Civil War: Called away by a sense of duty

By Dec. 30, 1862, we have now had the president sign the West Virginia Statehood Bill and preparations are being put in place to get the legislature to approve changes made in Washington and then to be sent to the people for their approval.

Our local representatives in Wheeling included George Washington Henderson of Henderson Hall in Wood County, just south of Williamstown. He had been elected in October 1861 to replace Dr. J.W. Moss who joined the Union Army as a doctor/surgeon. For the past year he had spent most of his time in the legislature in Wheeling, leaving his family – wife, four sons and one daughter – to care for the farm/plantation of more than 2,000 acres. He also had to leave his investments in the Burning Springs Oilfield.

In December 1861 in a letter to his eldest son, G.W. Henderson Jr., weighing his absence from home and his responsibilities, father took time out in Wheeling to write some sage fatherly advice to his eldest son. He wrote, “I am aware that there is quite a charge on you, in looking after and seeing, as you are the oldest son, that the business, and interests generally, are taken care of – and what I want most to impress upon you is your own mental culture and improvement. I do not wish you to occupy much of your time at ordinary labour – if you should remain at home, spend it in reading and studying, improve and enlarge your mind, fit yourself with all industry, and perfection to take a respectable position in society, and be determined to maintain it. That can be done only by exertion and perseverance, but not without it – You have a good mind, strong, vigorous, a good memory, a pervading, overcoming disposition – try and improve yourself in every way an opportunity will offer – spend no idle evenings, or hours either, have mental or bodily exercise. Do not let it escape from your mind that – now is your time, with youth, which is yet with you, to form habits of industry, of thought and mental cultivation.”

The reason this advice is included in this 150th anniversary column is that it represents what would have been involved in many patriotic families in the country where the breadwinner had to, or willingly, join military service. While not a soldier, Henderson was serving his country and nation in the legislative halls, leaving his family to tend for themselves. Many fathers had to give their own advice.

About a year later, Dec 18, 1862, son George writes to his father, again in Wheeling: “I take this opportunity of writing you a few lines, to let you know how we are getting along. We are all tolerably well now, mother has had a bad cold, and cough, but she is better now. Grandfather (Joseph Tomlinson) is about as well as common. . We had a surprise party here last Thursday night; we heard of it at noon before. Manly Warren played the violin for us and we danced until after midnight; there were about a dozen couples here. We danced up in the third story (the ballroom). Grand Papa went clear up to see them dance. I got a letter from Alex Bukey the day you left; he says they had no arms yet.” As a matter of interest, the wreath decorations hung by G.W. Henderson Jr. on the walls in the third floor ballroom at Henderson Hall remain in place as they were hung by him back in 1862, and the ballroom was never used for parties afterward for he died of typhoid fever two weeks later on Jan. 5, 1863. And we still continue that tradition!

Three days earlier, Dec. 15, 1862, father had written his wife concerning family affairs and ended with a note about affairs in Wheeling in the legislature. He wrote, “We are doing but little in the legislature. Have been for two or three days discussing resolutions of censure of Mr. Carlile, ostensibly with the view of compelling him to resign his seat in the Senate of the U.S. It is a movement of the radical Republicans and personal enemies of the senator. They want to show their devotion to the Republican cause and party. I am not anxious so to do – We got the news yesterday evening of the passage of the act admitting the State of West Virginia to the Union. Which was hailed with the firing of 35 guns and many muskets. This session will close, I think, next week, and an adjournment is to be made to Alexandria, to commence sometime in the fore part of January, with the probability of remaining a few weeks, and then bidding farewell to Old Virginia.” Note the reference to moving to Alexandria. It was thought that when the president signed the statehood bill, there would be a new West Virginia legislature which would meet in Wheeling, and the old Reformed Virginia Legislature (Union), would move out and go to Alexandria, where Governor Pierpont and the old Legislature would govern those parts of Virginia still in the Union – Norfolk, Alexandria and parts of the eastern shore occupied by the Union forces. This did not happen because they had to wait until the new Constitution was passed by popular vote and the date for statehood was set for June 20, 1863. At that time then, the Virginia legislature and the governor did move to Alexandria and governed from there until the end of the war in 1865.

Other family letters in the archives at Henderson Hall show they suffered serious illness in this period – two sons are in bed with colds or pneumonia and the daughter contracts diphtheria. Mother is also burdened with a serious cold and cough and overburdened with caring for the other sick family members. And to add to the trials, G.W. Henderson Jr., must be buried in the Henderson cemetery with great sorrow. This pervasive problem with illness was common in those days, and their correspondence reflects this throughout these early years – before the advent of vaccines and antibiotics. In fact, back in the 1830s the Hendersons lost four children in one year to diphtheria.

And so it was, 150 years ago in West Virginia!

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Dave McKain is director of the Oil and Gas Museum and is chairman of the area Civil War Roundtable which is commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Contact him at