Civil War Journal of
William Sewell Dunbar
A Transcription of William Dunbar's Journal was provided by the late Ollie Dunbar, well known school teacher.
For a slightly more detailed picture of the events and personalities involved, additional material has been inserted into Dunbar’s narrative in Italics. These additional details come from the publication in The Dunbar Journal, Beckley , West Virginia, January 8 through 12, 1984.
Gentlemen, officers and soldiers in the service of the United States Army, I am going to give you a short historical account of the trails, troubles and difficulties I and my family, consisting of a wife and seven children have had to undergo while being in a rebel land. (Wife Alice, 36; Henry A., 15; Susan A., 14; William L, 10; Cynthia A., 9; Charles A., 6; John R., 5; Margaret A., 2)
In the first place, I will tell you that I am a poor man. I was living on the Clear Fork of Coal River (now the McDowell community) in the county of Raleigh and the state of Virginia. I was a carpenter by trade and make my living by trade. I tried to raise my family as respectably as I could.
I, my wife and two oldest children belonged to the Methodist Episcopal Church (on Workman’s Creek). I was class leader and exhorted in the same. The class I had charge of was composed mostly of very respectable families, and we were getting along very well before the rebellion, with some pretty considerable revivals in the church. But for a while before the commencement of the war (April 12, 1861), it became a difficult matter to hold a protracted meeting or even a class meeting on account of the Southern revolution.
The rebels threatened to mob us in the house of God and did make the attempt a time or two. The trouble grew worse until we had to stop holding meetings at all. I had all of my life since I had been old enough to judge for myself, been a Democrat and voted the Democrat ticket and would be yet if the Democrat Party had stuck together under the Constitution of the United States, but a portion of the party has deviated from and rebelled against our glorious government, a government that all nations begrudge us, a government that our forefathers fought for and spilt their lives blood to establish for us. Which government, Southern traitors have, many and many a time, defied and whose flag they tore and trampled in the dust of disgrace.
As I said before, I was a Democrat and voted the Democrat ticket, but the Southern question got so high that the Democrat Party split on it and there were two Democrat candidates, one Whig and one Republican candidate for the presidency. Stephen A. Douglas was my choice, but I saw plainly that he could not be elected, so I thought it was not advisable for me to vote for him. (Stephen A. Douglas, 48, Democrat senator from Illinois and unsuccessful candidate for president in 1860, was the nominee of the Northern wing of the Democrat Party. He died in 1861.) My next choice was the Whig candidate, but it was likewise evident that he also could not be elected, and it was very plain that the race would be between John Breckenridge and Abraham Lincoln. (John Cabell Breckenridge, 40, congressman from Kentucky, vice president under James Buchanan, Southern Democrat nominee of pro-slavery forces for president in 1860 election, major general in Confederate Army and President Jefferson Davis secretary of war. He died in 1875.)
Well then, it was prudent for me to vote the best choice, so it was that I voted for Breckenridge, thinking that he was perhaps the best of the two, but there I was badly mistaken, because he was a long ways the worst of the four. I have ever since regretted voting for such a scoundrel and rebel as he proved to be. (Raleigh, along with a majority of Virginia counties, voted for John Bell, 64, of the Constitution Union Party in the 1860 election. A native Tennesseean, Bell had served as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and secretary of war, and had been a U.S. Senator. He supported Southern policies but opposed disunion. The Raleigh vote was Bell 230, Breckenridge 69, Douglas 14. Lincoln did not receive a single vote.)
When it was understood that Abraham Lincoln was elected, the fire-eaters of our state became enraged and forthwith there was a convention called. After the members of the convention met at Richmond, they passed the Ordinance of Secession and put it before the people for ratification or rejection, but before the day of the election for ratification or rejection came, the rebel party commenced making up volunteer companies through the state, saying they would divide the Union by force of arms. (The Ordinance of Secession was passed April 17, 1861, with 88 yeas and 55 nays. Henry L. Gillaspie, 44, a Beckley lawyer, represented Raleigh and Fayette counties, voting for secession. A native of Allegheny County, Virginia, he had settled in Beckley in 1850, the first lawyer to locate here and the county’s first prosecuting attorney. A circuit judge after the war and large landholder, he moved to Mendocino County, California, in the 1870s. His home after the war was on Neville Street where the Beckley National Bank stands today. The counties voted on the ordinance on Thursday, May 23, 1861, but Virginia had already taken secession moves. Federal flags were removed and state troops had been called. On April 25 the convention passed an act for adoption of the constitution of the provision of the Confederacy. The vote resulted in a majority of 94,000 for the secession ordinance. The eastern Virginia counties were almost unanimously for secession , but most of the western counties were opposed. Representatives of 40 counties met at Wheeling on June 11 and passed a declaration of independence from the action of the Virginia secession and took measures for establishing a provisional state government. The western counties voting with the eastern Virginia counties for secession were Raleigh, Wyoming, Fayette (407 to 129), Boone, Logan, McDowell, Mercer, Monroe, Greenbrier, Nicholas, Clay, Roane, Calhoun, Gilmer, Braxton, Webster, Pocahontas, Randolph, Pendleton, Barbour, Tucker, Hardy, Hampshire, and Jefferson.)
As the rebels got a few men together, they made great threats against the Union men and all who would not vote for the ratification of the Ordinance of Secession and canvassed every county, threatening to mob every man who spoke in favor of the Union, saying at the same time that they would establish a Southern Confederacy. They said that every man who voted for the Union was a black abolitionist and that as soon as they voted for the Union they would mob him, hang him and shoot him before he left the ground. By that means they kept a great many Union men from going to the polls.
So, near the day of the election there were military companies and parts of companies all over Raleigh County. (Election day was May 23, 1861. The Raleigh County polls were in the Marshes of Coal (Glen Daniel-Fairdale), at "John Pettry’s," "Mrs. Stovers" (Clear Fork of Coal River), the courthouse, Shady Spring, and "Richmond’s" (on New River).) But not withstanding their threats and destruction, I was still a Union man, and even more so than I ever had been before. I would talk in favor and electioneer for the Union all I could. My neighbor would tell me that I ought not to be so bold for the new state. I told him I would risk it and be a Union man even if every other man in the county was against it.
The day before the election a neighbor of mine, who had professed all the time to be a Union man, came to me and told me that the Union was gone for certain and that we all had better vote for ratification and all secede together and show as bold a front as we could. He said that it would be better for us to divide the Union and set up a new government of our own and call it the Southern Confederacy. He also said his brother was a kind of a lawyer who lived at Raleigh Court House (Beckley) and had been down and explained the matter to him, and also told him that the colonel of the militia of our county would be down to our precinct at the election the next day, and would bring the sheriff and deputy sheriff of our county and armed forces to guard the polls. He said that all who voted for rejection of secession would forthwith be arrested and hanged. He also told me that they had a particular eye on me and if I voted a Union vote I would be certain to be killed. (Sheriff Henry M. Riffe, 37. He served two terms of two years each, 1858 to 1860 and 1860 to 1862, at an annual salary of $25 a year. A son of Conrad and Sally (Snuffer) Riffe of Soak Creek, he later became a Confederate agent, mostly in the commissary department. In civilian life he was a merchant. He died in 1869m a bachelor. His deputies, appointed April 22, 1861, were Jacob Harper, 45, of Miller’s Camp Branch (now Harper); Lewis Hull, 39, a Union man at the beginning of the war, farmer and miller who lived at Raleigh; and Andrew Jackson Harper, 21, a son of Jacob and a Union soldier. Jacob Harper was taken from his home in the middle of the night in April 1864 and shot to death by four Confederate soldiers. Lewis Hull was sheriff in his own right from 1865 to 1867 and Andrew Jackson Harper was sheriff from 1867 to 1871.)
I told him that neither he nor his brother, who had both made such bold professions, were Union men and that if they were what they pretended they were they would both go to the election and vote for war, and he said "not so". We could not agree on the subject and parted.
William Sewell and Alice Dunbar