Incendiaries on the B&O: The Burning of the Fish Creek Spans During the Jones-Imboden Raid (Part II)

Home of Hannah Church, where she witnessed the burnings (Wetzel County GenWeb)

See Part I here…

On the night of April 27, 1863, Hannah Church spied five men building a fire under the two spans of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad crossing of a fork of Fish Creek bearing her family’s name. Hannah’s parents had both died in 1860 at a combined age of 214 years (!). Her father, a native of Suffolk, England, had served under Lord Cornwallis during the Revolutionary War and at the time of his death at age 109, was considered the oldest living person in the state of Virginia. He settled along Fish Creek shortly after the war and raised a family. Hannah now occupied her father’s house situated between the two spans, themselves separated by only a few hundred yards. As witness to the burning “…being rather feeble [of age], she did not approach the men and is therefore unable to tell who they were, though the general impression is that the act was perpetrated by a gang of scoundrels sent there…for that purpose.”[1] The incendiaries also ignited a bridge at Cappo Fork, one mile east of Church’s on the B&O line. The three spans combined measured only 81 feet and were constructed of iron with wood cross-ties.

Assuming the arsonists were in fact locals, loyalties in Wetzel County were divided. Slaveholders represented only 0.09% of the county’s population, and slaves only 0.15%.[2] While the Fish Creek District voted 124 – 9 against the secession referendum in May 1861, Wetzel County delegate Leonard S. Hall had twice voted in favor of Virginia’s secession a month earlier, securing Wetzel’s rank as the northernmost county to vote for secession. The area had been occupied since the spring of 1861, most recently by a company from the 6th West Virginia Infantry who quartered at nearby Burton Station and patrolled the many railroad bridges and tunnels in the neighborhood. This company had been called to Fairmont during Jones-Imboden Raid, leaving the Fish Creek District unguarded for the first time in nearly two years, perhaps emboldening the arsonists.

Major General Robert C. Schenck commanded the Middle Military Department, where the Jones-Imboden Raid occurred (LC)

By the following day word of the burning had spread as far as Baltimore, Major General Robert C. Schenck, commander of the Middle Military Department telegraphing Brigadier General Benjamin S. Roberts that “the mayor [of Wheeling]…has received information that the enemy are destroying the bridges between Wheeling and Grafton. A force should at once move down the road from Grafton to see if this is true, and prevent it.”[3] Schenck also wired to Governor Francis Pierpont that he wished the locally available troops “instead of sticking to the town would go out or send out & look along the railroad to help stop the mischief…west of Grafton.”[4] Though Schenck had received reports of “a small rebel force…at Mannington and Littleton,” he believed “there is needless panic at Wheeling.”[5] Indeed this was as close as the war had come to Wheeling and the fledgling government there attempting to form a new state.

Benjamin Stone Roberts was a 1835 graduate of West Point before turning his attention to railroad engineering. He returned to the military in 1846 and had served with distinction in the Mexican War. Serving in the far west during the first year of the war, he came east in the summer of 1862 and was assigned to the staff of General John Pope. Roberts was a key witness in the court martial of Fitz John Porter, essentially costing both generals their career. Where Porter would be cashiered from service, Roberts was relegated to backwaters military commands, denied the perceived glories of the battlefield. After brief service in Minnesota he was recalled east, first to command a division in the VIII army corps at Harpers Ferry, and soon after reassigned to command of the Fourth Separate Brigade, including troops from Ohio, West Virginia, and Illinois.

Benjamin Stone Roberts commanded the Fourth Separate Brigade during the raid (LC)

Roberts and his brigade had been dispatched to pursue Jones and Imboden, and thus far had inspired little confidence from his superiors. When complaining to General Halleck that recent rains had rendered roads impassable for his command, Halleck asked “how the roads there are impassable to you, when, by your own account, they are passable enough to the enemy?”[6] Perhaps hedging his bets against Roberts, on April 28 Schenck ordered Brigadier General Joseph A.J. Lightburn to assume command of any troops located at Wheeling and any militia that could be called out. “Send whatever force you can immediately towards Grafton to protect the railroad and intercept the rebels,” Schenck urged.[7]

Lightburn was a West Virginia native and childhood friend of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson. He had been commissioned colonel of the 4th West Virginia infantry and later commanded a small army in the Kanawha Valley, where he skillfully extricated his troops in the face of an advancing Confederate army under General William W. Loring. After removing his command as far as Ohio, Lightburn turned and pursued Loring’s command back out the Kanawha Valley, earning him a brigadier generals commission. He had been reassigned to the Army of the Tennessee in its operations against Vicksburg but returned to West Virginia on leave in mid-April 1863. He could not have envisioned that he would be called on during this trip to lead militia and home guards against marauding Confederates.

Brig. Gen. Joseph A.J. Lightburn was called on to take temporary command of local troops in response to the burnings (WV Encyclopedia)

Also receiving word of the burnings on April 28th was John W. Garrett, president of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. B&O agents J.B. Ford and Jeremiah C. Sullivan had been working to protect railroad property from the approaching Confederates. All equipment save for two engines had been removed from Grafton and sent up the line towards Wheeling. The men also utilized the marshalling yard at Burton, one of the largest on the western end of the B&O, to stockpile sixty cars and an engine, and while the burning of the Fish Creek bridges one mile beyond Burton and the destruction of the Fairmont bridge below had essentially marooned the equipment, Ford and Sullivan’s foresight in stockpiling this equipment would facilitate fast repairs on the line.

Ford and Sullivan notified Garrett that “two bridges burned near Burton by citizens of the neighborhood, as at present supposed.”[8] The men promised that bridge builders would go out the following day to begin repairs with a force of 200 to 300 guards. Preferring to keep his enlisted troops to pursue Jones, Roberts ordered Lightburn to call up the 4th West Virginia Militia to protect the B&O repairmen. Numbering some 200 men under the command of physician and legislator Lieutenant Colonel Thomas H. Logan, the companies were deposited along the B&O line west of Fairmont, with two companies guarding the burned bridges at Church’s Fork and one company at Cappo Fork. As “all sorts of rumors were afloat as to the movements of the enemy above,” pickets were thrown out on the hills above the bridges and on the surrounding roads.[9]

Expecting to stay for a while, the companies at Church’s Fork liberated “several thousand feet of boards from a sawmill” and erected “sundry little sheds.” Some of the men took advantage of their campsite on Fish Creek and “went angling in the creek and caught several hundred fish – chiefly chubs, silver sides and sunfish, about the size of a common sized sardine.” The men heated (unknowingly) a slab of slate on which to bake their fish when the slate “went up in an explosion.”[10]

Postwar view of one of the bridges that had been burned at Church’s Fork (Wetzel County GenWeb)

The B&O repair crew arrived on the afternoon of April 29 and found that the fires had only damaged the woodwork, and that the ironwork was uninjured. Temporary trestling was completed on May 4, rendering the bridges passable to cars. The bridges were restored to their original condition during July and August, with total repairs costing B&O only $519.00.[11] On May 4 Lieut. Col. Logan would petition Governor Pierpont that to send his regiment home. “I think our regiment should be relieved,” Logan urged, reporting “dissatisfaction everywhere.” With Jones and Imboden having moved farther south and west, Logan did “not believe the bridges on this end of the road are now in any danger.”[12]  Rather than being sent home, the regiment was instead sent to Fairmont to guard against further incursions by Confederates, and were finally returned home and disbanded on May 11.

Benjamin Stone Roberts remained uninspiring. On May 7 Governor Francis Pierpont wired General Schenck that he was “satisfied Gen. Roberts is not the man for this place. He has not stirred a step, making all sorts of excuses.”[13] On May 23 he would be replaced by General William W. Averell. Lightburn, who had first moved his headquarters to the burnt bridges and then further on to Grafton, was thanked for his services and on May 7  turned over his command to Colonel James A. Mulligan. He would resume his planned leave of absence before returning to Vicksburg, alternating leading at the brigade and division level for the remainder of the war.

While the damage to the bridges was minimal, quickly repaired, and less costly than other damage inflicted during the raid, the burning of these spans would change Federal policy along this section of the line. On May 4, Major Joseph Darr of the 1st West Virginia Cavalry, Provost Marshal of the district, issued the following General Order:

“Having such intelligence as to make it certain that the bridges on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, near Burton, were destroyed by persons in sympathy with the present rebellion against the government of the United States, general warning is hereby given to all such that if the road is again damaged in any particular, all well-known secessionists in the immediate locality where the damage is done will be held directly responsible, and such punishment will be inflicted upon them as well to put an effectual stop to all depredations of this character.”[14]

Three days later Darr took it a step further in requiring that all civilians seeking passage on the B&O obtain a permit to travel on the road. The loyal government had not been shy about detaining and imprisoning political prisoners during the war, but this new order was a stark warning to those citizens living along the B&O. Authorities, militia, and companies of the Independent Exempts would seemingly work overtime to jail any ‘suspicious’ characters, the local papers replete with accounts of prisoners brought in for their seeming transgressions in the neighborhood of the railroad. Even still, the B&O would see no further willful civilian destruction on the western end of the main line.

Modern view of the first of the two burned bridges at Church’s Fork (Google Streetview)

On May 19, 1863, seventeen prisoners were brought into Wheeling and confined in the Athenaeum prison on orders from General Benjamin F. Kelley. The men were captured in Barbour County under the command of John Yost, a former Captain in the Virginia militia. Yost had recruited the men from the area around Mannington during the Jones – Imboden Raid and was guiding the group south when captured, authorities believing the men had been responsible for burning the bridges at Church’s and Cappo forks.

And yet we can’t be entirely certain the fires were the result of civilian interference or would-be recruits. In his May 3, 1863 report to Brigadier General Albert G. Jenkins, Imboden claimed that “my men destroyed those [bridges] for 30 miles west of Fairmont.”[15]  In his report issued to General Robert E. Lee on June 1, Imboden claimed that “…a party I had sent out under Lieutenant Sturms, of the Nineteenth [Virginia] Cavalry, had succeeded in burning all of the bridges for 30 miles west of Fairmont…”[16] The men of the 19th Virginia Cavalry would have been well qualified for such work, as its members had been raised from Virginia’s northwestern counties. The regiment had been formed from the consolidation of earlier irregular companies, its conduct and discipline remaining a source of contention through the remainder of the war.

Despite Imboden’s claims, we know that not ‘all’ bridges on this stretch were burned, as there were at least seven bridges between Fairmont and the bridges at Cappo and Church’s, including the two repaired bridges at Mannington burned by Confederates in May 1861. However, that Imboden knew the destruction extended a full 30 miles west of Fairmont – the distance from there to Church’s Fork – would seem to indicate that it was in fact Imboden’s men responsible for the burnings. If that’s the case, the hard hand held over the civilians on the western end of the B&O for the remainder of the war was done in error.

Modern view of the second burned span at Church’s Fork. Today the B&O track has been converted to a popular rail trail (Google Streetview)

Today the B&O line in Wetzel County has been turned into a ‘rail trail,’ where bikers and walkers can cross wooden pedestrian bridges at the site of the Church’s Fork spans. Following the war, the area saw further growth, and today the spans sit within the village of Hundred, West Virginia, named in honor of Henry Church, father of Hannah Church, who herself witnessed the burnings. One mile east on the rail trial was the location of the span at Cappo Fork, though following the war the tributary went dry and the land filled.

Regardless of who was responsible for the burnings, soldier or civilian, the war fought in the backwaters of western Virginia was a different kind of war, often pitting neighbor against neighbor, family against family. I particularly like the following quote from a veteran of the Loudoun Rangers (Federal), a company whose conduct and discipline, much like the 19th Virginia Cavalry, was routinely questioned…

“Can the old soldiers of the other side say that they never did wrong? Can they say, honestly, that they NEVER did anything but what would tend to their own renown and glory? No! No man can say that. No many can say but this: That many a deed which at the time seemed justifiable, would, at this day be wrong. Border warfare teems with strife foreign to a regular campaign with thoroughly disciplined troops.”[17]

[1] Daily Intelligencer, May 1, 1863
[2] Virginia Secession Convention
[3] Official Records of the War of the Rebellion. Series I, Vol. 25, Part 2, pg 284.
[4] Schenck to Pierpont, May 1, 1863. Francis H. Pierpont Telegrams, West Virginia & Regional History Center
[5] ibid, 285
[6] OR, pg 246
[7] ibid, 283
[8] ibid, 287
[9] The Late Expedition to Littleton
[10] ibid
[11] Thirty Seventh Annual Report of the President & Directors to the Stockholders of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Co.
[12] Logan to Pierpont, May 4, 1863. Francis H. Pierpont Telegrams, West Virginia & Regional History Center
[13] Pierpont to Schenck, May 7, 1863. Francis H. Pierpont Telegrams, West Virginia & Regional History Center
[14] Daily Intelligencer, May 4, 1863
[15] OR, Series I, Vol. 25, Part 1, pg 98.
[16] ibid, pg 102.
[17] Chamberlin, Taylor M. & John M. Souders. Between Reb and Yank: A Civil War History of Northern Loudoun County, Virginia. McFarland, 2011. pg 355.

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1 Response to Incendiaries on the B&O: The Burning of the Fish Creek Spans During the Jones-Imboden Raid (Part II)

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