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Raid was Rebels last gasp before W.Va. statehood

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.

Defending Rowlesburg and the bridges were 220 members of the 6th West Virginia Infantry, a Union regiment formed to guard the B&O line. The outnumbered but well dug-in federal troops, aided by a hillside cannon battery and small-arms fire from dozens of townspeople, fought off repeated Confederate advances on the town from noon until dark, eventually convincing Jones to call off his attack.

Jones turned his attention to Morgantown, where he seized a large number of cattle and horses on April 28.

Imboden, meanwhile, loaded up the supplies captured at Beverly and, on April 29, moved on to Buckhannon, recently abandoned by a Union garrison, where he seized more livestock. That same day, the force commanded by Jones spent an even busier day in Fairmont, where they captured a garrison of 400 federal troops, destroyed a 900-foot B&O bridge and burned the library of Francis H. Pierpont, governor of the pro-Union Restored Government of Virginia.

On April 30, Jones' men swept into Bridgeport, where they captured a company of Union troops, destroyed a train and demolished several bridges belonging to the Northern Virginia Railroad.

On May 2, Jones and Imboden linked up, and spent several days together in Weston, where they staged a parade through the town and the troops under their command played ball on the grounds of the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum.

The two generals planned a joint attack on Union forces occupying Clarksburg, but after hearing reports that they were vastly outnumbered and outgunned, decided to split up again and continue their raid.

While Imboden's force turned toward Summersville, Jones and his men headed west along the Staunton & Parkersburg Turnpike on May 6, destroying five railroad bridges and capturing 94 federal troops assigned to guard the rail route.

In Wheeling, where plans for a new state government were taking shape, news of the Jones-Imboden Raid sent the city into a panic. Martial law was declared and hundreds of militia troops were brought in to protect Wheeling from possible attack.

On May 9, Jones' raiders laid siege to the oilfields along the Little Kanawha River just south of Parkersburg. Wells and storage tanks were torched, destroying an estimated 150,000 barrels of oil in the Burning Springs area.

"By dark the oil from the tanks on the burning creek reached the river, and the whole stream became a sheet of fire," Jones wrote in a report to Lee. "A burning river, carrying destruction to our merciless enemy, was a scene of magnificence that might well carry joy to every patriotic heart."

On May 12, Imboden's force captured the rear guard of a Union force abandoning Summersville, and seized 23 federal prisoners and 28 wagons loaded with supplies. Jones rejoined Imboden that night, and the two commanders decided they had accomplished all that they could with their weary troops. The following day, they headed East toward the relative safety of the Greenbrier Valley.

In all, the raiders spent a month behind enemy lines, traveling 300 miles and capturing nearly 700 prisoners. They destroyed 16 railroad bridges and two trains, damaged one tunnel, and captured 1,200 horses and 1,000 cattle, and severely damaged a large oilfield, while suffering casualties of 10 dead and 42 wounded.

The damage it produced was significant, but the raid marked the Confederates' last serious threat to the region.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.


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