- The Washington Times - Friday, July 28, 2006

In the annals of West Virginia political leaders, Nathan Goff Jr. ranks as one of the best that the state ever produced.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Harrison County Republican held numerous important state and national offices. However, Goff may have made his most significant contribution to his country during the Civil War when, as a returning prisoner, he met with President Lincoln and encouraged him to restart prisoner exchanges.

Nathan Goff was born in Clarksburg, in what was then Virginia, on Feb. 9, 1843. His parents, Waldo and Harriett Goff, named their second son after his father’s brother and business partner, Nathan Goff Sr. Growing up in what one of his friends later termed “good boys country,” he had an ideal childhood, fishing, swimming and roaming the countryside with his playmates.

According to the 1850 census, which listed Waldo as owning more than $54,000 worth of real estate and 11 slaves, Nathan’s father was more than able to afford to educate him at the prestigious Northwestern Academy. During his years of study at the Methodist Episcopal school, he received a good classical education and became a competent debater and orator.

By the time of his graduation in the spring of 1860, Goff had decided to become a lawyer. During the summer, he prepared for his new career by studying Blackstone’s Commentaries. That September, he and two of his cousins, Charles T. Lowndes and Meigs Jackson, journeyed southeast and enrolled at Georgetown College. Although Goff did well in his courses, he left school at the end of January 1861.

Change of heart

That winter as the nation drifted toward war, Goff, like many other citizens of northwest Virginia, favored the Union cause but still believed he owed a debt of loyalty to the Old Dominion if it seceded. On April 1, the young man delivered a stirring oration at the local courthouse where he stated, “And the chivalrous sons of Virginia will ever be found ready to gird on the armor, to fight, to pour out life’s purple stream in defense of ‘That land by nature made perfected, That land — the lovely South.’”

However, the April 17 decision of Virginia’s secession convention to leave the Union, if ratified by the voters in a special election scheduled for May 23, put things in a different light for the Goff family. When Union sympathizers led by John Carlile met in Clarksburg on April 22, Waldo, a former Whig politician, was among those chosen to represent the county in a statewide Union convention at Wheeling on May 13.

According to Nathan’s biographer, G. Wayne Smith, the commercial interests of the family dictated that “their most profitable and safest course of action would be to support the Union.” About this time, a local paper, the Virginia Guard, published an essay in which Nathan expressed a sudden change of heart.

Declaring that the defeat of the Democratic Party in the presidential election of 1860 caused its hierarchy to lead the cotton states into secession, Goff emphatically stated, “That party must rule, or it will ruin.” He later urged all loyalists to “come to the rescue — to the rescue of a bleeding, dying country.”

A militiaman

That May, Goff joined the Union Guards, a local militia outfit numbering 40 soldiers. The unit’s first confrontation with the secessionists came in the streets of Clarksburg on May 23, when it and another militia company halted some armed locals passing through the town on their way to join Confederate forces then congregating at Grafton.

Finally diffusing a tense situation, the Rebels agreed to disarm and place their weapons in the county jail. The next morning, the sheriff returned their arms, and they left town.

Not long afterward, most of the company traveled to Wheeling to offer their services to the newly constituted 1st (West) Virginia Infantry. When told that the regiment had filled its quota of soldiers, the militiamen promptly returned home.

Once back in Clarksburg, Goff and two friends, Alexander C. Moore and William L. Hursey, recruited enough men to form Company G for Col. David T. Hewes’ 3rd (West) Virginia Infantry. Young Goff was commissioned a second lieutenant.

Up the ladder

That summer and fall found the regiment scattered at various posts throughout the northwest, patrolling the countryside on the lookout for roving Rebel bands and “secesh” bushwhackers. During the winter, Col. Hewes posted Company G in Clarksburg and later in Philippi.

It was not until the afternoon of May 8, 1862, at the Battle of McDowell, that Nathan first saw combat.

Assaulting Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s forces perched high on Bull Pasture Mountain, the West Virginians fought alongside four Ohio regiments in Brig. Gen. Robert H. Milroy’s command until dark in a losing effort.

About a month later, on June 4, the 3rd (West) Virginia fought Jackson’s men again as part of Maj. Gen. John C. Fremont’s unsuccessful attack on Maj. Gen. Richard S. Ewell’s division at Cross Keys. Not long afterward, hostility among the officers in Goff’s company caused him to tender his resignation. Higher-ups, though, rejected it.

Goff did, however, get his wish to leave Company G.

That summer, he applied to fill the vacant position of regimental adjutant. Many fellow officers in the regiment supported his candidacy in a letter declaring Goff to be, “a brave and accomplished officer, peculiarly fitted … to the Adjutancy.”

On Aug. 1, Gov. Francis Pierpont of the Restored Government of Virginia agreed, giving the 19-year-old the position and promoting him to first lieutenant.

After fighting that month in fierce battles at Cedar Mountain and Second Manassas, the 3rd (West) Virginia spent September stationed at Fort Ethan Allen, near Washington. On Sept. 30, the soldiers returned to northwest Virginia.

Once again, the men received the unenviable task of tracking down local guerrillas and thwarting raiders coming up from the Shenandoah and South Branch valleys. As a result, many of the discontented veterans feigned illnesses or went AWOL.

Goff, however, continued his rise up the ladder. On Jan. 13, 1863, Gen. Augustus Moor, commander of the Northern Brigade, appointed him aide-de-camp. Not long afterward, Goff received orders designating him judge advocate for a series of brigade courts-martial starting in late February.

Tough assignment

During his stint as judge advocate, Goff’s toughest assignment was the prosecution of Col. Hewes, his old commander. Hewes had been charged with a number of offenses, including “cowardice and improper conduct before the enemy” and “for conduct unbecoming an officer for having engaged in sheep speculation.”

Although Hewes ably defended himself against the charges, Goff persuaded the seven officers who made up the court to convict the colonel and call for his dismissal from the service.

When the trials were over, Goff returned to his post as adjutant. That spring, the 3rd (West) Virginia was one of the many Union outfits that unsuccessfully tried to stop Gens. William E. Jones and John D. Imboden on their two-pronged raid into the northwest. Later that summer, the regiment, now mounted, also participated in some punitive raids led by Brig. Gen. William W. Averell deep into the Alleghenies.

On Sept. 1, 1863, Goff transferred after receiving a major’s commission in the newly formed 4th West Virginia Cavalry. Commanded by Col. Joseph Snider, its first headquarters were at Clarksburg before transferring east to New Creek (Keyser) in January 1864.

Unhappy surprise

On Jan. 30, Snider’s troopers were part of a force helping to guard 80 wagons heading up the Patterson Creek Valley to resupply the Union garrison at Petersburg, W.Va. At the same time, Confederate Brig. Gen. Thomas Rosser’s cavalry brigade was winding its way westward across Patterson Creek Mountain to intercept and capture the booty-laden caravan.

The fighting started at the crest of the mountain road when Rosser’s horsemen came upon soldiers from the 23rd Illinois Infantry building barricades to block his way.

“By dismounting a few men,” Rosser wrote, “I soon dislodged them and drove them entirely through the gap.” In short order, the Rebels removed the obstacles and galloped down into the valley.

By this time, though, Snider had his men ready. In the 80-minute engagement at Medley, the Northerners at first repulsed the Southerners, but when Rosser’s artillery finally arrived and opened up and dismounted graybacks started getting around their flanks, Snider decided to retreat. But he was in for a big surprise.

“At this crisis,” Snider wrote, “I ordered the train to be turned and started back, but to my great mortification, two of the train-masters had fled and all the teamsters with few exceptions.”

As the Union soldiers pulled back without their wagons, the Rebels swept in and rounded up the captured stores that included “bacon, rice, coffee, and sugar.” The troopers also corralled 40 prisoners, including Maj. Goff, who was pinned beneath his dead horse. Not long afterward, they began taking their prizes back across the mountain to Moorefield.

‘Void of glory’

Goff reached Richmond’s Libby Prison on Feb. 10. He quickly grew accustomed to his new abode and passed time writing letters home and reading Blackstone. Fortunately for Goff, his uncle Waldo P. Johnson, a former U.S. senator from Missouri, lived in town and furnished him extra clothes and money. In three months, however, his situation drastically changed when Southern authorities decided to punish him in a bid to free Maj. Thomas Armesy.

In February 1863, the Confederate War Department had authorized Armesy (17th Virginia Cavalry) “to raise a battalion of cavalry or infantry within the enemy’s lines in Northwestern Virginia.” But on April 18, Federal forces captured him near Johnstown, Harrison County.

Later that year, a military commission at Fort McHenry tried the major on a charge of “Recruiting men within the lines of U.S. forces.” The commission found Armesy guilty and sentenced him to 15 years of hard labor at Fort Warren, near Boston.

Early in May 1864, Richmond retaliated, placing Goff in a cold, damp, basement cell measuring 6 feet by 10. About two weeks later, Nathan wrote West Virginia Sen. Waitman T. Willey asking his help in getting a special exchange arranged.

“I am willing to give my life for my country on the field of battle,” he penned, “but the slow, lingering death of hopeless confinement and starvation is uncalled for and void of glory.”

Political pressure

Although Willey and Gov. Arthur I. Boreman both contacted Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, imploring him to grant a special exchange in this case, Stanton refused and on June 13 ordered that Maj. W.P. Elliott, a Rebel prisoner at Fort Delaware, be placed “in close confinement.”

The next week, Armesy wrote Stanton asking for expatriation to “Canada or any of the South American Republics.” Again, Stanton nixed the idea.

During that summer, Nathan’s parents tried their best to win their son’s freedom. Waldo put pressure on various West Virginia politicians and military leaders while Harriett penned an emotional appeal to President Lincoln to “Send South those Criminals and release our soldiers held as Hostages.”

Although the War Department continued to refuse the exchange, that August the Goffs were finally able to arrange a private meeting with Lincoln. Moved by their forlorn pleas, the president ordered Maj. Gen. E.A. Hitchcock to make the swap.

It took some time because the Confederates had, in mid-June, moved Nathan and some other officers to a prison camp at Salisbury, N.C. By Aug. 27, the exchange became official and on Sept. 3, Goff arrived at Camp Parole, near Annapolis. Once there, he promptly received orders to report to the commissary general of prisoners.

Visit with Lincoln

On Feb. 12, 1914, while giving a Lincoln Day Speech at the Republican Club in New York City, U.S. Sen. Goff recalled his momentous trip to the capital half a century before. After reporting to the commissary general, Goff met with Stanton, who promptly dispatched him to the White House with a letter of introduction.

Later, he talked to the president, who gave him some written questions about prison life in the South and scheduled another meeting for the following day. Before leaving, the young man mentioned his interest in becoming a lawyer.

The next day, both Lincoln and Stanton listened as Nathan read his answers. After he finished, the two men began to disagree when Lincoln asked, “Mr. Stanton, don’t you think the boys should come home?”

The secretary thundered, “Mr. President … do you realize that you are sending 25 [thousand] or 30 thousand strong men into the army of the Confederacy and receiving 25 [thousand] or 30 thousand walking skeletons back?”

Nevertheless, Lincoln stood firm, stating, “Mr. Stanton, the boys are coming home.” After the riled secretary left, the president told Goff, “Young man, you have won your first case.” Soon, negotiations started that finally led to exchanges for prisoners who were sick and wounded.

Quieting a mob

A few days later, Goff left the Army. After recuperating at home for about a month, Nathan traveled to New York City to study law under the tutelage of professor W.E. Wedgewood. That winter, he returned to Clarksburg, and by mid-March was a practicing attorney. Not long afterward, however, Goff once again became involved in a situation with Maj. Armesy.

On April 19, a patrol from the 8th Ohio Cavalry captured the crafty grayback near Crab Bottom “as he was trying to run up a hill to escape us.” He was brought back to the jail in Clarksburg, where many of Goff’s friends gathered, wanting revenge.

Nathan would have none of it, though, and quieted the mob when he said, “Let no friend of mine lay a hand upon this man; he is entitled to our protection, as a prisoner of war.”

Many years later, Armesy remembered the incident, stating that “one unkind word from him against me in that critical hour would have cost me my life.”

Brilliant career

That November, Goff married Laura Despard, daughter of Burton Despard, one of Clarksburg’s wealthiest men. Goff went on to an outstanding legal career that included service as a U.S. attorney and federal circuit court judge. He also became one of West Virginia’s leading entrepreneurs, with varied interests in banking, coal and oil.

On the national political scene, Nathan served a short stint as secretary of the Navy in the Rutherford B. Hayes administration, three terms in the House and one term in the Senate. At the state level, he served two terms in the legislature and lost elections for governor in 1876 and 1888.

On April 23, 1920, Goff died in Clarksburg. That June, the Navy honored the memory of the Republican stalwart by naming a new destroyer the USS Goff.

Steve French is a teacher in Martinsburg, W.Va., and a member of the Harpers Ferry Civil War Round Table. He can be contacted at [email protected]yahoo.com.


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