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Moccasin Rangers led civilian fighters in western Virginia

June 20, 2013
Parkersburg News and Sentinel

By JEFFREY SAULTON

jsaulton@newsandsentinel.com

PARKERSBURG - In the early days of the Civil War in what would become West Virginia, those who supported secession from Virginia feared retribution from a band of civilians known as the Moccasin Rangers.

Article Photos

George Hall holds a copy of his book about the Moccasin Rangers.

George Hall of Parkersburg, the author "Civilian War in West Virginia, the Moccasin Rangers," said they were Confederate minded, but did not want to enlist in the Confederate Army.

"They thought that would mean they would be taken elsewhere and their home front would be left unprotected," he said. "That meant making do the best they could on their own."

Hall said most of the members were from Calhoun County, but they also came from other areas.

"They came from anywhere from Wood and Wirt counties, all the way down to Greenbrier County," he said.

The modern-day northern counties were more Union leaning than the other counties, Hall said.

"Down South they had more reason to be conflicted because people of Confederate interests could have more liberties in punishing people for being Union," he said. "The Union had more troops in the northern counties."

Hall said the rangers would be seen as terrorists today.

"They did do acts of terrorism," he said. "They basically wanted to keep communities Confederate as much as possible, but when the communities would betray them or turn on them or sic the Union on them they went after them and some of those punishments were not very nice."

Hall said it is not known how many people were involved in the rangers, since written records were not kept for various reasons.

"They did not write anything incriminating, because letters could be intercepted and implicate someone," he said. "You did not write a diary to implicate yourself with something treasonous."

Hall said the numbers varied depending on the situation, from a few to more than 100.

"When the Roane County Courthouse was under siege, there were 400 people there and it was said they were Moccasin Rangers but they probably were not all Moccasin Rangers, but we don't know how many were," he said. "Early on they had a roster of members and it was found and it only incriminates them."

Hall said many of the members were important in their communities as elected officials, such as a sheriff or a magistrate or other positions like a postmaster.

Moccasin Rangers are known for a Clay County incident.

"In a place called Booger Hole they took two Union home guards out of their homes in the middle of the night, took them quite a ways away, tied them to a Buckeye Tree with their arms wrapped around each other and shot them full of holes," he said. "Basically the message was they were suspected of being informants on Moccasin Ranger activities."

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Hall said the incident took place after several members were being caught and the only way it could have been happening was from insider information.

Perry Conley and Peter Saurborne were the leaders from the early days, Hall said. As they were killed or captured others would come forward and take their places such as George Downs and Perry Hays.

Hall said the rangers did not have a part in any of the Civil War's battles.

"They were mostly in the frontier and involved in skirmishes and small battles," he said.

As the war progressed, Hall said, the Moccasin Rangers were broken up as a purely guerrilla unit in January 1862.

"At that time a lot of them joined a hybrid military organization the governor of Virginia put together called Virginia State Line that lasted less than a year," he said. "It was done to give them a military identity because the Union said anybody caught taking arms against the United States and wasn't regularly enrolled would be considered a criminal.

"In a number of cases they were just shot summarily," he said. "A lot like Iraq and Afghanistan today. If you are not under uniform they didn't know what to do with you and if they had any questions they would be sent to prison in Columbus, Ohio, at Camp Chase."

Hall said up to the middle of the war, Camp Chase was where they put those they could not categorize as civilian or military.

From the middle of the war up to the end of the war Camp Chase was known for harsh treatment of prisoners.

Hall said since he wrote the book on the Moccasin Rangers, he has discovered more information about the members. Among them are letters from the wives of Perry Hays and George Silcott.

Hall said the letters gave him more insight to the men and their situations. They were wanted men and had taken up arms again after they had been released from Camp Chase on an oath of allegiance, meaning they would not take up arms for the Confederates again.

"As late as 1864, according to Silcott's wife, he and Hays were not enlisted in the army but were serving the Confederate cause," he said. "But other records from the time say they were enrolled. Silcott's wife wrote a letter to her mother saying they were not enrolled but added they did not dare show their faces or they would be arrested like they were in 1862."

Hall said Nancy Hart, a famous female member, may have had some family connections with the famous Hatfield and McCoy unit.

After the war, Hall said life was not good for members of the Moccasin Rangers.

"They didn't have any real civil rights or serve in a responsible position," he said. "If I understand it correctly, they may not have been allowed to teach school. They could not testify in court; it was easy for them to be sued and lose."

Hall said West Virginia lifted restrictions against former Confederates in later years. He said part of the reason for the restrictions was to keep West Virginia independent from Virginia.

"They did not want to throw up for grabs again what they had spent years creating an independent state," he said. "They didn't want former Confederates trying to take them back to Virginia. In some counties they were more afraid of that, especially in the southern counties of what is now West Virginia."

 
 

 

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