Read "Confederates to re-invade Beverly this weekend" here.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In the spring of 1863, a daring Confederate plan took shape to sweep through the counties of what is now West Virginia, destroying railroad bridges, oilfields and the morale of the pro-Union government of the new state being formed in Wheeling.
First envisioned by Capt. John H. McNeill, a Hardy County native and leader of McNeill's Rangers, a mounted partisan unit based in the Eastern Panhandle, the raid got bigger and more elaborate as it worked its way up the Confederate chain of command.
McNeill's plan, first pitched to Secretary of War James Seddon in March 1863, involved sending about 500 mounted raiders on a lightning-quick surprise attack on three Baltimore & Ohio Railroad trestles over the Cheat River and its tributaries in the Rowlesburg area of Preston County. Earlier in the war, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Gen. Robert E. Lee had cited the remote bridges as key strategic targets.
Seddon forwarded the plan to Brig. Gen. John D. Imboden, commander of the Northwestern Virginia Brigade, who promptly converted it into a blueprint for a full-scale military expedition, involving a two-pronged attack, more than 5,000 troops and an expanded array of targets.
"At no period since the war commenced has the opportunity ever been so good as to gain a foothold in the northwest," Imboden wrote in a letter to Lee, in which he unveiled his enhanced plans for the raid. "The weakness of the enemy, the disaffection of the people towards their ruler, and the unexpectedness of the movement all give us promise of success."
Lee studied Imboden's plan for about a week, then sent back a letter announcing his approval. "I think if carried out with your energy and promptness, it will succeed," Lee wrote.
The plan finally approved for the raid called for Gen. William E. Jones to lead the northern prong of the attack, laying siege to the railroad bridges in the Rowlesburg area, while Imboden would attack Union forces at Beverly and Grafton. Both generals were urged to gather as many horses, cattle and supplies as possible to take back past Confederate lines in the Shenandoah Valley.
McNeill, the man who conceived the raid, was relegated to the command of 35 of his rangers attached to Jones' force.
The Confederate force taking part in what would become known as the Jones-Imboden Raid left the Shenandoah Valley during the third week of April.
Imboden's force of 3,365 troops marched westward along the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike, through rain and late-season snow atop Cheat Mountain, reaching the outskirts of Beverly in Randolph County on April 24. A scouting party sent to gauge the size of the Union garrison guarding the town encountered, fired on and wounded Randolph County Sheriff Jesse Phares on the road leading to Beverly, but Phares escaped and alerted the federal troops and townspeople of an impending Confederate attack.
The 900 men of the 2nd West Virginia Infantry guarding the town fought off the larger Confederate force for several hours but retreated to the northwest by dusk after setting fire to several buildings. The Confederate raiders captured what Imboden estimated to be at least $100,000 worth of supplies, and marched westward toward Buckhannon and Weston.
On April 25, after passing through Petersburg and Moorefield without incident, Jones and his 2,100-man force entered Greenland Gap, a narrow, cliff-walled pass in Grant County guarded at its western end by 87 Union soldiers from the 23rd Illinois Infantry. The small force of federal troops, who had taken cover in a church and several adjacent cabins, fought off a series of Confederate assaults, stalling the larger army for more than four hours, until the church was set afire, prompting their surrender.
Two of the Illinoisans were killed and six were wounded, while Confederate casualties were seven killed and 35 wounded. Jones marched on to Red House, Md., three miles west of Aurora in Preston County, and camped for the night.
The following day, the general split his force, sending the 12th Virginia Cavalry and McNeill's Rangers about 10 miles north to Oakland, Md., where they captured a federal garrison of about 60 troops and destroyed a railroad bridge. The rest of his troops marched toward Rowlesburg in Preston County, intent on destroying B & O Railroad bridges in the vicinity, including new iron trestle spans over Cheat River tributaries Tray Run and Buckeye Creek.