HUNTERSVILLE WAS TARGET FOR
WINTER RAID BY FEDERALS
Boyd B. Stutler
The 1862 campaign in the Allegheny highlands in West Virginia opened on the first day of the new year with a strong raiding force from the Federal winter camp at Huttonsville, Randolph County, marching on Huntersville, then the County seat of Pocahontas County. Huntersville, lightly garrisoned by some 250 Confederate cavalry and infantry with a contingent of county militia, was an important center in the summer and fall campaign of 1861 when it was the headquarters of General W. W. Loring, who commanded the Army of the Northwest, CSA.
Loring had been called, with his troops, to reinforce Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley; now its only military importance was as a supply center for the Confederate troops operating in that area, and also in the fact that it was connected with Warm Springs by a fairly good turn-pike. This highway could be used as a gateway for Union troops to Virginia east of the mountains, just as it was being used by the Southerners for their troops and for transportation of supplies funneled in from the central depots at Staunton and Warm Springs.
The Union high command at Huttonsville determined to destroy the center, though no Federal troops had penetrated that far into the Confederate-held mountain country. A task force was organized and at one o'clock in the afternoon of December 31 Major George Webster, 25th Ohio infantry, moved out of Huttonsville at the head of 400 of the men of his own regiment, headed toward Huntersville. At camp Elk-water he was joined by 300 men of the 2nd (West) Virginia Infantry commanded by Major James D. Owens, and later, at Linwood (then called Big Springs), 38 men of captain James R. Bracken's independent Indiana cavalry company under Lieutenant Delzell fell into the column. Thus Major Webster had a starting force of 738 men, and was accompanied by a long train of wagons laden with ammunition and supplies.
The route taken by this small army was along the Huttonsville and Marlins Bottom Turnpike which is followed closely by the present day Seneca Trail (U. S. Route 219) and all went well until the evening of January 2. Then in the narrows at the base of Elk Mountain, along Crooked Fork of Elk, Major Webster came upon the formidable barricade laid down by the Lee-Loring army in the preceding September when it retreated from the waters of Elk and Cheat to the Greenbrier. For more than a mile, trees had been felled across the road, sometimes in piles twenty feet high. Webster did not have time nor facilities for clearing the road. The only thing to do was to abandon the wagon train and detour the men around the barricade. The wagons were parked and a captain and fifty men were detached to guard them, while a scouting party sought out a rough path to the left of the blockade that led to the top of Elk Mountain. It was over this path the men scrambled, the cavalry horses being led through the forest, but it was not until early in the morning of the 3rd that the crest was reached.
On ahead there was scurrying around by the scattered Confederates. The county militia had been hurriedly called out to support the scant force of regulars when watchful scouts carried word to the commanders that a raiding party of 4,000 to 5,000 men was headed towards Huntersville. From his place on the height of land Major Webster could scan the valley below and could plainly see that preparations were being made to resist his passage through Marlins Bottom--site of the present city of Marlinton--which was the gateway to Huntersville, six miles to the east. The place had been prepared for defense from invasion from the north, with rifle pits and trenches dug and with two cannon so placed as to command the highway for a considerable distance--but there were no regulars on the job to man the pits or to work the guns.
A covered bridge spanned the Greenbrier River at the Bottom, and there the militiamen who had responded to the call were assembled. Hurrying through at a quick march, Major Webster formed his plan of battle as he advanced and as his men moved down on the Bottom with its few scattered farm houses and its covered bridge. The cavalry under Lieutenant Delzell was sent across the Greenbrier at a point about a mile above the bridge with orders to make a quick charge down the east bank, which would cut off retreat to Huntersville. Webster and his infantry came at a run down the turnpike toward the bridgehead, shooting and yelling. Delzell's cavalry added to the din on the east bank. After firing a few ineffectual rounds, the militia stampeded, scampering away toward the south and west, but getting out of range as quickly as possible. One of the men later confessed that he ran that day only because he could not fly.
The battle of Marlins Bottom, Greenbrier Bridge, or by whatever of the half-dozen names it has been called, was an extremely noisy affair, but entirely bloodless. Not a man was killed, and not a man, Union or Confederate, was reported wounded. It was all sound and fury.
The small brush at the covered bridge did little more than to halt the federal raiders. Stopping long enough to detach a guard of fifty men to protect the bridge, Webster pressed on for the six-mile run to Huntersville. Confederate pickets were encountered about two miles from the town, but after trading a few shots with the advance guard, which did no harm to either side, the pickets retired upon the main body of dismounted cavalry drawn up in line of battle about a mile from the town. Webster deployed a part of the 25th Ohio up a hill to the left to turn the Confederate right, and with the balance of his force moved up to make a frontal attack. Firing became general all along both lines, remarkable only for noise, but when the Confederates discovered the flank movement they fell back to their horses, hastily mounted and retreated to a position a half mile nearer the town.
Webster's troops crossed Knapps Creek and there he employed the same tactics as at the first stand; two companies of the 25th Ohio were sent to the right at the base of a hill to turn the Confederate left, while Major Owens with the 2nd (West) Virginia and the cavalry made a considerable detour to the left to turn the Confederate right and attack them from the rear, while the balance of the 25th was reserved for a frontal assault. The movements directed were executed without a hitch--the defenders broke when pressure came from the right, left and center and retreated through the towns pausing only to fire a few shots, then fled to Warm Springs and Monterey.
Major Webster said in his official report that on entering the town "we found the place deserted, the houses broken open, and goods scattered, the cause of which was soon stated by a returned citizen. The rebel commander (who is not identified in any report) had ordered the citizens to remove all their valuable property as he intended, if beaten, to burn the town." The retreating Confederates did set fire to a large barn containing commissary stores before taking their hasty departure.
Webster's attacking force at Huntersville was about 600 men--the wagon and bridge guards and some stragglers accounted for the men missing out of the original 738--but exaggerated Confederate reports said that he had 4,000 to 5,000 men. No exact figures are fixed for the number of Confederate defenders which, it seems, was composed of about 250 mixed troops, units not identified, and a few militia hurriedly called up the night before. In all, the Confederate force probably had a strength of 300 to 350 men. In all the marching, countermarching, shooting and waste of gunpowder, Webster had one man wounded--shot in the arm. The Confederate casualty list is fixed at one man killed and seven wounded, in addition to the loss of stores and that loss caused real suffering in the Confederate mountain camps the balance of the winter.
The considerable quantity of Confederate stores found in Huntersville were given to the flames because of lack of transportation to carry them away. Major Webster reported capture of 350 barrels of flour, 300 salted beeves amounting to about 150,000 pounds, 30,000 pounds of salt, and large amounts of sugar, coffee, rice, bacon, clothing. etc. The soldiers kept and carried back to their camp a large number of Sharps carbines, sabers, horse-pistols, and some army clothing.
Webster and his party remained in Huntersville exactly two hours after routing the defenders. This time was spent for the most part in hunting out and burning confederate property, but in so doing a considerable part of the town was reduced to ashes. The courthouse was not injured, but before leaving, the Major caused the Stars and Stripes to be nailed to the top of the building, and he left the flag flying as he took his departure.
After an hour and a half driving the Confederates out of town and two hours in accomplishing the real purpose of the raid, Webster turned back toward the Huttonsville base, marching about ten miles to Edray before encamping for the night. The task force had had a hard day; it had marched 24 miles and had fought two engagements--or skirmishes--that were more noted for footwork than action. The little army reached Huttonsville on January 6, having made a winter march of 102 miles in a little less than six days, penetrated the enemy's country thirty miles further than any body of Federal troops had gone before and returned with all men, horses and wagons intact, and with only Private Oliver P. Hershee, 25th Ohio infantry, nursing a wound in the arm.
At the time, Major Webster's foray was counted one of the most successful raids, for it did more than scatter county militia at Marlins Bottom and rout a small force at Huntersville--the raid threw a tremendous scare into the Confederate command. Pocahontas historian Andrew Price said it "made their lines quiver from Huntersville to Winchester, and from Camp Allegheny to Staunton. Scouts rode head-long in every direction carrying dispatches. They seemed to have agreed on the strength of the Federal army as being 5,000 men instead of the 738 that it actually was."
Stutler, Boyd B., West Virginia in the Civil War (Charleston, West Virginia; Educational Foundation, Inc., 1963), 147-151.
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