Civil War: Burning Springs oil and raids

Over the last three years several of these columns have mentioned events at Burning Springs in Wirt County. We are particularly interested in Burning Springs because of its historic importance, both to the oil and gas industry history, but also to Civil War history. The Oil and Gas Museum has built and manages a park there. Significant is that Burning Springs was, in effect, an extension of Parkersburg, in that it was citizens from Parkersburg who were the central characters in its history.

Historically, Burning Springs gets most of its notoriety as a result of the Gen. Jones Confederate raid at the height of the war in May 1863, marking it as the first oilfield attacked and destroyed in war.

Important during the first few months of this early boom, there were over 700 leases recorded in the Wirt County courthouse, where previously there had only been a few per month. This is indicative of how the town grew and became the first fully fledged “Oil Boom Town” in the nation.

When the Civil War started in June 1861, one of the first Confederate guerilla movements matured there, and guerillas immediately formed vigilante bands to frighten “Yankee” oilmen out of the area. We have many reports of their exodus, mostly to nearby Parkersburg by boat and canoe in the dead of night.

Hence, Gen. McClellan, when he conducted the first invasion of the war at Parkersburg, diverted several hundred troops to Wirt County to combat the activities of these guerillas. In a letter from a storekeeper at Burning Springs on July 1, 1861, he reported “Myself and Mrs. Hovey have at last got back to the boat (their store was on a houseboat) We had quite an exciting time last Wednesday. (One hundred forty) soldiers came to Elizabeth and went on the Burning Springs immediately and fought the Battle of Burning Springs in about two hours.”

This is brand new information and was found in the Henderson Hall archives. In a later letter the same storekeeper tells of rebels seeking him out with drawn guns intent on killing him because he is a Yankee. This information makes this incident at Burning Springs the second land battle of the Civil War. An important event.

With these hostilities, leasing of oil lands came to a halt, and the boom was finished. However, after June 1861, the oilfield continued to limp along and oil production was reduced to a trickle. And Union troops moved into the area and attempted to keep order, usually ineffectually. They built a fort at the town, named Fort Hill, in honor of the officer in charge, Captain Hill. Also the name of the town was changed to “Rathbone” in honor of the family that owned most of the property. It was also called “Oiltown” in many national reports.

Less than a year later, we have a report that the guerillas launched another raid on Burning Springs, in May 1862. Seldom reported, the guerillas burned the new fort, but spared the oilfield before being driven off. We have no information at this time as to whether there was a skirmish at this time or even if Union troops were at the new fort, or out on a mission.

The famous Jones raid occurred one year later on May 9, 1863, when the raiding force of 1,500 Confederate troops attacked the town destroying the oilfield. One observer wrote in his diary, the raiders “Ate all the provisions, drank all the whisky and burned all the oil!!!!!!!!”

The Jones raid caused the federal government to speed up the fortification of the railroad across the state and beef up defenses at places like Burning Springs. They also started building Fort Boreman here in Parkersburg. With the Union victory at Gettysburg, the tide of the war had shifted and guerillas began to be kept in check. Many of the guerillas were captured or run out of the area, but not completely.

As a result, by 1864 the Burning Springs, or Rathbone oilfield, was being restored and a new speculation in oil affairs began in earnest. With war prosperity, there was much money in the north and investors streamed in again. Wild speculative schemes aimed at this prosperity were concocted. Many of these evil schemes made local landowners rich.

Because of this area’s poor performance over the years in documenting it history, we have been slow in learning about the importance of places like Burning Springs. For example, because of the lack of historical effort over the years, many inaccuracies exist which have had a tendency to inflate or distort what happened. These were not corrected by historians and hey continue to be repeated over and over and have been accepted as fact.

For example, when Gen. Jones reported to Gen. Lee at the conclusion of his raid, he reported that he had destroyed 150,000 barrels of oil. This is simply not a credible fact, but it has been repeated in print from the day he filed the report. The state of West Virginia erected a historical marker at Burning Springs stating this as fact. It also states that the well at Burning Springs was the first oil well in the state. That is also not a fact.

Currently, the state maintains a website and continues to repeat these inaccurate facts regardless of historical findings. These facts are also repeated in the West Virginia Encyclopedia. The book “Where It All Began” written by yours truly and Dr. Bernard Allen, published in 1994, clearly refutes this information but has not been picked up by state historians in published material.

Further, it is also reported that the population of Burning Springs was anywhere from 6,000 to 12,000 persons. Research shows that the population was never more than 2,000, still a huge figure considering that a year earlier there were just a few families.

We have acquired, since we published “Where It All Began”, many new pieces of information about what went on there during the Civil War. This new information is important in that it helps us understand a large piece of the West Virginia oil industry and Civil War history, because it helps explain how important the Confederate guerilla activity was in hurting the Union war effort in this area. This also affected the national war effort because the activity at Burning Springs was a microcosm of the guerilla war effort across the state along the strategically critical B&O railroad and south. My point here is that historians must keep up with current findings which can change over time. And that is very true of Burning Springs history.

It might come as a great surprise, but in the last 10 years, many new wells have been drilled in the Burning Springs area surrounding our park where one of the first oil wells in the world, owned by the Oil & Gas Museum, still can produce oil and gas. You might say Burning Springs is a symbol of the areas oil and Civil War history.

We want to take this opportunity to announce that a new documentary movie has been produced by Motion Masters in Charleston. The title of the one hour documentary is “Burning Springs” and will be aired on West Virginia Public Television on March 4, 2014, at 7:30 p.m.

This documentary about our area will be a welcome promotion for us. We hope you enjoy.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dave McKain is director of the Oil and Gas Museum and is chairman of the area Civil War Roundtable which is commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Contact him at