Lecture presented before the Wheeling Historical Society &
a meeting of the Ohio Valley Civil War Roundtable
Written and Researched By Paul Burig.
BREVET MAJOR GENERAL BENJAMIN FRANKLIN KELLEY
Benjamin Kelley was born in April of 1807 in New Hampton, New Hampshire and was a graduate of Partridge Military Academy. He was brought to West Liberty as a youth and worked for Absalom Ridgely, the principal merchant of the county, West Liberty being a larger settlement than Wheeling at the time. Later he became an employee of John Goshorn, a merchant in Wheeling, and eventually became a partner in the firm of Goshorn, Kelley & Co. On February 26, 1835 he married Goshorn's daughter, Isabella.
Kelley joined the Guards Military Company of Wheeling and eventually became commander of the Fourth Virginia Regiment, a uniformed militia unit. When the war became imminent, Kelley had been working as freight agent for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in Philadelphia, he returned to Wheeling to be commissioned colonel of the first regiment to be recruited loyal to the Union on southern soil. On May 25, 1861 he was ordered by General George B. McClellan to assume command of all troops in Western Virginia and to advance on the Confederates on May 27th. The poorly equipped and poorly organized volunteers boarded a B&O train and headed for Grafton which was held by the Confederates under Colonel George A. Porterfield. The trip was delayed by burned bridges beginning at Mannington so that the unit did not reach Grafton until June Ist. The First West Virginia was joined by the 16th Ohio and the 9th Indiana regiments. The Confederates had left Grafton and headed toward Philippi. Kelley's force marched all night through a driving rain and attacked the Rebels at 4 a.m. on June 3rd, in what is considered to be the first land engagement of the Civil War.
The battle really didn't amount to much. Kelley's units chased the Confederates out of Philippi and down the road toward Beverly. However, there was an exchange of gunfire and Kelley was wounded, the first Union officer to be wounded in battle. Struck in the right breast with the bullet lodging near his shoulder blade, it was thought to be fatal. He was appointed brigadier general with the appointment to date from May 17th which made him a ranking general in future years.
Kelley served throughout the Civil War and had a checkered career most of which centered around the defense of the B&O railroad which was a vital supply link for the Union Army.
Kelley is remembered most frequently for two events. The first was the so-called Battle of Philippi which I have briefly described. The other was his spectacular capture late at night from his hotel room in Cumberland, Maryland where he had his headquarters during most of the war, along with General George Crook and his Adjutant General, Major Thayer Melvin, on the night of February 21-22, 1865. More about this event later.
For much of the Civil War, Kelley was responsible for the region from Cumberland, Maryland to the southernmost parts of what is now West Virginia. While he had a fairly large force at his disposal most of the time, the distances involved and the mountainous terrain made it a huge task. To be more succinct his responsibility was to maintain control of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and to keep the Confederates from moving west into the Western counties of Virginia, now West Virginia, and the Ohio Valley. The object was to maintain clear communications for men and supplies for the Union forces East of the Alleghany Mountains. He wasn't always successful in doing this but neither were Generals, Wallace, Shenck, Sigel, Hunter, and Crook. The Union never had undivided control of the West Virginia District until late in 1864 when General Philip Sheridan defeated the Confederates under General Early and General Lee's Army was bottled up during the seige at Petersburg.
Never completely defeated or controlled were the partisan Confederate units that roamed the lower Shenandoah Valley, Western Maryland and the Potomac River basin. Most notably were the partisans under Colonel John Mosby and Captain John Hanson McNeill.
Hanse McNeill, as he was usually known, was a semi-literate farmer who drove the Union Army nuts and with a force that probably never numbered more than 100 hand-picked men by disrupting traffic on the B&O railroad and the army wagon trains throughout the region.
He was born June 12, 1815 near Moorefield, Hardy County, Virginia. His father died when Hanse was three and a half years old. He grew up to become a hard working, slave owning farmer on the South Branch of the Potomac River. He and his wife and small son, Strother, wanted more land so they moved to Bourbon County, Kentucky, in 1838. He became quite prosperous but his wife developed health problems so he returned with his family to Hardy County in 1844. By this time he had two more sons, George W. and Jesse Cunningham. A fourth child, Sarah Emily was born in 1844 in Hardy County. In 1848 he got the urge to move west again and departed from Hardy County again with his wife, four children and a family of slaves and settled in Boone County, Missouri, north of Columbia. He became well established as a cattle breeder but his appetite for land urged him to move again, this time to Daviess County, Missouri. Once again he became prominent as a cattleman and even became a minister in the Methodist Church. In 1859 his fifth child, John Hanson, Jr., was born.
The issue of slavery was a red-hot topic in Missouri since the state was admitted to the union as a slave state under the infamous Missouri Compromise.
After a lot of initial political maneuvering and some fighting, Governor Claiborne Jackson called for 50,000 militia to defend the state. A company was recruited from Daviess County headed by Hanse McNeill and included his three oldest sons, William, George and Jesse. They were mustered in as Company B, First Regiment Cavalry, Fourth Regiment, Missouri State Guard under Brigadier General William Y. Slack. Within three days they were in action under the overall command of General Sterling Price.
The first action was against a force commanded by pro-Union General Nathaniel Lyon at Boonville. The Union force included a Regular Army Company of infantry and a Regular Army artillery battery. The poorly organized Confederates were overrun and Governor Jackson and General Price fled with their government and army to southwestern Missouri.
The second encounter took place in southwest Missouri with the Union force under General Franz Sigel. The Union force was outnumbered by two to one and Sigel being concerned with the safety of his wagon train withdrew with the rebel cavalry in pursuit with McNeill in command. The battle eventually took place at Carthage. Following the Battle of Carthage, Price began to organize his army which consisted of 4,500 armed men and 2,000 without weapons.
By August 6th, the Southerners advanced on Wilson's Creek south of Springfield. Bickering between General Price and General McCulloch developed over strategy. General Lyon seized the opportunity and attacked the Confederates. This was the first really hard fighting McNeill was involved in.
Lyon had divided his force to make the attack. Lyon was killed during the attack which led to confusion and Sigel's men broke and ran. Major Sturgis, who took over after Lyon was killed, retreated and the Confederates won the day.
Following the Battle of Wilson's Creek, Price moved north to Lexington in Western Missouri and encountered a force of 2,800 Federals under Colonel James A. Mulligan. A battle ensued with Price overwhelming the greatly outnumbered Union force.
The victory came at a price for the McNeills. Hanse was severely wounded in the right shoulder and his second son, George, was shot and instantly killed. After the Battle of Lexington, William returned to the family farm to care for his mother and sister. The wounded Hanse and Jesse remained with the southern army.
Hanse had a rapid recovery from his wound and was in the process of recruiting a new unit in Boone County. However, before he ever got back into service a squad from Union General Merrill's Home Guard took him prisoner. He was taken to Columbia and imprisoned in the old university. He was granted a limited parole and during that time some of the ladies of Columbia made him a Confederate uniform. The Federal command ordered the transfer of Hanse and Jesse to the Federal prison in St. Louis. The conditions in the St. Louis were described as harsh and Hanse and Jesse set about to escape. Jesse was the first to do so and he traveled through the southern states to their former home in Hardy County, Virginia. Hanse later successfully escaped and traveled to Ohio to visit friends before he traveled to Hardy County to join Jesse.
He eventually went to Richmond to get permission to raise an independent command to harass the Union troops in the area and to offer protection to pro-South residents. Permission was granted and McNeill recruited a company of partisan rangers which were assigned to the First Regiment of Partisan Rangers. Eventually, it became part of the Northwestern Brigade. There was disagreement among the Confederate offi6ers who felt that the partisan units were outside of their definition of legimate warfare. This debate would go on throughout the remainder of the war. The West Pointers couldn't quite accept poorly organized and poorly disciplined cavalry.
The partisan units, particulary those under McNeill and Col. John Mosby, fought throughout the war using hit and run tactics that kept the Union supply lines under constant threats and caused the Federals to assign large numbers of troops to attempt to stop them. The Union army denounced them as outlaws and if captured were held under orders not to be exchanged. Late in the war a number of the partisans were hanged when they were captured.
The risks to the partisans were great but also were the rewards. The general order authorizing the partisans provided that any arms and munitions captured and delivered to any quartermaster would be sold or would be inventoried at full value and the money would be distributed to the individual members of the partisan unit. At times this amounted to many thousands of dollars at a time when a Confederate private was paid $12 per month. This also caused dissention among the Confederate soldiers in the regular units.
I will not try to recount all the raids that are listed in the book I am using for my source material. McNeill's company was made up of hand-picked recruits from the areas where they did most of their mischief. The principle counties from which the rangers came were Hardy, Hampshire and Rockingham counties in Virginia and Western Maryland. They had no permanent location for their unit but would roam the land looking for opportunities to raid the Union supply lines. They also had a network of spies who kept them informed of the movements of the Union Army. McNeill would look or opportunities where they could make a lightning fast raid on a wagon train or the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and then vanish into the mountains where most of them had lived all their lives. If you are familiar with the mountains in the Shenandoah and Potomac River valleys you will see that the attacker had the advantage.
The biggest raid that McNeill and Mosby and their units were involved in was when Generals Imboden and Grumble Jones launched a two-pronged raid across what is now the State of West Virginia and did a huge amount of damage to the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. From a military point of view, I consider this operation to be of greater importance than John Hunt Morgan's raid across Ohio. Morgan just had a better public relations director.
Prior to the invasion of Maryland and Pennslyvania in 1863 the partisans turned up the heat with numerous raids on the Union wagon trains in the vicinity of Winchester and even advanced into Maryland ahead of Lee's Army. When Lee moved into Pennsylvania the partisans spent their time foraging for supplies and relieved the farmers of the region of a lot of their horses and livestock. During Lee's retreat after Gettysburg, they were with Imboden's force Protecting the route back to Williamsport, Maryland and the crossing into Virginia. So they were not always off to follow their own pursuits.
My personal favorite raid by the partisans came during May of 1864 when Grant ordered a four-pronged offensive. One of the prongs was for General Franz Sigel to neutralize the Confederates in the Shenandoah Valley. Sigel's army was bogged down trying to make its way up the valley toward Staunton which ended when they met on the field of battle at New Market. On May 3rd, McNeill and 60 rangers rode north from Hardy County deep into Union held territory. They were accompanied by Captain John T. Peerce, who was operating on detached service on the South Branch. I think the translation of that is that he was spying. They rode all day on May 3rd and stopped to rest on the 4th. Early on the 5th, they crossed the Potomac and headed to Bloomington on the main line of the B&O. By dawn they were in control of Bloomington. McNeill left ten men with Captain Peerce to remain at Bloomington and took the rest of his men and rode off to Piedmont about two miles east. Piedmont contained vast stores of railroad supplies and machine shops. The rangers boarded an east-bound train, overpowered the crew and detached the locomotive. They rode into Piedmont with a flag of truce flying with McNeill following on horseback. The Federal garrison surrendered without a fight. The rangers destroyed seven machine shops, nine locomotives and more than 100 fully loaded railroad cars. Finally, six additional locomotives were put under full steam and sent off down the tracks toward New Creek, (now Keyser). In less than an hour the Partisans had destroyed a million dollars worth of Federal property.
While McNeill was sacking Piedmont, Peerce's men captured two trains which they opened up for looting by the people of Bloomington. A third train arrived with two passenger cars loaded with armed Union soldiers. Peerce and Private Charles Watkins rode up to the train and made it appear that it was under attack by a cavalry force and the Union officer surrendered his men. When the destruction at Bloomington was complete, McNeill paroled the prisoners.
By this time, Union forces had arrived and launched a barrage of cannon fire from the Maryland side of the Potomac. The only casualities during the whole operation came when a cannon shell overshot its target striking a home, killing a mother and her two children. Such is war when the innocent become the victims.
The raid not only disrupted traffic on the railroad, it also caused General Sigel to detach 500 much needed cavalry to send them on a wild goose chase to capture the raiders. By the time Sigel's troop reached Moorefield, McNeill and his rangers were safely hidden back in the mountains of Hardy County. Sigel's troopers were able to capture two of McNeill's rangers but Hanse and the remainder evaporated into the mountains. Then Imboden, sensing an opportunity, met with McNeill's rangers and set a trap for the Union force. It turned into a rout and the Rebels chased the Union cavalry all the way back to Old Town, Maryland, some forty miles north. The Confederates were even able to free the two rangers that had been captured two days before. So not only was the Union force unsuccessful in capturing the rangers, they ended up scattered all over the territory from Moorefield north and essentially out of action when they were sorely needed by Sigel during his advance south.
Now let's digress a bit. The situation in Cumberland during the outbreak of hostilities was somewhat similar to the situation in Wheeling. The sentiment on secession was divided. Maryland was a border state. Slavery was permitted. But states rights wasn't quite as hot an issue as in neighboring Virginia. The majority of the people sided with the Union but there was a highly vocal secessionist movement. Lincoln and the Federal government were so concerned with which way Maryland was going to go that the Writ of Habeous Corpus was suspended and martial law was declared in a number of places. Unfortunately none of my sources detail how these moves affected life and sentiment in Cumberland.
There were a lot of torch-light parades and rallies and the campaign for mayor in 1860 was decided along the pro-Union and pro-south lines. The north won. A number of people including some previously notable public officials were arrested for disloyalty and either took the oath of allegiance or were imprisoned.
Cumberland became a garrisoned city with ever present Union troops. The only time the Union did not occupy the town, Col. Imboden rode into town and made himself at home until word arrived that the Feds were returning and he saw fit to depart. Some call this the capture of Cumberland, but it was capture without a fight. On a couple of occasions the Confederates got within cannon range and lobbed some shells into the outskirts but never did any real damage to the town.
Panic set in on a number of occasions. Early in the war a rumor developed that the Rebels were coming. People loaded their valuables on wagons and headed north toward Bedford, Pennsylvania. The Home Guard was called out and gathered around the bank of Joseph Shriver armed with shotguns and pitchforks. The Rebels never appeared.
When Lee was making his invasion north in 1863, rumors flew that his army was going to cross the Potomac at Cumberland. Panic set in again. It didn't happen. Neither did the retreat. They crossed at Williamsport instead.
General Kelley had the problem of dealing with a divided town while performing his duties as a military commander. His headquarters were located at Cumberland during most of the war. He ordered the arrest of a Mrs. McKaig, whose husband had been a public official prior to the war and who was arrested. He sent Mrs. McKaig into exile to the Romney area where she was left to fend for herself until winter was coming and she prevailed to have warm clothes sent to her. Kelley relented and she was returned to Cumberland. Spies and an underground of support for the South including the partisan rangers was a constant problem. A number of McNeill's rangers were from Cumberland and the surrounding area. They knew the territory.
The dislike between Kelley and McNeill's rangers grew as the war went on. It grew by a huge bound when the Union officials arrested Mrs. McNeill and her young son while they were riding on the B & O railroad at Oakland, Maryland in mid-August of 1863. The mother and young son were sent to Camp Chase in Columbus, Ohio and became the subject for serious exchanges between Federal and Confederate authorities. I do not have the details but they were eventually released and returned to Hardy County.
Now let's skip forward to October 3rd, 1864. The partisans launched another of their surprise attacks on a Union encampment at Meem's Bottom near Mt. Jackson. In a matter of fifteen minutes the raiders had created such havoc that the Union force surrendered. When the fighting ended it suddenly occurred to the partisans that their leader was missing. He was found lying on the ground having suffered serious wounds.
They gathered him up and tried to hold him on a horse as they moved out but it became evident that McNeill would not survive the trip.
They were able to move about a mile to the home of a Methodist minister, Addison Weller and his wife, Elizabeth. The Wellers provided as much care as they could. In order to conceal his identity they shaved off his beard. At the same time wounded from the Union encampment were also brought to the Weller home.
Rumors of McNeill's wounding had reached the Federals and they questioned the wounded man to determine his identity. Jesse McNeill had returned to Moorefield and informed his mother of Hanse wounding. Mrs. McNeill traveled to Mt. Jackson to care for her husband.
Again the Federals came to the Weller home with a captured ranger to identify McNeill, but he claimed not to recognize him.
Later General Sheridan heard that the Wellers were caring for a wounded Confederate officer. He rode to the house and talked to McNeill and asked him, "Are you not McNeill himself?" and Hanse answered, "I am."
A Union surgeon stepped forward and told McNeill that he had once been his prisoner and that he would do what he could to ease his pain. He returned the next morning with some provisions and medicine and a bottle of fine liquor. It was agreed that McNeill would not survive any attempt to move him so he was left at the Weller home. While he was there General Early was able to pay him a call. The next day a Confederate ambulance arrived at the door to transport him to Rockingham County and he was taken to Hills Hotel in Harrisonburg. He remained there with his wife and daughter until he died on November 10th. Two of his sons including Jesse were present when he died. He was buried in the Harrisonburg Cemetery with full military and Masonic honors but was later removed to a cemetery at Moorefield.
Who fired the shots that killed Captain Hanse McNeill? No one knows. Some writers claim that he was wounded by his own men but no one seems to know for sure. No one stepped forward to either claim the honor or accept the blame.
The death of Hanse McNeill was a serious blow to the rangers. Some of them decided they had had enough. Others left to join other units. The remainder stayed with First Lieutenant Jesse McNeill.
General Kelley was informed of the death of Hanse McNeill and decided it was time to rid his command of the nuisance that the rangers represented. He sent a 260 man raiding party headed by Lt. Colonel Fleming of the 6th West Virginia Cavalry on a search and destroy mission to Moorefield. He also sent a message "to inform the people of Moorefield and South Branch Valley that if they continue to harbor and feed McNeill's men that the whole valley will be laid waste like the Shenandoah Valley."
Three miles north of Moorefield, Fleming and his men went into camp before continuing their raid. McNeill's men had been following the movement all the way from New Creek and instead of waiting to be raided, launched a surprise attack that scattered the Union cavalry. In addition to completely routing the Union force, McNeill's men captured sixty horses, an ambulance and a 12-pounder cannon. That night Jesse returned and imprisoned his captives in the Hardy County courthouse.
At the same time Kelley was trying to neutralize the rangers, Confederate General Rosser was making a raid into Hardy and Hampshire counties to hit Piedmont and New Creek. With McNeill's men leading the way in the disquise of blue overcoats taken from Fleming's men, they advanced on Piedmont and New Creek and again laid waste to the railroad shops and warehouses that had been rebuilt after being destroyed seven months earlier.
In December, Jesse suffered a broken leg and had to turn the rangers over to Lt. Isaac Welton. They continued their operations against the Union lines but were greatly hampered by a severe winter.
One of the many moves to discontinue the rangers as an independent unit was when General Early sought to place all the independent units under the command of Major Henry Gilmore. However, Gilmore was unable to get the partisans to recognize his authority. While this was being thresh4d out by the Confederate high command, Jesse launched a raid that assured that he would be left undisturbed. Also, Major Gilmore was captured by the Federals.
It was during the lull caused by the severe winter that Jesse laid plans for a daring raid into Cumberland and the capture of General Kelley. To pave the way he sent some of the rangers whose homes had been in Cumberland to slip into the city to get the information he needed to make the raid.
Preparations were made. Rations secured. Horses shod. And only those raiders with strong horses and excellent gear were selected to go on the raid. The raiders consisted ot 48 rangers and six cavalrymen from Company F of the 7th Virginia Cavalry. Jesse was still hampered by his broken leg and rode with a cane strapped to his saddle. He left Moorefield on February 18th and spent the first night a few miles north of Moorefield. He then proceeded north and bivouaced about halfway between Moorefield and Romney. That night he received a message from Sgt. John Fay who had returned from Cumberland indicating that Fay thought the raid was possible and that the Union defenses were lax. Surprise was the key to the success of the raid.
They waited till about noon the following day to continue north taking the most remote roads possible. The rangers were briefed on their objective and any who wanted to drop out could do so. None did.
At this point they were about 20 miles from Cumberland. To navigate the remaining distance it was necessary to go over Knobly Mountain. The snow was so deep it was necessary for the men to dismount and lead the horses. They made a stop at the home of Ren Seymour who supplied them with whiskey to ward off the cold. They then crossed the Potomac and made another stop at the home of Samuel D. Brady and got their final intelligence report from two local residents, George Stanton and John Brady. Stanton was a watchman at a railroad crossing. Brady had remained in Cumberland until 11 p.m. and reported that Crook and Kelley had retired to their hotel rooms. They were in separate hotels located on Baltimore Street.
They proceeded toward Cumberland. They were challenged by a guard and two relief pickets who were overpowered. They were able to bully the countersign out of the guards, Bulls Gap.
With the necessary information they then proceeded into Cumberland, first at a trot which they slowed to a walk to avoid arrousing the city.
They even whistled Yankee tunes and engaged in loud talking as they passed the courthouse. They arrived in front of the Barnum Hotel and easily disarmed the guard and roused adjutant, Major Thayer Melvin and had Melvin, awaken General Kelley. The two officers were ordered to dress and were escorted to the street. The door of the Revere House was locked and the raiders had to have it opened by a black servant, who led them to Crook's room. The general got dressed and joined Kelley in the street.
While the generals were getting dressed; Sgt. Fay and Pvt. Hallar went to the telegraph office and demolished the equipment. On their way out of town, they stopped at the government stables and appropriated several fine horses including Kelley's prize, Phillipi.
From there, they retraced their route across the Potomac. They were challenged by a guard at the C & 0 Canal but they told the sentry that they were General Crook's body guard and that they had no time to waste because the rebels are coming. The ruse worked and they went happily on their way. They were only four or five miles out of Cumberland when a cannon went off sounding the alarm.
I won't attempt to give all the details of the escape. It was touch and go until they got to Harrisonburg. There the captives were loaded on an old stage coach to take them on to General Early's headquarters at Staunton. They spent the evening dining and chatting with General Early. The next morning they were loaded on a train with Lt. Welton and Pvt. Raison C. Davis who were their guards. In Richmond, they were turned over to the Confederate authorities but before they left the two guards pooled their money and bought a pint of good whiskey which they gave to the generals.
After a brief stay in Libby Prison Generals Kelley and Crook were exchanged as paroled prisoners and took no further active part in the war.
This was the last big hurrah of the McNeill Rangers. As far as the war was concerned, it was all down hill for the Confederacy.
When the end came, most of the rangers surrendered at Romney and were paroled but some of them merely disappeared and returned to their homes. The last to surrender was Johnathan Halterman who was paroled at Moorefield on July 1, 1865.
Jesse McNeill was paroled on May 5, 1865 and died March 4, 1912 in Mahonet, Illinois.
Kelley resigned from the Army on June 1, 1865 after the end of the war.
Following the war he held several government positions and was a resident of Oakland, Maryland at the time of his death in July of 1891. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.