First Confederate Casualty

"Captain" Steven Roberts -- gone AND forgotten




     The man who went down in history as the first armed Confederate soldier killed in the Civil War lies buried at an unknown location, probably in an unmarked grave, and is recorded in history books under the wrong name.

     A contemporary newspaper account and an official death record confirm the man was Stephen Roberts (c. 1796 - 1861), a secession-minded farmer who owned nearly 450 acres along Fish Creek in southern Wetzel County in what is now West Virginia. He organized and headed a small group of home guards, glorified in various histories as "Capt. Roberts Command," which did its best to burn railroad bridges and raise hell in the border community between Burton and Glover's Gap.

     The books all call him Christian Roberts, and the reason for the name mixup is unclear.

     He was killed on the morning of 28 May 1861 by a patrol of Company A, 2nd Virginia Infantry (Union), but I could not find an official report of the skirmish. One should have been filed by Col. Benjamin F. Kelley, commander of the 1st Virginia Infantry, the regiment under which Company A served during the opening weeks of the war.

     Such a report might give a hint as to how the name Stephen was changed to Christian in later historical accounts. Most printed stories probably were drawn from Theodore F. Lang's Loyal West Virginia 1861 - 1865, published in 1895. Lang, in turn, seems to have gotten the story from Frank S. Reader's regimental history, Fifth West Virginia Cavalry, Formerly the Second Virginia Infantry, published five years earlier.

     The contemporary newspaper report in the May 30th edition of the Wheeling Intelligencer reads as follows:

     "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."

     One local history, An Appalachian Legacy: Mannington Life and Spirit by Arthur C. Prichard (1983: McClain Publishing Co., Parsons, WV) repeats the Lang/Reader version of the events and does not mention the Wheeling Intelligencer story. But the book does describe how reporters from the newspaper rode to the scene on trains with the Federal troops and followed them into the field. Their stories were wired to Wheeling by telegraph.

     Between covering the enthusiastic welcome given the soldiers at Mannington and their pursuit of secessionists at nearby Farmington, however, there may not have been a reporter free to accompany the patrol at Glover's Gap. That still does not explain how the newspaper got the name right and Lang and Reader did not.

     Roberts' home guard unit may have been made up principally of his own nephews. He could reckon them by the dozens in the tight-knit, sparsely populated community straddling the border of Wetzel and Marion counties. At least six of his nephews went on to serve in Company A of the 19th VA Cavalry (CSA).

     History has not identified the two men who fled into the woods when Roberts was killed. If pressed to hazard a guess, I'd put my money on first-cousins Isaac Bartrug, 20, and Sam Lemley, 18, both nephews of Roberts' wife, Mary. Lemley, whose mother had died when he was a toddler, lived with the Roberts family, and the Bartrug farm was just around the bend.

     Almost as though they were joined at the hip, Bartrug and Lemley eventually joined the 19th Virginia Cavalry, were captured together in Preston County two years later, and were gunned down by prison guards in separate incidents at Camp Chase in Columbus, Ohio.

     I believe -- but may never prove it -- that Roberts' body was claimed for burial by Isaac Bartrug's older brother, Christian, 34. I suspect Christian's first name got mixed up with that of his uncle when his statement was taken. The Yankees who shot Roberts were not locals, after all, but from Pittsburgh and thus had no clue as to his identity.

     Or it may have been that Reader's source for the tale, Wm. H. Graham, a fellow veteran interviewed nearly 30 years after the fact, dredged up from a dimming memory the given name Christian and surname Roberts and absent-mindedly put the two together.

     If it was Christian Bartrug who came forth to claim the body, it probably was because he had NOT been there the day before when his uncle was killed. Otherwise he could have been recognized and arrested. He also may have volunteered, or been picked, for the burial detail because of his reputation as a Union sympathizer. An1890 veterans' schedule shows his widow began receiving a pension upon his death in 1888, indicating that, unlike most of his cousins, he had served in the Federal army.

     For the record, Stephen Roberts and three brothers are said to have come to northwestern Virginia about 1820 from Morristown, PA, a hamlet just north of the Mason-Dixon Line. They were originally from England.

     Stephen settled in the area that is now Burton, while brothers Noah and John Roberts lived along Hileys Run, now known as Roberts Ridge, in Marshall County. The fourth brother, Bos, settled near Middlebourne, over in Tyler County.

     Stephen Roberts married a local girl, Mary Bartrug, of the family that founded Burton. They had three daughters, Catherine, who married Isaac Glover; Mary Ann, who married Sam Snowden Bartrug; and Lydia, who died young and single. They also had two sons, Sam and William, who died in a typhoid epidemic in 1854.

     Stephen Roberts probably was buried at Old Bartrug Cemetery in Burton, but the cemetery has no record of him and no stone marks the spot.

     The old hero surely would have fared better -- though still dead -- if his beloved Confederacy had won the war.

Above article was written 20 Feb 2001 by Lawrence Sullivan, 109 Beechwood Ct., Glasgow, KY 42141.
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