By Doug Hylton
Following the end of the Civil War, West Virginia was struggling to position itself as a state and defining its role in the newly united country. This new state attracted interest from entrepreneurs and investors who were eager to take advantage of the wealth of natural resources which West Virginia offered. It was one of these entrepreneurs who came to create the City of Ronceverte and place his imprint in the history of the community.
Cecil Clay was born on Feb. 13, 1842, in Philadelphia, PA. Cecil was the fourth of five sons born to Joseph Ashmead and Cornelia Fletcher Clay. The Clays had ties with the more famous members of the family from Kentucky, the Henry Clays. Joseph Ashmead Clay was a prominent lawyer.
Apparently, Cecil Clay was a unique student, as he entered the University of Pennsylvania as a freshman in 1856. During his four years at university, he was a member of the Philomathean Society and the Delta Psi fraternity. After graduation in 1859, he read law in Philadelphia until the summer of 1861, when he took a position as the secretary-treasurer of the Ridge Avenue Passenger Railway Company.
With the start of the Civil War, Clay enlisted with the Union Army. General Clay’s Civil War record was brilliant. In September, 1861, he was commissioned first lieutenant of the 58th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry; captain of the same, February 1862; major, September, 1864; lieutenant-colonel, January, 1865; and colonel, November 1865.
Clay was given command of Company K, leading the unit through service in Tidewater Virginia and North Carolina from 1862 to 1864. As General Ulysses Grant’s Overland Campaign pushed closer to Richmond, VA, the 58th Pennsylvania was assigned to General Benjamin Butler’s James River Operations in 1864. As part of the 18th Corps under General Edward Ord, Clay and the 58th participated in the assault on Fort Harrison on Sept. 29, 1864.
Grant planned the attack on Fort Harrison, part of the Richmond Defenses on the north side of the James River, as part of a diversion to prevent Confederate General Robert E. Lee from reinforcing operations in the Shenandoah Valley, and to expose any weakness that might lead to the capture of Richmond. During the attack, Clay led his regiment into the fort, and was wounded in both arms.
After the battle, Clay was promoted to major, though the severity of his wounds necessitated the amputation of one arm. He was mustered out of service on Jan. 24, 1866, with the rank of Brevet Brigadier-General.
In May 1865, Clay married Anna Wood Kester of Philadelphia. While they had four children born to this union, the two elder children, Cecil Livingston Clay, born in 1866, died in infancy, and the second child, Eleanor Clay, was born in 1867 but died in 1886. The two surviving children were Cornelia, born in Philadelphia in 1869 and died Nov. 1, 1909, and John Cecil Clay born Apr. 2, 1875 in Ronceverte and was baptized at “Edgarton” on July 27, 1876.
Following the end of the war, Cecil Clay became involved as a lumber merchant. Records show him in Botetourt County, VA in 1866; his daughter, Eleanor, was born in that county in 1867. By 1870, Clay made his way to Greenbrier County to Saint Lawrence Ford, and worked in the lumber business and was president of the newly formed St. Lawrence Boom and Manufacturing Company.
It was during this time that Clay purchased the land belonging to the Edgar family, descendants of Thomas Edgar, surveyor who laid out the city of Lewisburg. There were six family members who each owned a portion of the land that was to make up Ronceverte. Five portions were purchased by Cecil Clay and his associates, and from this property was to become the town.
Cecil Clay then moved into “Edgarton,” the Edgar family home which was built around 1810. While the area at that time was known as Saint Lawrence Ford, it was around 1882 that Mrs. Anna Wood Clay named the town “Ronceverte” in homage to the French name for the Greenbrier River.
In 1882, Cecil Clay accepted the position of clerk in the Department of Justice in Washington, DC, rising to the position of general agent in 1893, a position that had complete charge of federal prisons and prisoners. Clay also was in command of the Second Regiment, DC National Guard from 1887 to 1897.
Clay continued to make numerous visits to West Virginia after his appointment in Washington, DC. An expert marksman, Clay visited his friend, Francis McCoy, known as “the strongman of the mountains” in Pocahontas County, both of whom are said to have killed the last panther in West Virginia in 1887. Theodore Roosevelt records in his “Winning of the West” that McCoy and his friend Col. Cecil Clay of Washington, DC, who had lost one of his arms in the Civil War, treed and shot the panther on a hunting trip on Day’s Run of Williams River. After falling from the tree, the panther began to maul their hunting dogs, before McCoy killed the cat with his hands!
It was in 1893 that Clay was given recognition of the bravery he displayed in the battle of Fort Harrison. He was presented a Congressional Medal of Honor, for which the citation reads:
“Led his regiment in the charge, carrying the colors of another regiment, and when severely wounded in the right arm, incurring loss of same, he shifted the colors to the left hand, which also became disabled by a gunshot wound.” More may be found on the battle for Ft. Harrison in “Deeds of Valor, How America’s Civil War Heroes Won the Congressional Medal of Honor.”
He died in Washington, DC on Sept. 23, 1907, after a brief illness at Garfield Hospital in DC. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Mrs. Anna Wood Clay died on Dec. 1, 1922, and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery with her husband and daughter, Cornelia. To find out more about Cecil and Anna Clay, visit the Ronceverte Museum at 218 Edgar Avenue in Ronceverte. Hours are Sundays from 1 until 4 p.m. or call 304-646-2880 for appointment.