Thursday, May 26, 2011

150 Years Ago: McClelland Heads to Western Virginia

To travel west from Washington in 1861 you had to take the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, and much of it ran through the seceded state of Virginia.  Now, at the end of May, rebels held the line from Harper's Ferry to Cumberland, Maryland, and would control much more of the line as soon as they could get troops into western Virginia.  In addition, the people of western Virginia were staunchly Unionist; they had just a few days earlier voted overwhelmingly against secession in a recent statewide referendum on the subject and were contemplating a break with the rest of the state.

Major General George B. McClelland, commanding the Department of the Ohio, decided to secure western Virginia (and the railroad) for the Union.  He got his troops underway, headed toward the key junction of Grafton, Virginia, on May 26, 1861, after issuing two proclamations.  One was addressed "To the Union Men of Western Virginia," the other to his soldiers:
Headquarters, Department of the Ohio, May 26, 1861.

To the Union Men of Western Virginia:

Virginians! The General Government has long enough endured the machinations of a few factious rebels in your midst. Armed traitors have in vain endeavored to deter you from expressing your loyalty at the polls. Having failed in this infamous attempt to deprive you of the exercise of your dearest rights, they now seek to inaugurate a reign of terror, and thus force you to yield to their schemes and submit to the yoke of the traitorous conspiracy dignified by the name of the Southern Confederacy. They are destroying the property of citizens of your State and ruining your magnificent railways. The General Government has heretofore carefully abstained from sending troops across the Ohio, or even from posting them along its banks, although frequently urged to do so by many of your prominent citizens. It determined to await the result of the late election, desirous that no one might be able to say that the slightest effort had been made from this side to influence the free expression of your opinions, although the many agencies brought to bear upon you by the rebels were well known. You have now shown under the most adverse circumstances that the great mass of the people of Western Virginia are true and loyal to that benificent [sic] government under which we and our fathers have lived so long. As soon as the result of the election was known the traitors commenced their work of destruction. The General Government cannot close its ears to the demand you have made for assistance. I have ordered troops to cross the Ohio river. They come as your friends and brothers, as enemies only to the armed rebels who are preying upon you. Your homes, your families, and your property are safe under our protection. All your rights shall be religiously respected, notwithstanding all that has been said by the traitors to induce you to believe that our advent among you will be signalized by interference with your slaves. Understand one thing clearly. Not only will we abstain from all such interference, but we will on the contrary with an iron hand crush any attempt at insurrection on their part, now that we are in your midst. I call upon you to fly to arms and support the general government, sever the connection that binds you to traitors, proclaim to the world that the faith and loyalty so long boasted by the Old Dominion are still preserved in Western Virginia, and that you remain true to the stars and stripes.

Geo. B. McClellan,
Maj. General, U. S. A., commanding department of the Ohio.

Head Quarters of the Department of the Ohio.
May 26th 1861.

Soldiers you are ordered to cross the frontier and enter the soil of Virginia. Your mission is to restore peace and confidence—to protect the majesty of the law and rescue our brethern [sic] from the grasp of armed traitors. You are to act in concert with Virginia troops and to support their advance. I place under the safeguard of your honor the persons and property of the Virginians. I know that you will respect their feelings and all their rights and preserve the strictest discipline. Remember that each one of you hold in his keeping the honor of Ohio and of the Union! If you are called upon to overcome armed opposition I know that your courage is equal to the task, but remember that your only foes are armed traitors, and show mercy even to them when they are in your power, for many of them are misguided. When under your protection the loyal men of Western Virginia will be enabled to organize and arm, they can protect themselves and you can return to your homes with the satisfaction of having preserved a proud and gallant people from dishonor.

Geo. B. McClellan,
Major General U. S. A., Commanding the Dep’t of the Ohio.

Also on this date, in Washington, Postmaster General Montgomery Blair ruled that postal service would not be provided to the Southern states after May 31.

After laying in state in the East Room of the White House the day before, Colonel Elmer Ellsworth's funeral was held.  President and Mrs. Lincoln attended.  Ellsworth's body was then transported to upstate New York for burial.

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