The Sacking of the Hampshire County Courthouse
Romney, Virginia/West Virginia
1861 to 1866
A short discussion into the events that caused the destruction of the original records
held in the 1837 courthouse in Romney, Virginia during the American Civil War.
Prepared under contract for the Fort Mill Ridge Foundation.
Robert B. Wolford, M.A.
the different style and capabilities of an HTML web page.
Reprinted by permission of Mr. Wolford and the Fort Mill Ridge Foundation
A Civil War Narrative
The center of nearly any rural community is the county courthouse. It is the temple of property and keeper of the community's records. Rural societies invest in land and real property. For this reason, instruments such as deeds become the nails that bind one person's word to another's. Absent these instruments, no person could be secure in his or her property and would not toil to build up an estate.
The original courthouse that served the people of Hampshire County was located south of Romney, adjoining what would become River Road. According to Maxwell and Swisher in their History of Hampshire County, p. 371, the pre-1762 structure was located in the valley several miles above Romney. Prior to 1762, when Romney was made Hampshire County seat (see Appendix A), a new wooden courthouse was erected to the south of the present site, at the intersection of Gravel Lane and High Street (see Appendix B). In the early 1800s, a brick Georgian building was built just east of the present courthouse site and was used as the seat of county government until 1837, when a statelier courthouse was built. The site of the 1837 courthouse is the site of the present-day courthouse. The 1837 Hampshire County Courthouse was a Greek revival building made of red brick and four massive columns. A leaded dome capped it off. The 1837 structure was replaced in the 1920's after parts of the building collapsed while being remodeled. The present courthouse is constructed of yellow glazed brick and poured concrete accents, typical for the period. It is a well-built structure that has served well the people of Hampshire County.
In the years preceding the Civil War, the Hampshire County Courthouse was the seat for the Circuit Court, headquarters for the local militia units, Romney's Town Offices, Sheriff’s Office, county political hub, and the assessment agency for taxation. The county clerks were charged with preserving the records for the community in a manner that guarded each person's property and claims. The courthouse in 1859 witnessed the local excitement over the John Brown Raid at Harpers Ferry, the debates over northern attitudes concerning southern slavery, and muster days for the training of the 77th and 114th Virginia Militias.
Early in the American Civil War, the Hampshire County Courthouse was sacked, likely in October 1861 by troops under the command of General Benjamin Franklin Kelley. The exact circumstances of the destruction of the courthouse's original records and damage to the building are not known. What is known is related below in as much detail as can now be found. A survey of available records revealed little beyond the description that many of the records were scattered, possibly on the ground outside of the courthouse, in the spring of 1862 when the units under Shenck's Brigade passed through Romney on their way to Franklin and McDowell in an attempt to outflank General "Stonewall" Jackson during the latter's infamous 1862 Valley Campaign. Shenck's men were decimated at the Battle of McDowell.
The following series of events germane to the Sacking of the Hampshire County Courthouse are related in Maxwell and Swisher's History of Hampshire County.1861
On June 13, 1861, Colonel Lewis Wallace of the 11th Indiana Zouave Infantry Regiment attacked Romney in an effort to disrupt Confederate recruitment and training efforts. Wallace was successful but departed soon after his arrival since he considered the town not defendable. While in Romney, Wallace placed guards on the bank building to prevent persons taking advantage of the raid's confusion by robbing the depository. Clearly, the Union Officer was well acquainted with the looting nature of soldiers in combat.
Following Lew Wallace's raid, Hampshire County Clerk John B. White decided that if Romney were again threatened with invasion by Federal troop, he would have to move the records. He would retain the original documents in Romney and send all of the books containing the manually-copied records to Winchester for safekeeping. White did not have long to wait to put his plan into action.
About 90 days following Lew Wallace's raid, troops under Lieutenant Colonel James Cantwell assaulted Romney using nearly the same route. The September 25, 1861 contest, known as the First Battle of Romney, ended with Cantwell being driven out of the town after briefly capturing it. It is possible that the records were hurriedly moved on this date, but the author doubts it. Given the abrupt nature of the raid, little time and manpower would have been available to remove the many ponderous volumes.
The Second Battle of Romney occurred one month later on October 26, 1861. The scope of this assault undoubtedly caused Hampshire County Clerk John B. White to put his plan to save Hampshire County's records into motion. General Kelley led the force from New Creek by the longer route of the Northwestern Turnpike. Soon after Kelley departed New Creek, the commanders in Romney knew of his advance. It is possible that White had the copied records moved prior to this date. They were possibly sent to Winchester in the interim between the September and October assaults on Romney.
The Hampshire County Courthouse was undoubtedly sacked by General Kelley's troops during this second raid against Romney, Virginia on October 26, 1861. The reasoning for this contention is that Colonel Lew Wallace's June 13, 1861 and Colonel James Cantwell's September 25, 1861 raids were so rapid that neither command had time to loot the town. It was only after the October 26, 1861 assault on Romney by Kelley that Romney was laid open for leisurely looting by the Yankees. The troops then under General Kelley were: 3rd and 4th (West) Virginia Infantry; 7th (West) Virginia Infantry; McGee's (West) Virginia Cavalry; Company A, 22nd (Ringgold) Pennsylvania Cavalry; 4th and 8th Ohio Infantry; and Daum's Company, 1st (West) Virginia Light Artillery.
White's actions in this period are unknown at this writing. White likely made safe as possible the records remaining in the courthouse and then evacuated Romney with his family. It is unknown whether he returned to inspect his charge or lobby the Union commander for their protection. It is known that troops were quartered in the courthouse in January 1861, and that soldiers complained that snow was accumulating on the courtroom floor through the broken windows.
An article in the April 16, 1902 issue of The Hampshire Review and South Branch Intelligencer, page 3 (hereinafter “the Review”) states:
The first Record Book containing the records of the first County Court organized in the county was found last Saturday in the attic of the ’Old Allen property.’ This house we learn from authentic information was the oldest in the town and perhaps the oldest in this county.
J. W. Poling informs us that his grandmother moved into the house in 1798, or one hundred and four years ago. The old house had an addition built to it during the war. It was lately purchased by W. B. Cornwell who was having the old house torn down when the carpenters discovered the book above referred to, covered with rubbish and dust in the attic. It is in a good state of preservation, and was written by Gabrie Jones, who was Hampshire County's first Clerk. The story goes that the old man was a great gambler. According to custom of the times he wore gold buttons on his coat. Once when in hard luck after losing all his money, he proceeded to cut the buttons on his coat and gamble them off, but his luck did not change. Finally he said, ‘here goes that last buttons on Gabe's coat.’ The old man passed away, but the ’last button’ saying remained.
The question is, how came the book in this old house? It is one hundred and fifty years old. Was it placed there during the civil war? Not likely by itself. Or was this old Gabe's residence, and did he hide the sacred record during the Revolutionary war? The book was twenty-five years old at that time.”
The above article clearly indicates that record books were hid in Romney under some circumstances. The above case does not reveal how the book came to be in an attic in Romney. The Old Allen place is likely that of Neill Allen, the carriage maker, whose home was what is now the Mytinger House on Gravel Lane. A deed search is necessary to verify this.
The Hampshire County Seat was purportedly removed from Romney to Piedmont in October 1863. Presumably it was not moved prior because West Virginia did not exist until June 20, 1863 and no authority to do so existed. The seat was apparently returned sometime in 1866 prior to or following the creation of Mineral County; the exact date is not known at this writing. The town was at this time occupied by Col. Jacob Campbell's brigade. Campbell left shortly thereafter on November 6, 1863. According to the J.C. Sanders' Papers (Colume II, page 176) at the Keyser Public Library in Keyser, WV, the county seat of Hampshire County was moved to Piedmont by an act of the West Virginia Legislature in October 1863, to be returned by proclamation of the Governor.
The focus of this study will include events that affected the seat of county government in Hampshire County during the Civil War. The information in the "Prologue" above is intended to give one a sense that the seat of Hampshire County, formed in 1754, had been established at the crossroads of the Northwestern Turnpike and the Frankfurt Road for over a hundred years prior to the Civil War and that its removal in October 1863 to Piedmont, WV in a remote corner of Hampshire County was a very real disruption to the function of local government.
An examination of records at the West Virginia Division of Culture and History reveals no such removal of the county seat was authorized by the state nor was its return to Romney decreed (Appendix C). A survey of period records from union and local loyal forces also does not indicate that such a removal took place. The History of Piedmont, WV does not mention that the Hampshire County seat was ever present in the town. While it is still possible that the removal took place as described in the J.C. Saunders Papers, there has been no corroboration of the events at this writing.
The events that caused the desecration of the courthouse records were not recorded to the author's knowledge and are here surmised from other descriptions. For this reason, a chain of logic is used to offer an explanation.
What is known at this writing is that three documents gathered from the courthouse were returned to Romney by Ellen F. Lilie, a descendent of a 55th Ohio Infantryman in 1990. Ms. Lilie's great-grandfather, Private Frederick A. Wildman, took the papers as souvenirs of his march through Romney and on to the Battle of McDowell, VA. According to Ms. Lilie, "the papers were scattered around, I think in the Court House." The 55th Ohio were twice in Romney. The first time as a scouting body on February 6, 1862, the second as a deploying force on April 10, 1862 marching toward Moorefield and the Shenandoah beyond. It is the author's opinion that the documents were taken during the second occurrence of the 55th Ohio in Romney. The first foray was in tandem with General Lander's pursuit of Rebel forces under General Loring during Stonewall Jackson's failed Romney Expedition. The urgency of the moment would have allowed little time for Wildman to gather souvenirs but it was possible.
These facts indicate that the records then housed in the courthouse after October 26, 1861 were accessible to the plundering soldiers of both armies and were in a state indicating that the building had been ransacked and vandalized.
Also known at this writing is the narrative found in Maxwell and Swisher's History of Hampshire County. According to the 1898 text, Hampshire County Clerk John B. White hatched a contingency plan for safeguarding the records in his charge following the Lew Wallace raid of June 1861. The records maintained by White were of two varieties: originals and copies. White decided that to increase the odds of survivability for the records he would divide them into copies and originals. At the first sight of an assaulting body on Romney, he planned to send the copies to Winchester for safekeeping and retain the originals at the courthouse. According to Maxwell, during the Cantwell raid of September 1861, White packed up the copies and wagoned them toward Winchester. However, before they reached the Frederick County and Hampshire County line, the shipment was recalled; Romney had been wrested from the Yankees. White again put his plan into action during Kelly's assault in October 1861. Before the fall of Romney, the records were spirited to Winchester and evaded capture. From Winchester, the copied records were shuttled around to other locations, until they came to reside in the Luray Caverns. There they were briefly threatened with capture but were rescued by ___________who was serving with __________ near the area. Also corroborating Maxwell's description of events is an affidavit in Deed Book ____, which describes explicitly the circumstances by which the volume was desecrated.
The original records were not nearly so lucky. Given that those records returned to Romney in 1990 were originals, the validity of Maxwell's narrative is very high. On January 12, 1863, Private Thomas Campbell of the 122nd Ohio Infantry commented on his stroll through Romney that day:
“Took a stroll through town. Tis the picture of desolation. Not a store open. 1/2 the houses empty. The Cavalry have their horses stabled in the houses. The commissary stores are in the Court House. The Jail Recorders office are used as stables. The records and documents are scattered round used for lighting fires.”
The sacking of the Hampshire County Courthouse was as much an act of psychological warfare as physical vandalism. Without a central seat of government, it effectively caused the cessation of all governmental processes. These processes included property transfers, tax collection, and estate settlements as well as marriage, death, and birth recordation. Without a court, no redress could be sought through civil authority. Only martial law was available and was enforced at the discretion of the local commander. The surviving deed records indicated that no property was transferred between the dates from the spring of 1861 until the fall of 1866.
Giving evidence of the lawlessness of the region is the ponderous correspondence that was left to us in the Jacob Campbell Papers in the West Virginia Collection, Colson Library, West Virginia University, Morgantown, WV. In brief, much of the correspondence indicates that troops under Campbell's command frighteningly abused residents. On one occasion, a household was rousted from their dwelling by a group of drunken soldiers and marched to and fro in the road in front of their dwelling for the amusement of the soldiers. On another occasion, a federal lieutenant of the Ringgold Cavalry (Lieutenant Myers) exposed himself to Susannah Ridenour, a widowed tavern keeper, as a show of defiance to her in her place of abode. In summation, the correspondence asks that Col. Campbell enforce local law. Whether any relief was offered, much less provided, is unknown at this writing. Given the constant flow of letters over the long period, it is evident that local residents found little relief.
The courthouse was likely sacked on more than one occasion. It is likely that persons, perhaps even Union officers seeking to restore some semblance of order, had their men gather the materials scattered about and return them to the confines of the courthouse, and these same materials were again subject to brigandage. It is noteworthy that the courthouse did survive the Civil War, despite being rendered nearly a blackened shell as other buildings had been throughout the south. In February 1862, Captain John Keys of the Ringgold Cavalry (Co. A, 22nd PVC) was ordered by General Lander to scout to Romney in force and to burn the courthouse, jail, and bank. Upon arriving in Romney, Captain Keys declared:
"If I carry out my orders, the way the wind is blowing, the entire town will be consumed. Rather than turn helpless women out of doors, at this time of year, I will disobey this order."
Thus the seat of Confederate Government in Hampshire County was safe for the time being.
Interestingly, the following general order indicates that Lander later sought to ensure that Romney was not burned in order that the buildings could be used for winter quarters and to protect the property of loyal citizens.“Head Quarters Camp Keys, Romney, Va
Jun 10th, 1862
General Order No. 2, The following will be read to the commands, at 3 o'clock P.M. this day.
The Commanding General has learned with great regret a report which he is compelled not to disregard as a rumor that there is an intention on the part of individuals of this command, bearing the Honorable name of Soldiers, to burn this town without orders when the column advances. Capt. Brown of the 4th Reg't and V. T.(?) Provost, as marshal, is here by instructed to draw, if necessary, on the entire force of this army, and to fire at once upon and bayonet any squad of men engaged in such an attempt, which after the publication of this order he will regard as the extreme of mutiny and military insubordination. Single men making such an attempt will be arrested, and tried by a court martial. We are here to protect loyal men in their immunities and privileges pertaining to them as American citizens, and are not the miserable incendiaries our enemies choose to style us. We are engaged in the Holy cause of supporting the Constitution - and the Laws of our common country. As a military measure, the buildings of this town are required(?) for winter quarters, and must be protected, and held for that purpose.
By order of Col. S. H. Dunning, Lieut. H. G. Armstrong,Post Adjunct
Orders to punish for the burning of Romney, Gen. Landers, June 10/62.”
The author is not sure how this order can be original, as General Lander died of pneumonia on March 2, 1862. The document came from an on-line auction and was likely misread by the seller.
While it is apparent that a pillaging of the courthouse did take place, it is also apparent that it likely took place over time, and that at this writing no one event can be pointed to as the definitive "sacking." It is also clear at this writing that no solid evidence is available for the claim that the courthouse was moved from Romney to Piedmont. While future research may indicate otherwise, present examination indicates that though an environment of lawlessness existed in Romney, civil institutions were still present.
The term sacking comes to us from Middle English, from Old English sacc. The term here used means the transfer of property by spoliation, plunder, pillage; sack, sackage; rapine, brigandage, foray, razzia, rape, depredation, raid; blackmail. There can be little doubt that this is an apt term for use in the discussion of Civil War-era Romney.
In conclusion, further research is needed in this area. A thorough examination of minute books and circuit books for the period from 1866 to the 1920's would undoubtedly turn up references to the state of Romney during and following the Civil War. While this discussion was rather narrow in its scope, it did turn up several other revelations about the town and its role in history. A broader project awaits researchers who wish to analyze the activities that took place in Romney during the Civil War. The author contends that Romney's is a story that may yet hold more revelations.
Hening, William Waller, The Statutes at Large: Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia. Passed by Act of the General Assembly of Virginia on 5 February 1808. Volume 1 thru 13. R & W & G Bartow. New York, 1823. Text known as Hening's Statutes.
The following is an excerpt from Hening's Statutes describing the founding of Romney. Noteworthy is the fact that a settlement seemingly existed well prior to the creation of the town of Romney. In the act, the author states that "Lord Fairfax, hath lately laid out a parcel of land, at the place where the courthouse stands, in Hampshire County, into one hundred lots."
An act for establishing the town of Romney, in the county of Hampshire, and for other purposes therein-mentioned.
I. WHEREAS it hath been represented in this general assembly that the right honorable Thomas Lord Fairfax, hath lately laid out a parcel of land, at the place where the courthouse stands, in Hampshire County, into one hundred lots, of half an acre each, with streets for a town, by the name of Romney, and disposed of the said lots to divers persons, who have settled and built thereon, and who have made humble application to this assembly that the same may be by Law established a town: Be it therefore enacted by the Lieutenant Governor, Council and Burgesses, of this present General Assembly, and it is hereby enacted by the authority of the same, That the said piece or parcel of land be, and the same is hereby created and established a town in the manner it is already laid out into lots and streets, to be called by the name of Romney; and that the freeholders of the said town, as soon as their lots shall be built up and saved, according to the conditions of their deeds, shall for ever hereafter enjoy the same privileges which the freeholders of other towns erected by act of assembly enjoy.
Source: Hening’s Statutes, Volume 7, page 598
Further evidence as to the existence of a settlement is provided by J C. Sanders' contentions that the Century Inn (later called Armstrong House and, still later, the Keller Hotel) was built prior to the founding of Romney and that only after the laying out of the lots did it arrive on lot 86. Further, the Mytinger House on lot 48 is partly on lot 58 and has an easement dating back to the founding of Romney. Apparently, the house was built prior to the laying out of the town plan and was built in such a manner that it did not fit into the boundaries of the imposed lot.
John J. COMBS – Editor, Hampshire Review:
“The following appeared in the Intelligencer April 29, 1892:
‘For the Intelligencer. Mrs. HARPER - The following was written after reading a notice in your issue of Feb. 26th of the birth day of Mr. John J. COMBS, but withheld, fearing you would think it too personal. But remembering that we are too apt to delay saying good and kindly things of our friends till after they have passed away, I inclose it. Your reference to the age of Mr. John J. COMBS carried one of your readers back to boyhood days - to '46-'53 [1846-1853] - to the old Court House (occupied by the Intelligencer) - to the hurry and excitement Saturdays getting ready to "go fishing with 'Dody'". Whether Mr. COMBS was an original fixture of the Intelligencer, I am not prepared positively to say. That (with the exception of a short arrangement with the Argus) he has been 'there or thereabout', I believe, for at least 45 years. Unselfish, retiring, self-denying and reverent - loyal to his church - in these few have excelled John J. COMBS. With native talent, industry and knowledge of his profession superior to many who have risen higher in the newspaper world, his diffidence and want of self assertion finds him still a Typo. The old and active men of '46 - '53! Are the younger generation filling their places? FOOTE, GIBSON, WHITE, MCDOWELL, ARMSTRONG, VANCE, MYTINGER, PARSONS, ENTLER, REAM, POLING, FRIDDLE, MCILWEE, HARPER - but time and memory fail. In reverie such thoughts passed through the mind of one who may now be called an OLD MAN.’"
From: "Debra Basham"
Sent: Wednesday, May 29,2002 3:39 PM
Subject: Capon Bridge, Boreman
I looked through our Boreman materials as well as a few early proclamations from his term that came through the Secretary of State's office but could not find any executive orders, including the one you are seeking about moving the county seat from Romney to Piedmont. I also scanned the Wheeling Intelligencer for Oct. 1863 with no success.
I checked the Acts of the Legislature for 1901-1905 but did not find Capon Bridge. Often smaller communities were incorporated through their local circuit court rather than the Legislature and often charters may be still found in the circuit clerk's office. Have you tried the Hampshire county Circuit Clerk for this? There are also 107 cubic feet of Hampshire County records held at West Virginia University at the West Virginia and Regional History Collection. You may want to check with them about the Capon Bridge charter. Their number is (304) 293-3536.
I am sorry we were unable to assist you with your research.Debra Basham
Archives and History
1900 Kanawha Blvd. East
Charleston, WV 253050-0300
(304) 558-0230 ext. 702 firstname.lastname@example.org