Captain John Hanson McNeill and the McNeill Rangers: Rebel Strike Force Supreme

Today, we are pleased to welcome guest author Richard Chapman

When discussing great Confederate independent cavalry raiders in the Civil War, it seems that they have three parts to their name: General John Hunt Morgan, Colonel John Singleton Mosby, and even General Nathan Bedford Forrest. These were dashing figures in action, and Mosby even had a television series in the 1950’s based on “The Gray Ghost.”John Hanson McNeill belongs on this list as commander of The McNeill Rangers, probably the most feared partisan raiders in the entire war. His actions also helped feed the various Confederate forces that operated in the Shenandoah Valley from 1863 until 1865; herds of livestock were furnished to these armies by McNeill’s Rangers. General Robert E. Lee praised the accomplishments of McNeill and his men on numerous occasions.

“Hanse” McNeill was a hard-riding and hard moonshine-drinking man from the mountains of western Virginia—a much older version of Stonewall Jackson’s partisan cavalry commander, Turner Ashby. McNeill had thick black hair and beard, as did Ashby, and had thick black eyebrows.

Born near Moorefield, Virginia (W.Va.) in 1815, McNeill later became a very successful small farmer before deciding to move to Missouri and try his hand at raising cattle. When the Civil War began, he organized a cavalry unit and fought at Wilson’s Creek and Lexington. He was captured in the latter battle and eventually sent to a prison camp in St. Louis, along with his son, Jessie. McNeill and Jessie escaped and returned to western Virginia, where the McNeill Rangers were formed in 1862.

Captain John Hanson McNeill and his men had the advantage of knowing every possible escape route in heavy mountain terrain and, like Mosby, the locals helped aid the Rangers. Unlike Mosby’s men, there was no going home to family after a raid. They would simply prepare for the next one.

All of the lieutenants serving under McNeill were very capable and seemed to have their own special set of skills, whether math or topography or just plain daring.

McNeill’s Rangers numbered in the range of about 200 men, but in the actual raids, usually numbered anywhere from 40 to 80 men. During the course of the war, McNeill accepted deserters from other units into his organization, drawing the ire from Gen. John Imboden, who tried—but failed—to court martial McNeill for continuing the practice.

In February of 1863, McNeill’s Rangers embarked on an incredible journey by successfully attacking a Baltimore and Ohio Railroad supply train, capturing 72 federal soldiers, 27 supply wagons, and 107 horses.

The main target for McNeill was always the vital B&O Railroad. His success at disrupting the flow of supplies on this rail line kept more than 20,000 federal troops in West Virginia along that railroad corridor to prevent its destruction.

Through the winter of 1862 and 1863, McNeill spent his time planning to destroy the all-important Cheat River Bridge in West Virginia. The Confederate Government felt it so important that it tried a large-scale raid in the spring of 1863 to accomplish the task. The Jones-Imboden Raid was designed to be a two-pronged attack, with General “Grumble” Jones’s forces given the responsibility of the destruction of the Cheat River Bridge. Surprisingly, the McNeill Rangers were no part of this mission and were, instead, many miles away. The surprise attack on the bridge was poorly managed and was repulsed by federal troops and townspeople, much to the chagrin and anger of Grumble Jones However, McNeill had accomplished his task of capturing supplies, and even aided Jones and his men in the withdrawal.

In June of 1863, as General Richard Ewell’s 2nd Corps was moving north through the Shenandoah Valley toward the Potomac River, the McNeill Rangers captured 160 cattle and 740 sheep that helped feed the army. In August of 1863, McNeill destroyed culverts of the B&O, which seriously disrupted the flow of rail traffic. In September of 1863, McNeill attacked a federal encampment resulting in 146 federal prisoners, 10,000 rounds of ammunition, and 46 muskets. Two months later, it turned out not to be a merry Thanksgiving for 45 federal soldiers taken prisoner by McNeill and his men, who also captured 245 horses and 85 supply wagons.

General Robert E. Lee recognized the tremendous accomplishments of “Hanse” McNeill and his Rangers by stating: “The success of Captain McNeill is very gratifying and I hope will often be repeated.”

As General Grant started his grand offensive against Lee on May 4, 1864, McNeill launched perhaps his greatest raid thus far at Piedmont, West Virginia. He destroyed the all-important roundhouse, the machine shops, and the tracks. He burned nine engines, 75 rail cars, and two trains loaded with commissary stores, and he captured 105 prisoners. He then attacked Piedmont again on May 10 and captured 60 more prisoners.

Things were going so bad for Federal authorities that General Benjamin F. Kelley finally ordered an expedition to seek and destroy McNeill. It would turn into a failure for Kelley. In June of 1864, McNeill’s Rangers captured 60 “nude” prisoners who were swimming in the water. On July 3, 1864, McNeill aided Imboden by striking the B & O railroad and tearing up tracks.

On October 3, McNeill led a group of 60 men in an attack on a Federal encampment at Mount Jackson, Virginia. They captured 60 Union soldiers, but in the excitement and confusion, McNeill was accidently shot by his own men. The bullet lodged itself against his spinal cord. Carried to a nearby home and taken to an upstairs room, he was given morphine, and his beard was shaved to prevent him from being recognized by Federal officers. He was then spirited away by his men to Harrisonburg, where he died on November 10, 1864, at the Hill’s Hotel.

Taking over command was Captain Jessie McNeill—and the Rangers did not miss a beat. He was just as elusive and destructive to Federal authorities as his dad. As the Confederate States of America was slowly dying that last winter of 1864-1865, the McNeill Rangers continued on as if nothing had changed: raiding federal encampments, taking prisoners, capturing supplies, destroying railroad property.

But the Raiders’s greatest moment happened in February, 1865, when a party of them snuck into Cumberland, Maryland, and captured Gen. George Crook and Gen. Benjamin Kelley. The two generals were taken to Richmond after a grueling journey and placed in Libby Prison, albeit for just a short time. It was just long enough for these generals to sample that Libby Prison delicacy, filet of rat.

Even Colonel John Singleton Mosby had to acquiesce to this exploit. “This surpassed anything I had ever done,” he admitted. “To get even with those boys , I would have to go to Washington and carry Abe Lincoln out.”

The McNeill Rangers would fight on past the surrender of Lee for a few more days and then surrender themselves. Captain John Hanson McNeill and his Rangers deserve their place in the annals of Confederate success stories. The thundering hoofs and piercing Rebel yells of McNeill’s Rangers can still be heard through those mountain passes of West Virginia.

6 Responses to Captain John Hanson McNeill and the McNeill Rangers: Rebel Strike Force Supreme

  1. As a librarian I am impressed by the research evident in this article. Reading real numbers of the livestock provided, the prisoners captured and the disruptions and destruction of the railroad makes this history come alive. One is not likely to forget the McNeill Rangers and their contributions to the Confederacy.

  2. Outstanding! I had never heard of McNeill’s Rangers. THis would make a great movie!

  3. Congrats, Richard! You are adding to your career accomplishments – actor, Civil War guide, entrepreneur, and now author/historian! I hope to see you at the Park this week, take care!

  4. My Grand Uncle “Mac” for “McNiel” Smith used to tell of of his grandfather and great-grandfather’s exploits during the Civil War. John McNiel was my great-great-grand uncle and Jessie McNiel was my great-great-great-grand uncle. Jessie had a daughter that married a “Smith”, who had a son, my Grand Uncle mentioned above. He would drag out the sword that is still in his family through his daughter (has to be in her late 70’s now, if not early 80’s/I have not kept in touch over the years) that Jessie captured from General Crook during the Cumberland, Maryland (it is nothing fancy/standard issue cavalry saber). I live in “Mosby’s Confederacy” at this time, Warren County, Virginia but, the next county to the West, Shenandoah County and the counties North and South, mostly Pendleton, Hardy and Hampshire Counties in West Virginia, were McNiel’s area of operations. I have family ancestors that were on both sides, equally killing each other as good soldiers do. I take no sides but share no shame or remorse of a bygone age.

    1. My great uncles
      Sprigg and John Lynn fought with McNeill’s.They were from Cumberland Md.Sprigg was one of the men that captured Cook and Kelly.We are very proud of them.Sprigg said most of the men fought with many pistols and shot guns never a swords

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