West Virginia In The Civil War


THE SKIRMISH AT ARNOLDSBURG

The central counties of what is now West Virginia, from Wirt through to the Shenandoah Valley, were kept in constant turmoil during the early years of the Civil War by raids and forays made by irregular bands of Confederate partisans. Considerable military force was needed to keep these bands in check and to protect the persons and property of those who adhered to the federal government. For that reason a large part of the loyal Union troops recruited in the area were kept in the home country to combat guerrillas during the first two years of the war.

In the Calhoun County area, the home ground of several partisan bands and a convenient refuge for irregulars from neighboring counties, a reign of terror existed. Civil government had completely broken down, stores were looted and closed, the mail routes and post offices were discontinued, business was suspended, and the county officers had abandoned their offices and taken to the hills as rangers and guerrillas. The whole area reverted to a primitive state, where each man seemed to be on his own, though as a whole the population was about equally divided in loyalty to Confederate Virginia and to the federal government. The rebel partisans were more active in their operations and more direct in their methods of spreading terror.

Arnoldsburg was then the nominal county seat. The town consisted of only a few houses, a store building, and a cutstone foundation for a courthouse, but it was the largest town in the county, and it became the rallying point for secession dissidents soon after the break of hostilities. In the summer and fall of 1861 Federal troops had made several dashes into the county to skirmish with rebel partisans, but it was not until early in 1862 that a military post was established to control the roving bands and insofar as possible restore order in the county. Naturally enough, these troops were centered at Arnoldsburg where they set up Camp McDonald, a post named in honor of Colonel Adonijah J. McDonald, late commanding officer of the county's 186th Regiment, Virginia Enrolled Militia. One company of the occupation force--Company C, Eleventh (West) Virginia Infantry--was made up for the most part of men who belonged to the disbanded militia regiment. And opposing them were the irregular bands led by Peter Saurburn, George Downs, Dan Duskey, and Perry Conley, and others made up of county men who were also former members of Colonel McDonald's 186th Regiment.

Recruiting for the Eleventh (West) Virginia Volunteer Infantry was commenced under Colonel J. C. Rathbone, of Parkersburg, in October 1861, but it was not until the last days of December that the first two companies--B from Wirt County and C from Calhoun--were completed. These companies, instead of being sent to a training camp to be instructed in the art of war and the duty of soldiers, were immediately armed and sent into the field to combat the irregulars in Wirt, Roane, and Calhoun counties. Other companies were forwarded to Camp McDonald as fast as they were completed and mustered. Outposts were set up in the three counties, with regimental headquarters at Spencer under Colonel Rathbone.

DOWNS
Major George Downs

About the first of May 1862, Camp McDonald was garrisoned by four companies of the Eleventh under command of Major George C. Trimble, of Wheeling. An orderly camp had been set up, with wagon trains and a considerable amount of military stores, a rich prize for the partisans who furnished their own arms and equipment and subsisted off the country where they happened to be operating. Scouts brought word that the irregulars were concentrating in lower Braxton County and were said to be four hundred strong under command of Captain George Downs, a forty-year-old Calhoun farmer and miller, who held a commission in the Virginia State Rangers from Governor John Letcher. The purpose of the concentration, it was said, was to make an immediate attack on Camp McDonald. In fact, the march had already begun.

Major Trimble was quick to act. With two companies he marched up the West Fork of the Little Kanawha to meet the rangers, expecting to find and disperse the scattered bands. After an all day and night march, scouts overtook him with the news that the partisan forces had divided and that by a flanking movement a large force was in the act of cutting him off from his base at Camp McDonald. Retracing his steps, with stops to search every house along the line of march, Major Trimble and his small command reached the camp late on the evening of May 5, his men worn out with three days of marching under full pack. As a precaution the lines were extended, the guards were doubled, and orders were issued to permit no person to enter or leave the limits of the camp.

A heavy fog settled over the valley during the night, and when morning of May 6 came, visibility was limited to a few hundred feet. During the night, covered by darkness and the fog, the rangers had crept in and had taken strong positions on the hills overlooking the camp. Fortunately for the sleeping soldiers, a ranger scout ventured down the hill to get a better view of the lay of the land. In the dim half-light of the early morning he was detected by an alert sentry, who fired at him. The shot aroused the camp. Drummers beat the long roll, the half-dressed soldiers turned out and formed in lines of battle. The partisans opened a heavy fire while the men were forming, but the blanket of fog prevented accurate shooting, and the partisans could only fire at the general location.

POLING
Lieutenant Nicholas Poling

Lieutenant James Robinson, commanding Company C, was ordered to clear the point overlooking the camp from which the heaviest fire was directed, a mission that was carried out within minutes. Lieutenant G. W. Baggs, with Company A (Snake Hunters), was sent to clear the opposite hill, and within ten minutes had reached the top and opened fire, driving the attacking force back out of range. Lieutenant Nicholas Poling, with a detachment, took a strong position in the dwelling of Peregrine Hays, county sheriff, but at that time a participant in the fight on the part of the secesh. Company F, under command of Lieutenant George W. Parriott, took position to defend the camp and all approaches to the quartermaster department.

Firing was kept up for about three and a half hours, with amazingly little damage from such a large expenditure of ammunition. The attacking force, armed with makeshift weapons ranging from old flintlocks and mountain rifles to army models taken from slain or captured soldiers, could not compete in range or firepower with the Enfield and Harpers Ferry rifles of the Union troops. As the fog lifted and visibility cleared, the attackers turned their fire on the horses, killing and wounding several. But the superior range of the Union guns forced them to melt back into the heavy forest and to retreat from the field. In all this fighting and shooting the Eleventh Regiment had only one casualty, Private Francis Cunningham, Company C, who received a rifle ball through the arm and shoulder while aiming his piece. On the ranger side, Joseph W. Burson was shot through the head and killed instantly. It was at his home in April 1856, that the Calhoun County government was organized. Captain John Elam Mitchell, a Methodist Protestant minister from Gilmer County, was shot through the hips and mortally wounded. Martin Douglas, who rated as a ranger corporal, was seriously wounded and crippled for life. It was, all in all, a very light casualty list for a prolonged skirmish.

Most of the men were under fire for the first time, and the whole outfit was not yet battle-toughened, but the men of the Eleventh acquitted themselves very creditably that day. A volunteer reporter for the Wheeling Intelligencer dwelt on the coolness and courage of the men, and as an illustration pointed out that while the firing was the hottest, the cooks of Company A stirred up the campfire and cooked breakfast, even while rifle balls were spattering around in their general neighborhood.

The attacking force, made up of several independent groups, was more a mob than a disciplined military unit. Allowing for the usual exaggerated estimate of opposing troops, it is very likely that Captain Downs did not command more than fifty or sixty men in the attack. In later months, after capture and a sojourn at Camp Chase, this same Captain Downs did organize members of the independent rangers into an effective cavalry unit which became Company A, Nineteenth Virginia Cavalry, in the regular Confederate service. This regiment was commanded by Colonel William L. Jackson, later a brigadier general, who was dubbed "Mudwall" in order to distinguish him from his better-known cousin, General "Stonewall" Jackson. Captain Downs was promoted to major, Nineteenth Virginia Cavalry, before the end of the war.

True, the skirmish at Arnoldsburg was a minor affair as battles are measured, but it had a considerable significance in determining control of the central counties. The result of the fight, however, was curiously confused. To this day the researcher who depends upon the newspapers of the East, or even upon the scanty and exaggerated reports in the Official Records of the Rebellion, will find recorded that the rebels destroyed the camp, captured the defenders, and made off with the arms and military stores. In fact, the exact opposite is true.

On May 8, two days after the fight, Colonel Rathbone, then at Parkersburg, sent a telegram to Brigadier General B. F. Kelley, commanding the district and specially charged with controlling the guerrillas, that "our forces at Arnoldsburg, under Lieutenant Parriott, surrendered the place to 400 Southern troops," and that Spencer was in possession of the rebels. General Kelley dispatched troops to retake the "captured" towns and at the same time sent an alarming wire to General John C. Fremont, commanding the West Virginia district. In turn, General Fremont wired Secretary of War Stanton giving news of the "surrender," adding that several were killed on both sides. When the reinforcement sent by General Kelley reached Arnoldsburg, they found all serene, and only Private Cunningham nursing wounds received in battle.

And there the official record was permitted to rest. Down in cold type in the book, even though the attacking force was repulsed and driven out of the area, the battle at Arnoldsburg is listed as a Confederate victory.

Source: Reprinted from Boyd B. Stutler's West Virginia in the Civil War, Education Foundation, Inc., Charleston, West Virginia 25324.

Note: Page 41, of H. E. Matheny's Major General Thomas Maley Harris states that "Shortly after the skirmish at Arnoldsburg, Lieutenant James P. Conley was a member of a group that were part sent to Laurel Creek and the rest to Birch River looking for bushwhackers. His brother, Perry Conley, was one of the guerrilla leaders. The guerrillas were located, and in a hand to hand conflict. James killed his brother Perry. James was advanced to 1st Lieutenant 12 September 1862 but was dismissed 12 September 1864." Page 31, of the same book states that "A large two-story house located in the Big Bend of the Little Kanawha River was used as a fort by George Downs and Peter Saurburn, and their Partisan Rangers. Perry Conley, another of the guerrillas, operated on the North side of the river, ranging back into Gilmer, Braxton and Webster counties. In December his gang murdered at least two people and robbed seven families. Perry Hayes and Ben Haymond returned from Webster County where they had taken refuge when portions of the 10th Regt reached that region. On the way north they fired on a supply train near BuIltown. Robert Ervin, another ruffian, returned to Calhoun County and was one of the right-hand men of Perry Hayes."


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