Eyewitness 1863: Civil War draft debate heats up Washington Co.

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Burgettstown was a nest of "Copperheads" in 1863, according to The Daily Pittsburgh Gazette.

United in their opposition to a new federal draft law and Lincoln's Republican administration in general, they "have a secret organization here, and the members boldly display the 'copperhead' and 'butternut' pins," the newspaper reported on Aug. 10. "Even the minister of the village has gone so far as to preach in opposition to the so-called 'unconstitutional laws of the administration.'"

"Copperheads" and "Butternuts" were the names attached to Northern Democrats who expressed or were suspected of Southern sympathies. While most would have rejected the label of "secessionist," they likely would have admitted to favoring a negotiated settlement to the Civil War that would have protected slavery.

On the afternoon of Aug. 6, a group of U.S. Cavalry, including the Pittsburgh-based Negley Scouts, arrived in Burgettstown. They had been ordered to make a circuit through Washington County, looking for signs of illegal opposition to conscription. They already had been involved the previous day in a skirmish with draft opponents in nearby Washington, the county seat.

"The appearance of a formidable body of loyal soldiers in such a large community of traitors, would naturally create excitement and alarm," the newspaper said of the cavalry's arrival in Burgettstown. "Copperhead and butternut pins were torn from lapel and shirtbreast and thrown away as though they were so many adders."

When the federal troops, commanded by Capt. H.B. Hays, set up camp for the night, the community's "loyal citizens" showed their support, "furnishing all kinds of dainties and luxuries for the officers and men."

"When it became evident that the soldiers were not going to 'hurt anybody,' the copperheads began to crawl out from their hiding places, one by one," the Gazette reported. "During the night, a party of the more bold and daring enemies of the government concentrated at Cross Creek village, where they were armed and mounted and then started to Burgettstown, -- evidently bent on mischief.

"No attention, however, was paid to them, until one of their number attacked a picket and fired a pistol at him -- the ball passing close to his head," the story said.

"The picket called upon his assailant to halt, but he rode on, when the picket fired and shot him through the arm."

While the group galloped off and dispersed, the cavalry captured six of them, including W.O. Stevenson, the wounded man identified as the first shooter.

The local Democratic newspaper, the Washington Examiner, gave a different version of the night's events. An Aug. 14 story in the Gazette quotes a reporter for the Examiner as writing that "a number of young Democrats went over to see the army" that night. One of them, the Examiner said, "thoughtlessly fired a pistol in the air."

The Gazette called that explanation dubious. "If those young Democrats were paying a harmless visit to the camp, what need had they for loaded fire arms?" the newspaper asked. "The truth is, they were bent on mischief, but they waxed up the wrong customer when they undertook to play the fool with Uncle Sam."

In a follow-up story Aug. 15, the Gazette reported that the six men, including Stevenson, "were kept in custody for a few days and released upon condition that they would not hereafter interfere with the draft."

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Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184. See more Civil War-linked stories in this series by searching "Barcousky" and "Eyewitness" at post-gazette.com.


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