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Wheeling’s theater became a Civil War prison

By Staff | Jun 26, 2019

I had finally found the location where my fourth great-grandfather had been held prisoner as a ‘Dangerous Spy’ during the Civil War. I was a bit disappointed, as I had expected to find a gloomy and dilapidated building that would speak of its dark history and sordid past as a prison. I was looking for an old prison style building for Confederate soldiers and all I found was an empty lot. The lot even looked cheerful which was not what I had expected.

When you hear of a building being used as a prison, your mind conjures up tall stonewalls and iron bars on the windows. There was no building or even a suggestion of one, much to my dismay. Manicured grounds with flowers planted and a scattering of park benches obscured any hint of what really took place here in 1862. That was how long ago my fourth great grandfather had been held captive, along with many others who were defending their state’s rights during the ‘uncivil’ war, which divided families, neighbors and communities.

Walter Cool was the wealthiest man in Webster County, Virginia, now West Virginia, as recorded by the census in 1860. He was an elected official and was serving as Sheriff for the town of Addison (now Webster Springs).

Walter was in his sixties and was in decent shape from farming. He was well respected and had married the daughter of one of the area’s most affluent pioneers, John Clifton. Hannah and Walter lived off the land with farming as their main source of income and raised a good-sized family, as many families did back in those days. The more children you had, the more free labor the farm received!

When the War Between the States broke out in 1861, it appears Walter tried to remain neutral but other sources suggested he helped run a local unit called the ‘Webster Dare Devils’ in Webster County. Regardless, Federal records show he was arrested on the Gauley Divide in 1862 with several horses that he had no receipt of sale for at the time the Union troops found him. He was arrested and convicted as a ‘Dangerous Rebel’. A military trial was held (even though he was not an enlisted man) and he was charged and found guilty. Walter was taken to the Athenaeum Prison in Wheeling for imprisonment.

This brings me to my little trip to Wheeling, West Virginia in search of the old prison. I wanted to see where Walter was imprisoned and perhaps stand and walk the halls where he had been. I am the type of person who loves genealogy (as my family does) and any chance to walk where ancestors have walked really intrigues me. Perhaps it is a feeling of connection with our past that we all yearn for as we age.

Regardless, the Athenaeum’s history was interesting. It had been the largest building in Wheeling when built in 1854 and had housed a theater on the upper floor. John Wilkes Booth himself had performed on the stage! When the war broke out in 1861 it was converted to a prison to house prisoners for the short term. Individual cells were constructed upon the stage and the dressing rooms were converted into cells for individual confinement. By mid-1862, large numbers of prisoners began to trickle in. Their stay at the Athenaeum had to be a hard one to endure. The usual method of controlling the prisoners was to attach a ball and chain to one of their legs. After the war, the building burnt to the ground in 1868 in the largest fire Wheeling had ever seen. It took with it all of the dark secrets that a prison of this type harbors.

Walter Cool, was held here as a prisoner until he was sent to Johnson’s Island Confederate Prison on located on Sandusky Bay at Lake Erie. It was a pretty day in March when I stood on the ground where he had been a prisoner 153 years before. Even though it was relatively warm, I shivered as I thought of some of the mistreatments the prisoners had all suffered. I took several photos that day as I walked the park-like area. I wondered how many visitors picnicked here and never knew the dark history of where they were sitting. Then again, I guess it would not make for such a pleasant picnic spot if they did know.

Sherri Brake is a paranormal researcher, author and Haunted Heartland Tour owner. You may email her at SherriBrake@gmail.com or visit her website at www.HauntedHistory.net