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Civil War injustice dramatized at GVT

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LEWISBURG, WV - In celebration of both West Virginia's 150th anniversary as well as local history, Greenbrier Valley Theatre will present "The Greenbrier Martyr," by K.C. Davis.  The play will run at 7:30 p.m. June 7-8, 13, 15, 20 and 22.  There will be a matinee performance at 2 p.m. June 22.

Tickets are $24 for adults, $21 for seniors and $15 for students and children.  For tickets or information, call the GVT box office at 304-645-3838.

The historical events of the Greenbrier Martyr may not be as well-known as GVT's other historically set drama, "The Greenbrier Ghost," but they are no less tragic. The "Martyr" is the story of David S. Creigh, a prominent citizen in 1863 Greenbrier County who was to find the injustices of wartime poured upon him as a result of defending his family and home. 

The prominent Creigh family had long been in the mercantile business in the county, but David Creigh gave up the life of a merchant to become a farmer. His home was called Montescena, a farm two miles from Lewisburg, off of what is now Davis Stuart Road.  He and his wife Emily—from the similarly prominent Arbuckle family—raised eleven children there. 

Creigh remained a farmer for most of his life, but was also called to serve as a local magistrate from 1838 until his death 26 years later. He was known for his upstanding character and was an elder of the Old Stone Presbyterian Church. During the years of the Civil War, Creigh had southern sympathies but compassionately gave aid to both Union and Confederate soldiers following the Battle of Lewisburg in 1862.  Soldiers from both sides were fed and tended to at his home. 

 In November of 1863, Creigh encountered one of the uglier sides of the conflict when he confronted a straggler from the Union army, whom Creigh found ransacking his home and being belligerent to his family and slaves. Though accounts differ as to the details, there followed a struggle during which gunshots were fired by each man, and ultimately the soldier was wounded and subsequently killed. Though Creigh knew he had acted in defense of his home and family and would have preferred to alert the authorities had it been a strictly civilian matter, he was encouraged by friends to hide the soldier's body rather than face the military trial they knew would result which, it was thought, would not end in his favor. Word of the incident eventually spread, though, and Creigh was arrested by the army and charged with the murder of the soldier. 

 On June 6, 1864, a court martial was held.  Creigh was judged guilty and sentenced to be executed, with his home ordered to be burned.  He was marched 100 miles to a place near Staunton, Va., where the army was encamped in Rockbridge County on the property of Rev. James Morrison.  Though there were members of the army who spoke out on Creigh's behalf, including the company's chaplain Rev. Osborne, the court martial's sentencing was approved by Union General David Hunter. Creigh would be executed as an example to others that such a crime against the army would not be tolerated. 

On the morning of June 10, Creigh was hanged near Brownsburg, Va., and his body left in place as the army departed.  His only contact with his wife in the days leading up to his death was via a letter he famously wrote to her only hours before his execution, in which he professed his love for her and attempted to send comfort with the knowledge that their home would not be burned after all. 

Director Cathey Sawyer, artistic director of GVT, says the show is important to the history of not only Greenbrier County, but to the history of the Civil War as well. 

"It's a drama in one way about the injustice of the Civil War to the individual, and how it impacted the individual, but it's also like a portrait of what this county dealt with," Sawyer said.

The play, in depicting the historical events, looks at the war from a non-traditional angle, in which a general of the Union Army—historically the "good guys" of the Civil War—is shown to intentionally overlook Creigh's duty to defend his home against the unlawful aggression of the soldier, not to mention his upstanding character, in order to make an official example of him in order to squash area resistance to the federal forces. 

Another of the major dangers of the Civil War, particularly in Greenbrier County, was the prevalence of bushwhackers. These were mercenary or irregular soldiers employed at times by the Confederacy in order to accomplish often non-uniformed guerilla missions that would be difficult for a standard army, particularly given the terrain of Appalachia. 

"In terms of battle strategy, mountains make it difficult for armies, but not bushwhackers," Sawyer said. 

Bushwhackers were largely lawless and prone to thuggery and theft, which made them dangerous to the communities they would often ransack in the name of their army. 

"You could hear an army coming, you could kind of get a warning about an army," Sawyer said.  "But you could not get warning about these bushwhackers and these renegades. And it was rampant down here." 

Though the straggler soldier whom Creigh fought was wearing a Union uniform, his intentions to rob the Creighs under the threat of violence were typical of the bushwhackers. 

"It's a complicated story," Sawyer said. "The scenes themselves are very simple, but the complications are within the main character of the show, which is the Civil War in Greenbrier County." 

It should be noted that the date of June 10, 2013, will mark the 149th anniversary of the death of David Creigh.