The Raid on Piedmont and the Crippling
of Franz Sigel in the Shenandoah Valley
By Richard R. Duncan
Piedmont, a small but important rail center on the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad in central West Virginia, suddenly came into sharp focus for federal, state, and railroad authorities on May 5, 1864, with the renewal of military campaigning. A surprise raid on the town by a Confederate partisan company, led by Captain John McNeill, left shops, several trains, and other railroad equipment smoldering in wreckage. The attack and news of his boldness reverberated through the state capital at Wheeling, Washington, and the camp of General Franz Sigel, Union commander of the Department of West Virginia, then poised at Winchester to advance up the Shenandoah Valley.
Confederate authorities, aware of the vulnerability of western Virginia to potential federal raids, had given considerable attention to the region's defense and the possibilities of upsetting Union moves in Virginia. In early April, General Robert E. Lee toyed with the idea of a raid into West Virginia against the railroad. He saw such a blow as a means of drawing "off some of his [General Ulysses S. Grant's] troops from the main attack" that Lee foresaw against his army. He suggested to General John C. Breckinridge, commander of the Department of Western Virginia, that a combined movement with General John D. Imboden, commander of the Valley District, might disrupt Grant's plans and lessen pressure in the region. When a build-up of Union forces in West Virginia later that month appeared poised for an attack on Staunton or the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad in the southwest, Lee directed Imboden, if practical, to anticipate such a movement with a demonstration on the B&O and "the force guarding it in Martinsburg and the lower Valley." Meanwhile Breckinridge, sensitive about offsetting an incursion into his own department, did not believe that he would gain any advantage by advancing into the Kanawha Valley. He discounted the results from a raid into central West Virginia, but he agreed with the idea of a raid against the railroad.1
Imboden, undoubtedly reflecting on his successful raid in concert with General William "Grumble" Jones during the previous year, saw the tactic as an excellent means of diverting pressure away from the Shenandoah Valley. Aware of Lee's worry to his flank by the possibility of Sigel moving across the Blue Ridge Mountains at Chester Gap to join Grant, Imboden proposed an audacious plan to Breckinridge, now under orders of Jefferson Davis and Lee to supervise the overall defense of western Virginia, to attack Cumberland, Maryland, and possibly threaten Grafton as well. When Sigel had not moved after two days, Imboden asked to confer with Breckinridge "on important matters." Fully convinced that a diversionary move would deflect a Union advance up the valley, he suggested undertaking an expedition into Hampshire County against the B&O. He believed this would force the federals to evacuate Winchester and asserted that if Breckinridge advanced into the lower valley, "we can clear this border in five days, destroy railroad, canal, and coal mines from New Creek to Martinsburg." Imboden argued that Sigel would have to withdraw from the town to protect the rail line. In a follow-up telegram later that day he reassuringly wrote, "Staunton will not be endangered by my proposal." But before any such decision could be made, Captain John McNeill on his own initiative struck the B&O at Piedmont. There the railroad had machine, paint, oil, and sand shops, roundhouses, and large stores of supplies. Poorly protected with the transfer of troops to reinforce General George C. Crook's and Sigel's columns, the depot becamehighly vulnerable to attack.2
Captain John Hanson "Hanse" McNeill, aware of the militarily exposed line, led sixty rangers from his base at Indian Old Field on the evening of May 3 and headed west toward Piedmont. McNeill and his partisan rangers had long been a scourge for federal attempts to control northeastern West Virginia and protect the main line of the railroad. Nearly forty-nine, he was, as Simeon Miller Bright describes him, "a brave, sharp-witted, kindhearted man." Robert E. Lee regarded him as "bold and intelligent," and he possessed the characteristics which soon made him a legendary raider in the region.
A native of Hardy County, McNeill was familiar with eastern West Virginia. In 1848, he had moved to Missouri, and with the outbreak of the Civil War he initially fought in General Sterling Price's army. Returning to Hardy in 1862, he went to Richmond to seek permission to organize a cavalry company. Receiving the necessary approval, he organized Company I under the nominal command of Colonel John Imboden in the First Regiment Virginia Partisan Rangers. Elected captain, he soon undertook a number of forays which became a bane for Union authorities and won praise from Southerners. A stunning raid shortly after the unit s organization earned McNeill and his twenty rangers considerable attention. They captured several pickets and a western Virginia Unionist legislator. In late October 1862, they were designated as Company E in the Eighteenth Virginia Cavalry, but in early 1863, they temporarily reverted to a semi-independent organization. However, McNeill began to organize a new command as an independent partisan unit, and by April of that year, he counted more than fifty-five troopers in his group. Despite pressure to abolish all such units, the Confederate Congress exempted McNeill's Rangers along with those of Lieutenant Colonel John Mosby from the repeal of the Partisan Ranger Act of February 1864. Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon preferred to retain them in that capacity.
In May 1864, as Sigel rested his army at Winchester, McNeill and Captain John T. Peerce, who was on detached duty and had agreed to join the expedition, led the rangers across Knobly Mountain at Doll's Gap and then the summit of the Allegheny by the Elk Garden road onto the Piedmont-Bloomington road. Reaching Bloomington, Maryland, at daybreak, they captured the town. Hardly before they had time to dismount, they heard the approach of a freight train and quickly seized it. Leaving Peerce and ten men to occupy the town and stop all eastbound trains, McNeill then detached the locomotive. With Lieutenant George Dolan and two others in the cab, a flag of truce on the engine's front, and a pistol to the head of the engineer, they drove the engine toward Piedmont, some one-and-one-half miles from Bloomington.
McNeill and his remaining men followed cautiously behind. Concealed by the heavy overgrowth of trees on each side of the track, they penetrated well into the town before they were discovered. He immediately demanded the town's surrender. After exchanging a few shots, the ten-man provost guard from the Sixth Virginia Infantry capitulated, and McNeill secured a major prize: seven railroad shops--including two roundhouses--nine locomotives, and twenty-two loaded freight cars. The machine and paint shops, plus the sand and oil houses were burned, while an engine house was partially wrecked. Within an hour the rangers destroyed property worth an estimated one-quarter to more than one million dollars. Before leaving, they tore up some two thousand feet of track. To add insult to injury, McNeill sent six locomotive engines at full steam down the rail line toward te federal garrison at New Creek. Several days later, Clifton M. Nichols, the editor of the Springfield, Ohio, Daily News who was traveling with the 152nd Ohio Regiment through Piedmont to New Creek, noted, "the sight of these ruins aided us to appreciate the fact that we were in an enemy's country."3
In Bloomington Peerce's men snared another freight. Before destroying the captured trains and their cargo, he allowed residents to take what they wanted. One local man informed him that a resident had escaped to Frankville, probably to telegraph Oakland, Maryland, of the raiders presence. He warned that an approaching eastbound mail and passenger train would be filled with soldiers. Skeptical, Peerce nevertheless prepared a trap. He placed his dismounted men along the track with their horses tied nearby for an easy escape, then he sent a conductor under guard up the line to flag down the train. When it arrived, consisting of baggage and mail cars and four coaches, the alarm "loaded with soldiers" was quickly raised.
Their appearance seriously complicated and potentially threatened McNeill's position. With troops undoubtedly marching from New Creek, thus blocking the eastern end of the narrow valley, and with soldiers on board the passenger train, barring the western end, the situation posed a potential trap for the rangers still at Piedmont. Peerce, having remained mounted, ordered his men to "mount your horses" as the train pulled into the station. With considerable bravado he approached the rear of the train and asked conductor Samuel Gill to point out the company's captain, then standing on the platform. Quickly pointing a pistol at the officer's breast, Peerce demanded his surrender and commanded him to order his men to disembark from the coaches without their weapons.
Meanwhile, Private Charles Watkins, riding along the other side of the train, constantly shouted orders, leading the Union soldiers to believe companies F and G were concealed nearby. The ruse worked. The Union captain reputedly exclaimed, "my God, it s hard to be gobbled up in this way, but I have no alternative; I have no ammunition." Without cartridges or cartouche boxes at hand, the soldiers surrendered. Unarmed, they filed out as prisoners. When the captain learned that the raiders consisted of only a small squad, he vented his rage in "the most tremendous oaths" and proclaimed "that had he known how few the rebels were he would have fought them with butts of guns." Peerce informed the passengers in the rear car, mostly women and including the wife of General Lew Wallace, commander of the Middle Department, and daughters of Ohio Congressman Robert Schenck, that they "were Southern soldiers, and that no lady need feel the slightest alarm in the hands of a Southern gentleman." With some one hundred soldiers to guard, he sent a ranger to McNeill, informing him of his prize and the lack of sufficient men to secure it. With a guard, Peerce marched the prisoners across the North Branch of the Potomac River to the West Virginia side. The remaining rangers destroyed any arms they did not keep and burned the train before crossing the Potomac themselves. An elated McNeill, with his men at full gallop, soon joined Peerce. Only the timely arrival of federal troops from New Creek saved an important bridge there from destruction.
The failure to cut promptly the telegraph wire at Piedmont alerted federal garrisons eastward to McNeill's presence. Earlier, a local Unionist, discovering the Confederate rangers, had dashed to New Creek with the news. Reaching the post at 5:00 a.m., his attempts to sound the alarm went unheeded. Only local railroad workers believed the warning, and they rapidly assembled a train with five cars to carry troops to Piedmont. Smoke in the distance finally underscored the Southern presence. Belatedly, Lieutenant Charles Bagley, with a Parrott gun from the First Illinois Light Artillery and a detachment of seventy-five men of the Twenty-third Illinois Infantry under Lieutenant Brown, left on foot to repulse McNeill. Despite the presence of the train readied for use, Bagley chose to march the distance. Later critics bitterly denounced Bagley's ndifference to the warning and accused him of incompetence. In addition, they charged that instead of using the train and thereby covering the distance in fifteen minutes, the lieutenant consumed "at least an hour and a half" by marching. A correspondent to the Baltimore American, present during the raid, demanded that "this certainly requires examination."
When Bagley reached the Bloomington vicinity, he positioned his gun on a bluff on the Maryland side overlooking the North Branch of the Potomac River and began firing at the Southerners. McNeill paroled Peerce's prisoners, finished destroying the trains, and then as Bagley's gun shelled them, the rangers slipped into the mountains to safety with some thirty-four horses belonging to Henry Gassaway Davis, who had purchased them for the government. Joseph Dixon, a local resident, helped guide their escape through the mountains for some eight to ten miles. Unwilling to pursue them, the federals merely watched them disappear. Except for two horses wounded by exploding shells, the Confederates sustained no casualties.4
The boldness of the raid surprised, embarrassed, and angered Union and West Virginia authorities. Surprised, Governor Arthur I. Boreman on the morning of May 5 wired Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton the news that Southern forces "are on the railroad at New Creek and Piedmont." An alarmed John W. Garrett, president of the B&O, on receiving the wire from Piedmont at 7:00 a.m. just prior to the line being cut, reported to the War Department that a force was marching on the town. He warned that unless troops were sent to aid Piedmont, "great destruction of railroad property and works will probably take place." He urged that the first available Ohio regiment should be sent immediately to protect the rail line. Garrett admonished, "rapidity of movement is probably vital to prevent great disasters." In a note of bitterness, he pointedly informed the secretary that during the previous week Sigel had been advised "of the great importance of Piedmont, with its extensive shops and machinery, and of the urgent necessity to protect, but a few or no troops were left in that vicinity."
Embarrassed, both General Henry Halleck and Stanton quickly responded to the requests of the governor and Garrett. Halleck authorized Boreman to utilize the Fourth West Virginia Infantry, if the unit was still available. Stanton wired Garrett that, having been advised by Governor John Brough on May 3 of their readiness, two Ohio regiments were being ordered to the line. However, by the evening of May 5, much of the destruction and details of the raid were known. Garrett, reporting the dispatch of a work force "to clear the wrecks," noted to Stanton that the Southern force had been small. He pointedly attributed their success to "the entire exposure of so extensive and important a point as Piedmont." Sigel did not escape his censure. Angered, the railroad president again expressed his fear that there were not enough troops in the region "to prevent great disaster." He reminded the general that "Piedmont, as we have heretofore advised you, is a point of greatest importance for working the road." With a sharp reminder he wrote, "I need not urge upon you the importance in the present necessity . . . to protect and preserve from destruction the work and structures of the company."
With considerable embarrassment, Garrett later discovered that Sigel had not received his warning before the general began his movement toward Winchester. Garrett, on April 28, alarmed at receiving a report which indicated most of the troops in that vicinity had been withdrawn, wired his cncern to W. P. Smith, master of transportation. He emphasized the importance of Piedmont and underscored "the management there being absolutely essential for the successful working of the road." He directed, "will you communicate with the General [Sigel] promptly upon the subject." Unfortunately, Smith delayed writing to Sigel for two days and then he mistakenly sent the dispatch to Cumberland. On May 7, an exasperated Garrett pointedly noted the blunder and called Smith's attention to the fact that he should have "known that General Sigel had come east," especially after having received a letter from him dated April 30 from Bunker Hill. Garrett charged that Smith's delay "may have proven the origin of the terrible disaster which the company has recently suffered." Now more conciliatory to Sigel, he believed that if the general had received Smith's letter promptly, he would have ordered "a force to protect Piedmont against such a raid."5
The sting of the disaster galvanized the War Department to take action. Without consulting Sigel, the department placed General Benjamin F. Kelley, who was then without a command and awaiting orders at Cumberland, in charge of the deployment of troops guarding the rail line from Wheeling to Monocacy Junction in Maryland. Since Sigel had just replaced Kelley as commander of the Department of West Virginia, Sigel and his friends regarded the move with great suspicion. A surprised Brigadier General Max von Weber at Harpers Ferry, a close associate of Sigel's from the German revolutionary days of 1848, wired his commander the news and the receipt of a telegram from Kelley assuming command of the railroad. Von Weber told Sigel that he intended to refuse "to give up the command without orders from you." In reply Sigel counseled caution. Since the order came through the secretary of war, "you have to accept it and act in accordance with it until further orders." Another informant, Ira Cole, fueled additional suspicions in Sigel's mind. By letter on May 8, Cole reminded Sigel "that Gen. Kelley and his faction would do all in their power to hurt you." Cole asserted that Kelley "has begun his work." Kelley also wanted his position clarified. He asked Halleck, "do I understand that I am to report direct to you?" Diplomatically the chief of staff replied that Kelley "remained under General Sigel's orders." Sigel, also wanting clarification, wired Kelley, who reassured him that the command was "not an independent one" but remained a part of the Department of West Virginia.6
Sigel ostensibly accepted "full responsibility" for Piedmont. Actually he had recognized the potential for a raid into West Virginia. A number of informants and politicians forewarned him. On March 27, Boreman had expressed his alarm over the excitement caused by draining troops from the mountain areas. He complained that it would "probably lead to an abandonment of a large valuable section of the State by many of our best and most loyal citizens." He informed Sigel that "it will be impossible for me to protect the country which you are about to evacuate." Von Weber alerted him on May 1 to expect an attack on Romney. While mollifying the concerns of West Virginia Representative Kellian V. Whaley over possible dangers to the state, Sigel attempted to reassure the congressman that the proposed movements in West Virginia "will protect the country between the Kanawha and the B&O railroad and if they are successful, will occupy a line of defense which will make raids & guerrilla warfare almost impossible in the interior." However, the general noted the inadequate nature of the forces in West Virginia, but shrewdly he added, "this is a matter for the Government to decide, and which is known to the authorities at Washington."
In the raid's aftermath, Sigel adopted the position that the incident became insignificant when compared to his achievement in concentrating his scattered units into "two little armies . . . now doing duty in the field." Further mitigating his responsibility, he pointed out to the adjutant general of the army in a message to be forwarded to Grant that he could not haveobeyed the order to consolidate his troops and at the same time ensured the safety of the railroad between Wheeling and Monocacy Junction. Sigel also noted that Governor Boreman was given "timely notice" of some three weeks to utilize the state militia in filling the void. Despite the governor's promises to do so, Sigel wrote, "I suppose he was not able to bring out the militia." Obviously stung by the raid, he expected to recoup from it by intercepting the raiders. Tragically, he decided to send a five hundred-man cavalry expedition, composed of men from the Twenty-second "Ringgold" Pennsylvania and the Fifteenth New York cavalries, under Colonel Jacob Higgins in an effort to catch McNeill. The detachment, he also hoped, would secure his right flank.7
Meanwhile, Southern scouts heard of McNeill's successful strike at Piedmont. On May 8, Imboden learned of Sigel's intent to capture the raider. Captain Bartlett at the signal station on top of Massanutten Mountain flashed the news that two cavalry detachments had left Winchester. He reported that one, incorrectly estimating it at one thousand, went westward on the Moorefield road toward North Mountain, while the other under Colonel William H. Boyd headed toward Front Royal and Chester Gap. Imboden interpreted the moves as an attempt to probe his flanks to determine if there were any units there that might threaten his army. The westward one especially interested him. Aware of Higgins's potential danger to McNeill, he wired Breckinridge that Sigel had sent a "[t]hirteen hundred Yankee cavalry" force to intercept him and that "McNeill's safety requires me to dash on his pursuers." Leaving Colonel George H. Smith of the Sixty-second Virginia in charge of his remaining troops at Woodstock, Imboden, with two regiments and a section of artillery, left his base around 4:00 p.m. on Sunday and quietly headed west through "Devil's Hole" pass to intercept the federals. Fearing that local Unionist informers might disclose his plan, he explained his absence by circulating a rumor that he was merely moving his camp five or six miles toward North Mountain to secure better grazing land.8
Ironically, Sigel's plan almost succeeded. Higgins caught up with McNeill at Moorefield. Unaware of the approaching federals, the rangers, after resting and allowing their horses to graze, had pulled out of the town just ahead of Higgins. Unfortunately for the colonel, Sergeant Hopkins Miffitt of Higgins's advance unit destroyed any element of surprise. He charged into town and fired on the lone remaining Southerner, only to sound the alarm of their presence. McNeill, more interested in saving his plunder than fighting, moved rapidly to escape, leaving a lieutenant and eleven men posted on Toll Gate Hill. As the galloping federals charged, the rangers fired a volley and then hastily fled by a different road. Riding more worn horses, several soon fell captive to the Old Ringgold Cavalry. Initially, Higgins intended to camp outside of Moorefield that night, but after receiving an exaggerated report that Imboden with "forty-five hundred men" was on his way to the town, he decided against it and started back toward Winchester by way of the gap at Lost River.9
There Imboden waited for his prey. Arriving before dawn, he learned the federals were at Moorefield and he shrewdly prepared to ambush them as they moved toward Wardensville. As they approached the gap, Higgins unexpectedly ran into pickets. Not realizing Southern strength, Captain James P. Hart and his Ringgold troopers charged. The Pennsylvanians, after pushing the Confederates back three times, suddenly found Imboden's entire forc lying in wait for them in a large bottom field. Lieutenant Colonel Charles O Ferrall and his Twenty-third Virginia Cavalry now charged. Overwhelmed, the Pennsylvanians hastily retreated on the Grassy Lick road toward Romney. As Sergeant John W. Elwood vividly remembered, "here began a ride for life." As the Southerners closely pursued them, the troopers attempted to retard them with rear-guard skirmishes. Private Aungier Dobbs later recalled, "we did check them at every point by making stands and firing back." Only their successful maneuverings under captains Hart and Chessrown saved them from capture.
Within five miles of Romney disaster nearly overtook the colonel. Imboden, successfully managing to get on Higgins s flank, struck with his main column and drove him through Romney and across the Potomac River at Green Spring. Without the train, the colonel finally reached Cumberland on the morning of May 12, "badly broken down." Meanwhile, the Southerners returned to Lost River. On the following day, they moved to Mathias to rest before returning to the valley. By the time Higgins's men reached Cumberland, Imboden, after a forced march, was back in the Shenandoah Valley late that night. The next morning at Mount Jackson he gleefully wired Breckinridge in Staunton, "I thrashed part of three regiments cavalry in Hardy yesterday, ran them twenty-four miles, killed 5, wounded a number, captured only 13, as they fled to the mountains."10
The disaster and rumors of another pending raid, this time against Beverly, caused considerable concern for the security of central West Virginia. Reports from refugees and deserters gave color to the fears. A worried Kelley hoped that Grant and Sigel s movements would "frustrate their plans." Yet he took the precaution of sending a section of John V. Keeper's Battery B, Light Artillery, detached from the First West Virginia Cavalry, to Beverly. He anxiously wired Captain Thayer Melvin, Sigel s assistant adjutant general, of the necessity in securing more cavalry: "We must kill, capture, or drive McNeill out the country before we can expect quiet or safety along line of road."
A report that Imboden intended to attack either Cumberland or New Creek quickly shifted Kelley's attention to his own immediate security. Relaying the news of Higgins's rout to Sigel, now at Cedar Creek, Kelley indicated that with the arrival of the 134th Ohio Militia he had no fear of defending Cumberland, but New Creek, unless another Ohio regiment arrived in time, was a different matter. Alarmed at that point's vulnerability, he sternly directed Colonel N. Wilkinson, "put your post in order for defense at once, and defend it at all hazards." He nevertheless reassured Sigel and the War Department that with the pending arrival of the Ohio unit at New Creek on May 11 both points would be safe. For the general's consideration he asked about the possibility of sending another force "toward Moorefield to cut these marauders off?"
A report from Higgins at Green Spring, indicating that Imboden had a force between two and three thousand, made Kelley increasingly apprehensive that he might attempt to operate in the Romney area. Kelley wired Halleck that if that happened, the Confederates could not only cut the telegraph and railroad lines, but they would "have flanked General Sigel and got in his rear." Fortunately, incoming intelligence soon lessened his fear of an attack on New Creek or Cumberland. More accurate figures downgraded Southern numbers to between one and two thousand and alleviated Kelley's immediate alarm. In replying to an offer of aid from von Weber, he struck a more confident mood. He told the general that if he were not attacked on the following morning, they "will fall back or go round me and to west of the mountain into West Virginia." Any assistance from von Weber, he responded, would not arrive in time. With the new assessment he asserted, "I think I can take care of myself."
By the following day Kelley knew the crisis was over. With a sense of relief, he informed Sigel of the Southern withdrawal and the arrival of the Ohio regiments. He assured the general that with thei arrival and "some effective cavalry I can protect the road and your supplies." To a query from J. B. Ford, the railroad agent at Wheeling, Kelley replied, "road and telegraph all safe. Send your trains as usual." He wired Halleck that all seemed to be quiet and the trains were running as scheduled.11
The raid netted the Confederates a number of successes. McNeill not only destroyed important rail and government properties at Piedmont but successfully jolted federal and state authorities. Worse, Sigel's attempt to trap McNeill failed badly. The re-assignment of five hundred troopers to Higgins, coupled with the detachment of three hundred troopers under Boyd, substantially weakened the cavalry component of his main column as he moved up the Shenandoah Valley toward New Market. Combined with Boyd's debacle on May 13, Sigel increasingly risked being destroyed. He would have cause to regret the loss of eight hundred cavalrymen on the day of the battle at New Market. McNeill's raid offered less success for the Confederates than Imboden had hoped for in disrupting federal plans. Optimistically, Imboden believed that if he could have remained in West Virginia, he could have taken Cumberland and forced the federals back to Martinsburg. More realistically, the diversion caused Sigel to become more cautious and gave Breckinridge additional time to consolidate his army at Staunton in preparing to confront Sigel at New Market on May 15.12
Grant, now general-in-chief of all Union armies, devised a plan of concerted movement on the Confederacy in the spring of 1864. No longer would federal armies operate independently of one another; he intended to apply pressure simultaneously on several points. In the Deep South, he charged General William Tecumseh Sherman to strike at General Joseph Johnston's army and drive toward Atlanta. In Virginia, Grant attached himself to the Army of the Potomac under General George Meade to supervise operations there. Meade s objective remained to defeat Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, but Grant added a new twist. In conjunction with the Army of the Potomac, he ordered Major General Benjamin Butler with the Army of the James to advance up the James River to attack Richmond's underbelly and cut the Confederate capital's supply lines at Petersburg. Meanwhile in western Virginia, he directed Major General Franz Sigel, commander of the Department of West Virginia, to undertake a pincer movement. Dividing the Army of West Virginia into three components, General George B. Crook's column in the Kanawha Valley struck toward the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad at Dublin, while General William Averell with some two thousand cavalry in a subsidiary raid drove toward Saltville and Wytheville in southwestern Virginia. Sigel led another column up the Shenandoah Valley to support Crook and Averell by threatening Staunton.
Grant intended to use the raids in western Virginia to cripple Lee by disrupting and destroying his support system. The region's rich mineral and agricultural resources, connected to the east by the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad, the Virginia Central Railroad, and the James River Canal, were of the utmost importance in sustaining the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee was well aware that the loss of western Virginia would portend grave consequences, and in January, he warned Richmond he considered the area s defense so important "to the successful conduct of the war" that he would reluctantly relinquish one of his own commanders to be sent there. In April, he expressed his anxiety over the paucity of supplies for his army and warned President Davis "any derangement in their arrival or disaster to the railroad would render it impossible for me to keep the rmy together, and might force a retreat into North Carolina." Previously, in late March, Lee had confided to Davis that "if an aggressive movement can be made in the West it will disconcert their plans and oblige them to conform to ours." A diversion in western Virginia, he believed, would help to deflect the potential there and alleviate federal pressure in Virginia. O. R., vol. 33, 1124, 1245, 1275.
2. O. R., vol. 37, pt. 1, 715-17, 722, 724; William N. McDonald, A History of the Laurel Brigade (Baltimore: Mrs. Kate S. McDonald/Sun Job Printing Office, 1907), 117-30; Boyd B. Stutler, West Virginia in the Civil War (Charleston: Education Foundation, 1966), 204-14; and George Ellis Moore, A Banner in the Hills: West Virginia s Statehood (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1963), chapter 18. For a discussion of the Jones-Imboden raid, see Festus P. Summers, "The Jones-Imboden Raid," West Virginia History 47(1988): 53-62.
3. Thirty-Eighth Annual Report of the President and Directors to the Stockholders of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Co. (Baltimore: n.p., ), 54; Baltimore American and Commercial Advertiser, 9 May 1864; Cincinnati Daily Commercial, 13 May 1864; Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, 7 and 9 May 1864; Rockingham Register in Lynchburg Virginian, 14 May 1864; Morgantown Weekly Post, 14 May 1864; Virgil Carrington Jones, Gray Ghosts and Rebel Raiders (1956; reprint, New York: Galahad Books, 1995), 233-36; Roger U. Delauter, Jr., McNeill's Rangers (Lynchburg, VA: H. E. Howard, 1986), 22, 25, 30-36, 63, 65-67; Robert White, "West Virginia" in Confederate Military History, ed. by Gen. Clement A. Evans (1899; reprint, Seacaucus, NJ: Blue & Grey Press, 1975), vol. 2, 116-21; O. R., vol. 37, pt. 1, 68-69; Simeon Miller Bright, "The McNeill Rangers: A Study in Confederate Guerrilla Warfare," West Virginia History 12(1951): 340-41, 353-56; O. R., vol. 33, 1067, quoted in Bright, "The McNeill Rangers," 341 and Clifton M. Nichols, A Summer Campaign in the Shenandoah Valley (Springfield, OH: New Era Co., 1899). Initial reports estimated property damage at two hundred thousand dollars. Repairs were begun immediately. Fires were extinguished and wreckage cleared from the track, although the heat of the burned trains briefly delayed clearing them until they cooled. By 3:00 p.m., John Garrett informed Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton that the line east of Piedmont was clear. On the following day, the road was again ready for use and the railroad announced trains would resume their regular schedule. John W. Garrett to E. M. Stanton, 5 May 1864 (1153), Letter Book 8, 207, John W. Garrett Papers, Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore, hereafter referred to as Garrett Papers; Thirty-Eighth Annual Report, 54-55; and Cincinnati Gazette, 6 and 7 May 1864.
4. O. R., vol. 38, pt. 1, 68-69; John Peerce, "Capture of a Railroad Train," Southern Bivouac (Louisville, KY: Southern Historical Association on Louisville, 1885-87), vol. 2, 352-55; Thirty-Eighth Annual Report, 54; Baltimore American, 9 May 1864; Cincinnati Daily Commercial, 13 May 1864; Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, 9-10 May 1864; [Cumberland, MD] The Alleganian, 10 May 1864; "McNeill Wrecks Piedmont Depot," Valley News Echo: Monthly Civil War Newspaper (Hagerstown, MD: Potomac Edison Co., 1965), vol. 5, no. 5, 2, 4; Hu Maxwell and H. L. Swisher, History of Hampshire County, West Virginia (1897; reprint, Parsons: McClain Printing, 1972), 667-68; Jones, Gray Ghosts, 236; Delauter, McNeill's Rangers, 66-67; and Bright, "The McNeill Rangers," 353-56. The federal gun's only damage was mistakenly inflicted on civilians when a shell hit a house sheltering a group of children, killing two and wounding five. "McNeill Wrecks Piedmont Depot," 4 and Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, 11 May 1864. A participant and correspondent to the Rockingham Register cited the death of one man. Lynchburg Virginian, 14 May 1864, quoted in Peerce, "Capture of a Railroad Train,353-54 and "McNeill Wrecks Piedmont Depot," 2, 4.
The Wheeling Daily Intelligencer of 10 May 1864 demanded that if the details of the capture of the soldiers were true, "then the officer in command of them should be instantly dismissed from the service." A correspondent to the Baltimore American charged that several individuals witnessed a mysterious horseman, who left New Creek "at full speed" after Bagley's men had been dispatched. They noticed that he stopped briefly at McNeill's outer picket, who joined him. They headed toward the next picket, then all three rode into town. Shortly thereafter, the horseman was seen heading back up the New Creek road, while McNeill withdrew toward Bloomington. The correspondent inferred that the rider warned the rangers of the approaching federals. He asked rhetorically not only "what was his business" but how the military would allow a "citizen to pass troops on such an expedition." Baltimore American, 9 May 1864 and Cincinnati Daily Commercial, 13 May 1864.
The next day an express train, which waited at New Creek for the line to clear, went to Bloomington to pick up the passengers and then returned. Thirty-Eighth Annual Report, 55.
5. O. R., vol. 37, pt. 1, 374-76, 381-83; John W. Garrett to E. M. Stanton, 5 May 1864 (1151), 203, Garrett to W. P. Smith, 28 April 1864 (1120), 182 and 7 May 1864 (1168), 221-22, Garrett to Sigel, 5 May 1864 (1152), 206, all in Letter Book 8, Garrett Papers. Garrett considered Piedmont "a point of the greatest importance with its costly and indispensable machinery for working the road." Garrett to L. C. Boehm, 5 May 1864 (1169), 203, in ibid.
6. O. R., vol. 37, pt, 1, 7, 395-96, 403, 408, 414, 421; Ira Cole to Sigel, 8 May 1864, Franz Sigel Papers, Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland, OH, hereafter referred to as Sigel Papers. Brigadier General Max von Weber served as a colonel under Sigel during the Baden revolt. When the revolution collapsed he fled to New York and ran a hotel. At the outset of the war he led the Twentieth New York Regiment. He served with distinction at Antietam where he was seriously wounded. In May 1864, he was assigned to Harpers Ferry. Ella Lonn, "The Forty-Eighters in the Civil War," in The Forty-Eighters: Political Refugees of the German Revolution of 1848, ed. by A. E. Zucker (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1950), 197-98 and Carl Wittke, Refugees of Revolution: The German Forty-Eighters in America (1952; reprint, Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1970), 64, 227.
Brigadier General Benjamin F. Kelley, a native of New Hampshire, moved to the Wheeling vicinity at the age of nineteen. In 1851, he became a freight agent for the B&O. Later transferred to Philadelphia, he returned to Wheeling at the outbreak of the war and organized the 1st (West) Virginia Regiment. He won recognition at the battle of Philippi and promotion to brigadier general. Wounded in the battle, he was assigned to head the Railroad Division to provide protection for the B&O. He was soon called back into active service and assigned to command the First Division of the Middle Department. In 1863, he became the head of the Department of West Virginia.
With limited troops and an extended rail line to protect Kelley came under severe criticism for his failure to secure the state against Confederate raids. Antagonists complained that the army in his department was inefficient. Dr. Alexander Neil of the Twelfth West Virginia Regiment succinctly noted to his family that "all along the Potomac and all along the Baltimore & Ohio Rail Road there is a feeling of uncertainty and insecurity which ought not to exist." Some critics called him "the Rebel Quartermaster." In addition, some questioned his family's loyalty. The Wellsburg Herald accused him of not being "severe enough with the home rebels," while the Point Pleasant Weekly Register charged that commanders should not only be of "undoubted loyalty themselves but also unembarrassed by disloyal family connexions."[sic]
However, plitics played a more important factor in his removal. A number of state legislators pressed for his replacement, but two other touchy political problems underscored his continuing tenure there. The German-American community exercised considerable power in the 1864 presidential election. Franz Sigel, a popular German-American general, was then on inactive status which posed a problem for the War Department. West Virginia legislators petitioned a receptive President Lincoln, who knew that such an appointment would be popular. Thus, the War Department assigned Sigel to command in West Virginia. Theodore F. Lang, Loyal West Virginia from 1861 to 1865 (Baltimore: Deutsch Publishing Co., 1895), 320-22; James Grant Wilson and John Fiske, eds.,Appleton's Cyclopaedia of American Biography (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1888), vol. 3, 504; Wellsburg Herald, 12 February 1864; Point Pleasant Weekly Register, 10 March 1864, quoted in Alexander Neil to Father and Mother, 28 February 1864, Alexander Neil Papers, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA; Stephen D. Engle, The Yankee Dutchman: The Life of Franz Sigel (Fayetteville: Univ. of Arkansas Press, 1993), 167-71; William C. Davis, The Battle of New Market (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1975), 7-10; and Cecil D. Eby, Jr., ed., A Virginia Yankee in the Civil War: The Diaries of David Hunter Strother (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1961), 213-14.
Obviously, Garrett did not fully agree with the negative criticism of Kelley. He supported the appointment and replied to a telegram from the general, "I look for excellent results in the protection of the road under your experienced and vigorous management." Garrett to Kelley, 7 May 1864 (1173), Letter Book 8, 226, Garrett Papers.
7. Gov. Arthur Boreman to Sigel, 29 April 1864, George G. Sifor to Rep. K. V. Whaley, 30 April 1864, Gen. Max Weber to Sigel, 1 May 1864, and Sigel to Adjutant General of the Army, 7 May 1864, all in Sigel Papers; O. R., vol. 30, 750, 812 and 37, pt. 1, 401-02; Cecil D. Eby, Jr., ed., "With Sigel at New Market: The Diary of Colonel D. H. Strother," Civil War History 6(March 1960): 77; Franz Sigel, "Sigel in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864," in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, ed. by Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Clough Buel (1887; reprint, New York: T. Yoseloff, 1956), vol. 4, 488; and William H. Beach, The First New York (Lincoln) Cavalry (New York: Lincoln Cavalry Assoc., 1902), 345. Boreman met with Sigel in early April and expressed his hope that the state adjutant general could organize a guard to protect the railroad. On 14 April, Boreman advised Sigel that other demands prevented him from doing so as yet. However, he promised to "make an effort as soon as possible, and inform you." O. R., vol. 33, 862.
8. O. R., vol. 37, pt. 1, 726; John D. Imboden, "The Battle of New Market, Va., May 15th, 1864," in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, 481; and Roger U. Delauter, Jr., 18th Virginia Cavalry (Lynchburg, VA: H. E. Howard, 1985), 17. Colonel William H. Boyd, after crossing the Blue Ridge Mountains at Ashby Gap and clashing with Mosby's men, returned to the valley through Manassas Gap. He then turned up the Page Valley to Luray where he captured considerable commissary and quartermaster supplies. Turning to the west on the New Market road, he crossed Massanutten Mountain. >From the mountain crest he could see troop encampments around New Market and a wagon train with a herd of cattle moving toward the town. He mistakenly assumed they were Sigel's men, and as his men descended the mountain, Imboden prepared to trap them at its base. Federal losses in terms of killed, wounded, and missing totaled over one hundred. For the men of the Eighteenth Virginia Cavalry, the captured horses were a welcome prize.
9. John W. Elwood, Elwood's Stories of the Old Ringgold Cavalry, 1847-1865 (Coal Center, PA: by the author, 1914), 187-88; Ralph Haas, Dear Esther: The Civil War Letters of Private Aungier Dobbs, ed. by Philip Ensley (Apollo, PA: Closson Press, 1991), 208-09; and Chauncey S. Norton, "The Red Neck Ties": History of the Fifteenth New York Volunteer Cavalry (Ithaca, NY: Journal Book and Job Printing House, 1891), 32.
10. O. R., vol. 37, pt. 1, 70-71, 421, 427-28, 430-31, 438; G. Julian Pratt to B. Allison Colonna, 19 November 1910, New Market Battle File, Virginia Military Institute, Lexington, VA; Col. Higgins to Stahel, 11 May 1864 (copy), Sigel Papers; New York Herald, 9 June 1864; Norton, "The Red Neck Ties," 32-33, quoted in Elwood, Old Ringgold Cavalry, 188-89; Haas, Dear Esther, 209-10; Imboden, "Battle of New Market," 481; Delauter, McNeill's Rangers, 68-69; and Delauter, 18th Virginia, 17. Later Sergeant John W. Elwood lamented, "why a man like this [Higgins] should command a body of troops, such as the Ringgold cavalry, will always be one of the queries of the private soldier." Elwood, Old Ringgold Cavalry, 190-91.
11. O. R., vol. 37, pt. 1, 70, 410, 414-15, 421, 424, 427-28, 430-31, 438-39 and Kelley to Sigel, 12 May 1864, Sigel Papers.
12. O. R., vol. 37, pt. 1, 732. With the news of Piedmont, Sigel, fearful of the potential dangers to his flanks, also sent out a cavalry detachment of three hundred troopers under Colonel William H. Boyd to secure his left flank. Boyd was ambushed by Imboden at Massanutten Mountain. For Boyd and his men the snare became a debacle. A pleased Imboden wired Breckinridge, "we pitched into him, cut him off from the roads, and drove him into the Massanutten Mountain." O. R., vol. 37, pt. 1, 73.
On 15 May at New Market, Sigel suffered a disastrous defeat by General John C. Breckinridge. As a political appointee with a mediocre military background, neither Grant nor General Henry Halleck had expected much from Sigel. The general-in-chief optimistically hoped that at least, as Lincoln expressed it, "those not skinning can hold a leg." New Market, however, proved otherwise. In the aftermath of the battle Halleck bitterly and sarcastically summed up Sigel's performance in a telegram to Grant: "[I]nstead of advancing on Staunton he is already in full retreat on Strasburg. If you expect anything from him you will be mistaken. He will do nothing but run. He never did anything else." In Washington, Stanton quickly proposed to replace him with General David Hunter, and on 18 May, Halleck telegraphed Grant that it would be done "if you desire it." The general-in-chief tersely replied, "by all means I would say appoint General Hunter, or anyone else, to the command of West Virginia." John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History (1890; reprint, New York: The Century Co., 1914), vol. 8, 347, n.1; Tyler Dennett, Lincoln and the Civil War in the Diaries and Letters of John Hay (1939; reprint, New York: DaCapa, 1988), 178-179; and O. R., vol. 36, pt. 2, 840-41 and vol. 37, pt. 1, 485, 492.
Lee's necessity in recalling Breckinridge with a sizeable portion of his forces to the Army of Northern Virginia left the Shenandoah Valley vulnerable to the federal army, which was licking its wounds at Cedar Creek. Hunter s appointment brought a new aggressiveness to the valley. His victory over General William "Grumble" Jones at Piedmont galvanized the army. For the first time Staunton fell to the federals. Now joined by General Crook s forces from West Virginia, Hunter attempted to carry out Grant's original plan in striking at Lynchburg. First moving and capturing Lexington and Buchanan, he then crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains at the Peaks of Otter to attack Lynchburg. After skirmishing and probing the city's defenses, now reinforced by General Jubal Early's Second Corps, Hunter decided to make a hurried retreat back into the safety of West Virginia.
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