|The Jones-Imboden Raid|
|Part of the American Civil War|
|United States of America||Confederate States of America|
|Commanders and leaders|
|Robert C. Schenck
Benjamin S. Roberts
|William E. Jones
John D. Imboden
|45,000 (Total Middle Military Department)||7,000|
|Casualties and losses|
|Livestock driven off
1,000 head of cattle
16 rail bridges
150,000 barrels of oil
The Jones-Imboden Raid was a Confederate military action conducted in western Virginia (now the state of West Virginia) in April and May 1863 during the American Civil War. The raid, led by Brig. Gens. William E. Jones and John D. Imboden, was aimed at disrupting traffic on the vital Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and reasserting Confederate authority in transmountain Virginia in an effort to derail the growing statehood movement in the region. The raid was successful from a military vantage as severe damage was inflicted upon the railroad and other critical Union resources and valuable supplies and recruits were obtained. From a political standpoint, however, the raid was a failure, having little effect on the sentiment for the formation of a new state.
The raid was first proposed by John Hanson McNeill of McNeill's Rangers. His plan was the destruction of an important bridge of the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad, which was vital to the Union supply lines through western Virginia. McNeill's idea was expanded into a two-prong attack. Gen. Jones was to attack the B&O between Grafton (West) Virginia and Oakland, Maryland. Gen. Imboden would attack Union garrisons at Beverly, Philippi, and Buckhannon. The object of the raid was to secure supplies, disrupt the B&O Railroad, raise recruits and, if possible, cripple the Unionist government in Wheeling.
General W. E. Jones, who was known by the nickname of “Grumble” for his irascible temper and profanity-laced tirades, commanded the 6th, 7th, 11th and 12th Virginia Cavalry, the 1st Maryland Battalion of Cavalry, 35th Battalion of Virginia Cavalry, and McNeill's Rangers. He left Rockingham County with 3,500 men on April 21, 1863, and moved into (West) Virginia with his primary target being two bridges at Rowlesburg, WV. Passing through Greenland Gap on April 25, 1863, he encountered a fortified troop detachment of the 23rd Illinois and was delayed four hours in capturing their position (Battle of Greenland Gap). Jones moved west riding to summit of Cheat Mountain and on to Red House the same day (Red House is located at the intersection of US 219 and US 50). Here he encamped briefly.
Next morning, April 26, 1863, Jones sent McNeill's rangers and the 12th Virginia Cavalry to destroy the B&O bridge at Oakland, Maryland, about 10 miles (16 km) to the north, while Jones's other forces set out to destroy the two main targets of the campaign: the wood and iron bridge crossing Cheat River and the iron bridge crossing Tray Run. R. E. Lee would say that to destroy the Cheat River Bridge would be “worth to me an army.”* To the Federal side preserving "Lincoln's Lifeline" was of equal importance. The bridges crossing Cheat River and Tray Run in Rowlesburg were critical to both sides because their destruction would halt rail traffic all the way to the Ohio. After the initial threat posed by General Garrett’s unsuccessful move toward Rowlesburg in 1861, the Rowlesburg garrison was gradually reduced to about 250 men under the command of Major John Showalter.
Early on the morning of April 26, 1863, Jones and his cavalry rode from Red House, Maryland to the foot of Cheat Mountain on the old Northwestern Turnpike, now US 50. Just the day before they had engaged and defeated a garrison of Union troops defending the passage through Greenland Gap.
When he reached Cheat River on the Northwestern Turnpike Jones chose a two-prong maneuver. From the east side of covered bridge he would be about five miles (8 km) south of Rowlesburg. Jones sent a small dismounted force of less than 100 men up and over Palmer’s Knob to descend into Rowlesburg. This maneuver shortened the distance to Rowlesburg by one-half. Jones ordered his field officer, Captain Octavius T. Weems of the 11th Virginia Cavalry, to torch the Cheat River railroad bridge "at all hazard."
Weems' company K was seen forming on Palmer’s Knob, across the river, east of town while church services were underway. Union soldiers and townsmen grabbed their weapons and rushed to take up defensive positions. The Confederates took up attack positions about two-thirds way down the mountain on a “bench" where they formed a line and moved forward. According to an eyewitness account, at around two-thirty, the troopers “came bounding and bellowing down the mountain, yelling like fiends just up from the pit.” Concealed behind the railroad embankment and armed with Enfield rifles and muskets, soldiers and townspeople allowed the Raiders to come within “easy rifle range,” then opened with devastating fire.
According to other accounts, Weems’ men were also fired upon by a force of “sharpshooters” and “townsfolk,” and by cannons from Cannon Hill about 600 feet (180 m) above the valley with clear views of the battle site. The rebels replied with a volley of their own. Then, a “constant and well-directed fire was opened up on them from the town, and in half an hour not a rebel was to be seen.” The Confederate force was in full retreat. Weems’ attack on the railroad bridge crossing Cheat River had failed utterly.
Fragments of Parrott gun shells have been found on the hillside around Palmer's Knob and below where the Confederates grouped for their charge toward the bridge. Cannonballs have been found for years on Cannon Hill and in town. Records show that cannons were pulled to the top of the hill by oxen. It is assumed these guns were involved in defending the bridge. Howitzers were likely used at close range along the barricade of crossties thrown up by the defenders, as military records show that howitzers were present in Rowlesburg at the time. If cannons were used in the battle for the bridge, it would explain why the Confederates retreated without getting to the bridge.
In the meantime, with the remainder of his forces, Jones had moved two miles (3 km) east to Macomber where the River Road (now WV 72) connected Rowlesburg to the Northwestern Turnpike. He would send Col. John S. Green and his 6th Virginia Cavalry to drive in pickets and attack any perimeter defenses—creating in effect a pincer move against Rowlesburg. At two o’clock shots were heard in town from the direction of the River Road where Green’s forces were driving the pickets back to the Union lines. Green would advance until his troops were less than a mile from town, just beyond a point known as The Cliffs. There a barricade of logs thrown up by the Union forces stopped them. As the Confederate cavalry approached, Lt. McDonald of the Union forces ordered his riflemen to fire. Unable to charge past the enemy as Jones had commanded, Green ordered his men to fall back, then sent for Jones.
This decision would infuriate Gen. Jones and eventually led to the court-martial of Green that September. Col. Green next ordered troops armed with carbines to dismount and move forward along the road and engage McDonald’s force. They came under heavy fire from the mountaineers in the rifle-pits and fell back. Green sent still another dismounted attachment higher up the steep mountainside to circle above McDonald’s men. Strengthened by Lieutenant Hathaway’s Company K., the Union line held once again. According to one source, Hathaway’s force consisted mainly of “about 20 citizens.”
As the day progressed, the fighting on the river road became a desperate test of wills. According to one source, the battle raged “at intervals from 3 p.m. until dark....”. Green could do nothing to dislodge the stubborn Rowlesburg troops and townsmen from their impregnable positions. By now, a completely enraged Jones personally commanded the last assault but after seeing that his troops were stalemated, ordered Green to hold his position until dusk and then pull back to the turnpike. Jones, now accepting defeat, decided to move west to camp for the night. According to Jones, “To renew the attack without the hope of surprise was out of the question, with the difficulties of the ground against us.” The dreaded Confederate Cavalry was useless to him because of the narrow passage and steep hillside. Like the Persians before him at Thermopylae, geography and a stubborn enemy willing to sacrifice all would defeat Jones in his first major battle of the campaign.
A special target for destruction by order of both Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, and Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, General Robert E. Lee, Rowlesburg was the only town or outpost in western Virginia that was a principal target of the raid to stand up to the Confederate onslaught and emerge unscathed. “Lincoln’s Lifeline” was preserved.
The Oakland raid was a success, but the Cheat River bridge was left intact. Jones blamed his subordinates for weak execution of his orders.
Gen. John Imboden had under his command the 22nd, 25th, and 31st Virginia Infantry regiments, the 62nd Virginia Mounted Infantry, Dunn's Mounted Infantry, and the 18th and 19th Virginia Cavalry. Among his subordinate officers were Col. George S. Patton of the 22nd, and Col. William Lowther Jackson of the 19th Virginia Cavalry, later promoted to brigadier general. On April 20, 1863, Imboden moved westward from Shenandoah Mountain with 1,825 men, although reinforcements the next day increased his strength to 3,365. Imboden reported his march through a heavy rain and then snow on his way to Beverly. Once reaching Beverly he was able to defeat Union defenders under Col. George Latham, who retreated northward, leaving behind much needed supplies.
Imboden proceeded towards Buckhannon, but reports of Union reinforcements at Philippi and no news of Jones's position caused him to return to Beverly. Union Brig. Gen. Benjamin S. Roberts, at Buckhannon, decided to withdraw his forces from there as well as from Philippi and reinforce Clarksburg.
That same day, April 28, Imboden learned of Roberts' retreat from Buckhannon and immediately moved his forces there. Roberts had ordered remaining supplies burned, but Imboden's men were able to salvage some, and well as cattle and horses.
In Washington, Gen. Henry Wager Halleck was frustrated by his subordinate officers' inability to stop the raid. He telegraphed to Gen. Robert C. Schenck: "The enemy's raid is variously estimated at from 1,500 to 4,000. You have 45,000 under your command. If you cannot concentrate enough to meet the enemy, it does not argue well for your military dispositions."  To Gen. Benjamin S. Roberts in Buckhannon he wrote: "I do not understand how the roads there are impassable to you, when, by your own account, they are passable enough to the enemy."
On April 29 Imboden decided to march to Philippi and on the way he was met by Gen. Jones and part of his command. Jones had so far burned nine railroad bridges, captured two trains, an artillery piece, 1,200 to 1,500 horses, and 1,000 head of cattle.
On May 3 they moved their forces to Weston, just 23 miles (37 km) south of Clarksburg. Two days later they led a parade through the town and were presented with a flag by the ladies of Weston. Gen. Imboden took the opportunity to send his parents, who lived in Weston, to safety behind Confederate lines.
Although they had contemplated an attack on Clarksburg, the two generals decided that they did not have enough men, detachments having been sent east with the cattle and a number of sick and injured still in Beverly and Buckhannon. They decided to split forces once again, Jones to go northwest and Imboden south to Summersville with the captured supplies and the wounded.
Jones captured West Union and Cairo, burned five more bridges and disabled a railroad tunnel. He then moved toward Oiltown and demolished the oil field and equipment, and burned 150,000 barrels (24,000 m3) of oil. He then moved south to join up with Imboden.
Bad weather returned for Imboden on his march south, the last three days before reaching Summersville covering only 14 miles (23 km). At Summersville he captured a 28 wagon supply train pulled by 170 mules, and also gathered more livestock. He met again with Jones there on May 14 and once again they went their separate ways. Imboden moved south to Lewisburg. A force of Union troops attempted to stop his return to the Shenandoah Valley, but they were met by another Confederate force under Col. John McCausland, who defeated them at Fayetteville, 30 miles (48 km) southwest of Summersville. Gen. Imboden reached the Shenandoah Valley in the last week of May.
Gen. Jones led his men through Greenbrier County where they rested at White Sulphur Springs on May 17 at the "Old White". They moved on to Bath County and came to camp near Mount Crawford in Rockingham on May 21.
In the final tally of the raid, Jones estimated that about 30 of the enemy were killed and 700 prisoners taken. Some 400 new recruits were added, as well as a piece of artillery, 1,000 head of cattle, and some 1,200 horses. Sixteen bridges had been destroyed, an oil field, many boats and rolling rail stock.
The greater part of Gen. Imboden's troops and a good portion of Gen. Jones's troops came from western Virginia. Just a few weeks after their raid the homes of these men would be located in the newest state of the Union, West Virginia, which officially achieved statehood on June 20, 1863. West Virginia is the 35th state to join the Union.
- Jones, Virgil Carrington, "Grey Ghosts and Rebel Raiders", Galahad Books, 1995, pg. 165
- Woodward, Harold R., Jr., "Defender of the Valley, Brigadier General John Daniel Imboden, C.S.A.", Rockbridge Publishing Co., 1996, pg. 72
- Black, Robert W., Cavalry Raids of the Civil War, Stackpole Books, 2004.
- Collins, Darrell, L., The Jones-Imboden Raid: The Confederate Attempt to Destroy the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and Retake West Virginia, McFarland Press, 2007.
- Woodward, Harold R., Jr., Defender of the Valley: Brigadier General John Daniel Imboden, C.S.A., Howell Press, 1996.
- Workman, Michael, "Worth to Me an Army", Study of the History of Rowlesburg in Civil War, commissioned by the Rowlesburg Area Historical Society under a grant from the West Virginia Department of Transportation, Byways Trail Project, 2005.