West Virginia In The Civil War


When active hostilities broke between the sections in the spring of 1861 the central counties of West Virginia were overrun by loosely organized and wholly irresponsible bands of Southern partisans, who made war largely on their own account and spread terror throughout the area. In no section were these irregulars more active than in Calhoun County, where the Moccasin Rangers operated under a half dozen or more self-appointed captains.

Marauding groups such as the Moccasin Rangers, with an interchangeable membership, had a certain nuisance value to the Confederacy in that they terrorized the Union element and kept the fighting men at home to protect their families and property, but generally were not a credit to the Confederate cause. It was a great time to pay off old scores, quarrels about line fences and neighborhood disagreements, and many of the acts of the rangers were more personal than political. They left a wake of looted and burned homes, and rode horses "appropriated" from their loyal Union neighbors.

Daniel Duskey

One section of the Calhoun County Moccasin Rangers was led by Daniel Duskey, a fifty-two-year-old farmer and justice of the peace, who derived his military authority from the fact that in 1857 he had been elected captain of the Third Company, 186th Regiment, Virginia Enrolled Militia, a paper organization that included all men between the ages of eighteen and forty-five in his magisterial district. And in the early days of the war the band led by Duskey achieved widespread notoriety for raids and forays--but were not as murderous as that section of the Moccasins led by Perry Conley, whose fame has been preserved as an outstanding partisan guerrilla leader. Duskey's most spectacular foray was his raid upon the town of Ripley, county seat of Jackson County, on the night of December 19, 1861. This raid led to his downfall and before settlement was reached had reverberations in the seats of Virginia government at Wheeling and Richmond, and in the White House itself. The incident, too, had its effect in causing the Virginia Confederate Government to enact a partisan ranger act giving a legal status to the guerrilla band in order to claim treatment as prisoners of war when captured by Federal troops.

Early in December 1861, Dr. O. G. Chase opened an office at Ripley for the purpose of enlisting a company for Federal service, and had brought in some fifty stands of arms, ammunition, and stores of clothing. Chase had recruited fifteen or twenty men and, for some reason not yet explained, had collected the arms owned by private citizens, rendering them defenseless in the face of rumored raids by partisan rangers. On the afternoon of December 19 he locked the arms and stores in cells in the county jails and marched his men out to Cottageville, announcing on his departure that he would hold the citizens of Ripley responsible if the goods were in any way molested.

At nine o'clock that night Captain Duskey and twelve of his men swooped down upon the defenseless town in true guerrilla style, shooting and yelling. Complete capture of the town was effected, however, without bloodshed--no one was killed and there is no report of any one wounded. The party was composed of Captain Duskey, George Duskey, Alex Groff, Marcelles J. Kester, Thomas Goff, Jacob Varner, Ben Wright, Ephraim B. Carter, George W. Tanner, George Gibson, and three others not named. Part of the company was recruited from neighboring Roane County.

Guards were posted and the main body, trained by months of experience, began to loot the town, and this they did efficiently. The guns and military stores in the jail were taken; they robbed J. L. Armstrong's store (asked that the goods taken be charged to the Confederacy), and lifted some personal possessions from citizens. The raiders found the post office locked and Postmaster John H. Wetzel refused to open it. Captain Duskey announced that he had a key that would open any door--bracing himself, he kicked the door down. Everything of value in the post office, even the letter mail awaiting dispatch or delivery, was taken and Postmaster Wetzel was relieved of all his clothing except that which he was wearing. After securing a good, square meal requisitioned from householders, the party retired, carrying their loot with them.

A few weeks later, Duskey and several of his men were surprised and captured by Federal troops which had been sent into Calhoun County to break up the bushwhacker outfits--the Moccasin Rangers in particular. When the prisoners arrived at Wheeling, Duskey and his son, George, and Jacob Varner were separated from the group, they being the only ones captured who were engaged in the Ripley raid.

The others were sent on to Camp Chase, Ohio, for internment, where, after a short time, some of them took the oath of allegiance, were paroled and returned to their native haunts--only to enlist in cavalry companies then being recruited for Confederate service. Indictments were returned in the United States District Court against the two Duskeys and Varner for the criminal offense of robbing the post office at Ripley.

The laws of war as embodied in the Lieber Code promulgated to the Union forces were observed in this case. That is to say, for the obvious avoidance of unjustifiable cruelty, the rights and customs belonging to those regularly engaging in recognized war were conceded to Confederate prisoners. Thus as a matter of practical wartime policy Confederate officers and soldiers were relieved from individual responsibility for acts which, if performed outside the pattern of war, would have been criminal. The Duskeys and Varner were not regularly enrolled Confederate soldiers and were not recognized as such. Their acts, as members of a marauding band, were individual and therefore amenable to the criminal law.

George Duskey, together with Josiah Parsons, made his escape from the Sprigg House Hospital on the night of April 1 while being treated for some slight illness. Dan Duskey and Jacob Varner were called up for trial before Judge John J. Jackson in the United States District Court at Wheeling on April 14, 1862. The prisoners had counsel; Judge Jackson assigned Major Brown of Wirt County to the defense. He declined on the ground that Duskey was indicted for murder in his county, and that he intended to prosecute him. Two other distinguished attorneys declined. and finally the judge settled on A. B. Caldwell and G. L. Cranmer, both of Wheeling, for the defense.

On entering a plea of not guilty, no denial was made of the facts of the raid on the town or of entering the post office. Attorney Caldwell argued that the affair was an act of war; that Duskey and his men were operating under the authority of Governor John Letcher of the Virginia Confederate Government; that the letters and papers taken from the post office were for the purpose of obtaining information about the movements of Federal troops, and that the offense was political and not criminal in the common acceptance of the law.

The jury evidently was not impressed by the eloquent plea--both Duskey and Varner were found guilty as charged and Judge Jackson sentenced Duskey to four years in the penitentiary and Varner to three years. The penitentiary in Washington, D.C., was designated as the place of confinement, but after a few months in that crowded institution the two prisoners were sent to a prison at Albany, New York. The storm broke a while later, when the War Department and President Lincoln were having some anxious moments about the whole affair, and the prisoners could not be readily found--though they were still in the Albany prison.

In the meantime, on November 25, 1862, Captain William Gramm and Lieutenant Isaac A. Wade, of the Eighth (West) Virginia Infantry, then stationed at Saint Albans, were captured by General John B. Floyd's force while on a scout in the Guyan Valley in Logan County. The eleven enlisted men captured at the same time were treated as prisoners of war; Gramm and Wade were sent to Richmond and turned over to the Virginia State authorities to be held as hostages for the release of Duskey and Varner. The two officers were confined in the state penitentiary at hard labor, and were treated as common felons.

Governor John Letcher dispatched a letter to President Lincoln on January 2, 1863, apprizing him of the action, and threatening further reprisals in event the partisan rangers were not recognized as prisoners of war and accorded treatment as such. The letter aroused the ire of Governor Francis H. Pierpont, of the Restored Government at Wheeling, who threatened to inaugurate a treat-'em-rough program. "I have made arrangements," he wrote, "to place double the number of rebel Virginia officers of superior and equal rank in a chain gang in Ohio County and set them to breaking stone on the National road until those Virginia officers (Gramm and Wade) are released or exchanged." The case became something of a cause celebre and the correspondence covers many pages of the Records of the Rebellion.

There was a stumbling block in the way of the usual exchange of prisoners. Duskey and Varner were being held in confinement for a criminal act, and not a military offense, and thus it was necessary that a presidential pardon be issued before their release. In the home area, relatives of the men in confinement were circulating petitions praying for their release and it may be said that the loyalty of some of the signers could be considered suspect. The case in Washington batted around from Secretary of War Stanton, to Attorney General Bates, to Secretary of State Seward, to military authorities, and thence to the White House, without much result.

"It was not until recently that the rebel authorities would recognize guerrillas, bushwhackers, and other irregular bands as fit subjects for exchange, and within a few weeks past they have rejected some of this class," wrote Colonel W. Hoffman in reviewing the case. But finally all obstacles were overcome when letters recommending pardon, signed by the twelve jurors, Judge Jackson, E. M. Norton, U.S. marshal, and Benjamin H. Smith, district attorney, were laid on the desk of the president. These recommendations were agreed to by Postmaster General Montgomery Blair. Then the president acted. Picking up one of the petitions on June 1, 1863, he wrote:

"As the Judge, Jury, Marshal, District Attorney & Post Master General join in asking a pardon in this case, I have concluded to grant it. The Attorney General will please make it out & send it to me. A. Lincoln. "

But still there was confusion. The petition endorsed by Lincoln referred only to Varner who was duly released from the Albany prison June 4, leaving Duskey still in close confinement. The error was corrected on June 13, when the president signed a pardon for both Daniel Duskey and Jacob Varner. Duskey was taken to Fort Monroe, Virginia, for formal exchange, but Varner had vanished.

It was not until July 1 that Captain Gramm and Lieutenant Wade were given their freedom under parole. They were later exchanged, rejoined their regiment and served until demobilized at the end of the war.

Source: Reprinted from Boyd B. Stutter's West Virginia in the Civil War, Education Foundation, Inc., Charleston, West Virginia 25324.

Note: I believe in fairness to a fine family of Calhoun County. We point out that what Dan Duskey did was no more criminal than any other act of war. He was a loyal Virginian and held a captain's commission in the Virginia State Militia. He and the men under him were invaluable to the Confederacy. They knew of all movement of troops and reported them. They also kept the Union Home Guards from harassing the Confederate people. His action at Ripley was no different from Governor Pierpont of the Restored Government of Virginia taking money from the Exchange Bank of Weston to pay the officers of his government. He used the Seventh Ohio Regiment to arrest the cashier and take the money that was deposited to the account of the State of Virginia for building an insane hospital. The sum was twenty-seven thousand dollars.-R. J. Knotts, Jr.


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