Battle of Bulltown

The West Virginia Review
June 1933
254-56


The Battle of Bulltown

By Roy Bird Cook

The motorist driving along the present State Route 19, about twelve miles northeast of Sutton, in the county of Braxton, suddenly sweeps up to a hilltop, presenting below a panorama of great beauty. To the northwest along the Little Kanawha River lay the gentle rolling lands marked here and there by a farm house. Below in a grove of native trees sets the home of a "country doctor," sometime teacher of a small boy who in later years, now writes these hurried notes. He is beloved for miles by the people among whom he has spent a long and useful life. To the right around a bend in the road is the little village of Bulltown, today little more than a store, a residence or two, an old covered bridge and the "village blacksmith." Across on the north shore of the Little Kanawha River rises an abrupt plateau on which to this day can be discerned the scars on the surface of the earth made by men who wore the Blue in the days of the Civil War. This little village is famous for two things; one an Indian massacre, a blot on the story of the white pioneers of Western Virginia, and the other the fact that it is the site of the "battle of Bulltown," fought on October 13, 1863.

It is not out of place to mention first the origin of the name, and the initial' episode in which the community figures. Captain Bull, a noted Indian chief lived in Boone County, New York. He was a prime mover in the attempt to alienate the Delaware Indians from their English affiliations. As a result he and some of his tribe were arrested and taken to New York City. In 1768 Captain Bull and four other Indians, with their families, came to Western Virginia and established a little village at the "Salt Licks," at the present location of Bulltown. Here they lived in peace with the whites and engaged in the manufacture and sale of salt. In June, 1772, the family of Adam Stroud that lived on Gauley River was killed by a roving band of Shawnees from the Ohio. Five Indian haters from the settlement at Buckhannon, stole forth and in cold blood killed these peaceful Indians, threw their bodies into the Little Kanawha River and destroyed the village. White men, in time, took up the same location and a new Bulltown arose.

To this point in early days, rode men over primitive trails in quest of salt. Early road orders show when and by whom "trails" were blazed through the forest to this place. Then came the building of the old Weston and Gauley Turnpike, which brought new life to the interior, and occupied a most important place in the military operations in Western Virginia during the Civil War. In 1863, the old road reached out from the Balt[i]more and Ohio Railroad at Clarksburg to the south. Passing through Weston it followed the West Fork of the Monongahela to the village of Jacksonville, at that time a most important spot. It then crossed the divide by way of "Imboden's Mountain" to the waters of Knawls Creek, and thence to Millstone Run. The road reached the Little Kanawha River at the mouth of this stream, at an elevation of seven hundred and seventy-seven feet. Here the road changed sharply to the northwest, followed a narrow bench along the north side and crossed the river by means of a covered bridge, built in 1854. After following the south bank for a short distance, it ascended a hill to an elevation of ten hundred and thirty-seven feet, a little later, passed through Wine Gap, crossed Salt Lick Run through another covered bridge, and went on its way to Sutton and Gauley Bridge.

This road formed a "backway" along the western front of the Confederacy. The junction of Millstone Run with the Little Kanawha created a sharp triangle. The hill to the north rose abruptly about three hundred feet to a bench and back of this to an elevation of eleven hundred feet. The river makes a bend below the site of Bulltown. Two and one-half miles above is located the noted falls of the Little Kanawha and a deserted river channel. Here stood an old mill deriving power from the falls. From the falls across a "neck" it is a mile and one-half to Bulltown. A trail led over this bend from a small stream called Laurel Run. On the south side of the river, the hills rise by a series of terraces to a height of twelve hundred feet. This location was later occupied by the Confederates. The heights to the north were on the farm of Moses Cunningham. It was a very strategic point, as it controlled the road and bridge.

Early in the war the Federals had thrown up breastworks and erected some log cabins. This was called "the fort." Below on the river "bench" stood the village of Bulltown, the location being about twelve miles northeast of Sutton, fifteen miles south of Weston, and eight miles from Jacksonville; all occupied at the time by Federal troops. The town itself embraced several houses, and about one hundred feet above the bridge stood the salt works. The names of Haymond, Byrne, Lorentz, Cozad, Hurley, White, Cunningham, Lockard, McLaughlin, Berry and others, are very prominent in connection with this location about this period.

In 1863, a force of five thousand Confederates crossed the Alleghenies on a raid to destroy the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and to try to penetrate to the Ohio River. The north wing was commanded by General William E. Jones and the south wing by General John D. Imboden, whose parents lived on "Imboden Mountain" a few miles from Bulltown. The Federal government, much perturbed at the ease with which General B. S. Roberts, and others permitted this, sent General W. W. Averell to take command of affairs in Western Virginia. He appeared at Weston, assumed command, and late in June drove Colonel (General) William L. Jackson and his command away from Beverly back into the Greenbrier Valley. Federal troops were shifted along the turnpike between Clarksburg and Gauley Bridge. Two companies of the Sixth West Virginia Infantry, and part of the Eleventh West Virginia Infantry, commanded by Captain William H. Mattingly, of Company G, (6th) marched out of Weston and occupied "Fort Bulltown." The detachment comprised seven officers and one hundred seventeen men. Lumber was brought down from Falls Mill and several more ''huts" erected. Nothing of importance happened until September 30th, when Enos B. Cooper, of Company I, was killed in a distressing accident.

The month of October opened with little activity. Now and then a Confederate scout was reported along the road. About the 10th, some one started here and there to destroy the telegraph line than ran from Weston to Sutton. George Ross, in his little office near the Second Street Bridge in Weston, had frequent interruptions to the service. On the morning of the 12th, a detail from Company G under Captain H. C. Ransom, rode out of Weston to make repairs. They worked as far south as Jacksonville and checked stations at Crowells, Conrads (now Roanoke) and at other places. Trouble still continued. In the meantime, however, Colonel William L. Jackson had set out from the Greenbrier Valley in an effort to capture Bulltown and cut Federal communications with the Kanawha Valley. It was a dangerous undertaking, through an almost impassable wilderness. He followed the "Cold Knob Trail" to the upper waters of the Elk and then crossed by the way of Holly River to the Little Kanawha. He had in his command seven hundred infantry, seventy-five cavalry, and two pieces of artillery. It is difficult to define his regular organization. The nearest report available shows that he had the Nineteenth Cavalry, under Lt. Col. W. P. Thompson; the Twentieth Virginia Cavalry, or part of it, under Col. W. W. Arnett; a detachment of six companies of infantry; and the Virginia Battery, under Captain Warren S. Lurty, of Clarksburg. This battery was composed of two twelve-pound howitzers. Prominent among the captains were George Downs, J. W. Marshall and John S. Sprigg, all of the Nineteenth. It is not clear that all of this organization participated in the affair at Bulltown, but the expedition was drawn from these groups. The artillery is generally understood to have been smaller or at least small enough to be dismounted and carried on mules.

Reaching the Little Kanawha at Falls Mills on the evening of the 12th, Colonel Jackson planned to divide his command in two detachments and converge upon the Federal fortifications at daybreak. They knew the Federals had no artillery at the time, although a six-pound field piece was sent out from Weston a few days later. Major J. M. Kessler was placed in command of the north wing and was to march across the narrow neck of land to Millstone Run and attack from the northeast. Jackson and W. P. Thompson were to come in from the southwest and take up a position on the opposite side of the river. Both were then to charge with the firing of the first shell from the "Jackass" battery, as it was called, from the fact that the guns were carried in on mules. The plans, for some reason, miscarried. Kessler arrived first and did not wait for Jackson. He proceeded about 4:30 A. M., reported Mattingly, "to charge our fortifications on the northeast side." We fell back to our main fortifications. They pursued us until within a few yards of our fortifications when we poured it into them strong and repulsed them successfully. When Jackson finally did arrive, he took up a position on the elevation on the opposite side of the river, which he held throughout the engagement. At 8:00 A. M. from "Headquarters within our entrenchments" he sent a note to Mattingly in which he set forth that "my forces have now entirely surrounded you, is very largely superior to yours and it is useless for you to contend." Mattingly records that he replied to Jackson "to come and take us."

The engagement continued with neither side gaining any advantage but the Federals held the fort. In one of the log huts was a small pet bear and a detachment of Confederates made a determined effort to capture this particular part of the post. Captain John Sprigg, of the Confederates, mounted on a handsome white horse rode out in the main road. This drew forth a shower of shots, few of which had any effect. Late in the afternoon, a musket ball struck Captain Mattingly in the leg, breaking the thigh bone. Command then fell to Captain (Major) James L. Simpson of Company C, Eleventh Infantry. About three o'clock a flag of truce disclosed another command to surrender, which was again refused and the engagement continued. Mattingly wired Weston and Clarksburg "to send reinforcements and ammunition" and "send by all possible dispatch a surgeon; send best you can." He further reported that the Federals had sent back to the Confederate lines "nine of their killed," partly an error, "and had also captured one lieutenant and one private." The engagement continued until about 4:30 P. M. The firing of the artillery was heard plainly as far as Jacksonville, a distance of eight miles. Late in the evening Jackson and his command retreated south, and encamped for the night at Salt Lick Bridge, five miles distant. At the same time, just about dark, folks gathered at the junction of the road in Jacksonville and watched Major C. F. Howes with a battalion of the Fourth (W) Virginia Cavalry ride out the "pike" on his way to the relief of the garrison. On the morning of the 14th, this detachment pursued the Confederates and met them at Salt Lick Bridge. The Confederates took position behind a stone wall and a short skirmish took place. Additional forces from Buckhannon under Major Gibson of Averells' command now arrived and the Confederates in some confusion retreated. A battalion of the Second (W) Virginia Volunteer Mounted Infantry was sent toward Addison, now Webster Springs, but did not catch up with Jackson's command. On the 15th, General B. F. Kelley, at Clarksburg, wired General Ephraim Scammon, at Charleston, that Jackson was retreating up "Bryants Fork of the Little Kanawha" and had lost "thirteen killed and sixty wounded," in the attack on Bulltown, which was an exaggeration. "Our loss," he reported, "was trifling. Our men were covered by breastworks."

The request for a surgeon reached Weston late at night. Dr. E. D. Stafford, the post surgeon of the Sixth Infantry had gone to Clarksburg. Dr. Thomas Bland Camden, accompanied by Frank Chalfant, a druggist at Weston, set out on horseback for Bulltown, arriving just before noon on the 14th. The firing at Salt Lick Bridge could still be heard. From Dr. Camden's report we find that no one was killed on the Federal side, but John McGilton was reported as "missing in action." William D. Wells, Company A, Sixth Infantry; S. Trowbridge, Company I, a boy of eighteen; S. V. Ayers, Laban J. Bennett, and S. S. Stalnaker, of the Eleventh Regiment were made prisoners. Captain Mattingly's wound did not prove as serious as at first reported. The ball was removed from his leg, but it left him lame the remainder of his life. In later years he became Sheriff of Wood County. Lieutenant J. Holt was shot in one shoulder but recovered.

On the Confederate side, seven men were killed. "Ben Schoonova from the Sand Fork of the Little Kanawha," reported Dr. Camden, "was shot from near a half mile, the femoral artery was cut and he bled to death, but could have been saved had the services of a surgeon been available." All of the dead were buried on the battlefield. In 1889, some kind-hearted person had the bodies removed to a farm on the west side of the river where they were buried in one grave, and a cut stone wall placed about it.

Six or more Confederates were wounded. Allen J. Wells, a private, who was wounded early in the action died during the retreat and was buried on Big Run three miles from Bulltown. John Sumpter had a leg broken and was cared for at the home of Moses Cunningham, on whose farm most of the battle took place. The Cunningham home, a large log house, is still standing and is occupied by members of this family. It bears many scars, and more than one bullet hole show evidence of the struggle.

Moses Cunningham who then lived in it was an unusual character. Dr. Camden records that he ran out and "hurrahed for Jeff Davis and a soldier shot him in the back. I dressed his wound; he recovered and became more careful in his cheering." Others assert that the Federals made him prisoner, marched him up along the hillside and then notified him that he was to be shot. He said he wished to make a statement and the desire was granted. In a loud voice, which could be heard above the intermittent firing he called out, "Hark the tomb, a doleful sound, my ears attend the cries; Ye living men come view the ground where you dó Yankees must shortly lie."

Lieutenant William Norris, badly wounded, was cared for at the home of John Lorentz, who lived at the south end of the bridge. William Benson, with a shattered leg, was taken to the home of P. B. Berry. Others whose names are unknown were taken to the home of Colonel Addison McLaughlin at the salt works. Practically all of the wounded men were later taken to Weston as prisoners of war. A great deal of local tradition has been handed down about this battle. Many romantic stories are told of a Confederate, mounted on a white horse, who rode out, cheered the men on, and then disappeared. It is also said that Jackson's command ran into a distillery before they arrived at Bull- town. Further, that at one time the Federals actually surrendered, but the Confederates did not know it.

After it became evident that Jackson and his command had escaped to the waters of the Greenbrier, Major Howes and his battalion marched back to the post at Weston. As they passed down the main street the men were singing a song composed by one of the group, and it ended with a humorous chorus:

"Jackson he was drinking, and Thompson was drinking too,
And Kessler was not sober, so the Yankees put them through."

Such was the attitude of the men in the Federal ranks that came through the "battle" without injury. It is true, of course, that this view might have been prompted by jealousy in connection with the alleged refreshments. It is only fair, however, to state that this part of the story is subject to some revision. The Federals called Jackson, General "Mudwall," to distinguish him from his brilliant cousin, "Stonewall" Jackson. Jackson was a very able man and soldier. He was born at Clarksburg, but at the outbreak of the war he was living in Parkersburg. He served as Circuit Judge and Lieutenant Governor of Virginia. His services in the army led to a. commission as brigadier general. After the war he sold his home in Parkersburg to Dr. Camden, the attending surgeon at Bulltown, and removed to Louisville, Kentucky, where he achieved distinction as a jurist. Thompson was from Wheeling but at the outbreak of the war was a young lawyer of Fairmont. He organized the "Marion Greys" which became part of the 31st Virginia Infantry. During the war he rose to the rank of colonel and subsequently became vice president of the Standard Oil Company and head of the National Lead Company. Arnett became a well known lawyer of Wheeling. Others served in various ways their state and the nation. It was no unusual thing in later years, in the city of Parkersburg to see several of the one time "enemies" gathered in a group reciting the experiences on the battlefields from Bulltown to Gettysburg and Appomattox.

The "Battle of Bulltown," was a a small affair measured by the standards applied to Antietam or Vicksburg, but it was an important engagement in the military annals of West Virginia. Had the Confederates succeeded in cutting the line of communication between the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and the Great Kanawha Valley, the history of the war in West Virginia might have undergone several changes. The "front" would have been pushed back to Glenville which was the next river crossing of importance that boasted of a road. Today the visitor finds little to remind him of the October days of 1863. But one can wander through the old entrenchments, covered with undergrowth and fancy still the shrill shriek of round shot from the artillery and the whistle of "minie" balls. All around are now evidence of peace. The motorist that goes swiftly by knows little of the communion of spirits of the Blue and Gray that gather when the shadows of the evening fall along the waters of the Little Kanawha.


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