Lesson in legal history in Hillsboro
Many Americans consider the Civil War to be one of the darkest periods in our country's history. More than 40 attendees gathered in Hillsboro last week to hear historian Dr. Kenneth R. Bailey shed some light on one of the more obscure post-war topics.
The event was held at the Sydenstricker House, at the Pearl S. Buck Birthplace Museum, where Bailey deliver a lecture titled “Scratch 'em and Sue 'em – The War in the Courts.”
The presentation focused on legal issues Confederate soldiers faced after the war. The presentation was co-sponsored by the Pearl S. Buck Birthplace Museum, the Hillsboro Library Friends and the West Virginia Humanities Council.
Bonnie Gifford, president of the Hillsboro Library Friends, said the West Virginia Humanities Council established the Sesquicentennial Speakers Bureau to help organizations like the Hillsboro Library Friends develop programs relevant to the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Gifford said this is the first of what she hopes to be many collaborations with the Pearl S. Buck Museum.
Bailey was dean and professor emeritus at the West Virginia University Institute of Technology, where he taught history and was dean of the College of Business, Humanities and Sciences. Bailey served on the West Virginia Archives and History Commission, was President of the West Virginia Historical Society for two separate terms, and authored several books about West Virginia history including “Mountaineers are Free – A History of the West Virginia National Guard,” “Alleged Evil Genius - The Life and Times of Judge James H. Ferguson,” and “Raising the Bar - a History of the West Virginia Bar Association.”
Bailey said he became interested in the Civil War when he found out he was a descendent of a Civil War veteran. Bailey talked about the legalities secessionists faced in the 1860s.
“When you're in the army, you're ordered to do certain things,” said Bailey. “Failing to do certain things has consequences — you were punished in some manner. Some of the things you have to do, depending on your age and experience, is shoot people in battle. That's okay if you're a soldier in a recognized army from a recognized country acting under legal orders. It's not necessarily okay if you're not.”
Bailey said there were also potentially serious consequences for civilians loyal to either side of the conflict, especially here in West Virginia.
“If you were here in Pocahontas County and you were a Union sympathizer, and if you had not left by the fall of 1861, chances are that if people knew about your Union sympathies, you'd be in trouble,” said Bailey. “The trouble could be serious enough that you could be arrested and sent to prison. The same is true if, let's say you were in Calhoun County, or one of the other counties up north, and you were suspected of southern sympathies — you were arrested and sent to Camp Chase in Columbus, Ohio.”
According to Bailey, Confederate veterans faced legal restrictions after the war. Their right to vote was nullified, as well as their chances of holding any office or position in state government. One of the first things they faced were amended “test oaths” in November of 1863.
“The oath required that you swear allegiance to the state of West Virginia and swear allegiance to the United States,” said Bailey. “But you also swore that you had never taken up arms against West Virginia or the Union, and that you had never given aid or comfort to anyone who had taken up arms against the state or the Union, and that you had never held a position with the Confederate government.”
Bailey said it basically meant ex-Confederates could not take the oath, at least not honestly.
“They also decided they didn't want Confederates suing them for things that happened during the war,” added Bailey. “Most of them were civil suits — many of them for false arrest, confiscation of property, that kind of thing. So legislators passed a suitor's test oath, meaning ex-Confederates couldn't sue.”
According to Bailey, legislators also amended the statue of limitations on crimes committed during the war to prevent lawsuits.
Sue Groves, executive director of the Pearl S. Buck Birthplace Museum, said she really enjoyed the presentation and that it shed light on a different aspect of the war. Groves said she helped organize the event after hearing about the speaker's bureau.
“As soon as I heard about it, I remembered that Friends of Hillsboro Library invited Hunter Lesser last year to come and do a talk,” said Groves. “That was very popular here. So I got in touch with Bonnie Gifford and we decided to collaborate and bring a speaker here. We sort of went through the list and thought this would be an interesting topic.”
The next event scheduled at the museum, a family garden tour and ice cream social, takes place Sunday, August 19, at 2 p.m. One of the events featured that day will be a draft horse plowing demonstration by local farmer Sam Arbogast.