Monday, June 4, 2012

Civil War: The Union Invades Giles County, 1862

During the first year of the Civil War it became clear that the conflict would not be the brief, glorious fight that many on both sides had predicted.   It soon began to take a grim toll on both soldiers and civilians, and the Union found itself unable to defeat the rebel army.  Those first twelve months saw a humiliating rout at Manassas, followed by a costly victory at Shiloh, and the failure of the Peninsula Campaign to capture the Confederate capital at Richmond.

Federal forces were somewhat more successful in western Virginia, where unionist sympathies ran high.  During the winter of 1861-62 President Lincoln and his generals devised a plan to invade Southwest Virginia, capture its lead and salt mines and destroy the strategically important Virginia & Tennessee Railroad.  The railroad was part of a vital transportation network that kept the South – and the capital of Richmond – supplied with salt, munitions, food and other crucial supplies.

By the spring of 1862 Federal troops occupied almost all of what is now West Virginia, and had reached Raleigh Courthouse (now Beckley, West Virginia).  Stationed at Raleigh Courthouse was the Twenty-third Ohio Volunteer Infantry, commanded by future U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes.

A 38-year-old Harvard-educated lawyer with no military experience before the war, Hayes had already proved himself to be a daring, ambitious leader much-admired by his troops.  Among the men of the 23rd Ohio was a newly-promoted commissary sergeant, William McKinley.  A brash and spirited 19-year old, McKinley would also become President of the United States.

As part of the overall invasion plan, Union General Jacob Cox was ordered to lead two brigades up the New River, through the Narrows and Giles Court House (Pearisburg) and on to Central Depot (Radford.) The goal was to burn the covered wooden railway bridge across the New River near Central Depot.

Occupation of Pearisburg

By the 1st of May, Cox’s division had fought its way to Princeton, which was engulfed in flames on orders of the retreating Confederate commander.  Lt. Col. Hayes pushed forward into Giles County with 600 men of the 23rd Ohio.  By May 6 Hayes had passed through the undefended Narrows of the New River, occupied Pearisburg and encamped on high ground just south of the town at the base of Angel’s Rest mountain.

Hayes wrote of his first impressions: This is a lovely spot, a fine, clean village, most beautiful and romantic surrounding country, and polite and educated Secesh people…I find more intelligence and culture here than anywhere else in Virginia.

Private E. E. Henry, was also taken with the village and its surroundings: In the beautiful town of Pearisburg a mountain is near, called Angel's Rest.  The fields are full of grass, clover, and bumble bees humming around.”

Henry goes on to describe the occupation of Pearisburg as something akin to a schoolboy caper:

We capture Confederate money, our expert penmen sign the new bills…. We buy palm leaf hats, sorghum, hams, bacon, everything to suit our fancy; go the hotel, look over the register, and sign our names, order dinner, call ourselves Colonels and Generals.  The rebel citizens do not seem to know that we are high privates.  We eat and give toasts, make speeches to the delight of the servants, and then march out as though we owned the hotel. The storekeepers are jolly, saying, "Have a good time boys, General Lee will not allow you to stay but a few days."  This is the biggest picnic we have had since enlistment. Whenever the band plays "Dixie", the whole town throws open windows and waves aprons and 'kerchiefs.

Another soldier, Private John Ellen, took a dimmer view of the citizenry:

The town abounds in liquor and cross men and women.  The women are a little insulting; they hate the Yankees.

The Federals captured a large amount of food and supplies stored in the Presbyterian Church on Main Street.  Across from the church was the elegant brick home of Dr. Harvey Green Johnston and his nearby medical office.  Tradition holds that Hayes set up his headquarters in the doctor’s office, and took his meals at the Woodrum Hotel (now the Chamber of Commerce.). 

With the Federals now within twenty miles of the strategic railroad bridge near Radford, Gen. Henry Heth, commander of the area’s Southern forces, managed to cobble together an army of some 2000 men and five artillery pieces.

Hayes soon realized that the gathering Confederates force far outnumbered his regiment of around 600 men.  Heth also had artillery while Hayes had none.  Hayes sent a series of desperate but unheeded requests to his commander for reinforcements.

Battle of Giles Court House

Early in the morning of May 10, the Confederates attacked Hayes’ first line of defense just south of town.  In an hours-long running battle the Federals fell back through the town and up the river, making several futile stands along the way. At the Narrows, Heth continued to pound the Union troops with artillery.  Hayes was wounded and his regiment retreated to Princeton.

Total casualties of the skirmish were two or three killed on either side and several wounded.  Local legend has it that as the Yankees fled town they set fire to the supplies in the Presbyterian Church.  The formidable ladies of Pearisburg formed a bucket brigade and extinguished the flames.

The action at Giles Court House effectively ended the Union advance to Central Depot and saved – for a time – the strategic Virginia and Tennessee Railroad.  It can even be said that Hayes’ defeat ensured that Giles County remained a part of the state of Virginia, and not part of the new unionist state of West Virginia.  Giles County remained relatively peaceful until Union Gen. George Crook marched through the county in 1864 after the battle of Cloyd’s Mountain.
Commanders at the battle of Giles Court House.
Gen. Henry Heth (R) drove Lt. Rutherford B. Hayes and his 600 men out of Pearisburg on May 10, 1862. Hayes was elected President of the United States in 1876.

19-year-old Sgt. William McKinley served under Hayes during the Civil War. He was elected U.S. President in 1897 and was assassinated four years later.

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