|Active||1862 - May 8, 1865|
|Country||Confederate States of America|
|Allegiance||John Hanson McNeill|
|Engagements||American Civil War|
|John Hanson McNeill
McNeill's Rangers was an independent Confederate military force commissioned under the Partisan Ranger Act (1862) by the Confederate Congress during the American Civil War. The 210 man unit (equivalent to a small or under-strength battalion) was formed from Company E of the 18th Virginia Cavalry and the First Virginia Partisan Rangers (62nd Virginia Mounted Infantry). After the repeal of the Act on February 17, 1864, McNeill's Rangers was one of two partisan forces allowed to continue operation, the other being 43rd Battalion Virginia Cavalry (Mosby's Raiders). Both of these guerrilla forces operated in the western counties of Virginia and West Virginia. The Rangers were known to exercise military discipline when conducting raids. However, many Union generals considered Captain John Hanson McNeill (1815–1864) and his men to be "bushwhackers," not entitled to protection when captured, as was the case with other prisoners of war.
In 1861, McNeill — a native of western Virginia — had formed and commanded a company in the Missouri State Guard. Although captured and imprisoned in St. Louis, he escaped the following year and made his way back to Virginia. In Richmond he obtained permission to form an independent unit in the western counties of Virginia (now West Virginia) and on September 5, 1862, McNeill became captain of Company E of the 18th Virginia Cavalry ("McNeill's Rangers"). McNeill's frequent raids on Piedmont, a town in Hampshire (now Mineral) County, West Virginia — and on Cumberland, Maryland — were aimed at disrupting the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad service. It is estimated that over 25,000 troops were diverted by Federal commanders to guard the B&O against McNeill's force. Piedmont, a small town at the foot of the Allegheny Mountains, was a frequent target due to its important machine shops and vast stores of railroad supplies. The main line of the B&O passed through a narrow valley at Piedmont. (At the time, Piedmont was also the temporary seat of Hampshire County — Romney having been given up as the county seat because of repeated Confederate raids.)
After earlier raids were unsuccessful, McNeill finally succeeded in severing the railroad and burning the machine shops at Piedmont. The President of the B&O, John W. Garrett, reported on[when?] to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton that "the extensive machine and carpenter shops of Piedmont have been burned. The engine and cars of the east-bound main train and two-tonnage trains have also been destroyed. Five other engines damaged. ... The heat of the fire at the wreck of the trains at Bloomington had been too intense to permit much work, but during the night we expect to have the entire road again clear and train running regularly."
Captain McNeill's official report to James A. Seddon, the Confederate Secretary of War, reads:" ...We burned some seven large buildings filled with the finest machinery, engines, and railroad cars; burned nine railroad engines, some seventy-five or eighty burthern cars, two trains of cars heavily laden with commissary stores, and sent six engines with full head of steam toward New Creek. Captured the mail and mail train and 104 prisoners on the train. ..."
The blows of McNeill's Rangers grew heavier as the Civil War progressed. Brigadier General Benjamin F. Kelley, the Federal commander in the area, was especially irritated at the tempo of their raids and the havoc created by each one. On May 22, 1864, in a special communique to Colonel Higgins at Green Spring, Kelley ordered: "As soon as practicable send Captain Hart with 125 or 150 men on a scout up the east side of the river, to Moorefield and vicinity, after McNeill." Kelley continued: "It is not necessary for me to give Captain Hart any minute instructions. He is well acquainted in that vicinity. I will simply say I want McNeill killed, captured, or driven out of this valley." His 150 men were not enough, and McNeill escaped.
McNeill's Rangers also had pro-Union irregulars to contend with in western Virginia; northern Pendleton County, in particular, was pro-Union and organized itself into the "Pendleton Home Guards" which frequently confronted the roving confederate bands. On 19 July 1864 near Petersburg, a detachment of McNeill's Rangers attacked about 30 Home Guards under Captain John Boggs (whose company was known as the "Swamp Dragons"). The confederates were repulsed and their leader, Lieutenant Dolen, killed.
McNeill died on 10 November 1864 of wounds sustained during a raid. Command of the Rangers passed to his son Jesse Cunningham McNeill.
On February 22, 1865, Jesse McNeill and 65 Rangers travelled 60 miles behind enemy lines to Cumberland, Maryland. Without being detected, they captured both Union Major General George Crook and Brig. Gen. Benjamin Kelley from their beds. They evaded pursuing Federal cavalry and delivered the captured generals to Lieutenant General Jubal A. Early who forwarded the prisoners to Richmond.
In the last year of the War, McNeill's Rangers commander Major Harry Gilmore used "The Willows" near Moorefield, West Virginia as his command. The Rangers used nearby Mill Island and McNeill family-owned Willow Wall as hospitals.
- Zedric, Lance Q. & Dilley, Michael F. Elite Warriors: 300 Years of America's Best Fighting Troops. Pathfinder Publishing, Inc., 1996. p. 98.
- Lepa, Jack H. The Shenandoah Valley campaign of 1864. McFarland, 2003. p. 28.
- West Virginia Writers Project (1940), Smoke Hole and Its People: A Social-Ethnic Study; Charleston, West Virginia: State Department of Education; Reprinted (pp 101-132) in: Shreve, D. Bardon (2005), Sheriff from Smoke Hole (and Other Smoke Hole Stories), Fredericksburg, Virginia: The Fredricksburg Press, Inc, pg 118.
- Heidler, David Stephen, et al. Encyclopedia of the American Civil War: a political, social, and military history. W. W. Norton & Company, 2002. p. 1293.
- Nancy Ann Snider (August 1972). "National Register of Historic Places Inventory Nomination Form: The Willows" (PDF). State of West Virginia, West Virginia Division of Culture and History, Historic Preservation. Retrieved 2011-08-03.
- Nancy Snider (August 1972). "National Register of Historic Places Inventory Nomination Form: Mill Island" (PDF). State of West Virginia, West Virginia Division of Culture and History, Historic Preservation. Retrieved 2011-08-03.
- Nancy Snider (August 1972). "National Register of Historic Places Inventory Nomination Form: Willow Wall" (PDF). State of West Virginia, West Virginia Division of Culture and History, Historic Preservation. Retrieved 2011-08-03.
- Neil Hunter Raiford, "The 4th North Carolina Cavalry in the Civil War", McFarland & Company, 2003, ISBN 0-7864-1468-5, page 5.