Lecture presented before the Ohio County Public Library &
a meeting of the Ohio Valley Civil War Roundtable
Written and Researched By Paul Burig.
Major James W. Sweeney, C.S.F.
The year 1862 was a year of turmoil in the western counties of Virginia. While the main focus of attention was on the Peninsula Campaign, 2nd Bull Run and Antietam there was stiff competition between the people of this divided area both politically and militarily. And part of this competition was in the enlistment of military units by both sides.
This competition was stiffest in the Kanawha Valley and the southern counties of what is now West Virginia where there were strong factions for both sides. Major General William W. Loring made a number of sorties up and down the Kanawha Valley and one of his principle objectives was to recruit men. He was replaced by Brig. Gen. John Echols who continued the operation. Late in 1862 the recruits for cavalry units were placed under the command of Brig. Gen. Albert Gallatin Jenkins, a former U.S. Congressman and a lawyer from Charleston. In mid-November Brig. Gen. John S. Williams was placed in command of the Department of Southwestern Virginia and visited to inspect his new army. He reported:
"I found General Jenkin's mounted men at Lewisburg in a perfect state of chaos, but the general is not to blame, as he had no chance to organize or discipline his men." Due to a lack of forage in the area all the men with the exception of one battalion were dismounted and the horses sent toward North Carolina where forage was said to have been better.
After a month of trying to organize the cavalry, Jenkins decided to move his camp to where supplies and forage were more readily available. Jenkins moved his brigade to White Sulphur Springs and then across the mountains to Newcastle and finally set up camp in Salem. On February 5, 1363, the 36th Battalion Virginia Cavalry was organized. The battalion consisted of four companies, two from the reorganized 14th Virginia Cavalry and two unattached companies that had been raised in the Kanawha Valley.
James W. Sweeney of Wheeling was elected major and assumed command of the battalion. He had served as an officer of the 60th Virginia Infantry at the beginning of the war. A fifth company was added to the battalion in the spring.
The battalion was faced with problems from the very beginning. Five members died of rubella and typhoid. There was a severe shortage of supplies and weapons. Jenkins had to shift rifles from one unit to another in order to carry out a raid on Beverly. On one occasion Maj. Gen. Samuel Jones asked Jenkins for men. Jenkins replied: "I can furnish about 1,000 men for immediate service, but not more than 300 of them are armed."
In May, Jenkins' Brigade, except for the 8th Cavalry, was ordered to move toward Staunton. The move was part of General Lee's preparation for the invasion of Pennsylvania. Finally supplied with horses the brigade, including the 36th Cavalry joined Lt. Gen. R. S. Ewell's Second Corps. At Opequon Creek, south of Winchester, the 36th made two charges against the Union lines. Four members were killed, three captured and several wounded, including Maj. Sweeney.
Sweeney was taken to the hospital in Lexington, where doctors told him he would lose his right arm and scheduled the operation for 9 a.m. the following morning. When four men appeared to take Sweeney to surgery he produced a pistol his servant had brought him during the night and ordered the men to stand back. The chief surgeon arrived and told Sweeney he would die if the arm was not amputated. Sweeney again refused and the doctor left him to die. However, Sweeney recovered from his wounds but was hampered by the effects from then on.
Dr. George A. Cracraft, also from Wheeling, was the surgeon with the battalion. The account doesn't state whether he was the surgeon who urged that the arm be amputated.
Jenkins' brigade moved north and crossed the Potomac at Williamsport, Md. Company D was detached and remained at Williamsport to guard the crossing. The brigade was among the first of Lee's army to enter Pennsylvania and rode to Chambersburg and for a week scoured the Pennsylvania countryside, moving through Shippensburg and Carlisle, rounding up horses and cattle that Lee needed to supply his army. There may have been some question as to the performance of Jenkins' men on the battlefield, but they proved themselves to be great foragers.
At Gettysburg, the brigade became part of J.E.B. Stuart's cavalry and fought on the left flank on the third day during the cavalry battle that took place east of Cemetery Ridge. The men of the brigade had been issued only 10 rounds of ammunition per man and were forced to retire from the field very early.
On July 4th, the cavalry was detailed to guard the retreat of Lee's army. The 36th lost at least six men captured near Waterloo. At Williamsport, Jenkins' Brigade attempted to attack the enemy's flank but found rocks, fences and other obstacles in the way. The men were ordered to dismount and move on foot. The Union troops were dislodged and began to retreat. Several men of the 36th were captured and wounded, including Capt. Edwin Zane, of Wheeling, who was wounded and died three weeks later.
After fighting another engagement at Williamsport, they were among the last to cross the river back into Virginia. At Culpeper Court House on August 10th a mass desertion took place in the 36th. About 50 men were involved in the affair. Most of them were captured by Southern authorities and returned to the ranks. The unit eventually went to McDowell and patrolled between there and Staunton.
In September, Jenkins' Brigade returned to the lower Kanawha Valley. After several moves when none of the Confederate authorities could decide where they should be located, the 36th was ordered to Abingdon and was assigned to the brigade of Brig. Gen. William E. (Grumble) Jones.
There had been a serious feud between cavalry commander J.E.B. Stuart and Jones. At Lee's request, Jones was transferred to the Army of Northern Virginia. Part of the problem may have been the general distaste between the units who came from the western parts of Virginia toward the eavaliers who made up Stuart's command.
On October 22, Jones' brigade left Virginia and moved into Tennessee. Here they were caught up in the aftermath of the battles of Chicamaugua and Chattanooga. They were involved in a number of actions in the Tennessee mountains with Longstreet. Poorly equipped and clothed the battalion suffered severe hardships during these months. Fighting was sporadic and proved ineffective.
On December 29, 1863 the 36th and Jones' brigade moved back into Virginia. On January 3, 1864 they attacked the Union cavalry at Jonesville causing the entire Union force of 383 officers and men to surrender. After Jonesville, Jones was ordered back to Little War Gap, Tennessee. On February 3, the brigade attacked a Federal camp and captured 256 prisoners, 8 wagons and 100 horses. Most important was a large supply of blankets and coats.
Jones' brigade then headed for Bristol, Tennessee. Jones had been put in command of the department. At about this time Assistant Adjutant General Archer Anderson inspected the brigade and reported that the 36th numbered 184 officers and men. Anderson reported there were no schools of tactics and no company drills. Discipline was a problem and that more than 150 men of the brigade were absent without leave.
Transportation consisted of 42 wagons, six not serviceable. There were 36 horses and 125 mules. Arms were short and rifles were rusty. Many of the men were missing shoes and others were without blankets.
Anderson filed a second report in which he said of Jones' brigade:
"Not a fair commander among the officers. Colonel of Eighth a drinking blackguard; Twenty-first, a gentleman, but ignorant of military duty; the rest no account." He then reported what every man in the brigade knew first hand, "The work during the winter has been constant and hard."
Back in the Shenandoah in 1864 the beginnings of Grant's all-out push were being felt. General Crook attack the Confederates at Cloyd's Mountain on May 9. The Confederates were defeated; Jenkins' was wounded and captured and died two weeks later. Col. John McCausland was promoted to brigadier general and assumed command of Jenkins' Brigade.
For the next two months it was a series of running battles between the forces of Confederate Gen. Jubal Early and the Union Army under Generals Sigel, Averell and Hunter.
Jones was killed at Piedmont and Brig. Gen. Bradley T. Johnson was placed in command of Jones' cavalry. Johnson later wrote of his new command:
"...I had eight hundred half-armed and badly disciplined mountaineers from Southwest Virginia, who would fight like veterans when they pleased, but had no idea of permitting their own sweet wills to be controlled by any orders, no matter from whom emanating. They were as brave, and as fearless, and as undisciplined as the Highlanders who followed Charles Edward of Culloden."
About the first of July 1864, General Early began his march north that would take him to the outskirts of Washington, D.C.
It was at this time that Major Sweeney rejoined the 36th Cavalry. Part of the strategy was to capture Washington, D.C., harass the city of Baltimore and perhaps rescue more than 15,000 Confederate prisoners at Point Lookout, Maryland. Johnson's Brigade, including the 36th, was expected to out the telegraph lines into Baltimore, destroy the railroad between Baltimore and Washington and then march to Point Lookout. Of the three objectives they were only able to complete the first two. They were on their way toward Point Lookout when Early decided to withdraw and called Johnson back for the return to Virginia. After returning to Virginia, there followed a number of engagements in the vicinity of Winchester.
On July 28, McCausland received an order to take his brigade and Johnson's to Chambersburg, Pa. They crossed the Potomac at McCoy's Ferry the morning of the 29th. There Johnson's brigade, including the 36th, engaged about 300 Union cavalry driving them from the area. The brigade reached Mercersburg about 5 o'clock that evening. Major Sweeney's 36th drove off a small Union force as Johnson entered the town. The men ate and rested their horses for about three hours. Then at 9 p.m., Johnson started toward Chambersburg, reaching the town before dawn. A small Union force fired on the Southerners with canister but was quickly routed. McCausland then fired an artillery round across the town to signal that he had taken possession.
It was 5:30 a.m. on Saturday morning, July 30, when McCausland's Brigade along with the 21st and 36th Battalions entered the town. McCausland gathered the town fathers together and read them an order from General Early that demanded $100,000 in gold or $500,000 in greenbacks. They were told to collect the money or the town would be burned. Most did not believe the town would be destroyed and jeered at the Confederates.
McCausland began hearing rumors that Averell was approaching the town and after the citizens refused to make any effort to comply with McCausland's demands, he told them to remove their personal belongings and papers from their courthouse. He then issued the order to burn the town.
By 10 a.m. the town was in flames. In all, 278 houses, factories and businesses along with 98 barns were burned to the ground. McCausland then started his withdrawal and headed back to Hancock and then to Cumberland, Md. They continued their retreat until they reached Moorefield, W.Va., where they went into camp on August 5th.
At 2 a.m., on August 7th, Johnson received a report that Averell had passed Romney and a scouting party from the 8th Virginia Cavalry was sent out. The scouting party was quietly captured by a group of Union cavalry dressed in Confederate uniforms. The same Union troops captured Johnson's pickets. The Union cavalry still dressed as Confederates, rode into Johnson's camp and opened fire. The rest of Averell's cavalry followed them in.
Things went from bad to worse and both Johnson's and McCausland's brigades were routed. Averell captured 400 men and 420 horses during the raid Eighteen members of the 36th Cavalry were taken prisoner. The prisoners from the raid were loaded onto boxcars and shipped to Wheeling via the B&O railroad and later transferred to Camp Chase in Columbus.
General Johnson complained about the conduct of McCausland's men during the raid on Chambersburg. He listed a number of crimes that he claimed were committed. He also placed all the blame for the Moorefield rout on McCausland. Although both Johnson and General Lee asked that the matter be investigated, nothing was done. McCausland was very bitter over the criticism and remained so for the remainder of the war.
The remainder of 1864 involved the hard fighting during General Sheridan's Shenandoah campaign. The 36th was involved in fighting at Bunker Hill, Winchester, Fisher's Hill, Port Republic, New Market, Cedar Creek, Milford, Newtown, and New Creek.
By November 1864, the 36th was assigned to the brigade of Brig. Gen. William H. F. Payne. Payne stated: "The discipline of the brigade is not near so good as it ought to be." He complained of the tedious process required by court-martial, and spoke of the desertion problem when men were sent home to Union controlled areas on horse detail. The Compiled Service Records for the 36th Cavalry shown a full one-in-four men listed as AWOL or as deserters during the course of the war.
In December, General Lee ordered Payne's men to Richmond. Many of the men under Payne's command had felt throughout the war that they had enlisted to protect their own area, and they rebelled at the idea of going east to Richmond. The 36th refused to leave and remained in Southwest Virginia when Payne moved toward Richmond. Sweeney took the 36th Cavalry to Lewisburg. As the battalion set up camp in January it numbered only 70 men. When Sweeney's men were mentioned in Union reports they were referred to as a company rather than a battalion.
The leadership of the 36th Cavalry was almost gone. In February of 1865 a battalion report stated: "The roster of this battalion has been lost and nearly all the officers are prisoners in the enemy's hands." Major Sweeney still suffered from his wounds. Battalion Adjutant William Waller had been captured and was still in prison. Of the seven men who attained the rank of captain, one had been transferred, two had been killed in action and the remainder were in Union prison camps.
When the end came, the 36th was under the command of Lt. Colonel Davis S. Hounshell, who was commanding the scattered Confederates around Lewisburg, As part of Hounshell's command, the 36th was surrendered in West Virginia under the same terms as Lee's surrender at Appomattox. Sweeney had disbanded his battalion a few days earlier. Most of the men of the 36th Cavalry were on their way home by the time of the surrender. Sweeney was later paroled in Charleston in May.
The men of the 36th who had enlisted to protect their homes had seen hard service in Tennessee, the Shenandoah Valley and in the far away states of Maryland and Pennsylvania. When the war was over and they returned to their homes, they found many of their neighbors against them and the land they fought to protect was no longer a part of the Southern state of Virginia. One out of three Battalion members were either wounded, captured or died in service. One out of ten of the men who rode with the 36th Cavalry did not return home. They had been killed on the battlefield, died of wounds and disease in Southern hospitals or died in the filth of a Northern prison camp. Two out of every ten men saw the inside of a Yankee prison. The suffering and sacrifice of the men in the 36th Battalion Virginia Cavalry earned them the right to be remembered along with the others who fought for Southern independence.