150 years ago: Washington statue theft caused controversy in Wheeling

Courtesy photo
A photo of the 1866 ceremony rededicating the George Washington statue at the Virginia Military Institute. Two years before, Union troops had taken the statue and relocated it to Wheeling, where it was the centerpiece of a fair to raise money for injured soldiers.

One hundred and fifty years ago today, in the midst of the American Civil War, newspapers in Wheeling reported on the unexpected arrival in West Virginia’s then-capital city of an unusual trophy of war — the first bronze statue ever cast of America’s first president.

The George Washington statue was a larger than life-size replica of a marble work sculpted in 1785 by Jean Antoine Houdon. Bronze artist William J. Hubard received what was then a lordly fee of $10,000 for the metal version of the statue, which was placed near the entrance to a cadet barracks at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia.

Among those on hand for the statue’s 1856 dedication ceremony was Maj. Thomas J. Jackson, the Clarksburg native and VMI instructor who would go on to earn the nickname “Stonewall” and become one of Confederate commander Robert E. Lee’s most successful and trusted generals.

Jackson was also at VMI in June 1864, when a force of 18,000 Union troops commanded by Maj. Gen. David Hunter marched into the Shenandoah Valley and headed toward Lexington. This time, the Confederate general, felled by friendly fire following the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863, was resting in his grave at the Virginia campus.

Because VMI was the site of a Confederate arsenal and training center, Hunter considered the college legitimate military target, and ordered the campus burned and the George Washington statue placed in a supply wagon and hauled to Union lines.

Hunter initially planned to haul the statue to the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York, according to a 1984 article from the Civil War Times. But he was convinced instead to take the bronze piece to Wheeling, capital of the year-old state of West Virginia, where it could be kept “from a disloyal people” such as were found in Lexington.

On July 2, Hunter, most of his troops and the statue arrived in Wheeling, where the Washington statue became the centerpiece of a fair dedicated to raising funds for the care and rehabilitation of wounded federal troops.

Although Wheeling was a Union Army stronghold and the birthplace of West Virginia’s statehood movement, not everyone in what was then the state’s largest city approved of Hunter’s war trophy or his razing of the Lexington campus.

An editorial in the July 4, 1864 Wheeling Daily Register scolded Hunter for ordering “a theft that nothing can palliate — disgraceful to the age and double to the country that will suffer such sacrilege to go unwhipped of justice.”

Col. Rutherford B. Hayes,the former commander of Charleston’s Fort Scammon and a future U.S. president, was leading an Ohio regiment under Hunter’s command at the time of the burning and looting of VMI. “This does not suit many of us,” Hayes wrote in his diary. “I know Gen.[George] Crook disapproves. It is surely bad.”

Hunter did not take criticism of his actions at VMI lightly. He ordered a temporary closure of the Wheeling Daily Register and had its publishers, Lewis Baker and O.S. Long, briefly placed in jail along with Confederate prisoners of war.

The Washington statue remained in Wheeling through the end of the war, but in January 1866, the West Virginia Legislature passed a resolution ordering the return of the statue to VMI.

Archibald Campbell, the pro-Union, pro-statehood editor of the Wheeling Intelligencer, wrote that the return of the statue to Lexington made it possible for “R.E. Lee and the balance of the unreconstructed to look at it and pray for forgiveness.”

Campbell’s suggestion was apparently ignored. When the statue was rededicated in a Sept. 10, 1866 ceremony, the most prominent guest was the president of nearby Washington College — Robert E. Lee.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.

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