George Koonce – “Mr. Jefferson County, West Virginia” – 1861

3,492 words

Chapter 14 – The War Storm Breaks

https://www.flickr.com/photos/jimsurkamp/albums/72157686959874654 Click on right/left arrows

(Under construction)

“Mr. George Koonce. a man of great activity and personal courage, and Mr. Wilson, who is also a man of great nerve, were very prompt in volunteering their aid to Lieutenant Jones, and the latter put great confidence in them.” – Joseph Barry

That night of April 17th, 1861 Constable George Koonce, his family back home, led armed townsmen and some of the forty-five federal men from the armory, up the steep hill from Harper’s Ferry and the arsenal with its 20,000 new weapons – to face an enemy at Smallwood’s hill. who they believed was as many as three thousand.

Earlier around noon, Koonce watched as excited words spilled out of the mouth of Alfred Barbour, who, en route, had given his resignation in Washington D.C., as the armory and arsenal’s superintendent, and came on to Harpers Ferry to announce to everyone the certain seizure of the arsenal – all this barely before the ink had dried on the Ordinance of Secession in Richmond. The vote was taken as former Governor Henry Wise waved his dueling pistol over his head to menace the delegates against rebelling. The vote was taken and western Virginia delegates who opposed seceding rushed away for their lives to catch a train. Men were prowling their hotel with lynching rope.

Secessionist John Imboden described – an informal meeting, organized by Henry Wise, for 7 PM April 16th at Exchange Hotel Richmond. They agreed to a movement to capture Harper’s Ferry, beginning the next day, the 17th.

After midnight early the morning of the 17th, Imboden led some of the group to Virginia Governor John Letcher’s house and woke him up, “arousing him from his bed” and warmly sought his support for their plan to capture the Harper’s Ferry armory, its arms and the machinery. Imboden advised him to make sure the vote would take place as scheduled for later that day and that he would agree to sign off on it with its implications.

Skipping the Secession vote for the morrow, Barbour left by train post-haste to Harper’s Ferry with Virginia government official John Seddon with his proclamation of secession.

The vote was taken in secret session so the world wouldn’t know at once.

https://secession.richmond.edu/

p. 111

https://archive.org/details/battlesleadersof01cent/page/111/mode/1up?view=theater

Delegate John S. Burdett wrote later:

The ordinance was passed on the 17th of April, and we recalcitrants lit out on first trains we could catch — some twelve or fifteen of us — Carlisle, Clemens, Dent and others. A dispatch from Governor Letcher failed to arrest us at Fredericksburg. When we got to Washington, some went North. I came to my home on the Baltimore & Ohio, and John Seddon and Alfred Barbour sat in my front, with bottles of whiskey. When they saw me, they said: “Burdett, you seceded at Richmond, did you?” They were members and on the way to Harper’s Ferry to grab the armory and open up revolutionary devilment. Barbour was a member from Jefferson County, in which Harper’s Ferry is situated.

John Goode stopped off at Washington with Alf. Barbour, so Barbour could resign the office of Superintendent of the Armory at Harper’s Ferry.

Once at Harper’s Ferry, Barbour, stepped off the train and said something and up went a tumultuous shout. I stepped off and said: “Barbour, what did you say?” He did not reply, and to avoid arrest I stepped back on the train and guessed he was there to grab the arsenal and steal all its valuable and costly machinery. It turned out that way. Revolutionary devilment took the locks off our mouths.

Hall, Granville Davisson (1901). “The Rending of Virginia.”  Mayer & Miller: Chicago, IL

pp. 543, 545

https://books.google.com/books?id=nbAS9MDpsrUC&pg=PA543&lpg=PA543&dq=John+Seddon+and+Alf.+Barbour+sat+in+my+front,+with+bottles+of+whiskey.+When+they+saw+me,+they+said:+%22Burdett,+you+seceded+at+Richmond,+did+you?%22+They+were+members+and+on+the+way+to+Harper%27s+Ferry+to+grab+the+armory+and+open+up+revolutionary+devilment.&source=bl&ots=QjNfks-YiW&sig=ACfU3U2Vm68xPpCp97C1tBu6ewFXFp4BdA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjZnY2Nwt7zAhXBmHIEHcNGDy0Q6AF6BAgCEAM#v=onepage&q=John%20Seddon%20and%20Alf.%20Barbour%20sat%20in%20my%20front%2C%20with%20bottles%20of%20whiskey.%20When%20they%20saw%20me%2C%20they%20said%3A%20%22Burdett%2C%20you%20seceded%20at%20Richmond%2C%20did%20you%3F%22%20They%20were%20members%20and%20on%20the%20way%20to%20Harper’s%20Ferry%20to%20grab%20the%20armory%20and%20open%20up%20revolutionary%20devilment.&f=false

p. 115 map of lower Harper’s Ferry post- Civil War

https://archive.org/details/battlesleadersof01cent/page/114/mode/1up?view=theater

Imboden later wrote:

About noon the 17th Alfred Barbour reached Harpe’rs Ferry from Washington after submitting his resignation: collecting mechanics in groups and informing them that the place would be captured within 24 hours by Virginia troops. He urged them to protect the property and join the Southern cause. Federal Lieutenant Roger Jones, commanding 45 men, at once took measures to destroy the place

p. 117

https://archive.org/details/battlesleadersof01cent/page/117/mode/1up?view=theater

That evening of the 17th, coming from Charles Town were local militias under James Allen, heading towards Harper’s Ferry, stopping short at Halltown where argument ensued with to-be Union man, David Hunter Strother. 

Then Seddon who had arrived on the train with Barbour produced written proof of their incursion’s legitimacy.

“I was so stunned by these revelations that I had scarcely breath to utter the usual and appropriate ejaculation of astonishment – ‘The Devil’”

They only had 340 men including the cavalry and some artilleries with an old iron six-pounder not Turner Ashby’s number of 3,000 men “acomin’.” Their commander Col. Allen, a local man too, ordered his men, virtually all local, to not make another step forward. He’d gotten word that townsmen, such as Koonce and arriving U.S. troops would be there to defend the town, the arsenal, the armory and their contents.

While the Virginia militia officers were thus discoursing, and looking toward the town, there was a sudden flash that illuminated for miles around the romantic gorge where the rivers meet. Then followed a dull report, reverberating from mountain to mountain until it died away in a sullen roar.

The flashes and detonations were several times repeated; then a steadier flame was seen rising from two distinct points silently and rapidly increasing in volume until each rock and tree on the Loudoun and Maryland Heights were distinctly visible and the now over-clouded sky was ruddy with the sinister glare. This occurred I think between nine and ten o’clock. Some thought they heard artillery. But the more skillful presently guessed the truth and concluded that the officer in command had set fire to the arsenals and abandoned the town.Jones:

p. 124 image Roger Jones

https://archive.org/details/battlesleadersof01cent/page/111/mode/1up?view=theater

Roger Jones’ written remembrance of April 17th at the Ferry to the editors of Battles & Leaders:

Finally, shortly after nine o’clock when troops from Halltown had advanced to within less than a mile from the armory – in time less than five minutes – the torch was applied, and before I could withdraw men from the village, two arsenal buildings with about a 20,000 stand of rifles were ablaze.

Then, the undisciplined hothead, Ashby – much revered later by Virginia sentimentalists but who as a soldier was stupid and reckless beyond belief – leaving bodies of the enemy mutilated; advising his men that the best protection against artillery shells was to “sit perfectly still in your saddle;” and costing Stonewall Jackson his only defeat at Kernstown by giving him grossly wrong estimates of the enemy — he simply ignored Allen and galloped with his unruly bunch towards town.

Jones:

But very few arms were saved for the constantly recurring explosions of powder kept the crowd aloof. p. 125

https://archive.org/details/battlesleadersof01cent/page/125/mode/1up?view=theater

George Koonce’s men, however, saw Ashby coming  with the object of saving as much weapons and machinery he could and, however, also knew that Jones and the Federals,  after setting the blaze and explosions that they just heard – were skedaddling over the river and by rail into Maryland and points beyond.

So, threatened ahead and abandoned behind, Koonce and all his men scattered every which a way.

James Henry Burton, one of their inventors, made sure the machinery created with the revolutionary ideas of John Hall –  making the parts all made to be interchangeable with one another – these interconnected machines were successfully taken south and Burton would later oversee the armories of the Confederacy.

In the next few days, Koonce’s home was seized by Ashby, just as Ashby, the self-appointed local enforcer seized the home of Union man, MacQuilkin in Berkeley both under the charge of “treason.”

But Koonce sided with all those who hated Virginia’s secession, as something forced on them, first, by the first act of aggression by the South Carolinians at Fort Sumter, causing Lincoln to call for 75,000 Federal volunteers – the two actions that turned the vote around in Richmond in favor of secession. This egregious turn to secession fever forgot that the Virginia’s electors, in a very recent, calmer moment the previous November, wanted the opposite: a majority of Virginia’s voters voted for John Bell – the non-secession candidate.

Those men who fled Richmond, just with their lives and enraged by the injustice from a virtual coup – began meeting in their home areas where secession was reviled and arms were taken up against it.

In time, the life of George Koonce out-shone the example of Turner Ashby. Koonce would live to a ripe old age in his home county. The hapless, relentless, chest-beating Ashby died long ago with a bullet in his heart charging at, and shouting “Follow me men!”  a clutch of Pennsylvania sharpshooters, and he was armed only with a saber and a dead horse.

Koonce took the train to Washington in 1861 – and stayed. While there, he likely met with Lincoln’s Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, a fierce warrior against the secessionists – these childhood playmates in Steubenville Ohio. They both agreed how there had to be – in order to protect the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, that ran clear to Wheeling in a fraction of the time it took before 1852 and very crucially with part of its double track dipping listlessly like loose string into and through the eastern Panhandle, Virginia. If no corrective action was taken, the B&0 would be controlled by a hostile, foreign country. Berkeley and Jefferson HAD, for the sake of the B&O and the Federal war effort, be in a state that was part of the United States.

That pro-Union Virginia jurisdiction was  being worked on hours, days and nights with a group of western Virginians, many escaping from the Richmond debacle.

J.W. Paxton of Ohio County submitted the following

pp. 87-88

https://archive.org/details/ldpd_10797632_000/page/92/mode/2up?q=Wheeling+daily+intelligencer&view=theater

Resolved That a the people of Northwestern Virginia have long and patiently borne the position of political inferiority forced upon them by unequal representation in the State Legislature and by unjust, oppressive and unequal – but that the so-called ordinance of secession, passed by the Convention, which met in Richmond on the 13th of February last, is the crowning act of infamy which has aroused them to a determination to resist all injustice and oppression, and to assert and forever maintain their rights and liberties in the Union and under the Constitution of the United States.

In considering matters that before us for action here, it is very difficult, but very important that we all realize the actual existence of war – civil war. We must not forget, sir, that we are now engaged in a struggle for the nation’s very existence, that our differences are not now being settled as heretofore at the ballot box, peacefully and quietly, but by the bayonet, and at the cannon’s mouth. You, sir, and I and every American citizen this day are parties to this struggle on one side of the other.

And when they took votes towards that end all through that summer of 1861 in Wheeling and Clarksburg, George Koonce (Koontz) was there in the proceedings casting his vote in the name of Jefferson County four times.

On June 20, 1863 WV was declared, with Jefferson County within its domain. A Union-controlled, wartime Jefferson County voted for admission into the new state, disallowing any voice votes of those who could not or would not first take the loyalty oath. The new state’s Governor accepted the published results and signed his concurrence stating that Jefferson County elected “by a substantial majority” to be part of West Virginia.

Koonce was back in Harper’s Ferry with his second wife — once the Union re-occupied the town in late July, 1861. But, he left again for Washington in early September as Lee’s large army crossed the Potomac starting his fateful Maryland Campaign climaxed with the bloodiest day, the battle of Antietam.

Wrote his wife Bettie Brittian Koonce  in her diary:

“Harper’s Ferry, Sept. 5th 1862. Friday – George left. After leaving him on the street, I went up on the Hill at the Powder House to see if I could see him go over the Ravine. After some time I thought I recognized but did not know whether it was or not, watched him with streaming eyes until I could see him no more. Came to the House. Had some trouble with soldiers who were at the Pear tree. Attended to my Household duties and went to my room between 8 and 9 o’clock – and shall I portray the agonies of the night- left alone, alone, alone to endure again those horrid hours of never easing pain, grief, and feelings that are understood but by those only that truly love and enjoy the society of the Husband;”

Koonce was able to be home regularly in the late fall of 1862 and thereafter, running his store in his new state – the one that he help to make – a state that outlawed handling and harming a fellow human being as if they were just property. Ever a challenge and a concern.

Following the war, Koonce became active in politics once again, serving as a member of the West Virginia House of Delegates (1865-1867) and a member of the West Virginia Senate (1870-1871), running on the Radical ticket. He was also a member of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows.

Koonce died at 90 in Halltown, WVa, in 1908.

*****

The Correspondence of Bettie Brittian Koonce, September 1862:

Bettie Koonce was the second wife of George Koonce, who was a prominent resident of Jefferson county before, during, and after the Civil War.

In June 1861, Koonce represented Jefferson County at the Second Wheeling Convention to vote on the secession of western Virginia. Both George and Bettie were express Unionists, which was the minority in Jefferson County at the time. Following the war, Koonce served as a member of the West Virginia House of Delegates from 1865 to 1867 and a member of the West Virginia Senate from 1870-1871.

In September of 1862, George Koonce was away in Washington, D.C. for 16 days- being the same time that Confederate troops under Stonewall Jackson defeated the Union troops under the command of Colonel Dixon S. Miles in Harper’s Ferry. This battle was fought just before Sharpsburg and Antietam and was key in helping the Confederacy regain control of the B&O Railroad and the C&) Canal.

The letters here (just a few of the collection), attached to pictures, take the form of a diary and were written on letter paper with pro-Union sentiments. When George Koonce died in 1908, Bettie continued to support herself according to the 1910 census. She is remembered by her family as an artist, sculptor and musician, dying in 1920 at the age of 83.

Letter transcription and article courtesy of the Magazine of the Jefferson County Historical Society,December 2005

Bettie Koonce

Harper’s Ferry, Sept. 5th 1862. Friday – George left. After leaving him on the street, I went up on the Hill at the Powder House to see if I could see him go over the Ravine. After some time I thought I recognized but did not know whether it was or not, watched him with streaming eyes until I could see him no more. Came to the House. Had some trouble with soldiers who were at the Pear tree. Attended to my Household duties and went to my room between 8 and 9 o’clock – and shall I portray the agonies of the night- left alone, alone, alone to endure again those horrid hours of never easing pain, grief, and feelings that are understood but by those only that truely love and enjoy the society of the Husband; how much I need his protection. I cannot describe this feeling I have when he is gone – only as a dull aching void, it seems as if a part of my Body had been taken for a time, and I am yearning for its return, cannot possibly exist without it, and so secure did I feel in his affections that do as I would, he would be the last to censure. But, oh, he cannot but feel that he has avenged me. My God, strengthen me in this trying Hour; though I try to appear calm. Oh how I suffer- imprudent he may deem me, but how dear to my soul is the knowledge of my innocence even in thought, but I must cease writing for my feelings over power me; May he reach a place of safety will be my constant prayer.

12 o’clock —-

2 o’clock – how wretched. Oh I cannot sleep; it is a beautiful moonlight night; how I wish George was here.

The strange story of Harper’s Ferry, with legends of the surrounding country

by Barry, Joseph, 1828?-1905

Publication date 1903

Topics Harper’s Ferry (W. Va.) — History, Harper’s Ferry (W. Va.) — History John Brown’s Raid, 1859

Publisher Martinsburg, W. Va., Thompson brothers

https://archive.org/details/strangestoryofha00barr

Lewis, Virgil Anson. (1909), “How West Virginia was made. ; Proceedings of the first Convention of the people of northwestern Virginia at Wheeling, May 13, 14 and 15, 1861, and the journal of the second Convention of the people of northwestern Virginia at Wheeling, which assembled, June 11th 1861 …” [Charleston, W. Va. : News-Mail Co., Public Printer]

https://archive.org/details/ldpd_10797632_000/page/7/mode/2up?q=Wheeling+daily+intelligencer

Koontz listed as the delegate for Jefferson Cunty

pp. 79-80

https://archive.org/details/ldpd_10797632_000/page/84/mode/2up?q=Wheeling+daily+intelligencer&view=theater

Aug. 8 afternoon Koontz vote

pp. 192-193

https://archive.org/details/ldpd_10797632_000/page/198/mode/2up?q=Wheeling+daily+intelligencer&view=theater

Aug. 17th Koontz vote

pp. 276-277

https://archive.org/details/ldpd_10797632_000/page/198/mode/2up?q=Wheeling+daily+intelligencer&view=theater

Aug 20th Koontz

pp. 292-293

https://archive.org/details/ldpd_10797632_000/page/298/mode/2up?q=Wheeling+daily+intelligencer&view=theater

Aug. 20th again Koontz vote

pp. 294-295

https://archive.org/details/ldpd_10797632_000/page/300/mode/2up?q=Wheeling+daily+intelligencer&view=theater

p. 87

J.W. Paxton

Resolved That a the people of Northwestern Virginia have long and patiently borne the position of political inferiority forced upon them by unequal representation in the State Legislature and by unjust, oppressive and unequal – but that the so-called ordinance of secession, passed by the Convention, which met in Richmond on the 13th of February last, is the crowning act of infamy which has aroused them to a determination to resist all injustice and oppression, and to assert and forever maintain their rights and liberties in the Union and under the Constitution of the United States.

In considering matters that before us for action here, it is very difficult, but very important that we all realize the actual existence of war – civil war. We must not forget, sir, that we are now engaged in a struggle for the nation’s very existence, that our differences are not now being settled as heretofore at the ballot box, peacefully and quietly, but by the bayonet, and at the cannon’s mouth. You, sir, and I and every American citizen this day are parties to this struggle on one side of the other.

And when they took votes towards that end all through that summer of 1861 in Wheeling and Clarksburg, George Koonce (Koontz) was there in the proceedings casting his vote in the name of Jefferson County four times.

B&L Vol 1

John Imboden: 7 PM April 16th at Exchange Hotel organized by Henry Wise

agreed that a movement to capture Harper’s Ferry would begin the next day the 17th.

after midnight early the morning of the 17th went to Lethcher and woke him up. “arousing him from his bed” and warmly sought his support for their plan

p. 111

https://archive.org/details/battlesleadersof01cent/page/111/mode/1up?view=theater

About noon the 17th Alfred Barbour reached Harpers Ferry from Washington after submitting his resignation: collecting mechanics in groups and informing them that the place would be captured within 24 hours by Virginia troops. He urged them to ptoect the property and join the Southern cause. But Lieutenant Roger Jones commanding 45 men at once took measures to destroy the place

p. 117

https://archive.org/details/battlesleadersof01cent/page/117/mode/1up?view=theater

p. 124 image Roger Jones

https://archive.org/details/battlesleadersof01cent/page/111/mode/1up?view=theater

Roger Jones written remembrance of April 17th at the Ferry to the editors:

Finally, shortly after nine o’clock when troops from Halltown had advanced to within less than a mile from the armory – in time less than five minutes – the torch was applied, and before I could withdraw me men from the village two arsenal buildings with about 20,000  stand of rifles were ablaze. But very few arms were saved for the constantly recurring explosions of powder kept the crowd aloof. 

p. 125

https://archive.org/details/battlesleadersof01cent/page/125/mode/1up?view=theater

A committee, of which I was chairman, waited on Governor Letcher after midnight, and, arousing him from his bed, laid the scheme before him. He stated that he would take no step till officially informed that the ordinance of secession was passed by the convention. He was then asked if contingent upon the event he would next day order the movement by telegraph. He consented. On returning to the hotel and reporting Governor Letcher’s promise, it was decided to telegraph the captains of companies along the railroads mentioned to be ready next day for orders from the governor.

So we secured only the machinery and the gun and pistol barrels and locks, which, however, were sent to Richmond and Columbia, South Carolina, and were worked over into excellent arms.

Henry A. Wise

B&L Vol. 1

p. 138

https://archive.org/details/battlesleadersof01cent/page/138/mode/1up?view=theater