further this goal by denying the rights of citizenship and voting to all those except those who would take a prescribed oath, known as the “Test Oath”. The proposed amendment and the “Test Oath”, in so many words, are embodied in the following words: “No person, who since the 1st day of June 1861, has given or shall give aid or assistance to the rebellion against the United States, shall be a citizen of this state, or be allowed to vote at any election therein, unless he has volunteered in the military or naval service of the United States and has been or shall be honorably discharged.”
It was felt by some that the proposed amendment was contrary to the State’s Constitution of 1863 and also violated provisions of the United States Constitution. Nevertheless, the courts were hesitant to intervene, and in an effort to thwart legal challenges from within the State, the Legislature passed a law to bar any attorney from practicing his profession in the State until he had the taken a “Test Oath”.
The proposed amendment to the West Virginia Constitution to disfranchise ex-Confederates was ratified on May 24, 1866. In 1867, the former law pertaining to voter registration was repealed and replaced. In its stead, each county would have a Board of Registration, appointed by Governor Boreman, which would have unfettered discretion in revising the list of eligible voters. Not only could ex-Confederates be challenged with the “Test Oath” and stricken from the lists, but anyone even suspected of disloyalty to the Union or to the dominant Republican party in power could also be stricken from the rolls by mere whim and stroke of the pen.
During the five-year period from 1865 to 1870, other punitive, if not vindictive, laws were passed. As a result of these measures and the “Test Oath” requirements, the ex-Confederate was not only denied citizenship in his place of birth, but, among other restrictions, he could not vote, hold office, practice law, sit as a juror, teach school, bring suits or litigation in the courts, make defense against suits brought against him in his absence, nor collect honest debts owed to him by a debtor who had been loyal to the Union.
Toward the end of the decade, the shifting political winds brought some relief to the ex-Confederate. A special Act allowing attorneys to practice without taking the “Test Oath” was eventually passed. An Act allowing both men and women to teach in the public schools without having to subscribe to the “Test Oath”, and an Act repealing the “Suitors Test Oath” were also among the measures to eventually pass.
The election of 1869 brought an end to the Republican Party’s status as the majority party in the Legislature with the election of more Democrats and conservatives to office. However, it would be some liberal Republicans, known informally as the “Let Ups”, that would be responsible for “re-citizenizing” and re-enfranchising of the Confederate veterans.
In 1870, newly-elected William H. H. Flick, a liberal Republican delegate representing Pendleton County, offered a resolution proposing that the previous Amendment of May 24, 1866 disfranchising Confederate veterans be replaced with a new Amendment to the State Constitution that had two purposes: First, it would restore the right to vote to Confederate veterans disfranchised by the !866 Amendment. Second, although the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified in 1870 granting African-American males the right to vote, the proposed Amendment to the West Virginia Constitution had a second purpose of removing the qualifying term “white” and thereby assuring the right of African-Americans to vote in West Virginia. The proposed Amendment, known as the “Flick Amendment”, was passed by the voters of West Virginia on April 17, 1871.
Exhibit 8: 24th Regiment, Virginia Infantry, CSA
24th Infantry Regiment was assembled in June, 1861, with men from Floyd, Franklin, Carroll, Giles, Pulaski, Mercer and Henry Counties. It served under Early at First Manassas, then was assigned to Early’s, Kemper’s and W. R. Terry’s Brigade, Army of Northern Virginia. The 24th participated in the campaigns of the army from Williamsburg to Gettysburg except when it was detached to Suffolk with Longstreet. Later it was involved in the engagements at Plymouth and Drewry’s Bluff, the Petersburg siege north of the James River, and the Appomattox operations. The regiment contained 740 men in April, 1862, and reported 189 casualties at Williamsburg and 107 at Seven Pines. It lost 4 killed, 61 wounded, and 14 missing at Frayser’s Farm, had 8 wounded at Fredericksburg, and had about forty percent of the 395 engaged at Gettysburg disabled. Many were lost at Sayler’s Creek with no officers and 22 men surrendered on April 9, 1865. The field officers were Colonels Jubal A. Early and William A. Terry; Lieutenant Colonels Peter Hairston, Jr. and Richard L. Maury; and Majors William W. Bentley, Joseph A. Hambrick, and J. P. Hammet.
Exhibit 9: 17th Regiment, Virginia Cavalry, CSA
17th Regiment was organized at Salem, Virginia, in January, 1863, by consolidating the 33rd Battalion Virginia Cavalry with three new companies. It was assigned to Jenkins’s and McCausland’s Brigade, was active in the Gettysburg Campaign, then returned to western Virginia. The regiment fought at Cloyd’s Mountain, was with Early in the Shenandoah Valley, and saw action around Appomattox. There were 241 engaged at Gettysburg and during February, 1864, it contained 311 effectives. In April, 1865, it disbanded at Lynchburg. The field officers were Colonel William H. French, Lieutenant Colonel William C. Tavenner, and Major Frederick F. Smith.
Exhibit 10: 8th Regiment, Virginia Cavalry, CSA
8th Cavalry Regiment was organized early in 1862 with nine companies, but increased its number to eleven by July, 1862. Many of the men were recruited in Smyth, Nelson, Kanawha, and Tazewell counties. The unit confronted the Federals in western Virginia, fought in East Tennessee, then returned to western Virginia. Later it participated in Early’s Shenandoah Valley operations and the Appomattox Campaign. The regiment contained 225 effectives in April, 1864. However, none were included in the surrender at Appomattox because it had cut through the Federal lines and disbanded. The field officers were Colonels James M. Corns and Walter H. Jenifer; Lieutenant Colonels Thomas P. Bowen, A. F. Cook, Henry Fitzhugh, and Albert G. Jenkins; and Major P. M. Edmondson.