Several times we have reviewed the loyalty issue in the area, and the use of loyalty oaths as a matter of civil order. The need for security in union territory was critical. Decisions for joining the Union or Confederacy split society and families. We saw Parkersburg Mayor James Cook had to resign because he would not sign the loyalty oath. This split loyalty problem was particularly serious in the border states of West Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky, Tennessee and Missouri. It was more of a problem in West Virginia because of the attempt to put together a new state.
This was both a civil and family problem. This brings up an interesting anecdote that illustrates this issue. Years ago I found the name of Capt. David Bell in the 11th Infantry Regiment from Spencer. I mentioned this to a friend named David Bell and asked if he was a relative. My friend was not aware of a relationship. Over the years I would ask if he had learned if my Civil War reference was a relative.
Last month, however, David Bell did a genealogical search on the Internet and found his family tree. He learned my Capt. David Bell was a great-great-uncle and belonged to the Union Army. His great-great-grandfather chose to join the Confederacy, was a member of the Confederate army, was captured and spent the remaining years in a Union military prison. They were first cousins, and such split loyalties were common in West Virginia and brought great emotional strains.
This was true in the Henderson family of Henderson Hall, which at one time had been a southern plantation. In the Henderson documents, we found a series of letters written between sisters Mary Henderson Beeson and Margaret (Maggie) Henderson, who eventually became Mrs. Charles Bartlett. Mary was married to Benjamin Beeson, a prominent member of the Parkersburg community and a Confederate sympathizer. In fact, he was jailed in the early part of the war for his secessionist views. Her father was George W. Henderson, builder of Henderson Hall Plantation, who had been a slave owner. He became an ardent Union supporter and actually was a member of the Reformed Virginia Legislature and was active in forming the state of West Virginia.
These letters between sisters clearly document the loyalty problem within families, in this case involving daughter and her husband and her brother G.W. Henderson Jr., a Marietta College student. He obviously had dramatic Union views. The first letter, written in August 1861 and written in haste tells the story:
I did not know I should have this chance to send a letter to you. We are all well but Ben he has been suffering with toothache. How are you all, why don't you write, You need not be offended at me because (brother) George so foolishly got angry. I hope you will not resent his imaginary insults, but he got so angry for no one meant to insult him. We spoke in all kindness but he so far forgot himself as to wish we were all dead. He wishes all secessionists dead and their children. I told him he includes me and my children and he said, well if we were such fools as to be secessionist, but I forgive him, he knew no not what he said. I cannot resent such things though I can never forget them. I maintain the same feeling for you that I always did. We bear no enmity though there have been hard words & insinuations .
I have no time to write more farewell Ever yours, M.P. Beeson
The second letter, dated Aug. 30, 1861, continues this same theme as follows:
My Dear Sister,
I do not write so often because I have anything interesting to write but you do not answer my letters. I have written three times without an answer & if my poor letters are not wanted I will trouble you no more. If I am not old enough to think & judge for myself with(out) receiving the contempt of the family I am very, very sorry. I know there are enemies at work to break up the friendship which has exist between our families. It is well to remember that the dog that will carry a bone one way will carry another back and although none of the family would come near me in my great trial (probably when her husband was arrested for his views) or in any way show that they remembered the ties of kindred. Neither of us would by word or deed do anything to harm or injure any one of you. On the contrary if you were in trouble we would do All We could to assist or help you (even George) with all his bitterness. He dare not deny that when he was telling us he wished us all dead, or he wished all secessionists killed, was assured by Ben that if in these times of trouble he or any of you got in trouble he would not forsake you but would help you all he could. I should think our (or your) family had trouble enough to know that even sympathy in trouble was highly valued. I would be glad to remain in friendship with the family. I would like to see you all (but George). I have forgiven his cruel words but I do not want to see him. Time may wear off the edge of bitterness but it is very hard for a sister to be told such bitter words by a brother whom she has nursed and tendered and dearly loved from his infancy, but I suppose loyalty now must supersede anything else with him. Ever your affectionate sister, M.P. Beeson
P.S. I wrote to Mother last week, Much love to you dear.
These two letters so clearly illustrate the painful problems the locals had with the loyalty issue as it was a constant interference in the daily life in the community - and a major interference. Their problem was not similar to our current choices of political parties amongst families and friends. One could lose their job or profession by being ostracized for their views. In those days it was also a life-threatening problem and family members were dying on the battlefield in support of their views. These letters provide a rare inside view of one family's trauma during our Civil War.
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. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org