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Charles Button

Union or Secession
Charles William Button (1822–1894)
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CHARLES WILLIAM BUTTON (1822–1894)

Charles William Button (7 July 1822–29 December 1894), journalist, was born at Harpers Ferry, the son of Charles Button, a blacksmith, and Jane Read Button. He obtained only a limited formal education and was most likely expected to take up a mechanic's trade. Such a fate must have seemed inevitable when Button shouldered the responsibility of looking after his mother and youngest siblings after his father died in 1843.

Nonetheless, Button's religious faith, voracious reading, and political enthusiasm inspired him to write for the newspapers, revealing a remarkable talent for journalism. By 1851, when he began pasting clippings of his published effusions onto the pages of his father's old account book, he was writing political articles for the Charlestown Virginia Free Press and contributing regularly to the Methodist Protestant, of Baltimore, Maryland. His parents were founders of the local Methodist church, and Button became a member in childhood. Through the church he met and by 1853 had married Mary Elizabeth Zollickoffer, the daughter of a Methodist clergyman and a native of Carroll County, Maryland. They had five sons and four daughters.

Button was an active Methodist layman, often attended the state's annual conference, and between the 1850s and 1870s regularly attended national church conferences as well, but a ministerial career did not suit him. His devotion to the Whig Party was also strong, and he served the party well enough to be appointed postmaster at Harpers Ferry in May 1849, an office he resigned in May 1853 to run for the House of Delegates. Button was elected and served a single one-year term representing Jefferson County, all the while reporting on politics to the local newspapers. As a member of the minority party he was appointed to the relatively insignificant Committee to Examine the Penitentiary.

The Lynchburg Daily Virginian

Soon after his younger brother Joseph Button purchased an interest in the Bedford Sentinel, a Whig newspaper, Button moved to Liberty (later the city of Bedford) to join him. On 24 April 1857 Joseph Button announced the sale of his interest in the paper, and on the same day Charles W. Button announced his purchase of the Lynchburg Daily Virginian, one of the oldest Whig newspapers in the state. He promised to continue the paper's advocacy of Whig principles, a pledge that proved difficult to keep as the sectional conflict worsened. The paper's masthead slogan, "The Rights of the States, and the Union of the States," concisely expressed the political ground on which Button stood, and in the 1860 presidential election the paper endorsed the Constitutional Union Party as preferable to the Democrats and the Republicans.

The Lynchburg Daily Virginian was very much a family affair. Button's three brothers worked there, and as of 1860 two brothers and four unrelated printers shared Button's home with his wife, his three children, his mother, and his sister. Journalism was both highly partisan and personal, and rivalries sometimes provoked heated and enduring animosities. On the afternoon of 23 June 1860, after angry editorials had passed between the Lynchburg Daily Virginian and the Lynchburg Republican, as the Button brothers walked home they encountered editorial writers from the other paper. An argument began, during which Joseph Button was shot and mortally wounded. The event deeply affected Charles Button, and five days later in an editorial he promised to be "more forbearing" toward others in the future.

Button published the Lynchburg Daily Virginian through the Civil War, although the paper had shrunk by 1864 to a single sheet without a masthead. The issue of 31 March 1865 printed a public appeal inviting Button to become a candidate for the Confederate House of Representatives following the resignation of William Cabell Rives. Button agreed to serve if elected, and four other candidates also announced their availability. The election probably did not take place as scheduled on 10 April 1865, one week after the fall of Richmond and one day after the surrender of the Confederate army at Appomattox Court House. Nevertheless, some accounts state that Button won election to the Confederate Congress. If so, the victory was an empty one.

By the beginning of June 1865, publication and delivery of the newspaper to city and rural subscribers had resumed, and the paper had grown to four pages. Button looked forward to amnesty and reconciliation, but in his paper of 15 June 1865 he pronounced the idea of enfranchising African Americans "preposterous." After Congress passed Reconstruction acts to provide such rights to blacks, Button abandoned any hope for cooperation with Republicans. In the autumn of 1865 he unsuccessfully ran for the Senate of Virginia from the district comprising Appomattox, Campbell, and Charlotte Counties, and thereafter he confined himself to supporting other candidates. By 1867 what mattered most to him was electing conservative white men. Thus, although the Lynchburg Daily Virginian retained its prewar masthead slogan, Button made it an outspoken advocate of the Virginia Democratic Party against the Republicans and, in the 1880s, the Readjusters. On 2 November 1875 he enjoyed the pleasure of purchasing his former rival, the Lynchburg Republican, and absorbing it into his own paper.

After the Democrats finally elected a president in 1884, Button was rewarded with a patronage appointment as postmaster of Lynchburg. In July 1885 he assumed his new duties and left the newspaper under the direction of his sons Charles Fletcher Button and Joseph Button (1865–1943). Senator William Mahone, leader of the Readjusters, opposed Button's appointment and blocked its confirmation. Unable to overcome Mahone's opposition, Button returned to the newspaper after only eighteen months in office.

Button sold the Lynchburg Daily Virginian a few months later, on 14 March 1887. He remained in Lynchburg for several years, looking after his properties and participating in Methodist affairs. Early in 1894 he moved to the Appomattox County farm of his son Joseph Button, who later served as clerk of the Senate of Virginia and the state's first commissioner of insurance. Charles William Button died there of pneumonia on 29 December 1894 and was buried in Lynchburg's Spring Hill Cemetery.

Contributed by John T. Kneebone

Quotations in Lynchburg Daily Virginian, 28 June 1860 (first quotation), 15 June 1865 (second quotation).

This biography, with a bibliographical note, appears in John T. Kneebone et al., eds., Dictionary of Virginia Biography (Richmond: The Library of Virginia, 1998– ), 2:444–446.

Copyright 2001 by the Library of Virginia. All rights reserved.