West Virginia Legislative Hand Book
How General William H. Powell won the Congressional Medal at
Sinking Creek in the Civil War.
How General William H. Powell won the Congressional Medal at Sinking Creek in the Civil War.
This story is not intended for the Midland Trail series, but it got back there of its own accord, and it belongs to that place in the west of Greenbrier County, where there is a sign "Sinking Creek."
This history business is like tracking game in the woods. One impression among many others on a game trail may cause the hunter to pause and examine it and decide that there is big game afoot, that will be worth while to follow.
And there is another way to put it. In a distant county last summer I saw an aged lawyer and passed the time of day with him, and inquired how everything was with him. And he said that he was like the rest of his profession and subsisted on the crumbs that fell from the rich men's tables.
In making, up these chapters on West Virginia history, we have to depend upon fragmentary evidence and use the little odds and ends that have been preserved. It will not be that way in the future about the events that are happening every day, for there is a sufficient number of presses running in West Virginia to perpetuate them, but it is a question whether they will have the appeal that the traditions of a more primitive people have for their descendants.
What put me on inquiry in this instance was a medal awarded by Congress with this inscription: "The Congress to General William H. Powell, and 2nd West Virginia Cavalry Volunteers, Sinking Creek, Virginia, November 26,1862."
I had heard of Powell and knew that the 2nd was one of the biggest regiments of West Virginia, with the longest continued service of any troops of the Mountain State but I had never heard of any Sinking Creek affair and I went on a cold trail in an effort to run it down.
As I read the record the first name that it had was the 2nd Regiment Loyal Virginia Calvary [sic] which was the name when Governor Pierpont accepted their services in 1861 and mustered them in. Then after the State of West Virginia had been created and ratified by an act of Congress, the name was changed to the 2nd West Virginia Cavalry Volunteers. And if I am not very much mistaken it was a different regiment serving under the name of the Second West Virginia Mounted Infantry at Droop Mountain battle. That was the regiment that old soldiers say flinched on its way up Droop Mountain in a galling fire from Confederate riflemen, and were boosted back into line by the Tenth West Virginia Volunteer Infantry, under General T. M. Harris. They topped the mountain and were in at the victory, but that is only whispered, and there is no doubt that they reached the top and did all that was required of them.
The Second West Virginia Cavalry were mustered into service at Parkersburg and for four years were busy practically all of the time on Virginia soil. The first winter saw them with Col. James A. Garfield in Kentucky. They were here, there, and everywhere in the mountains.
In 1862, Lightburn commanded the Kanawha Division, with headquarters at Charleston, and on September 13, 1862, artillery was placed on the south side of the Kanawha, by the Confederates, and all day long the Federal Army was bombarded. Lightburn moved out with all bags and baggage from Charleston and never rested until he had nearly all of his army in Ohio. It was not on account of the cannonade, but because there was word that Loring was advancing with a vastly superior force against him.
The Second always prided itself on the fact that it did not quite cross the Ohio River. This was the occasion that Loring of the Confederates marched his army east and Lightburn marched his army west, each day widening the gap between them. Both thought discussion was the better part of valor and did not fight. When Loring got to Lewisburg, Echols took over his command and hurried the army back over the Midland Trail, but in the meantime the Federals came back and never after that gave up the Kanawha Valley. Loring's move is supposed to have been caused by an order from Richmond to come there, and that Loring thought it was an order to bring his army, when the order meant for Loring to report in person and leave his army to hold Charleston.
The Second had three colonels during its fighting years. Colonel William Bolles resigned June 25, 1862. Colonel John C. Paxton served nearly a year with signal success, but when he fell in with Edgar's Battalion on the Midland Trail near Tuckwiler Hill and lost a fight he was dismissed from the service May 7, 1863. And on May 18, Colonel William H. Powell was promoted and took the regiment over until October 19, 1864, when he was promoted to brigadier general. He was the hero of the regiment.
He was born in Wales and at the age of five years was brought to the United States. The family lived in Tennessee and Powell took up the profession of mechanical engineer and at the age of twenty-five years he was employed to superintend the erection of a large plant near Wheeling known as the Benwood Iron and Nail Works, and from that time until the breaking out of the Civil War, found him engaged in some capacity or other in iron works in the Ohio River towns along the western border of Virginia.
In 1861, he recruited a company attached to and made a part of the Second, with Powell with the rank of captain. From the very first he made good as a commanding officer. He was promoted to major the first year of the war. The second year to lieutenant colonel. The third year to colonel. The fourth year to general. He was a steady fighter.
In 1863 he was captured at Wytheville, and he was confined in Libby Prison for thirty-seven days. Libby Prison was no first-class boarding house at the best and it is said that Col. Powell was given cruel and unusual treatment, even for that noted resort. It is said that he was confined in a cell in the basement, and that in that cell was no bed or bunk. The only food was corn bread, and his water supply was limited to one bucketful a week which was delivered to him in his dungeon on Sunday mornings. This had to last a week for drinking and washing. It soon became apparent that the Federal government was anxious to get him back and made many efforts to exchange him which were without avail until they offered Col. Richard Henry Lee, who was at Johnson Island, and that offer was accepted, and the exchange was effected. He was given a great reception by the people of Ironton, who presented him with a gold watch, a horse and equipment, a sword, and two revolvers.
In browsing through the dispatches printed in some one hundred and thirty-nine great volumes by the government, I think I ran on the reason that Powell had such a hard time at Libby. There was a dispatch from the Confederate general, Sam Jones, notifying the war office at Richmond not to exchange Powell for the reason that a soldier had informed the general that Powell had made an assault upon the soldier without cause, and that Powell was a dangerous man. Putting these things together it is a reasonable conjecture that there were special instructions issued both as to his exchange and treatment.
And as I searched through the records I came on some allusions to Sinking Creek and it became apparent that it was in sight of Cold Knob. Now Cold Knob is one of the high points in West Virginia mountains, and at first I could not tell whether it was on the Nicholas County side or in Greenbrier, but it must be in Greenbrier for there is where the big lime is and there is where the streams find the underground passages that cause them to be called sinking creeks.
About that time I had a business trip to make to Greenbrier County to have a conference with a lady who wanted to borrow enough to pay all her debts, and there I had no trouble to locate Sinking Creek. It heads in the forests to the southwest of Cold Knob, between the post office of Trout Valley and the town of Williamsburg, in what is called Sinking Creek Valley. It flows about half a mile west of Williamsburg, and about a mile farther down it passes under a natural bridge. It sinks at the Midland Trail on the Dick Watts farm about twelve miles west of Lewisburg. It comes to the surface again at Pierces Mill and empties into Muddy Creek which flows into Greenbrier River near Alderson.
Lightburn was criticized for abandoning the Kanawha Valley and he was relieved by General Gilmore, who assembled the army at Point Pleasant, and in a few days General Milroy took over the command, and a few days after that, General Cox came and made up the army and marched them back to Charleston.
Here he prepared to go into winter quarters and the Second was ordered into winter quarters at Fort Piatt twelve miles up the Kanawha River east of Charleston. This was in the last week in October, 1862. Then Crook took them over.
On November 23, 1862, the Gray Fox issued his special order at Charleston, to Col. John C. Paxton, commanding the Second Loyal Virginia Cavalry, to take all his serviceable men on the 24th to Cold Knob, in Greenbrier County, by the way of the Summersville and Lewisburg turnpike, leaving the Kanawha River at Cannelton. On Cold Knob they would overtake Col. P. H. McLane, commanding the Eleventh Ohio Infantry, which had been ordered to that point to reinforce the Second. From that position they were to proceed against the Fourteenth Rebel Virginia Cavalry in winter quarters in Sinking Creek Valley recruiting. Break up the organization if possible.
The Second must have been in prime condition both as to horses and men for they left early in the morning and rode through to Summersville, a distance of sixty miles, over rough roads by supper time. That night they camped at Summersville. They broke camp early on the morning of the 25th and rode towards Cold Knob, when it came on to snow and it was the beginning of one of the biggest snow storms ever in these mountains. The regiment was riding towards the uplands and the farther it went the worse the storm came on. In the smother of the storm they came upon a squad of Confederate cavalry and invited them to accompany them, which invitation was accepted. About mid afternoon somewhere in the tall timbers they halted to eat a bite and feed their horses and regard the blinding snow storm. Taking to the road again they forged ahead and somewhere between Summersville and the top of the mountain they made a bivouac for the night and got what comfort they could in the open in a snow storm. The next morning they broke the road and got to the top of a mountain. Now Cold Knob proper is a pinnacle in the Appalachians 4,318 feet high set opposite Grassy Knob, which is 4,390 feet. Between these two knobs the road tops the upland and passes them. These knobs form the gateway where the road begins to descend into Trout Valley, but to the west the road maintains its average altitude of four thousand feet for many miles. The man who goes over it first naturally expects a road that climbs a mountain to descend on the other side, but this is not so of the road between the railway station at Renick and the city of Richwood. About half the way between those points is in the clouds and the road followed one crest after another, until the weary and perplexed stranger to the route begins to think that he has traveled a hundred miles on the ridgepole of the world.
In the summer time it is a pleasure to dwell in these highlands. There the traveler feels the exhilaration of height. A man who has never been four thousand feet up in the air is in the position of one who has never really breathed. But in the winter in a two-foot snow it is very different and very terrifying. It is no fit place to take your pleasure.
Colonel McLane's infantry had duly arrived and had been loitering along the primrose path of dalliance among the splendid cold springs of that high level. But when it came on to snow so fast and furious and the snow got so deep under foot, McLane decided to call the expedition off and they gathered their belongings together and as the Second with its fine horses and gallant men topped the rise, they met the Ohio troops going out and as they were allowed to depart in peace it is easy to be seen that the expedition was postponed until more suitable weather. The official dispatches do not read that way. Col. Paxton makes it appear that he allowed the Ohio troops to return to the lowlands, while the Second went on to give battle to the army. But it is safe to say that this report was not written until after Powell and his squad had pulled off their psychological exploit and had received the surrender of the Confederate regiment.
There are some things that do not fit in together. It is certain that a squad of twenty-two men took the Confederate regiment and came back with as many as twenty-two could drive without losing any. But I will never believe that the commander of the Second Regiment had any intention of attacking the Confederate's camp in the lowlands until after the Cold Knob road was open and free from snow. Technically the Second certainly did overcome and take prisoners the Fourteenth Virginia Confederates, but the Ohio regiment had been sent back to Summersville, and ninety per cent of the Second never did get near the camp of the Confederates. So handicapped was the squad that out of upwards of a thousand men that they surrounded, they got back to their regiment with but one hundred and eleven, as the official dispatch puts it. It does not say anything about the hundreds that simply spilled out of the hands of those twenty-two soldiers who had taken more prisoners than they could drive up the mountain towards a Federal prison.
I asked a lot of people in Greenbrier County about the Sinking Creek affair and I did not find but one person who had any knowledge of the occurrence, and that was James McClung, who pays attention to history. "Yes," he said, "they captured Uncle Sam Tyree there that day hut he escaped." And I really think that about four-fifths of the prisoners either walked away or were excused.
It appears that while the Second lingered on the dreadful miles that lie along the top, that Major Wm. H. Powell and Lieutenant Jeremiah Davidson and twenty men rode on to the end of the road to the place where it pitches over the side lying next to the Greenbrier River, From this point the road descends rapidly until the fringe of the timber is reached, and from there a magnificent view of the Sinking Creek Valley en one hand is to be had, while on the other side and immediately before the observer lies the equally beautiful Trout Valley. These valleys in the summer time with their rich blue grass farms present a very lovely landscape view. The traveler on the Seneca Trail passing through Frankfort does not realize that beyond the hills to the west such peerless valleys exist. And they have a high altitude of twenty-five hundred feet and more, and frost is no joking matter there any time in the summer.
While the blue-clad soldiers sat on their horses and gazed at the camp of their enemies silent upon the peaks of West Augusta, Powell spoke up and made a dare-devil proposition, that if the men agreed, they would simply ride down to that camp and arrest every one of the Confederate soldiers.
They were many miles from their command. The snow was deep and the day was bitterly cold. As they watched they saw two Confederate scouts pass beneath them and ride into the camp, slow and deliberate, showing that there was no intimation that the camp was about to be attacked.
Something went through that body of men that caused them to agree to Powell's proposition and the little squad came out of the timber and rode into camp, and when they had arrived there they called for the head man and assured him that if the Fourteenth would submit to superior force and surrender, they would be treated with consideration, and their lives spared, and that they would be protected from all harm and injury. And just as the sheriff in the play induces the bad men to give up their guns, so did the Fourteenth lay down its arms and agree to go home with the Federal troops.
I looked for a long time to find a report from the Confederate commanding officer concerning this act of more than Christian humility, but not a word could I find anywhere, and I wonder if any report ever did go into Richmond about it.
And I could see a glimmer of light as to what happened when the twenty-two soldiers tried to round up a regiment and drive them up the mountain. Right then is where the private soldier in the long line would take to the brush and make his way to the Big Levels of Greenbrier County where practically every home was supporting the southern cause. And that is the reason that by the time they joined the main command, but a hundred and eleven prisoners remained of the great herd they had started with.
The Gray Fox appreciated it, and from that time on Powell's advancement was rapid, and the Gray Fox did not forget the day. In 1889 when he had attained the rank of major general in the army, and was about ready to depart from this world, he wrote to Congress about it and Congress had the medal struck, and given to General Powell who had moved to Indiana and was still making iron. Crook said that he regarded the Sinking Creek bloodless battle as one of the most daring, brilliant, and successful expeditions of the whole war.
Years after Owen Wister wrote a story called "The General's Bluff," about a similar victory won by the Gray Fox with a handful of men against a great force of Indians.