This morning I took the cars at Sir John’s for the purpose of visiting Charlestown on personal business. A stranger from the West who sat beside me opened conversation on the all-absorbing subject: Would Virginia secede? [Word had not been received yet, of the Convention’s vote the day before] I replied, somewhat dogmatically perhaps, “That she would not and could not.” I then went on to explain to him the grounds for my assertion, the immense popular majority in the State opposed it, the decided majority in the Convention against secession under any circumstances. The high personal and political character of that body. The impossibility of their betraying their constituents. Their pledges, their interests, their common sense forbid the supposition. They would never dare to face the people of Virginia with the stain of so dark a treachery on their souls. By the time the train reached Harper’s Ferry I had quieted the apprehensions of my fellow-passenger, and had argued myself into a very contented frame of mind.
As we passed the Armory shops I observed they were closed. And the United States soldiers there on duty (fifty or sixty men) stood in groups about the grounds apparently awaiting orders. As the train stopped opposite the hotel I missed the mob of idlers that usually crowded the platform, but remarked a collection of half a dozen gentlemen standing near the steps which led to the telegraph office. While engaged in getting my baggage I heard my name called by one of the group, and on approaching recognized several acquaintances, whose presence there at that time struck me as ominous. Among them were Captain H. Turner Ashby and a stranger whom I afterward ascertained was a Mr. J.A. Seddon of Richmond. I felt assured, from the anxiety expressed in their faces and the restlessness of their manner, that some extraordinary occasion had assembled them here; but I was not allowed much time for speculation, for as Ashby advanced to shake hands with me he said, “We are here in the name of the State of Virginia to take possession of Harper’s Ferry. Three thousand Virginians are marching to support us, and I am expecting their arrival every moment. They should have been here ere this. An Ordinance of Secession has been passed by the Convention, and the Navy-yard at Norfolk is already in our hands.”
I was so stunned by these revelations that I had scarcely breath to utter the usual and appropriate ejaculation of astonishment – “The Devil!”
Ashby further stated that he had taken possession of the telegraph office, and then walking to and fro and looking at his watch at every turn, gave vent to reiterated expressions of impatience at the non-appearance of the expected forces.
As I rallied from the surprise into which I had been thrown by these sudden developments I began to wonder what the authorities at Washington were dreaming of, and why the Government troops were lying idle in their barracks. I saw but half a dozen men who seemed to be arranging their plans and awaiting reinforcements at their leisure. Why were they not immediately arrested or shot down?
I also began to feel annoyed at finding myself the recipient of these quasi-confidential communications from persons with whom I had formerly had agreeable social relations and some affinity in political sentiment, but whose present position was abhorrent to me. The frank and unreserved manner and unreserved manner in which they detailed their plans seemed purposely designed to implicate me, at least by approval, and I was glad when a direct question afforded me the opportunity of undeceiving them.
R___ asked, “How many men can we bring from Martinsburg to sustain them?”
I answered, “None at all; we are all Union men in Martinsburg.” This reply appeared to startle them, and was followed by an interchange of significant glances among the party.
Ashby then said that he had always been a sincere Union man heretofore, but as the action of the General Government had already destroyed the Union he now felt bound to stand by his State.
R___ said that he too always have been a Union man, and was one now, but felt himself driven into the present movement as the only means of preserving the union. Although I could not perceive the adaptation of the means to the end, I wished him success.
The whistle of the Charlestown cars terminated a conversation which had become embarrassing, and I took leave of my acquaintances with the decidedly less of cordiality than had than had been exhibited at our meeting.
In passing around to the platform of the Winchester and Potomac Railroad, I became aware for the first time that the street in front of the Armory-yard was crowded with people, a number of whom were engaged in a rough-and-tumble fight, accompanied with the usual noise and hubbub appertaining to this Democratic amusement.
A by-stander informed me that the crowd was composed chiefly of Government employees, citizens of the town at large and from the surrounding country. Lieutenant Jones, in command of the United States troops, had been endeavoring to enlist the Armory men in the defense of the place, while Barbour, late superintendent and member of the Convention, was there with other secession demagogues, endeavoring to induce them to join the State troops, or at least to remain neutral during the expected attack. The artisans in the employ of the Government had for several years past been organized and equipped for military service, and could have reinforced the guard to the extent of three hundred men well drilled and skilled in the use of arms.
As the great majority of these men were not native Virginians, but citizens of the country at large, depending upon the general Government for their means of support, and the perpetuity of the Armory for the continued value of any local property they might have acquired, it is natural to suppose they would have eagerly volunteered to resist a movement which menaced them with total and immediate ruin. But Harper’s Ferry had been for a long time little other than a political stew, more occupied with the intrigues of district politicians than devoted to the objects for which it had been founded and maintained. The United States officer found that he could not rely on any considerable number of them for assistance. Division of opinion, drunkenness, confusion, and fisticuff fights were the only results obtained. The sight of this tumultuous crowd, however, explained to me why the small guard was kept quiescent in the Armory grounds. Without delaying longer to unravel this entanglement I took the train and proceeded to Charlestown. Here there was as much excitement as at Harper’s Ferry, but among a different class of people, and consequently less noisy and vulgar in its demonstrations.
The Jefferson Volunteer Battalion, organized and armed under pretexts founded on the John Brown affair, stood paraded in the street, in marching order. As almost every family in the county had one or more representatives in the ranks, there was a hurrying to and fro of mothers, sisters, sweet-hearts, wives, and children of the Volunteers, showing their agitation and excitement in the most varied and opposite forms. In a community so secluded, and so essentially Virginian, there could not be found many uninterested spectators on an occasion like this. Every body was neighbor and cousin to every body else, and political dissension had not yet reached the point where it sears hearts and poisons the fountains of social sympathy. Even the negroes were jubilant in view of the parade and unusual excitement among their masters and mistresses. Yet I thought I could discern in the eyes of some of the older and wiser woolly-heads a gleam of anxious speculation – a silent and tremulous questioning of the future.
There were also some among the white citizens who stood aloof in silence and sadness, protesting against the proceeding by an occasional bitter sigh or significant sneer, but nothing more. I recognized in the ranks some that I had known as Union men, whose restless and troubled looks seemed to question me as I passed.
I had scarcely got through greeting the friends I had come to visit when I was waited on by Captain Lawson Botts, an officer of the regiment, a citizen highly esteemed for his general intelligence and probity, and known as a decided and uncompromising opponent of secession doctrines. Calling me aside, in a manner which evidenced great and painful excitement, he asked “what I thought of the present state of affairs?” I replied by asking what was the meaning of this martial army, and why I saw him armed and equipped as a participator? He said that Ashby and Seddon had arrived that morning from Richmond, and, in the name of the Governor of Virginia, had ordered the regiment to which he belonged to assemble and march immediately on Harper’s Ferry, to take possession of the United States armories and arsenals there, and hold them for the State. I then gave him an account of my conversation with Ashby and his colleagues, and what I had seen at Harper’s Ferry.
D.H. Strother, morning of April 18, 1861
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