Eyewitness 1863: 'Copperheads' accused as troops face fire in Washington County

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Alcohol played a role in a skirmish between federal troops and suspected Southern sympathizers in Washington County in August 1863.

Two companies of U.S. Cavalry, commanded by Capt. H.B. Hays, had been ordered to leave their camp at Connellsville "to take a circuit through Washington county," according to the Aug. 10 edition of The Daily Pittsburgh Gazette. Allegations were circulating that "the copperheads were threatening to resist the draft in various sections of that county." "Copperheads" was the name given to Northern residents believed to be supporters of Confederate secession. Washington County, right on the Mason-Dixon Line, was home to many people with Southern ties.

Following the lead of the Confederacy, the U.S. Congress had recently passed an unpopular "Enrollment Act" that set troop quotas to be filled by conscription if not enough volunteers signed up. That legislation led to unrest in many communities and deadly riots in New York City.

While the initial report was that Union soldiers "were generally well received" by residents of Washington -- then a borough -- when they arrived on Aug. 5, a follow-up report described a stormier scene.

One of the two cavalry companies was known as the Negley Scouts, and the Gazette's source for its Aug. 15 story was "a gentleman who served" with that unit. The Gazette's unnamed observer told the newspaper he had been "an eyewitness of the disturbances both in Washington and Burgettstown."

After arriving in Washington, as many as 15 of the troopers "got out through the borough and some of these were soon under the influence of liquor," the story said. "A guard was sent out under Lieut. McKelvey and Orderly Sergeant (now Lieutenant) James Littell, to gather up the stragglers." Night was falling while the soldiers rounded up their drunken colleagues.

"While engaged in this duty, the guard was hooted at and insulted in various ways, by parties whose conduct clearly indicated their political status," the story said. The Gazette was a Republican newspaper that backed the Lincoln administration. Many Washington residents, its story suggested, were Democrats and of dubious loyalty.

"No attention was paid to these miserable creatures, so long as they refrained from violence, and they were permitted to hoot and sneer," the report said.

But then a "large man" in the crowd ran up to the Union soldiers and jostled Lieut. Littell "for the sole purpose of picking a quarrel." After he shouted "hurrah for Jeff. Davis," the offender, "named Woods, we believe" was arrested. "This raised quite a hubbub among the copperheads, and an unsuccessful attempt was made to rescue Woods."

"Rowdies," gathered behind a lumber pile, fired "a volley of pistol shots ... followed by a shower of brick bats," the story said. "As many as a half dozen shots were fired, but none of the soldiers was injured." The troops fired back, but their attackers were protected momentarily by their wooden barricade. "There was not a man of them to be seen half a minute later -- all having disappeared in the darkness."

Woods and an unknown number of other prisoners were marched to the cavalry camp and kept under guard all night. All "were discharged in the morning -- not because they could not have been held, but for the reason that the officer in command did not wish to encumber himself with them."

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Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1159. See more Civil War-linked stories in this series by searching "Barcousky" and "Eyewitness" at post-gazette.com.


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