By Lawrence Sullivan
The men, 31 seasoned veterans of mountain warfare, were on picket duty and camped at an idyllic spot. Overhead was a cozy canopy of old oak trees, the leaves just starting to turn red in the crisp autumn air. A few yards away from their bedrolls and saddles was a mountain stream whose rolling murmur had lulled them all, one by one, into a deep sleep.
Then -- with no warning other than the unheeded sudden silence of forest critters -- the nighttime air was rent by frightful whoops and hollers and the rush of assailants everywhere.
Until that rude awakening, the men of Company A, 2nd Virginia Volunteer Infantry, had things pretty much to their liking. It had been, in a way, a neat little war. For two years they'd been chasing Confederate troops and renegade bushwhackers up and down the valleys, back and forth from the Ohio River to the nation's capital. They'd participated in a handful of battles and many skirmishes, and spent countless boring hours standing guard at vital transportation links serving the Union's major coal resources and steel industry. The unit's specific duty, when not in battle: protect regional rail lines, and particularly their bridges, from rebel marauders.
The 2nd Virginia Infantry, later renamed the 5th West Virginia Cavalry, hardly played a major role in the hostilities over-all, but it laid claim to three historic firsts in the war. The regiment participated in the war's first land battle, scored the first Confederate military casualty and suffered the first Federal casualty. The regiment even boasted of handing Robert E. LEE his very first battlefield defeat. At least that's what the record says.
For Kirsch and about one-third of Company A, the war ended shortly after midnight on 25 Sep 1863 at Shavers Fork, a tributary of the Cheat River, nine miles from their camp at Beverly, (West) VA. They were on picket duty at the site, which is near both the Western Maryland Railroad and a major roadway, while other regimental patrols scoured the Mountain Highlands region for raiders who were burning bridges and generally causing havoc.
When the shooting and shouting were over that fateful night, two members of the 30-man detachment had been wounded, one had drowned trying to escape, and the rest were all taken prisoner. They were quickly marched eastward to Confederate regional headquarters at Staunton, VA, some 60 miles away, and loaded onto railroad cars bound for prisons in Richmond. Some would be transferred to other prisons -- including five destined to die in Georgia's infamous Andersonville -- and some would spend the rest of the war as captives. One man died in Richmond's Libby Prison and another died returning home from prison.
Kirsch would be one of the lucky ones, saved from death perhaps by as little as a cup of thin broth, chunk of sweet potato, or crumbly piece of cornbread.
After six months at a prison camp ironically known as Belle Isle, on the western end of Richmond in the middle of the James River, he was freed in a wholesale exchange of sick and ailing prisoners. He spent more than a month in Federal hospitals, treated for general debility, and returned to duty just in time to be mustered out on 14 June 1864. By then, the renamed 5th West Virginia Cavalry had gone one month beyond its three-year commitment.
Kirsch, no doubt still weak, weary and sick of the whole thing, pocketed his honorable discharge and headed home to South Pittsburgh and a wife he'd married just months before he answered his adopted country's call to arms. Back also, no doubt, to a hero's welcome and many a night of story-swapping comaraderie at friendly neighborhood German saloons.
He was one of the veterans who, a few years later, would proudly claim medals coined especially in their honor by the new state of West Virginia, and he most likely joined one of Pittsburgh's 28 chapters of the highly popular and powerful fraternal organization known as the Grand Army of the Republic. He may not have seen it, but his name would be among those displayed on "Roll of Honor" bronze plaques at Pittsburgh's Memorial Hall, completed in 1910.
When age and arthritis succeeded in bringing him down, where Rebel gunfire and prison starvation rations had failed to do so, Kirsch took a soldier's disability pension and moved in with his unmarried sons.
The heritage of his "neat little war" stayed with him until his final days, which were spent at the Old Soldier's Home in Marion, IN. He died there on 5 April 1916 -- his 84th birthday -- and was buried at nearby Marion National Cemetery.
His Civil War service would have one more benefit to bestow. When his widow, Caroline, died at Benton Harbor, MI, in 1919, special financial aid for impoverished veterans' families covered the expense of shipping her body back to Pittsburgh, where her parents, John and Mary (BENDER) LAUER and four of her ten children were buried at St. Michael's and St. Joseph's cemeteries.
How Philip Kirsch -- only four years off the boat from his native Prussia and eight months after setting up housekeeping with his new bride -- found himself at the start of the Civil War serving in a western Virginia infantry regiment is an interesting tale in its own right.
When a call to arms was sounded after the bombing of Fort Sumter, SC, eager recruits in the Pittsburgh area rushed to fill five companies only to find that Pennsylvania had already surpassed its quota. Word came from Wheeling that it could use the men, so they chartered a steamship to take them there.
By the time it was fully organized, the 2nd Virginia Infantry had in effect become a tri-state regiment. Fully half of the men (five of the 10 companies) came from Allegheny and Washington counties, PA. Two companies were made up of western Virginia soldiers, one was purely an Ohio "Buckeye" unit, and two companies included men from both states.
It was Virginia's first regiment enrolled for three years service. Previous units entailed sign-ups of just three months in the mistaken belief the war would last only that long.
Three-month volunteers in Wheeling who greeted the new recruits from Pittsburgh called them "the boatmen" because of where they came from and how they had cruised into town. Many had actually followed that occupation. (This was not true of Kirsch. Although he did live near the Monongahela River in South Pittsburgh and was married to a "riverman's" daughter, he was by trade a coal miner.)
Military historian Theodore E. LANG, in his book LOYAL WEST VIRGINIA FROM 1861 TO 1865, offers this assessment of the 2nd Virginia Infantry/5th West Virginia Cavalry:
"The muster out rolls [of the regiment] show a total enlistment of 1,069 men from first to last. Of that total, 65 were discharged before the arduous campaigns of 1862 began and Co. G was detached for artillery service, making the real strength of the regiment on 1 April 1862 about 900 men. Of the total enrollment, 189 were killed in action or died of disease, including a large number who died in Confederate prisons.
"As a rule, when a West Virginia regiment was once formed and mustered into the service, it had to depend on its original members for its future strength. Few recruits were received, and as comrades fell in battle, or by disease, their places were forever left unfilled, sad reminders of the horrible realities of war. In this regiment, but 19 recruits were received in the whole of the three-year's service."
In a claim copied almost verbatim in several local histories, Lang says the waar's first Confederate casualty was Capt. Christian ROBERTS, commander of a rebel unit engaged by a patrol of Company A at a railroad bridge in Marion County on the morning of May 27.
In one dissenting voice, a Tucker County history questions the man's rank and even his military status, suggesting he might simply have been a free-lance bushwhacker. A biographical sketch published in Pittsburgh many years later, in which the subject recalled serving on the burial detail for Roberts, places the incident on May 28, rather than May 27.
A contemporary newspaper article in the Wheeling Intelligencer also said the killing was on May 28, a Tuesday, and identified the victim as a "secessionist" named Stephen ROBERTS, rather than a uniformed officer named Christian Roberts. Here's what the paper said:
"Stephen Roberts, leader of the secessionists at Glover's Gap, seven miles west of Mannington, was shot and instantly killed by a squad of Captain [sic] Oliver WEST's men (Co. A, 2nd W.Va. Inf.) who have possession of the post. It appears that a squad was scouting on Tuesday morning and came across Roberts and two other men, all armed. The Lieutenant in command of the squad [i.e. West] called upon the secessionists to halt, but instead of doing so they wheeled around and fired upon the soldiers. The fire was returned and Roberts was killed, though the others took to their heels and made their escape. The minie ball passed entirely through his body. He was buried yesterday morning by his friends."
This time the newspaper got the story right.
The slain man was Stephen Roberts, a 65-year-old farmer who migrated from nearby Morristown, PA, as a young man and eventually claimed nearly 450 acres along Fish Creek in southern Wetzel County. Followers in the home guard unit he formed undoubtedly included a batch of nephews, at least six of whom went on to serve in the 19th Virginia Cavalry.
Such guerrilla units were common throughout the western highlands. They would eventually be taken into the fold as Virginia State Rangers, and many would be melded into regular regiments of the Confederate Army. Not everyone was proud of the guerrillas, however, and Gen. Henry Heth characterized one unit known as the Mocassin Rangers as "an outlaw band that robbed and plundered."
Roberts, whose only son and grandson followed him and eventually served in Company A of the 19th Virginia Cavalry, was killed before he could do much robbing and plundering.
The site of the skirmish is about halfway between Wheeling and Grafton on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. The railroad itself carried the raw recruits to the area, but not without a fight of another kind. The story reveals something of the temper of the times.
Col. Benjamin F. KELLEY, a regimental commander, asked the railroad to take his forces to their assigned posts about 100 miles down the line. The railroad refused, Lang says, "upon the grounds that the railroad company proposed to remain neutral [and] would not carry either troops or munitions of war for either side."
Kelley responded that the railroad was obliged to serve the government that guaranteed its protection, adding bluntly, "You have a train of cars in the depot to-morrow morning [that is, Monday, May 27th] at four o'clock, or I will place you in prison and take possession of your railroad by military authority."
The cars were waiting at the crack of dawn.
Returning to the killing of Capt. Roberts, historian Lang takes pains to challenge published accounts that the first Confederate casualty of the war was a man named James JACKSON slain several days earlier in Alexandria, VA, in a scuffle over the display of a Confederate flag.
Lang insists Jackson's killing did not count as a war casualty because he was a civilian. Jackson, proprietor of a hotel called the Marshall House in the historic old town across from Washington, DC, shot and killed a popular young military leader, Col. Elmer ELLSWORTH of the brilliantly-clad troops known as Zouaves, on the morning of May 23 after Ellsworth had torn down a Confederate flag displayed at the hotel. Jackson in turn was gunned down on the spot by one of the colonel's aides.
The 2nd Virginia's -- and the war's -- first Federal casualty bore striking similarity to the killing of Capt. Roberts. This was the death on the night of May 22 of a new recruit in Company B named T. Bailey BROWN. He was shot to death after he and another member of the Grafton Home Guards defied a Confederate picket at a railroad bridge. The guard, Daniel KNIGHT of the 25th Virginia Infantry (CSA), ordered the two men to halt. Instead, Brown drew a revolver and fired at Knight, hitting him in the ear. Knight, armed with an old-fashioned smooth-bore flintlock musket loaded with slugs, returned fire, killing Brown almost instantly.
The first land battle of the war, in which 2nd Virginia troops fought under the banner of the 1st Virginia, was a relatively bloodless skirmish known as the "Philippi Races." It took place on June 3 when the Federals drove Rebel forces from the rail line south of Grafton. A total of 30 men on both sides were wounded, but there were no deaths. This was seven weeks before the first Battle of Bull Run/Manassas, where the war's horrific carnage began in earnest.
After Philippi, the various units of the regiment were brought together at Beverly, where it was formally organized in July and set up camp on the old courthouse square.
Lang describes at length the campaigns, skirmishes and battles that took the 2nd Virginia Infantry from Wheeling to Washington and back over its three-year span. The first was a charge up Cheat Mountain 13 Sep 1861 when troops commanded by Gen. Robert E. LEE were rousted "from their hot breakfast in confusion" and driven from the field.
"To this regiment is due, in part by its impetuous advance, the honor of administering to Lee his first defeat," Lang concludes.
Other principal actions in which the 2nd Virginia took part included Allegheny Mountain, 13 Dec 1861; Cross Keys, 8 June 1862; Second Bull Run, 30 Aug 1862; Rocky Gap, 25-27 Aug 1863; and Droop Mountain, 6 Nov 1863.
After Second Bull Run, the regiment stayed in Washington on guard duty for nearly two months, returning to Beverly in late October.
Lang cites no military action during the harsh winter of 1862-63, and it appears both sides took advantage of the lull to send men home on furlough in staggered shifts. Philip Kirsch's military file shows he took leave in early April. It also indicates he was slow in reporting back for duty. After lingering around home for a couple weeks beyond the expiration of his leave, he turned himself in as AWOL and was hauled back to Wheeling.
The net result of this escapade: he was docked $1.87 for transportation, from his monthly pay of $13, and Caroline gave birth the following January to their first-born son, Philip Jr.
Kirsch got back to Beverly about the time fighting in the mountains resumed.
"On 23 April [Lang writes] the command was attacked by a superior force of Confederates and compelled to leave Beverly. They returned May 21 and remained at Beverly until ordered to Grafton to be mounted [i.e. converted into a mounted infantry], during which time scouting expeditions were so numerous that it was difficult to keep run of them."
Lang does not mention the Cheat River raid in which the Company A detachment was attacked and taken prisoner in a body, and Dyer's COMPENDIUM of regimental histories makes only a slight reference to it. Lang's omission seems a bit odd, since the masterful attack was directed by his older brother, David. In a classic case of "house divided" split loyalties, Theodore Lang served with the 6th West Virginia Infantry, fighting for the Union cause, while David LANG rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the 62nd Virginia Mounted Infantry (CSA).
A summary of the raid is contained in an official field report dated 1 Oct 1863 from Brig. Gen. John D. IMBODEN to CSA Valley Division headquarters.
He wrote, in part, "I have the honor to report that Maj. D.B. Lang, 62nd Virginia Infantry, whom I sent week before last, with 100 men on foot, across the Allegheny, toward Barbour County, has returned safely [to Staunton] without the loss of a man.
"On last Thursday night, the 24th, at midnight, he attacked a Yankee camp, 9 miles northeast of Beverly, where the Seneca trace, or road, crosses Cheat River ... and captured the whole concern and brought them safely out, except 2 so badly wounded they could not travel, and 1 drowned in the river in attempting to escape. ..."
Imboden itemized booty taken with the captives as "38 horses, with new saddles, bridles, and halters; 3 carbines, 31 Minie muskets, 3 swords, 1 pistol, with their accouterments, &c."
Despite its success, the raid nearly was called off. An aide to Maj. Lang, writing about the incident 40 years later, said the major himself sneaked into the Yankee camp the night before to check things out, mulled over the situation for 24 hours, slept on it, and changed his mind twice before launching the attack.
"After he returned to his company on the mountain, he at first decided not to take them, as their horses were jaded, although the object of the expedition was to get horses to supply his command," Lt. H.H. STALNAKER wrote in a magazine article.
"After waiting all day on the mountain side, they went down the next night and captured all except one man, who made his escape [sic]."
The official report on the raid from Imboden's Federal opposite, Brig. Gen. William W. AVERELL, is surprisingly terse and peevish.
"All quiet 4 miles beyond Cheat Mountain Summit at 8 a.m.," he wrote on the 25th. "On the Seneca road a picket of the Second [West] Virginia was attacked and captured this morning about daylight by about 100 rebels. The officer in command of the picket had disregarded his orders. Our loss was about 30. I have a hundred infantry in pursuit, and some cavalry ahead of the rebels. ..."
Averell's cavalry troops may have been "ahead of the rebels," as he claimed, but they didn't catch them.
After the forced march to Staunton, Company A's "lost detachment" was hustled by train to Richmond, where a week later the following small item appeared in the Richmond Examiner:
"THE TOTAL NUMBER OF PRISONERS, irrespective of commissioned officers, held in the various prisons and Belle Isle, numbered, up to yesterday, a trifle over eight thousand five hundred and fifty. More are on their winding way.
"General Winder thinks we will have to entertain fourteen of fifteen thousand of the "azure-stomached" race this winter. Good gracious, Mr. Commissioner Ould, can't you do something for our relief? Already, like the locusts of Egypt, they eat up our subsistence."
Belle Isle would receive the lower-ranking prisoners; the lieutenant in charge of the detachment and his noncommissioned aides would be held in Libby Prison, which comprised a cluster of four-story brick converted tobacco warehouses.
The island prison camp was described in brutal frankness by B.S. DeFOREST, a New York soldier held there about the same time as Kirsch. He wrote:
"There was no regular stockade, but an enclosure of about six acres, surrounded by an earthbank, some three feet in height, having a ditch on either side. The space, thus bounded was destitute of trees or verdure, the ground being low and sandy, exposed in winter to wind and storm, and in summertime scorched under the heat and glare of noonday, or dank with the malarious fogs of night. ...
"No variety or even regulation of rations seems to have been known at Belle Isle. The prisoners were fed as swine are fed. A chunk of corn bread, twelve or fourteen ounces in weight, half baked; two or three spoonfuls of rotten beans; soup thin and briny, with worms floating on its surface; the whole ration never one-half the quantity necessary for a healthy man."
A Federal surgeon sent by Washington to assess conditions at Belle Isle, in a report dated 26 Nov 1863, said that by then prisoners no longer got meat as part of their daily rations, but "are receiving nothing but corn bread and sweet potatoes."
The very next day, coincidentally, Belle Isle inmate John RANSOM would write in his diary, "From fifteen to twenty and twenty-five die every day and are buried just outside the prison with no coffins -- nothing but canvas wrapped around them."
Philip Kirsch was released on 21 March 1864 and one week later, again by coincidence, the Richmond Examiner published a farewell, of sorts, to him and all his suffering brethren:
"THE LIBBY AND ITS TRIBUTARIES. - The spring crop of the Yankee bluebirds have not yet begun to come in, while nearly all the old residents have departed Northward or flown Southward. Belle Isle has almost reverted to the possession of its original inhabitants, so small is the Yankee element there. All the sick in the hospitals here, about eight hundred, will probably be sent Northward by the next flag-of-truce."
The poet Walt WHITMAN, who made a crusade of visiting prisoner of war camps, both Northern and Southern, after his own brother was captured and sent to Libby, happened to be in Richmond when some of the "Belle Isle bluebirds" were set free. "Can those be men," he asked, "those little livid brown, ash-streaked, monkey-looking dwarves?"
The description no doubt fit Kirsch, who records show stood only 5 feet 6 inches tall, but the attending physician chose for his official diagnosis the more delicate Latin word debilitus. Emaciated is a fair translation. His prognosis: "Requiring no treatment other than the proper adaptation of diet to his weak condition, which is merely the result of bad food."
For good measure, the doctor also prescribed whiskey -- six ounces per day.
[NOTE: Above list, taken from Frank S. Reader's regimental history, lists 31 casualties but only one wounded man, which agrees with text. Other reports say two were injured and left at the scene.]
DeForest, B.S., RANDOM SKETCHES AND WANDERING THOUGHTS ... DURING THE LATE REBELLION, Albany, NY, privately printed: 1866
Dyer, Frederick, COMPENDIUM OF THE WAR OF THE REBELLION, Des Moines, IA, Dyer Publishing Co.: 1895
Lang, Theodore E., LOYAL WEST VIRGINIA FROM 1861 - 1865, Baltimore, MD, The Deutsch Publishing Co.: 1895
Lang, Winfield S., "Career of Lieut. Col. D.B. Lang," article in CONFEDERATE VETERAN, Vol. XIII, No. 3 (March 1905), a monthly magazine published in Nashville, TN
Reader, Frank S., HISTORY OF THE 5TH WEST VIRGINIA CAVALRY, FORMERLY THE 2ND VIRGINIA INFANTRY, New Brighton, PA, The Daily News: 1890
U.S. War Department, WAR OF THE REBELLION: A COMPILATION OF THE OFFICIAL RECORDS OF THE UNION AND CONFEDERATE ARMIES. Washington, DC, Government Printing Office: 1880-1900. (Series I - Volume XXIX/1 [S# 48])
Waitt, Robert W., LIBBY PRISON, Official Publication #12, Richmond Civil War Centennial Committee, 1961-1965
Larry Sullivan - firstname.lastname@example.org