PARKERSBURG - The first notable skirmishes of the Civil War in Wirt County took place 150 years ago in October 1861.
Operatives of the Moccasin Rangers, civilian Southern sympathizers considered terrorists by the Federal troops, attacked Union soldiers stationed in Elizabeth. No one was killed, but several soldiers with the 1st (West) Va. Cavalry were injured in the skirmish, said Brian Kesterson, a historian and awarding winning author of histories about the war.
"But it was a fairly lengthy gun battle," Kesterson said.
The oil facilities at Burning Springs were a target for the Confederacy, said Dave McKain, curator of the Oil and Gas Museum in Parkersburg. The skirmishes in October 1861 in and around Elizabeth predated the raid on Burning Springs in 1863. (Photos by Jess Mancini)
Brian Kesterson, a recognized Civil War historian from Wood County, said the Moccasin Rangers, a guerrilla band of Southern sympathizers, were active in Wirt County in the early years of the Civil War. The first skirmishes in the county occurred 150 years ago in October 1861.
Photo courtesy Brian Kesterson
This Civil War era photo hanging in the Beauchamp-Newman Museum was taken in the direction from where the Moccasin Rangers fired upon Union troops in Elizabeth in October 1861, according to Brian Kesterson. The Beauchamp Mill is on the bank of the Little Kanawha near one of the fords. On the bank above the mill is the large red brick home of David and Elizabeth Beauchamp built in 1835, now the Beauchamp-Newman Museum, where Wirt County was founded in 1848. The large two-story structure to the left of the Beauchamp home is the Little Kanawha River Hotel built in 1802, a well-known historic site in Wirt County. The large building facing the hotel is the old courthouse.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Events are planned locally and across the nation. The Moccasin Rangers, which had much support in Calhoun County, while not part of the Confederate army, disrupted supply and communications lines, ransacked villages and terrorized those who offered aid to the Union, including murder like the decapitation of Casper Prisler. As non-military combatants, Union commanders ordered the summary execution of captured rangers, which eventually led to the disbanding of the units or their absorption into the Confederate Army to provide them protections as prisoners of war.
The skirmish predated the raid on the Burning Springs oil fields in May 1863 when Confederate forces set fire to 150,000 barrels of oil and other equipment. The Burning Springs raid was the major Civil War incident in the county, Kesterson said.
In October 1861, 40 soldiers in the 1st West Virginia were attacked by a 20-man force of the Moccasin Rangers who had placed themselves on the hill overlooking present-day Route 53 East and Riverside Road 53/17, according to Kesterson. The hill had been trenched by Union soldiers for a fortification similar to that on Fort Boreman, but was never completed, he said.
The Rangers fired upon the surprised federals who were camped around the courthouse, Kesterson said. The Union soldiers returned fire, Kesterson said.
"The battle, if you were going to call it a battle, lasted about an hour," Kesterson said. "No one was killed in this exchange, but it was a fairly lengthy gun battle."
The Rangers withdrew over the ridge toward one of their strongholds, a tannery house near the residence of Peter A. Saurborne on Annamoriah Hill in Calhoun County, Kesterson said. Saurborne, a captain of the Moccasin Rangers, was killed by Union troops near his home in December 1861, Kesterson said.
"This wasn't the first skirmish in Wirt County," Kesterson said. "This was the first notable offense the Moccasins had perpetrated on the federals."
The first was Sept. 27, 1861, near the High Log Run bridge, according to Hardesty's History of Wirt County, published in 1884. The bridge is in the vicinity of the present-day rock cliffs on West Virginia 5
The federals were "suddenly fired upon from the hill above the road, being a ledge of rocks, timber and bushes, and two of the men belonging to Capt. Hill's company, Hamilton McClain and R. E. Weaver, were wounded. The firing was kept up for some time by the federals, but it was never known for a certainty that any of the Confederates were hurt," the book said.
Numerous skirmishes occurred in Wirt County, more there than in Wood County, Kesterson said.
The reason was the oil facilities at Burning Springs, said Dave MaKain, curator of the Oil and Gas Museum in Parkersburg and the park at Burning Springs
"There was a lot of people there and they were wealthy," McKain said. "And it was full of Yankees and they were trying to throw the Yankees out."
The rangers were not an army capable of occupation, so much of what they did was rabble rousing, including bank robbery, McKain said. "They were criminals to a large extent, but that was very typical in guerrilla activities."
In the West Virginia state archives is The Wheeling Daily Intelligencer of Oct. 23, 1861, which carried a story, possibly embellished, about the incident with the headline "Fighting in Wirt County - Col. Richmond with his Four Companies from this City, Pursues the Rebels." The incident apparently occurred on Oct. 16 against a force of 75 with 12 of the enemy killed.
The story also said a force of 200 rebels attacked Elizabeth on Oct. 18, but were repulsed, and that the rebels on Oct. 19 pillaged several homes in Burning Springs and stole horses. Hill was reinforced on Sunday by infantry from Wheeling.
"While our forces were at Elizabethtown, a secessionist named Roberts fired upon a Union man who was plowing in a field near the town. The Union man reported the fact, when a squad of our men went out on the double quick after Roberts," said the story headlined "The Expedition to Wirt County" on Oct. 29, 1861. "They soon got sight of him, and succeeded in running him into a raid pile out of which he was fool enough to stick his head for reconnoitering purposes. He was fired upon and killed."
From an Oct. 30, 1861, story, The Intelligencer reported a Union supporter gave authorities information leading to the arrest of a secessionist. The informer later was killed in a cold-blooded murder, the story said. "They killed the brave fellow as they would have killed a dog, and paid no more attention to his body afterward."