CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Eric Wittenberg was driving back to his home in Columbus, Ohio, from a speaking engagement in Virginia when the author crossed the West Virginia line, noticed that his gas gauge was approaching empty, and took the exit ramp at White Sulphur Springs to fill up.
"At the edge of the gas station's parking lot, there was a historic marker for the Battle of Dry Creek -- a battle I wasn't familiar with," Wittenberg recalled. "While I was waiting for my wife to come out of the convenience store, I wandered over to read it."
Wittenberg was surprised to learn that the federal force involved in the 1863 battle was led by Gen. William Woods Averell, a Union cavalry officer he had researched and written about in producing his 2006 book, "The Union Cavalry Comes of Age: Hartwood Church to Brandy Station."
After reading the sign, Wittenberg said he realized that "maybe I didn't know as much about Averell as I should have."
Wittenberg, the author of "The Battle of White Sulphur Springs: Averell Fails to Secure West Virginia," and a leading authority on Civil War cavalry operations, will be the guest speaker during a Kanawha Valley Civil War Roundtable meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday in South Charleston Public Library.
The bloody, two-day battle on the outskirts of White Sulphur Springs during the summer of 1863 is the topic of Wittenberg's free public lecture.
Wittenberg's connection with the battle began in February of 2010, with the refueling stop along Interstate 64.
As his trip home continued, Wittenberg stopped at Tamarack and bought a copy of Tim McKinney's "The Civil War in Greenbrier County" to begin researching a fiercely fought battle that was known by a variety of names, including the Battle of Rocky Gap, the Battle of Dry Creek, the Battle of Howard's Creek, the Battle of White Sulphur Springs and the Battle of the Law Books.
The last name for the engagement stems from the main objective of Averell's mission -- to seize the contents of the Virginia Supreme Court's law library, housed in the Greenbrier County Courthouse in Lewisburg.
Before the Civil War broke out, Virginia's Supreme Court met at least once each year in Western Virginia, where, for the sake of convenience, a law library identical to the one in Richmond was maintained in Lewisburg. The law library was needed in Wheeling to help the newly formed state of West Virginia create the framework for its own Supreme Court of Appeals.
Averell, a West Point graduate and wounded Indian Wars cavalry veteran, served with distinction during the Peninsula and Seven Days campaigns in Virginia in 1862. He was named commander of the Army of the Potomac's 1st Cavalry Brigade, which he led during the Fredericksburg Campaign later that year. In 1863, he led the 2nd Division of the Cavalry Corps to victory in the Battle of Kelly's Ford, but a few months later, took part in Stoneman's Raid during the Chancellorsville Campaign, an action that proved to be a disaster for the Union.
Gen. Joseph Hooker relieved Averell of his command for a perceived lack of aggressiveness during the raid. "I think Averell got a raw deal," Wittenberg said. "He did nothing wrong, in my opinion."
Averell was sent to what became the new state of West Virginia to take over command of the 4th Separate Brigade, a mish-mash of mounted infantry, infantry and artillery units.