ECW welcomes back guest author Brian D. Kowell
Rain was pouring in sheets. As temperatures plummeted, snow and ice fell. The icy winds cut to the bone. When fording the numerous rivers and streams, the frigid waters made the men gasp as they plunged in. And from the mountain peaks, lightning and thunder seemed so close as to swallow them whole. How much could men and horses endure?
Such was the fate of the stalwart troopers of General Thomas L. Rosser’s division on their raid to Beverly, West Virginia in early January 1865. Rosser had learned from his scouts that there was a large quantity of desperately needed supplies at Beverly. Situated in Randolph County along the Tygarts River, Beverly was guarded by one thousand Union defenders from the Eighth Ohio Cavalry and Thirty-fourth Ohio Infantry regiments under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Robert Youart of the former regiment.[i] Beverly was about 75 miles from Staunton, Virginia as the crow flies and separated by the rugged Allegheny Mountains. The weather seemed too cold for campaigning. Just the same, Rosser was determined to try.[ii]
In the absence of Lieutenant General Jubal Early, commander of the Army of the Valley District, Major General Fitzhugh Lee approved Rosser’s plan. Rosser’s division was encamped at Swope’s Depot twelve miles west of Staunton, Virginia and consisted of his own Brigade (the 7th, 11th, and 12th), Wickham’s Brigade (the 1st, 2nd, 4th ), and Brigadier General W. H. Payne’s Brigade, (the 5th, 6th, and 8th), all Virginia regiments. He asked for volunteers from Wickham’s Brigade commanded by Colonel Thomas T. Munford since Brigadier General Williams C. Wickham had resigned in November to take his congressional seat in Richmond. Munford told Rosser that the fatigued condition of the horses and men in his command made his brigade unfit for service. Besides, he said that the weather was bad. Munford suggested that Rosser should consider postponing the raid until fresh supplies arrived and the weather moderated. Rosser would have nothing of it, was very indignant, and refused to put off the raid. Instead he placed Munford under arrest for dereliction of duty and sought volunteers from the other brigades. He got his volunteers, but could only find 300 horses in suitable condition for the trip. Undaunted, he divided his 300 man force equally between Colonel William A. Morgan of the 1st Virginia and Colonel Albert W. Cook of the 8th Virginia.[iii]
On January 7, 1865, a heavy rainfall filled the streams and soaked the ground. A sudden cold snap followed freezing the ground making travel almost impossible. It was under these initial conditions that Rosser set out for Beverly. A few of the raiders from the 18th and 62nd Virginia regiments whose homes were in Randolph County would act as guides. The column marched through Buffalo Gap, along the Staunton-Petersburg Turnpike. The mountain streams and rivulets they crossed had overrun their banks and were now frozen solid and as smooth as glass. Besides slipping and falling, men and horses suffered for water to drink. [iv]
At McDowell, a heavy snowfall added to their discomfort, especially as most troopers did not have tents for shelter when they departed. They ascended the Allegheny Mountains marching seven miles. After reaching the summit at dusk on January 8, the exhausted men made camp. Major Daniel Grimsley of the 6th Virginia Cavalry wrote: “The weather moderated very much and before we reached the summit… it began to rain and it rained all night long. We were not allowed to build fires.”(So as not to alert the enemy of their presence.) “So all night long we stood there in the pelting rain, driven by gusts of wind until it seemed to penetrate the very marrow of our bones…. the soldiers fretting, fuming, quarreling, cursing, and damning everything in general upon the face of the earth, and the man who suggested the expedition in particular.” Then the falling temperatures turned the rain to snow.[v]
The next day they descended the mountain. In the gullies where the snow had drifted, it sometimes reached a depth of twenty-five feet. When the shivering troopers reached the Greenbrier River, they found it was “a turbulent, rolling, boiling, seething, angry flood with its surface covered with drifting ice,” the water reaching the saddle skirts. “It took a strong horse to breast this mountain torrent and a steady nerve and firm grasp to guide him safely between the rushing floes. The men hesitated to go, but finally plunged in and reached the western bank,” losing only one horse and almost one man in the process.[vi]
January 10 found the column ascending Cheat Mountain. Reaching the mountaintop late afternoon, the men noticed a dark angry cloud coming over the top of Laurel Ridge to their front. Suddenly the wind rose and the cloud hurled over the Cheat summit and enveloped the troopers. “With it came the most vivid lightning, terrible peals of thunder, and a terrific hail storm.” The men’s frightened horses refused to move. “We seemed to be in the very midst of the clouds and the lightning and thunder was near us, at us, and all around us… Our overcoats and clothing, wet from rain [and snow], became as hard as boards.” One veteran wrote that when “the rain changed to snow [it] made us look ghostlike in the dark.” On the descent, slipping down the precipice was a constant danger, but still they marched on, reaching the foot of the mountain after dark, only to face the dangerous challenge of fording the Cheat River.[vii]
Once across, the raiders moved north through the dark. “After the thunderstorm, a fierce, bitter north wind arouse and sent the temperature rapidly down towards zero”, wrote Captain Cornelius B. Hite of the 6th Virginia. “Our direction was north, right in the face of the wind. I thought I would perish from the cold, but my cousin and I, by taking turns in dismounting and running along to keep up with our command, each in his turn leading the other’s horse, managed to keep from being frost-bitten.” After a brief stop around midnight in Devil’s Hollow to feed and rest, they continued. “As well as I could tell in the night, we were following the foothills of the mountain on the east side of Tygart’s Valley, travelling north toward Beverly.”[viii]
On his present path, Rosser would have to ford the Tygart several times to reach Beverly. Instead, his guides informed him of “a blind, rough mountain path that would eliminate crossing the Tygart.” Even though it involved greater distance, Rosser chose the path. They made an all-night, flanking march, on this bridle path, in the biting cold, to surprise their foe from the north. Rosser’s men finally came upon the Union garrison where the path joined the Philippi Pike north of Beverly around 4:00 A.M. on January 11. Except for one squadron sent to the Files Creek Road, they dismounted and formed their line of battle three hundred yards from the sleeping Yankees. Many troopers found little sensation in their nearly frozen legs, standing in line with boots frozen hard as bricks, waiting for the order to advance. Just before daybreak, the command was given. With snow muffling the sound of their footsteps, and their overcoats stiff with ice – the capes of the coats rattling like boards – the frozen, gray clad troopers moved “like a spectral army”[ix]
The Union garrison had built log huts for winter quarters located between the Philippi Pike and the foot of Mt. Iser. Rosser had earlier learned from one of his guide’s brothers who lived in Beverly, that the Federal officers had been to a dance at the Leonard Hotel in town that night, and that the officers generally quartered at the hotels and private residences in town instead of in camp with the troops. The Yankee were all sound asleep as the gray clads approached in the dark.[x]
The sounds of crunching snow beneath the Rebels’ feet alerted a Federal picket. “Who goes there?” was the challenge, to which one of the Confederates replied, “A friend.” The guard approached and was taken prisoner without a shot fired. Rosser ordered his troopers to “come down on them,” and the Southerners swarmed through the camps.[xi]
Yankees were shot coming out of their huts or while still inside under their blankets. Theodore Hodgson of the 11th Virginia recollected that “he was determined to go into one of the huts, and ducked his head quickly and butted in. A Yankee shot as he did so and blew his hat off but did not hurt him. The four Yankees inside took him prisoner until his comrades rescued him.” After capturing three Yankees trying to escape, Captain Hite of the 6th Virginia turned them over to another officer, when a Yankee shot at him from one of the huts. Unhurt, he said,” I also entered the hut, and I confess I did so with fear and trembling, from which the Yankee had shot, and captured the Yankee in it.” Most Yankees surrendered without firing a shot. Those not captured retreated, fighting through the streets of Beverly and across the bridge towards Buckhannon. Captain Hite said after the fight, “I counted five dead Federal soldiers lying in the street, extending from a little north of the Presbyterian Church to the location of Wilber Starder’s residence.”[xii]
The fight lasted less than thirty minutes. The Confederate losses was one man killed and one wounded and left behind. The Union forces suffered twenty-five killed and wounded and five hundred and seventy-five men and eight officers captured. Among those captured was Lieutenant Colonel Youart and Lieutenant Colonel Luther Furney of the Thirty-fourth Ohio. In addition, the Confederates captured 100 horses, 600 arms and equipment, and 10,000 rations. [xiii]
The day after the successful attack on Beverly, the Confederate raiders retreated with their booty as the temperature began to fall again. As they marched away, most troopers were loaded with plunder and many, including officers, were drunk. The return trip would take two nights through the mountains. The prisoners suffered terribly without blankets. Many suffered severe frostbite and could not walk. Others were able to escape during the march, due to lack of vigilance of the guards. They simply walked away from their guards at night, disappearing in the darkness. Among those who made their escape and returned to Union lines was lieutenant colonels Youart and Furney. Youart came under censure. In defense, he would state that, “It was impossible for the enemy to attack at that time of the year,” especially with the severity of the weather and the high waters in the rivers. He said the surprise was so complete that the officers did not have time to rally one company together. Resistance was useless. It was determined that “The disaster was the result of laxity of discipline, carelessness and insufficiency of guard.” General George Crook recommended that “Lieut. Col. R. Youart, Eighth Ohio Cavalry, and Lieut. Col. L. Furney, Thirty-fourth Ohio Volunteers, be dismissed from the service for disgraceful neglect of their commands and for permitting themselves to be surprised and the greater portion of their commands captured, in order that worthy officers may fill their places, which they have proved themselves incompetent to hold.”[xiv]
When they finally returned to Swope’s Depot and safety on January 18, many of Rosser’s men were frost-bitten, and their horses broken down with exhaustion. Major Grimsley later wrote, “I witnessed suffering during the war in all its forms, but never any was so acute, so intense, and so universal, as that which was endured by the Confederate soldiers, and Federal prisoners, on that occasion.” Private William Wilson recalled, “Thank heavens we are in camp at last. I feel like an Arctic Explorer returning from a trip to the North Pole.” [xv]
Brian Kowell is a past president of the Cleveland Civil War Round Table and has had an article published in America’s Civil War July 1992 edition about the Buckland Races.
[i] McDonald, William N., A History of the Laurel Brigade, Baltimore and London, The John Hopkins University Press, 2002. p.334-336. Arnold, Thomas J., “A Battle Fought in the Streets” (Rosser’s Beverly Raid of 1865), Magazine of History & Biography, 1916, Randolph County Historical Society, Civil War Centennial Issue, vol.12 (1961) www.historicbeverly.org The men of the 8th Ohio Cavalry were the dismounted portion of the regiment with four mounted companies absent. The mounted companies were ordered to Philippi where forage was more readily available. The 34th Ohio Volunteer Infantry was commanded by Lt. Col. Luther Furney and had 300 men present for duty at Beverly.
[ii] Bushong, Millard K. and Dean M. Bushong, Fightin’ Tom Rosser, C.S.A., Shippensburg, PA., Beidel Printing House, Inc., 1983. p.156.
[iii] Munford, Thomas T., handwritten article published in the Philadelphia Weekly Times, May 17, 1884, Munford Papers, Munford-Ellis Collection, Box 17, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. Lamb, John, “The Confederate Cavalry”, Southern Historical Society Papers, vol. 13, pp. 143-144.
[iv] Barringer, Sheridan R., Custer’s Gray Rival: The Life of Confederate Major General Thomas Lafayette Rosser, Burlington, N.C., Fox Run Publishing, LLC, 2019. p.195
[v] Grimsley, Daniel A., Battles in Culpeper County, Virginia, 1861-1865, Raleigh Travers Green, Exponent Printing Office, Culpeper, Virginia, 1900. p. 42. Barringer, Custer’s Gray Rival, p.196.
[vi] Ibid. pp.42-43
[vii] Ibid. p.43. Hite, Cornelius B., letter to Thomas J. Arnold, “A Battle Fought in the Streets”, Magazine of History & Biography, 1916, Historic Beverly Preservation, Inc.
[viii] Hite, Ibid. United States War Department: The War of the Rebellion” a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 70 vols. In 128 books. Washington, D.C., Government Printing Office, 1880-1901. O.R. Vol. 46, pt. 1, p. 448.
[ix] Grimsley, p.43. Bushong, Fightn’ Tom Rosser, C.S.A., p.157.
[x] Hite letter to Arnold, “A Battle Fought in the Streets”
[xi] Confederate Veteran XXXII, No. 4, p.134
[xiii] O.R. XLVI, pt. 1, p. 451. McDonald, op.cit. pp. 339-340. The Confederate killed was Pvt. Isaac Fontaine Hite, Co. D., 6th Va. Cav. [Clarke cavalry]. The wounded soldier was Col. Albert W. Cook who received a wound to the knee that required amputation after he was left in Beverly and captured by the Federals. Reid, Whitlaw, Ohio in the Civil War: Her Statesmen and Soldiers, Vol. II, Cincinnati, The Robert Clarke Company, 1895. P.227, 807.
[xiv] O.R., Vol. 46, pt.1, 448-449. Berringer, Custer’s Gray Rival, p. 197. Bushong, Fightn’ Tom Rosser, p.159. Most citizens regretted the capture of Col. Youart due to his considerate treatment of them while he was in command at Beverly. When he escaped (while unproven, some thought with southern assistance) there was general satisfaction.
[xv] Grimsley, p. 44. Wilson, William Lyne, A Borderline Confederate, ed. Festus P. Summers, Pittsburg, University of Pittsburg Press, 1962. P. 90.