THE BATTLE OF GREENBRIER RIVER
Boyd B. Stutler
The action officially known as the Battle of Greenbrier River, fought October 3, 1861, on the site of what is now Bartow, Pocahontas County, is one of the almost forgotten incidents of the Civil War in West Virginia. Perhaps this is so because, after hours of spirited fighting, the results were so indecisive. The attacking Federal troops returned to their camp, while the defending Confederates retained their entrenched and fortified position. Indeed, the action has often been confused with later affairs at Greenbrier Bridge and other points on the lower reaches of the river.
After the failure of the campaign against the Union forces in the Cheat Mountain area in mid-September, 1861, the Confederate troops withdrew to the crossing of the Greenbrier by the Parkersburg-Staunton Turnpike, near a famous inn, Travelers' Repose, where they established Camp Bartow. The troops were under the command of General Henry R. Jackson. General Loring had been called to the New and Gauley rivers area to join with Floyd and Wise in resisting the advance of the Federals under Rosecrans and Cox, taking with him part of the troops that had been engaged in the Cheat Mountain effort.
Brigadier General Joseph R. Reynolds, in command of the Union forces in upper Tygarts Valley and the Cheat Mountain region, was greatly heartened by his success in repelling two series of attacks made by Loring's troops, under the direct command of General Robert E. Lee. While his force had been greatly reduced by withdrawal of regiments sent to the eastern theatre, he still felt that he was able to dislodge Jackson at Camp Bartow and clear the Parkersburg-Staunton Turnpike for easy access to the Virginia counties east of the mountains. Reynolds determined upon what he called a "reconnaissance in force" of the enemy position, but his real purpose was to rout or destroy the Confederate army that sat astride the turnpike at the Greenbrier crossing blocking the way to the east, then press on to Staunton.
General Reynolds assembled his troops for the purpose of the reconnaissance at the strong Federal works on Cheat Summit, bringing up regiments from Huttonsville, Cheat Mountain Pass and other encampments. His force was composed of: 24th, 25th and 32nd Ohio Infantry; 7th, 9th, 13th, 14th, 15th and 17th Indiana Infantry; Battery G, 4th U. S. Artillery, Captain Howe; Loomis' Michigan Battery; Battery A, 1st West Virginia Light Artillery, Captain Philip Daum; and with parts of Robinson's Ohio Cavalry; Greenfield's Pennsylvania Cavalry, and Brackens' Indiana Rangers. In all Reynolds mustered about 5,000 men of all arms, infantry, cavalry and artillery.
Twelve miles to the southeast of the point of assembly on Cheat Summit, Jackson's forces were firmly entrenched, with gun emplacements, rifle pits, and a series of abatis to protect the flanks. Every advantage of terrain was with the defenders, though the defending troops numbered but little more than one-third of that of Reynolds' assault column. On the day before the battle General Jackson reported that his force had been greatly reduced by sickness and by regiments detached for other service, and that he could number only about 1,800 effectives for any action. His army consisted of the 1st and 12th Georgia Infantry, under command of Colonel Edward Johnson; 23rd, 44th and a battalion of the 25th Virginia Infantry, commanded by Colonel William B. Taliaferro; 3rd Arkansas Infantry, 31st Virginia Infantry, and Lieutenant Colonel Hansbrough's battalion, under command of Colonel Albert Rust; Anderson's and Shumaker's Batteries, and a part of the Churchville Cavalry under Captain Sterrett. Further to the southeast, about nine miles distant on top of Allegheny, Colonel John B. Baldwin was stationed with the 52nd Virginia. Some of the regiments under Jackson's direct command had been reduced from one cause or another to about one-third strength.
An Indiana soldier, writing soon after the engagement, described the scene of action: "The valley is almost oval in form, encircled by hills ... Its width varies from two miles to half a mile; its direct length, from the foot of one range to the foot of the other, is little more than six miles. At the base of the Cheat the road crosses a branch of the Greenbrier, at the foot of Allegheny it crosses the Greenbrier. On the road at the river's crossing stood a tavern called the 'Travelers' Repose,' and a little distance a mill. The fortification began immediately behind these houses, the mill race serving as a moat for parts of two sides, and extended into a forest which crowned the summit and which stretched down to the water's edge, completely concealing a great part of the defenses, especially on the left flank." At the junction of U. S. 250 and W. Va. 28 at Bartow there is a state highway marker commemorating the old inn, "made famous in the novels of Hergesheimer, Bierce and others," and says that this is the country of "Tol'able David." Mention is made of Confederate trenches nearby, but there is no mention of the Battle of Greenbrier River fought on the site of the marker.
Inclement weather--rain for forty-eight hours and bitter cold on the mountain top--hindered the concentration of Reynolds' troops and caused not only great discomfort but a loss of effective fighting men through sickness. But at midnight on October 2 the movement began, with Colonel Robert A. Milroy's 9th Indiana leading the column. Milroy was soon to be promoted to Brigadier General and placed in command of the area when Reynolds was called to the east.
At daylight on the 3rd the head of the column reached the bridge over the north branch of Greenbrier, about four miles from the Confederate camp, and fought a lively skirmish with pickets posted there. The pickets retreated, followed closely by the advance units, driving them back to the fortified position.
The battle opened at about eight o'clock in the morning, when riflemen cleared the outposts. The artillery galloped up. Colonel Nathan Kimball's 14th Indiana was advanced directly to the enemy's front and right to clear a position for Loomis' battery, with Milroy's 9th and Dumont's 7th Indiana supporting the attack. An artillery duel, lasting nearly an hour, followed. The Confederates could not work some of their guns from the prepared positions and were forced to move into the open, with resultant disablement of three pieces by the superior firepower of the Federals. Daum's West Virginia Battery, the only West Virginians engaged on the Union side, supported Kimball and earned official commendation for efficiency and gallantry in action.
General Jackson skillfully disposed his men along the mile-long line of his defenses, though he complained that the position was not by nature a commanding one. Colonel Edward Johnson's temporary brigade was placed on the extreme right, Colonel William B. Taliaferro's brigade held the center, while Colonel Albert Rust's brigade was placed on the left wing. Each brigade in turn, right, left and center, repelled wave after wave of attacking troops, driving them back with galling rifle fire, and each brigade in turn came under heavy artillery fire. Reynolds used every unit in his force, except the cavalry, and all suffered casualties of some sort except Loomis's and Daum's batteries. The Indiana soldier who described the scene was not blind to the gallantry of the defense: "The Confederates fought with a spirit they had not before shown, and yielded the ground only as they were driven," he wrote.
When the sound of cannonading reached him, Colonel Baldwin formed his 52nd Virginia Infantry at his camp on top of Allegheny and started hastily for the scene of action. General Jackson sent a courier to urge him to hurry along. Though his regiment did not reach the battleground in time to take part, it was Baldwin's approach that turned the tide of battle. General Reynolds, standing on an eminence which gave him a clear view of all parts of the embattled field, saw at a distance the leading companies of Baldwin's regiment streaming down the turnpike in the rear of the Confederate works. He had vastly overestimated the number of men under Jackson at 9,000, and scouts had told him there were 5,000 more within striking distance. After four and a half hours of fighting, Reynolds abruptly broke off the engagement and ordered a return to the Cheat Summit fortification.
"We distinctly saw heavy reinforcements of infantry and artillery arrive while we were in front of the works," he wrote in his official report. The infantry was Baldwin's 52nd Virginia, reduced to about half strength, and the artillery was probably a couple of guns that had been taken to the rear for repairs, one of which was returned to action.
Though the engagement was sharp and spirited, the losses were not heavy. Each side, however, magnified the loss of the enemy. Reynolds, who thought Jackson's 1,800 men had grown to 9,000, reported the Confederate loss in killed and wounded was about 300. Not to be outdone, Jackson reported that Reynolds' loss in killed and wounded "is estimated at from 250 to 300, among them an officer of superior rank. Our own was very inconsiderable, not exceeding 50 in all." Actually, when the returns were all in, it was found that the Federals lost eight killed, and thirty-five wounded, for a total of forty-three. The Confederates had six men killed, thirty-three wounded, and thirteen missing; these turned up in Reynolds' report as prisoners.
After breaking off the action at about 12:30, Reynolds force took up the march in good order, and without harassment by cavalry, for the Cheat Summit camp, twelve miles distant, which they reached at about sundown. The little army had marched twenty-four miles, and had engaged in battle four and a half hours, all in a period of about eighteen hours.
A ridiculous incident of the foray gave a bit of merriment but caused lasting embarrassment to the 7th Indiana, which in no way reflected on its prowess as a combat unit. On leaving the home state a fine silk banner had been presented to the regiment to be borne by the side of the national colors. But on return to Cheat Summit the banner was missing, it could not have been captured in combat: there were no hand-to-hand clashes. When called to account, the color-bearer confessed that when the regiment halted to permit the artillery to "soften" up the defenses he placed the banner in a fence corner for protection then he fell asleep. He had simply forgotten it when aroused to join in the attack on the Confederate right.
The banner was retrieved by the Confederates and General Jackson in his official report solemnly stated that among the trophies taken was a stand of colors, which were held subject to the orders of the commanding general. The 7th got a nickname from this incident; it was called the "Banner Regiment."
Stutler, Boyd B., West Virginia in the Civil War (Charleston, West Virginia; Educational Foundation, Inc., 1963), 110-114.
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