A Scholarly Monograph By Stephen French
31 March 2001
The Papers of the Blue and Gray Education Society, Number 10
The following message was delivered to Brigadier General W.E. “Grumble” Jones on March 16th, 1863:
This will be handed to you by Capt. J. H. McNeill… He has submitted to me, with the commendation of General Imboden, a plan of gallant dash, with some 600 to 800 men, to accomplish the destruction of the trestle-work on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and the bridge over the Cheat River. These are objects of special importance, and their successful accomplishment has long engaged the special interest of the President.
Early in March 1863 while the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia were still in their winter camps on opposite sides of the Rappahannock River, an interesting proposal for a spring campaign into the mountains of western Virginia reached the desk of General Robert E. Lee. Not only did the plan offer Lee and the Confederate government the hope of regaining the initiative in the Alleghenies, but it also promised to deal the B&O Railroad a crippling blow by destroying two massive viaducts and a bridge located at the small rail-town of Rowlesburg.
Since the beginning of the war, the large size of the structures and their remote location had made them a prime target for destruction by rebel raiders. The bridge across the Cheat River was a two-span structure made of wood and iron. It measured 312 feet long and stood 27 feet above the river. About one mile west of that point, along the side of a steep ridge, the Buckeye Hollow Viaduct spanned a deep ravine. It was a cast-iron edifice 340 feet long and 46 feet high that rested on a stone wall base; heavy wooden beams supported the track. Six-tenths of a mile farther on was the railroad’s showpiece, the Trey Run Viaduct. Known far and wide among railroad enthusiasts for its great beauty, it was a colossal structure 445 feet long and towering 58 feet above another chasm. It was built of the same material as its sister.
Brigadier General John D. Imboden, commander of the Northwestern Virginia Brigade, was the author of the plan. Although originally conceived by partisan chieftain Captain John Hanson McNeill to be a lightning strike on Rowlesburg, Imboden had greatly expanded it into a full-fledged expedition. As explained to Lee, Brigadier General William E. Jones’ cavalry brigade would ride north from the Shenandoah Valley to threaten Federal posts at Romney, New Creek (Virginia), and Cumberland (Maryland). Once Jones reached Romney, a picked force of 500 riders would leave Moorefield late in the afternoon and make their way overnight towards Oakland, Maryland, to burn a railroad bridge near there. After accomplishing their mission at Oakland, the horseman would advance to their main objective at Rowlesburg.
In the meantime, Imboden would be leading the rest of his men westward along the Staunton-Parkersburg. Turnpike to attack the Union garrison at Beverly, Virginia. If successful, this action would divert Federal attention from Rowlesburg clearing the way for Jones and his men to attack the Yankee’s stationed there. Once the Northerners had been driven off and the bridge and viaducts destroyed, the strike force would try to link up with Imboden at either Buckhannon or Weston and move against the Northwestern Railroad, a line that ran west from Grafton to the Ohio River at Parkersburg.
Imboden, who as colonel of the 1st Virginia Partisan Rangers had previously led two failed attempts on Rowlesburg in August and November 1862, pointed out to Lee other advantages that the Confederates would gain from an invasion of the northwest.”I am satisfied that I should receive several thousand recruits and a large number of horses and cattle could be collected.” The forty-year-old former businessman and lawyer from Staunton, who had started the war as a captain in the Staunton Artillery, continued to plead his case and may have convinced his commander that the plan had a good chance to succeed when he stated:
These expectations may seem wild, but I assure you, general, that at no period since the war commenced has the opportunity ever been so good as to gain a foothold in the northwest. The weakness of the enemy, the dis-affection among the people towards their ruler, and the unexpectedness of the movement, all give promise of success.
In closing, the brigadier also requested that Lee send him the 25th and 31st Virginia Infantry Regiments to bolster the force moving on Beverly. Both units, whose ranks were seriously thinned, were made up of men from the northwest. Imboden reasoned that they could fill up their depleted companies with recruits and that the soldiers “would fight like tigers the vandals who for so long had domineered their helpless families.” Imboden projected April 1 as the earliest possible starting date for the campaign.
Lee spent about a week studying the plan, finally giving it the go-ahead in a letter sent to the brigadier on March 11th. Always impressed with his subordinate’s natural military instincts, Lee no doubt bolstered the brigadier’s confidence in reaching his goals when he wrote, “I think if carried out with your energy and promptness, it will succeed.”
In the letter, Lee also replied that he might not be able to spare the two regiments, but suggested that some extra troops might be borrowed from Major General Sam Jones, commander of the Department of Western Virginia. Later that day, Lee dispatched a letter by courier to Jones’ headquarters in Dublin, Virginia, informing him of the proposed secret expedition. After asking Jones if there was any possibility of detaching two regiments from his command for use by Imboden, Lee ordered to “threaten any force that may be in the Kanawha Valley…” when Imboden’s command moved out.
On March 6th, in Richmond, Captain John H. McNeill had discussed the plan with Secretary of War James A. Seddon. It was hard for the Secretary not to be excited over the daring scheme put forward by the fearless partisan leader. McNeill, now forty-eight, was originally from Hardy County, Virginia, but had moved to Missouri where he established himself as a respected stock breeder. When the war broke out, he fought for the Confederacy in his adopted state before moving back home in 1862. Once there he put together a company of tough fighters for Imboden’s 1st Virginia Partisan Rangers. However, when Imboden’s outfit was reorganized and taken into the regular army as the Northwestern Virginia Brigade in January 1863, McNeill and some of his men voted to continue as partisans. Regardless, the Rangers now numbering just fifty-five horses were part of the Imboden’s command.
Secretary Seddon was especially intrigued by the image of the grizzled old warrior leading his own band of wild Highlanders and other untamed riders in the attack on Rowlesburg, an undertaking that might prove of great significance to the Confederacy. He soon sent McNeill on to Sam Jones’ headquarters with a strong endorsement. Seddon wrote, “He is perfectly confident of his ability to accomplish this enterprise, and, …I am inclined to think the enterprise very likely to prove successful.” McNeill also visited the camp of Valley District commander Brigadier General William E. Jones at Lacey Springs to deliver a note from Seddon and inform him of his upcoming assignment.
During the rest of March, letters flowed back and forth between the key participants in an effort to fine-tune the plan and make sure that both wings had the required men and materials. Everything was to be in place by April 1st. Despite the urgency, nature had its own schedule and the bad weather in the Alleghenies created anxiety and confusion between the cooperating commanders. The expedition had to be delayed.
March 1863 was an awful month for military operations. Heavy rains fell constantly turning normally shallow and fordable streams into raging torrents. Except for a few turnpikes that had macadamized surfaces, most roads in the region turned into trails of bottomless mud. A column moving into such an area would have had little chance of success.
Sam Jones had been briefed on the plan; however, he was confused as to whether Imboden and McNeill were acting jointly or independently. After receiving a message from W.E. Jones on March 19 that McNeill would be ready to start on March 22, he immediately sent notes to Imboden and Jones trying to clarify the relationship. Writing to Imboden, he penned, ” I am afraid that there is some misapprehension between you, W.E.Jones, and McNeill. I earnestly recommend that you communicate with both of the officers, and act in concert; otherwise, some confusion may arise, leading inevitably to failure.”
While all of this activity was going on, William E. “Grumble” Jones was busy crafting a second plan at Lacey Springs. At first, the general had seemed to go along with the outline of the expedition, but as time passed he became determined not to yield the initiative to either Imboden or McNeill. His March 31″ proposal, recommended to Lee that he lead the eastern component of the troops in the attack on the railroad.
“Grumble” the nickname given for his irascible temper and sudden profanity-laced tirades, was a thirty-eight-year-old West Point graduate (class of 1848). He had served against the Indians on the western frontier while in the U.S. Mounted Rifles. A widower, who had lost his wife in a shipwreck, he resigned his commission in the army in the late 1850s and moved to Glade Springs, Virginia, where he farmed and lived as a recluse. Many considered him an excellent leader of men and cavalry. Major General J.E.B. Stuart called Jones his best “outpost” officer. However, his brusque manner around his troopers led to him being “voted out” as Colonel of the 1st Virginia Cavalry in the April 1862 reorganization.
After carefully studying Jones last-minute revisions to Imboden’s scheme, Lee decided to incorporate the ideas proffered by the more experienced officer. He wrote both men with revised instructions on April 7. Jones would replace McNeill as leader of the attack on the railroad bridges. Meanwhile, Imboden and his men would still move against the Yankees at Beverly and Grafton. The commander, possibly anticipating his coming invasion of the north, emphasized to both brigadiers that the collection of cattle, horses, and provisions was just as important to the Confederacy as wrecking the railroad. Lee also offered advice on the placement of scouts while on the march and cautioned them to observe secrecy.
By now, the starting date of the raid had been pushed back to the middle of April causing the planners to fear the raid might be compromised by impatient troopers. If the Federals got an inkling of the pending assault they could easily reinforce the threatened points and foil the entire raid. Even President Davis expressed concern with the delay. His March 28th letter to Lee suggested that “now is the time to destroy… the Cheat River Bridge, if possible.”
Soon the delays ended and by April 14, the different units of Jones’ eastern wing were preparing for departure. Unfortunately, the brigadier received disheartening news from Lee that a Yankee raiding party was on its way to the Shenandoah Valley. As a precaution, Lee instructed Jones to “Collect your forces and be on guard.” Almost certain that the Unionists were on the way, “Grumble” telegraphed Sam Jones with the message, ” I countermand the movement of troops. Met an advance of Hooker’s cavalry; will detain me for present.” Fortunately for Jones and his troopers, the raiders did not cross the Blue Ridge and the command got back to the business at hand. On the 16th, Jones telegraphed Imboden, “There is no sign of the enemy in the Valley…I would be glad to see you in a few days to arrange our affairs.” Finally, the long hoped for invasion of northwestern Virginia was at hand.