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Something to celebrate

State is steeped in Civil War history

June 30, 2012
By Joe Hoover Staff Writer , The Inter-Mountain

There is no state like West Virginia, no state with such tumultuous origins. As Arthur I. Boreman, the state's first governor, said in his inaugural address, it is a child of the rebellion, born of the same political and ideological discord that led to the American Civil War.

The region that became West Virginia also was the stage for the Civil War's opening acts, like John Brown's famous raid in Harpers Ferry and the first campaign of the war. Accordingly, the state's historical heritage is vital, complex and endlessly fascinating.

With the ongoing sesquicentennial anniversary of the war, which began in 2011 and runs through 2015 - and the celebration of the sesquicentennial anniversary of West Virginia's statehood - now is an excellent time to explore the Mountain State's rich historic heritage.

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Submitted photo
Hunter Lesser is a West Virginia native, Civil War author, consultant archeologist and historic interpreter.

Fortunately, it is more accessible than ever, through the work of the West Virginia Division of Tourism, various nonprofits and numerous individuals.

In order to continue to make West Virginia's Civil War heritage more accessible, the West Virginia Division of Tourism has engaged in an ongoing effort to attract more people to the state's history.

With this intent, the WVDT has joined the Civil War Trails Program, which is a joint effort between a number of states to help make significant Civil War sites more accessible to travelers by establishing interpretive signs and creating driving tours of Civil War sites.

Betty Carver, WVDT commissioner, said the WVDT also developed a series of nine videos to provide an overview of West Virginia's Civil War history.

"We developed a video for each of our nine distinct travel regions," Carver said. "People with an interest in history or just in West Virginia itself should watch the videos. They show sites that are significant to the Civil War period and they show other things that can be enjoyed today, like theaters or national forests.

"We designed the videos to be intriguing to as many people as possible. We want to encourage both West Virginian natives and out-of-the-state visitors to explore our heritage.

"We have a great story and we want to get it out there."

There also are many other efforts being made to share West Virginia's Civil War story with residents and visitors.

Hunter Lesser has spent years promoting the state's heritage. He's a consultant archeologist, historical interpreter, author of three books on West Virginia Civil War history and native West Virginian.

"My interest in the story began as a youth, and it was fired by the discovery of a dirt-encrusted Civil War bullet on the crest of Rich Mountain," Lesser said. "That bullet sparked a decades-long quest to uncover letters, diaries and chronicles of an important but overlooked chapter in our nation's history - the first campaign of the Civil War."

As Lesser learned more about the first campaign, which comprises the first battles of the Civil War in the region that would become West Virginia, he began to realize how important the story was.

Consequently, he made it his mission to promote the story of the war by trying to protect and preserve historical sites and, just as importantly, by sharing it with people and encouraging them to experience West Virginia's heritage for themselves.

"Our historic heritage is an important component of American identity, as well as West Virginian identity," Lesser said.

"There is no other state like West Virginia. In a very real sense, the state was created because of the war.

"For me, our state's history is a point of pride. The people who founded it risked their lives for something they believed in. They were very brave.

"I think there is a lot we can learn from that."

One fantastic way to learn more about Civil War history is to participate in a tour of significant sites.

Lesser and others in the state offer a wide range of Civil War tours for bus groups, individuals and families.

"Some of the most fulfilling tours I lead are ancestry tours," Lesser said. "In these, I help people follow the footsteps of their relatives who were involved in the Civil War.

"It can be really moving for them to stand on a riverbank, or in a trench or on a battlefield where a relative fought for their life.

"I have seen people break down in tears when they stood on the site where, 150 years ago, a family member confronted their own mortality."

The Rich Mountain Battlefield Foundation and the Beverly Heritage Center in Randolph County also offer tours of important Civil War landmarks.

The Rich Mountain Battlefield is the site of the early Union victory that launched Gen. George McClellan's meteoric, though often criticized, rise to fame. Lesser said McClellan claimed all responsibility for the Union's success at Rich Mountain and used the telegraph, in a way much like Twitter is used today, to make himself an overnight sensation.

Historic Beverly also boasts significant Civil War history.

For example, one of the town's many landmarks, a building now known as the Goff House, was used by Union soldiers as an impromptu hospital. Today, its walls retain graffiti scribbled by Union soldiers, which was found during the building's restoration process.

In addition to its numerous historic landmarks, West Virginia's Civil War heritage also is represented by period re-enactments of battles and events.

One such re-enactment is the annual Blue and Gray Reunion in Philippi, which commemorates the War's first organized land battle.

The reunion has grown from four men dressing up like Civil War soldiers and standing by the Historic Philippi Covered Bridge on a Sunday afternoon to a widely popular three-day event that includes a re-enactment of the Civil War's first amputation, a 5k race, a craft show and live entertainment, among other things.

Blue and Gray Reunion Chairman Terry Wilfong, who has participated in the event since its inception, said last year's event had 425 Union and Confederate re-enactors participating.

"It gets bigger every year," he said.

However, Wilfong continued, it is about more than just getting together and having a good time.

"Civil War history is part of our state history, but most people don't know very much about it - especially young kids. There is a lot more to it than just fighting. We want to involve as many people as possible in our history."

There also are many other fascinating ways to engage in the state's extensive Civil War heritage, like the re-enactments of the Battle of Cheat Mountain and the Battle of Laural Hill, or the humbling Grafton National Cemetery, where T. Bailey Brown, the first Union officer to be killed in the Civil War, is interred.

There also is the pristine summit of Allegheny Mountain, which offers one of the best preserved battle sites of the Civil War and one of West Virginia's "crown jewels" of Civil War heritage, Lesser said.

"You can see original earthworks and rifle pits, and there are fabulous views from the top," Lesser said. "Looking at the trenches or the remains of the cabin in which Confederate soldiers spent the winter on the summit, you wouldn't be surprised if a soldier in a grey uniform came over the ridge and confronted you.

"In 150 years it really hasn't changed. The only difference is that now there are no soldiers."

As on the summit of Allegheny Mountain, West Virginia's Civil War heritage remains vividly accessible throughout the region.

Despite the distance of one and a half centuries, the war's legacy remains deeply intertwined with the state's cultural and historical identity. To anyone who will listen, this legacy will impart the story of West Virginia's tumultuous journey to statehood as well as chart the beginning of one of the most momentous and deadly wars in American history.

More information about Civil War tourism opportunities in West Virginia is available at or 1-800-CALL-WVA (1-800-225-5982).

More information about West Virginia's Civil War heritage also can be found in Lesser's book, "Rebels at the Gate," which is available at Mainline Books in Elkins. Also, his most recent book, "The First Campaign," is a well-researched guidebook for Civil War tourism. It outlines three day-trips to Civil War sites that came be made from Elkins. Lesser can be contacted about tours through or 304-636-8039.

More information about Historic Beverly, the Rich Mountain Battlefield or general West Virginia Civil War history is available by visiting and or calling 304-637-7424.



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