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A History of The Middle
New River Settlements
and Contiguous Territory.

By David E. Johnston (1906).

  
 

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Chapter VIII.  1866 - 1905  (Part 1)

Reconstruction in Mercer County, W. Va.--Constitutional  Amendment    Disfranchising  Confederates.--Registration Law.--County Seat Agitation.--The "Committee of Safety."--The Creation of Summers County.--The Restoration of the Elective Franchise.--Industrial Development.--The Flat Top Coal Field.--Railroad Construction.--The City of Bluefield.


The Confederate soldier, with the close of the war, returned to his country, where he had once had a place he called home, but now--at least in many instances--he found nothing but blackened ruins and utter waste places.  As he had been brave and magnanimous in war, and had in good faith laid down his arms, he returned to engage not in war, but in peaceful pursuits, build up and start anew and become a useful citizen of the young Commonwealth.  He had no money or property, some perhaps a small piece of land, if he had been fortunate enough to own such before the war.    In many instances, an arm or leg had been lost  in battle, or his health greatly shattered.  He was not the man he was when he entered the army  and many of his nearest--dearest friends, relatives--had perished in the strife.  His only trust was in God and his own good right arm, if he was fortunate to have that limb left.    On all sides were gloom and despair, to a less braver heart and manlier spirit.   He sought no quarrel with anyone, only asked to be free, not disturbed, and he would try and work his way through the remainder of his days as best he might.  He neither wanted nor sought revenge for wrongs, real or imaginary.   That for which for four years he had struggled and suffered had not been accomplished, and the effort to establish it had failed.  Nothing was left him but to live for the future, in the consciousness of having faithfully discharged his duty in the past, and with a fixed determination to do this in the future.  The Governor of his state,  (Note: Boreman to Staunton Series II.  Vol. VIII.  Reb. Record p. 533)  in a letter to the Federal Secretary of War, opposed his return to his country, and a few in his midst desired to rob him of his rights as a citizen of a new Commonwealth.  In time of profound peace, unarmed, perhaps with but one leg or one arm, broken in health and in purse he was as much feared as when he carried his musket with forty rounds of cartridges, marching beneath the "Stars and Bars."  If he was found with an old, poor, crippled mule or horse, that General Grant had given him at Appomattox, trying to plow and make bread for his starving wife and children, he was robbed of this upon the plea that it was  Government property, either Federal or Rebel.  It was dig or die and his enemies preferred him to take the latter course.

It is true that at that time he was a citizen of the state with all is rights as such guaranteed to him by the constitution of the new Commonwealth, with no law in force that in any way deprived him of the privilege of full citizenship; but the devil is always ready to aid the ingenuity of bad men to accomplish bad things, and hence the only way, in a measure, at least, to get rid of the ex-Confederate soldier, was to decitizenize him, and thereby either drive him from the state, or place him in a condition of political vassalage or serfdom.  The political machinery was put to work to accomplish the purpose in view by  decitizenizing all ex-Confederates, as well also as all who had aided or sympathized with them.  This could not be done under the then existing organic law of the state, and a change in this law was necessary to the accomplishment of the object in view;  but be it said to the credit of the better class of the then dominant part, they took no part in this crime against liberty, and did not seek to fix manacles on the poor Confederate--it was the other set, generally of the vile and vindictive;  when "Prometheus was chained to the rock it was not the proud Eagle, but the miserable Vulture that came down and tore out his vitals."    In all great revolutions, like in all the great floods of waters, it is the filth and foul things that rise to the surface and float, while the gold lies at the bottom.

It was late in the fall of 1865 before there was anything like the full restoration of Civil Government in Mercer County.  All things in Government were new or novel to the people.  They had always known, and their ancestors before them had known for more than a century, nothing but the old Virginia County Court system, with one or more magistrates in each magisterial district in the county, clothed with jurisdiction to try warrants for small claims, and to sit as a Court and administer county affairs.     The Circuit Court trying all criminal and civil cases, as well as chancery causes.  Now they found magisterial districts no longer in existence;   townships created in their stead, with a justice of the peace in each township, and he regarded the biggest man therein, although in some instances he could not write his name and perhaps did not know the way to the mill.  with jurisdiction to try cases involving an hundred dollars, with the right to empanel a jury of six men.  In lieu of the old County Court, a Board of Supervisors to administer county affairs, and this board, in part, at least, was composed of men who not only could not write their names, but whose honesty was not above par;  however, this was only true for a short while, when better men were selected for this position, such as L. D. Martin, Silas T. Reynolds, William C. Honaker, and others.

Judge Nathaniel Harrison, of Monroe County, having been made Circuit Judge very soon after the close of hostilities, appointed Benjamine White, Sheriff, and George Evans, Clerk and Recorder of Mercer County.  White had been a violent Secessionist at the commencement of the war, but had changed his views somewhat about the close thereof;    while Mr. Evans, being a Northern man by birth, was doubtless a Union man from the beginning.  Judge Harrison  (Note: Articles of impeachment were exhibited against him in the Legislature and he was forced to resign the Judgeship.)   had been a Confederate, and as late as 1862 had applied for appointment on the staff of Brigadier General Chapman.  Thus  it will be seen that men who started out on the Southern side, found out their mistake, as they claimed, in the latter part of the war or just about the close, were honored.  They started out in the boat and as long as there was fair breeze and it floated well, they were willing to stay, but when adverse winds blew and it was threatened with wreck and disaster, they jumped out, pulled for the shore and left their friends to perish if they must.  This was true of more than one man in Mercer County, even extending to those who had volunteered in the army and taken an oath to support the Confederate Government;  Yet, disregarding their oaths, deserted and went over to the enemy, and this is not all, came back among their neighbors and friends and engaged in pillage in its worst form.  These deserters were without honor among their own people and distrusted and despised by those to whom they deserted.

In the fall of  1865 Judge Harrison rode into the town of Princeton;    that is, where it once stood, sat on his horse, no one inviting him to stop or alight;  he rode seven and one-half miles east to Concord Church on the Red Sulphur turnpike road where he opened and held his court.  The ex-Confederates who had been elected at the election that fall were arbitrarily refused permission to qualify, and others who claimed to have adhered to the Union wee installed in their stead.

The Legislature met at Wheeling in January, 1866, and in a contest Colonel William H. French, who had been elected to that body was unseated by Colonel Thomas Little, who had not been elected.  By a joint resolution of the two Houses, an amendment to the Constitution was proposed, by which, if adopted, all ex-Confederates and their sympathizers would be decitienized.  At the session which provided for the submission of the amendment to the Constitution, which had been proposed in the session of 1865, an Act was passed declaring that no one should be allowed to vote at the next succeeding election, except those who would take a prescribed oath known as the "Test Oath."  The amendment referred to is  in the following words and figures:    "No person who since the 1st day of June, 1861, has given or shall give voluntary 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 held therein, unless he has volunteered in the military or naval service of the United States and has been or shall be honorably discharged therefrom."  This was the first instance in the history of a free government, where the Legislature plainly and intentionally subverted the Constitution of a free state, and openly and deliberately violated their oaths and the plain provision of the Constitution, which provided that "The white male citizens of state shall be entitled to vote at all elections held within the election districts in which they respectively reside."   The election at which this amendment to the Constitution was to be voted upon by the people, was held on the 24th day of May, 1866, and was ratified by a vote of 22,224 for, to 15,302 against the same.  Only 75 votes were cast in the County of Mercer, of which 61 were for ratification and 14 for rejection, yet the voting  population at that time in Mercer County under the Constitution as it then existed, was not less than 1,000.  Among those voting against this iniquity in Mercer will be found the names of Colonel Thomas Little, David Lilley, Sylvester Upton, and Russell G. French, the latter classed an ex-Federal soldier.

Truly loyal officers were now elected to the various offices, and finding so few regarded as qualified to discharge the duties of the same, it was found necessary to give two or three offices to one man;  in fact in one or more instances it was stated that one or more men held at least five offices each at the same time.

The Legislature of West Virginia not only disfranchised men and kept them from voting, but passed numerous laws preventing attorneys from practicing their profession, people from teaching school, men from sitting on juries, or from prosecuting suits, unless they would take the  Test Oath."  These laws against attorneys who had been engaged as soldiers in the Confederate Army, or had sympathized with those engaged in armed hostility against the Government of the United States, brought to the Courts of the State, especially in the Southern border counties, swarms of ill pests, Northern carpet-bag lawyers, who without practice where they came from, and perhaps having left their country for their country's good, came to feast and to fatten on the miseries and sufferings of the poor, downtrodden, disfranchised, tax ridden Confederate people.  The voice of the lawyer of the community, to whom the people looked for aid and were willing to trust their lives, property and honor in his hands, was, with few exceptions, refused a hearing in the court room.  There were a few attorneys residents, or who became residents, who were Union men, fair-minded and just, among them Henry L. Gillispie, James H. McGinnis, Frank Hereford, J. Speed Thompson, Edwin Sehon, and Colonel James W. Davis;  the latter gentlemen had been a Colonel in the Confederate Army, but had succeeded in persuading the Legislature that he was a truly repentant rebel, sorry for his sins, and succeeded in getting that body, by special Act, to forgive his waywardness and restore to him the privilege of practicing his profession without taking the attorneys' "Test Oath."

Shortly after Colonel Davis had been permitted to enter again upon the practice of the law, he was employed in a case in the Circuit Court of Mercer County, involving the title to a horse, which had been taken or stolen from Colonel John S. Carr during the war.  On the other side of the case was the witty Irish lawyer, J. H. McGinnis, of Raleigh.  In course of the argument of Colonel Davis before the jury he took occasion to say how good and magnanimous the Legislature had been to him, by again conferring on him the privilege to earn a living for his family by the practice of his profession;  he followed this by a bit of his war experience in the battle of Chapmansville, describing the wounds he received by which he lost a finger, and received a shot in the shoulder and back.  The resourceful McGinnis, while listening to the Colonel's speech, had composed some verses which in his reply, and in his inimitable way, he repeated, much to the discomfiture of the Colonel, but to the joy of the bystanders;    only one of which verses in recollected, and ran as follows:

"On the battlefield I long did linger
Where guns and cannons they did crack,
Until by a cruel shot, I lost this finger,
And got this hole in my back."

In order to effectuate the purpose of the framers of the Constitutional amendment and disfranchisement law already adverted to, the Legislature enacted what was known as a Registration law, providing for a registration of the voters and creating a Board of Registration composed of three members to be appointed by the Governor, and to hold their office at his will and pleasure.  This proved a powerful weapon in the hands of the party then in power, who evidently intended thereby to perpetuate themselves therein.  It was almost the equal of the proposed "Force Bill" introduced into Congress a few years ago, if it had been wielded by wise and conservative heads, and would have kept the then dominant political party long in power in the state;  but like all other engines of oppression, originated and constructed in Republics for the destruction on the liberty of the Anglo-Saxon, they became a boomerang in the hands of those who wielded them, finally effecting their own destruction.  It is said, "Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad."  This was certainly true of the dominate party in West Virginia at that time, and especially in Mercer County.    Their apparent inordinate desire to punish those who differed with them about the great civil conflict, and the quest of individuals for place and power, led them to extremes in the Legislature, and the enforcement of proscriptive laws.  They very soon began to quarrel among themselves, and the scramble for the public pap, and the crumbs which fell from the master's table engendered, as it always does, bad blood.    Very soon the better and more conservative part of the dominant party became disgusted and disposed to fall in with their neighbors--ex-Confederates--insisting upon according to them some rights, besides the payment of taxes and right to die.

As already stated in this work, the County site had in the year of 1837 been fixed at a place called Princeton, but so soon as the Judge of the Circuit Court opened and held a term of court at Concord Church, some to the people in that and other sections of the county began the agitation of a removal of the County site from Princeton to Concord Church.  Steps were very soon taken to have the Board of Supervisors order an election removing the seat of Justice from Princeton to Concord Church;  and an election was held, but Concord Church failing to receive the requisite three-fifths vote, the removalists failed in their scheme.  Very soon another election was held which also failed, but the Board was induced to declare the result in favor of removal.

Colonel Thomas Little, the Delegate from the County to the Legislature at its session of 1867, procured the passage of an Act locating permanently the County site at Princeton, but at the session in 1868 George Evans, the Representative from Mercer County, procured the repeal of the Act of 1867;  and so the fight continued both before the people and in the Courts.  Injunctions were obtained first by one and then by the other party until the question was finally settled as will be hereinafter stated.    The litigation over the County Court House question ended with the disposition of the Bill, prepared by one Martin H. Holt, an attorney of Raleigh County, which was known as the celebrated "Bill of Peace,"  in which appeared the names of the Board of Supervisors of the County, a corporation, plaintiff against a large part of the people of the county, who favored Princeton as the seat of Justice, as defendants.   In this Bill was set forth the various steps, acts, doings and proceedings from which it was contended that the County site had been removed from Princeton and located at Concord Church, and also setting forth the Acts of the Legislature touching the same as hereinbefore referred to;  and alleging and charging in effect that all the people of the county who were opposed to Concord Church as the lawful and proper location for the seat of Justice, were a lawless band and disturbers of the quietude of the people and of the public peace, and praying an injunction inhibiting and restraining them from further action looking to the opening of the question.  An injunction was granted, but about as quickly dissolved, and as before stated, this was the end of all litigation concerning this troublesome matter.

 

 

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