Battle of Rowlesburg
Rowlesburg was a critical railroad link for the Union Army during the Civil War. Lee made destruction of its famous bridges a high priority. Despite attempts, the Rebels never touched the bridges of Rowlesburg. The original Cheat River Bridge (shown below) stood throughout the Civil War due to valiant efforts of the undermanned Union regiment stationed in Rowlesburg.
The Tray Run Viaduct, just west of Rowlesburg was also a target during the Civil War. It was considered a marvel of its time. Albert Fink, a young engineer, was assigned the task of crossing a deep ravine on a steep Laurel Mountain hillside above Cheat River. His iron framework was featured in the London News and was the subject of many artists.
Historian Mike Workman recently completed a definitive study of Rowlesburg in the Civil War. The account that follows of the attack on Rowlesburg comes from Dr. Workman’s study.
“On July 11, 1861, General George McClellan ordered General Charles W. Hill to increase his forces at Rowlesburg and supply it with one gun. Rowlesburg-area tradition asserts that Peter Wotring hauled a cannon up to the top of Cannon Hill with a team of oxen. The rough pattern of this road is discernible today. Confederate General, W. E. Jones, who was known by the nickname of “Grumble” for his irascible temper and profanity-laced tirades, would lead the 1500 Confederate troops, known as “Jones’ Raiders.” Major Showalter would defend the town with 220 Federal Troops.
Arriving at the foot of Cheat Mountain on the Northwestern Turnpike Sunday morning, April 26, 1863, a prisoner, named Morris who had been captured at West Union, bellowed “General Jones, I hope you don’t think of attacking Rowlesburg. Why, there’s over 1600 troops there now and more arriving by every train. Them troops aren’t New England Yankees, they’re western Virginia Yankees at home and will fight like wildcats.” Jones had known Morris before the war and considered him an honest man. However, General Jones sent Col. Green to attack defenses along the river road coming into Rowlesburg. Jones sent an additional two hundred dismounted troopers under the command of Captain Weems up over a steep mountain called Palmer’s Knob (now known as Lantz Ridge) to strike the east end of the railway bridge at Rowlesburg. According to Jones’ report of the attack, Weems was to attack the east end of the railroad bridge at Rowlesburg, and to “fire it at all hazard.”
There were 250 Union soldiers in the town this Sunday morning when the tranquility was broken by John Wheeler running into church services to warn of confederate troops moving near with 1000 veteran troopers. Services were ended as the townspeople rushed to help the soldiers with the defense of the town. At two o’clock shots were heard from the direction of the river road, where Green’s forces were driving in the pickets. Meanwhile, Weem’s detachment was seen forming on Palmer’s Knob, across the river, east of town. They took positions about half 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 rifled muskets, soldiers and townspeople allowed the Confederates to come within “easy rifle range,” then opened with a devastating fire. According to other accounts, Weems’s men were also fired upon by a force of “sharpshooters” and “townsfolk,” as well as by cannon from Cannon Hill and positions on the east side of the river. 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’s attack on the railroad bridge crossing Cheat River had failed utterly. The bridge would last several decades before being replaced by a Bollman Bridge.
River Road Encounter
Meanwhile, the more desperate fight on what was called, “the river road,” was raging. This road is now referred to as the Macomber Road, connecting Rowlesburg to US 50. According to one source, the fight continued “at intervals from 3 p.m. until dark....”. As the Confederate cavalry came to a narrow place in the road, about one mile from town, Lt. McDonald of the Union forces ordered his riflemen to fire. Rather than charging 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 lead to the court-martial of Green that September. Col. Green next ordered troopers 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.” 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, 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.”
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.”
Printed with permission from Dr. Mike Workman,
this article first appeared in the Rowlesburg Sesquicentennial Magazine 2008 in cooperation with Rowlesburg Area Historical Society.