Marshall Mortimer Dent (2 May 1828–3 May 1901), member of the Convention of 1861, was born in Preston County and was the son of Marmaduke Dent, a physician, and Sarah Price Dent. Not long after his birth, the family moved to Laurel Point, near Morgantown, in Monongalia County, and in 1830 or shortly thereafter they settled in nearby Granville, where Dent's father became postmaster. By late in the 1840s Dent had married Mary Caroline Roberts, a New York native. Their one daughter and three sons included Marmaduke Herbert Dent, who sat on the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. By 1850 Marshall Dent was working as a merchant, and in 1852 he was elected clerk of the Monongalia County Court. He became proprietor and editor of the Virginia Weekly Star in August 1856 and clerk of the circuit court the following year. Dent's wife died on 7 February 1858, and on 24 April 1860 in Elmira, New York, he married Louisa Amelia Holden. They had one son.
Dent supported the Northern Democratic candidate Stephen Arnold Douglas in the 1860 presidential contest. A staunch Unionist who changed the Star's motto to "The Federal Union—it must and shall be preserved," Dent favored amending the state constitution to require ad valorem taxation of slaves and to establish legislative representation solely on the basis of the white population. In February 1861 he won election to one of two seats representing Monongalia County in a convention summoned to determine Virginia's response to the secession crisis. Dent did not serve on any committees or deliver formal remarks during the proceedings. He may have been content to follow the lead of the other Monongalia delegate, Waitman Thomas Willey, who introduced resolutions calling for equal and uniform taxation throughout the state and for equal representation in both houses of the General Assembly.
Dent posted dispatches to the Star to keep his constituents abreast of convention business. In March 1861 he reported on the strong feelings of disunion among Richmonders, who had attempted to intimidate Unionist delegates, and complained that the city's newspapers overwhelmingly favored secession. Because of these conditions, Dent argued, delegates should adjourn and move the convention's proceedings to another city. He believed that the state's leaders were betraying western Virginia by "attempting to hitch her to a Cotton Confederacy" and concluded that equal taxation between predominantly slaveholding eastern Virginia and largely nonslaveholding western Virginia would never occur. Dent proclaimed that western Virginians should "prepare themselves for a separation from their Eastern brethren. It is bound to come sooner or later, and that being the case, the sooner the better." In response, and inverting the usual understanding of the terms, the editors of the Daily Richmond Enquirer labeled him "the most radical disunionist, the most ultra secessionist, on the floor of the State Convention."
Dent voted with the majority against secession on 4 April and with the minority against it on 17 April. The next day he joined other northwestern delegates in a hastily arranged meeting at the Powhatan Hotel. Deciding their position in the city and in the convention was no longer tenable, Dent and the others boarded a train for home. While passing through Washington, D.C., he and another delegate reportedly discussed with federal government officials the action that the convention had taken while in secret session.
On 13 May 1861 Dent and other delegates from more than two dozen northwestern counties attended a meeting sometimes called the First Wheeling Convention. Participants passed a resolution declaring that if Virginia voters approved secession in the referendum scheduled for 23 May, western Virginia would elect delegates to its own convention early in June. Dent's unwavering Unionism led the Richmond secession convention to expel him, along with a dozen other western delegates, on 28 June.
Dent continued to publish the Star until January 1862, but little else is known of his activities during the Civil War. Following the death of his second wife, he married Adelaide Lane Baggarly, a widow, on 9 November 1871 in Rappahannock County. The couple had two daughters. Dent served as one of three deputy clerks for Monongalia County from March 1873 until October 1883, when he was selected to finish the unexpired term of the deceased circuit court clerk. In January 1874 Dent and two other men were appointed legal agents to carry out the county court's orders and decrees. About two years after declaring to the court in 1879 his intention to practice law, he won admission to the bar. From June 1882 until September 1895 Dent served as the county's commissioner of accounts. Having suffered from paralysis for several years, Marshall Mortimer Dent died at his brother's Granville home on 3 May 1901 and was buried in the local cemetery.
Contributed by Donald W. Gunter
Quotations in Morgantown Post, 9 May 1901 (first quotation); Daily Richmond Enquirer, 26 Mar. 1861 (second, third, and fourth quotations).
This biography, with a bibliographical note, will appear in John T. Kneebone et al., eds., Dictionary of Virginia Biography (Richmond: The Library of Virginia, 1998– ), volume 4 (forthcoming).
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