Chapter LVI - Imboden's Raid

History of Hampshire County West Virginia From Its Earliest Settlement to the Present
By Hu Maxwell and H. L. Swisher
Morgantown, West Virginia; A. Brown Boughner Printer; 1897

PART 2 County History
Pages 644-650

Early In the summer of 1863 General Lee planned the Gettysburg campaign. It is worthy of note that his first written orders, relating especially to the preparation for that campaign, were in regard to a movement in Hampshire county. The letter given below, written by General Lee, is self-explanatory, particularly when viewed in the light of subsequent events. This is the letter:

"Headquarters Army of Northern Virginia,          
"June 7, 1863.        

"Brigadier General John D. Imboden,
"Commanding Northwestern Brigade,
"Staunton, Virginia.

"General: In view of operations in the Shenandoah valley, I desire you to attract the enemy's attention in Hampshire county, and proceed down to Romney, or such other point as you may consider best calculated for the purpose. After leaving a sufficient guard in the Shenandoah mountains, you can use the rest of your command for the purpose specified. In attracting their attention, and detaining whatever force they may have at New Creek, Cumberland, Cacapon, etc., you will, of course, do them all the injury in your power by striking them a damaging blow at any point where opportunity offers, and where you deem most practicable. It will be important, if you can accomplish it, to destroy some of the bridges so as to prevent communication and the transfer of reinforcements to Martinsburg. After accomplishing what you can in Hampshire, should you find it practicable or advantageous, you can cooperate with any troops you may find operating in the valley, forwarding to the commanding officer of the force there any information that you may deem important, and comply with any requisition on his part. I desire you to move into Hampshire as soon as possible. Let me know the time of your departure and the time of your expected arrival. In connection with this purpose, it is important that you should obtain for the use of the army all the cattle that you can. Communicate with the agents of the commissary department you may find purchasing' in the country west of Staunton, and let them make arrangements to assist you in purchasing and taking care of the cattle. Major Nolan is now in that region making arrangements for cattle. I wish you to communicate with him if practicable. I hope you will also be able in that country to collect recruits for your brigade, both cavalry and infantry, and bring them out with you. I am very respectfully.

"R. E. Lee, General."      

In obedience to the instructions contained in this letter, Imboden was soon in motion and came into the South branch valley. After a brush with federal scouts below Romney he divided his force, sending one division to Cumberland and the other down the South branch. The force sent to Cumberland approached the town and fired a few shells, but met with no resistance. The citizens surrendered the place and the confederates entered. They did not remain long. Imboden proceeded eastward and on his way burnt the railroad bridge at Patterson creek. Before this division of his troops had reached the mouth of the South branch the other division had arrived at that point and had battered down the railroad bridge with artillery. They planted a gun with a range at right angles with the bridge and cut the beams with cannon balls. At the eleventh shot the bridge fell. The bridge was of iron and steel, and the solid shot ; ,cut the beams as if they had been, pine. The noise made when the cannon balls struck the beams was heard many miles. It is said, indeed, that this noise was heard at a greater distance than the report of the cannon.

John Greitzner's Horse. — In June, 1863, General Imboden, with about seventeen hundred men, camped two and a half miles above Romney, on his way to Gettysburg, Among his soldiers was John Greitzner, who was acquainted in Romney. He was m need of a horse, and having saved a considerable sum of money, bought one in Romney. The animal was barefooted, and not being able to have shoes put on in town, he took the horse to a blacksmith shop on the Northwestern pike, a mile above Romney. The smith had nailed one shoe on, when federals appeared. They were so near that Greitzner could not escape. He wore a confederate uniform. He pulled off his coat and threw it behind the forge and assumed an air of innocence. The federals proved to be a scouting party of forty which had been riding about the country several days. Some of them entered the shop and asked Greitzner what he was doing there. He said he had brought a horse to have it shod. "What are you doing with gray clothes on?" was the next pointed question. "It is pretty hard times, and we boys in Romney have to wear anything we can get." "Do you live in Romney?" "Yes." The Yankees took a good look at him and came to the conclusion that he was not a rebel, but had picked up a pair of confederate pants somewhere; so they started on. But a soldier with a lame horse came hobbling after, and seeing the horse in the shop, took it and left his in its place. Greitzner considered that he had made a lucky escape, even if be did lose the horse.

Fight Near Romney. — The union scouts who took Greitzner's horse proceeded to Romney, unaware that Imboden was in the vicinity. But some of the confederates were in town, and lost no time in communicating with Imboden, who sent two or three companies to surround and capture the yankees, if possible. The latter had proceeded down the river on the road to Hanging; Rocks. But Imboden's men were in the road ahead of them, and were placed in an advantageous position on the hill near the present residence of Garrett Parsons. The force was ample to surround and capture the scouts had the attack been properly made; but through some misunderstanding the men neglected to attack at the proper moment, and the yankees, taking in the situation at a glance, escaped with only one man wounded. But their force was cut in two, a number galloping back toward town, and by crossing over the hills through the woods reached the Jersey mountain road and escaped by that route, while the main body put spurs to their horses and went down the road toward Hanging Rocks. However, while escaping from one ambuscade they ran into another. McNeill's company was at Hanging Rocks, and the scouts were caught between two forces — Imboden's from the rear and McNeill's from the front. There was only one avenue of escape, and that led across the river. The scouts attempted it, but McNeill headed them off, and they escaped up the mountain on the west side of the river, but were compelled to abandon fifteen horses, which fell into McNeill's hands.

How Imboden Saved His Men. — General Imboden occupied Romney several days in 1862. Daring that time General Kelley, with a large union force, was at New Creek. Among his troops was a body of Dutch cavalry, which had not been much in service. The men were poor riders, and in order that they might have grounds for exercise and practice, a horse corral was established outside the town, and the Dutch cavalrymen kept their horses there. Imboden sent his men to New Creek to procure, by capture, such horses as they could, and they found the Dutch horses an easy prey. They carried several off, and -a few nights later returned and procured another lot. Not meeting with opposition, the rebels continued to pay nightly visits to the corrals, until they had secured nearly a hundred. General Kelley grew tired of it, and set an ambuscade at the corral, and the next night caught three of Imboden's men and promptly sentenced them to be hung as horse thieves. A woman who lived near by informed Imboden of what had happened, and he wrote to Kelley, saying that the men had acted under orders, and that if anyone were guilty the guilt must rest on their general. He further stated that he held twenty-nine federal prisoners and could easily catch another, and that he would retaliate and hang ten yankees for every rebel hanged by Kelley. The union general replied that, inasmuch as the men had acted under orders, they were not guilty of horse stealing and would be held simply as prisoners of war. Frank Pownall, of North river, was one of the three men sentenced to death by General Kelley.

Attack on an Armored Car. — On July 4, 1864, General Imboden made an attack on the railroad bridge over the South branch. He fired with artillery for some time, but was unable to do much damage, because a block house on the west side of the river, garrisoned by union troops with artillery, rendered it impossible for him to reach a position from which his guns were effective against the bridge. An armored car, covered with railroad iron and containing seven men and a twelve-pounder, stood on the track on the west end of the bridge. It was one of a number constructed to run up and down the road, guarding exposed and threatened places. The mission of this one was to guard the South branch bridge, as a sort of auxiliary to the block house. It was believed to be proof, against small artillery. There was a porthole in each end, about six inches in diameter, just large enough for the muzzle of the cannon. Each porthole was provided with a trap door, which could be closed by a lever inside; and when closed, it was supposed that shells could rain upon the car all day without doing harm. There was a trap door two feet square in the bottom, and through this the garrison went in and out. The men who constituted the garrison of the car on July 4, 1864, belonged to a Maryland company, and were James L. Croston, Albert Bigford, Alexander B. King, Benjamin Closs, Lieutenant Moses M. Bigford, Dennis Dehaven and John W. Croston.

When Imboden found that he could not bring his gun to bear on the bridge, he tried the range on the car, from the distance of half a mile. The first shell passed over the car. The next struck it near the roof. The third went in at the porthole; and as it did so, it jarred the trapdoor shut, rendering the car as dark as a dungeon, except that the shell had a long fuse of a peculiar pattern, which gave a diabolical light as it sputtered and hissed, and went spinning and gyrating about the floor of the car, scatterings sparks and lurid smoke in all directions. The seven men in the car made a wild scramble for the trapdoor in the floor, trying to get out before the shell exploded, which it certainly would do in a few seconds, even if it did not set the car's magazine on fire and create a sudden and instantaneous volcanoe. While the men were scrambling for the place of exit in the floor, one of the portholes flew open from some cause, and on the spur of the moment John W. Croston tried to pick up the hissing shell and throw it out. But it spun about so rapidly that he could not get hold of it, although he severely burned his hands and face in the effort to grab it. By this time the other men had succeeded in opening the door in the bottom of the car, and out they went, Croston being the last to go, and barely escaped the explosion, being so near that his face was filled with powder. The car caught fire and what escaped the explosion was burned. The shells in its magazine kept up a furious bombardment for some minutes. The late garrison, after they escaped from the car, never looked back until they had crossed the Potomac into Maryland.

In the meantime Imboden had turned his guns on the blockhouse, but, so far as lie could see, he made no impression on it. However the garrison were bard put to it. The day was excessively warm, and the smoke in the building was stifling. They were about to raise the white flag when Imboden ceased firing and took his departure. He had done little damage to the bridge, and had not stopped travel on the railroad. After his departure, the union troops destroyed a portion of the pike up Breakneck mountain to prevent the confederates from bringing artillery by that route to the bridge in the future.

Return to the History of Hampshire County WV Index