“Bite-Size Bits of Local, National, and Global History”
“Bite-Size Bits of Local, National, and Global History”

Rowlesburg in Preston County, West Virginia — The American South (Appalachia)

Battle of Rowlesburg

April 26, 1863

Front Side of the Kiosk image. Click for full size.
By Craig Swain, July 24, 2010
1. Front Side of the Kiosk
Cheat Bridge Become Target
Cheat Bridges Become Target
Since 1861, a special target for destruction by order of both 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 principle target of the raid to stand up to the Confederate onslaught and emerge unscathed.

After arriving in Grafton on June 23, 1861 General George McClellan decided to establish a strong position at Philippi and protect his line of supply, the B&O. McClellan, who had served as chief engineer for the Illinois Central Railroad and was intimately familiar with the B&O, assigned forty-eight companies to guard it. To protect the costly Cheat River Bridge and viaducts he posted an entire regiment, the 1st Virginia Infantry, fresh from its victory at Philippi, at Rowlesburg, after visiting the isolated town in person.

Fearing that McClellan would augment his force along the B&O in Northern Virginia, and then use the rail line to advance to Harpers Ferry in support of an invasion of eastern Virginia, Confederates, led by General Robert E. Lee made plans to cut
Second Panel of Kiosk image. Click for full size.
By Craig Swain, July 24, 2010
2. Second Panel of Kiosk
Illustration is from Harper's Weekly, August 3, 1861, depicting General Hill's Headquarters in Rowlesburg, p. 487. (Which differs from the cited page number in the marker text.)
the B&O. They resolved to demolish the B&Os viaducts and bridge at Rowlesburg along the Cheat River. Realizing that no other point on the B&O offered such a high density of targets, and that rebuilding these remarkable structures would entail considerable time and expense, Lee wrote: "The rupture of the railroad at Cheat River would be worth to us an army."

Under McClellan's orders, General Charles E. Hill's Union forces prepared their defensive positions at and near Rowlesburg.

Colonel James Irvine was assigned the duty of protecting the railroad bridge and trestles at Rowlesburg, as well as the Northwestern Turnpike Bridge four miles up the Cheat River. Irvine established his headquarters at the turnpike bridge, which was protected by an advance guard of two companies under Captain Donlon and Captain Chapman. These troops, some two hundred men, built breast works and quartered on this covered bridge. A telegraph line linked Irwin's advance position to the main force at Rowlesburg.

On July 3, 1861 General Hill and staff, accompanied by Captian I.M. Pumphrey, Quartermaster of the 1st Virginia, made a tour of inspection of the Rowlesburg positions. Informing readers of this inspection tour, a Wheeling Intelligencer reporter noted that "everything is working admirably about Cheat River." The reporter considered General Hill "a shrewd, able and most accomplished
Third Panel image. Click for full size.
By Craig Swain, July 24, 2010
3. Third Panel
Jones Elects Two-prong Attack
commander... no ordinary man." Believing that Confederate forces would soon attack Rowlesburg, the reporter added: "It is a great pity that the other Virginia companies yet behind on the line of the B&O RR are not with them (the Rowlesburg Force), as there is good reason to believe that the force in that quarter may have an opportunity of covering themselves with glory."

"Worth to us an Army..." Rowlesburg and Cannon Hill are in the Civil War, Historical Research Project. Prepared by Michael E. Workman, West Virginia University, for the Rowlesburg Area Historical Society with support from the West Virginia Department of Transportation, May 2006. Excerpted by Timothy Weaver, Professor Emeritus, Boston University.

Establishing a Defense of the B&O
Hills Headquarters
"Rowlesburg, the headquaters of General Hill in Western Virginia, is situated in a deep gorge in the Alleghenies, at a point where the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad crosses Cheat River. The scenery around it is bold, grand, and picturesque, shut in by towering mountain-walls, the dark stream flows silently on, overshadowed with dense forests of hemlock and laurel. This region of country is wild and thinly populated, and deer and bear roam unmolested along the thickly-wooded slopes. The little village has sprung up since the opening of the railroad, and has become quite
Map image. Click for full size.
By Craig Swain, July 24, 2010
4. Map
Map showing the defense of Rowlesburg in blue, along with the route of Jones' attack in red.
a thriving place. General Hill is at present concentrating all his troops at Rowlesburg, by order of General McClellan, for the purpose of cutting off the retreat of the Confederates lately under Garnett, at St. George. The illustration will be found on page 490."

The bridge, which was a composite (wood and iron through-truss designed by Fink, is depicted somewhat inaccurately by the artist since it shows the sides covered, as well as the roof, and does not include the wrought iron laterals. See Workman, May 2005.)

Jones Elects Two-prong Attack
On March 28, 1863 Jefferson Davis sent a letter to R.E. Lee suggesting that "now is the time to destroy ... the Cheat River Bridge, if possible." Finally, on April 20, after delays due to heavy rain, J.D. Imboden left his base on Shenandoah Mountain with an army of 3,300, chiefly infantry, and pressed forward on the Staunton and Parkersburg Turnpike to Beverly, which they reached on April 24. Meanwhile, W.E. "Grumble" Jones departed from Brocks Gap on April 21, 1863.

Jones' force crossed the [West] Virginia line in the morning of April 26, some stopping at the Red House Tavern for a griddlecake breakfast. At nearby West Union (Aurora) the confederates stole food and clothing from David Ridenour's store and took hostages to question and act as guides through the unfamiliar
Last Panel image. Click for full size.
By Craig Swain, July 24, 2010
5. Last Panel
Jones' Attack Fails
country. Reaching the bottom of the grade, about one mile east of the Cheat River turnpike bridge, Jones halted to give orders for the attack. Jones later wrote in his report that he ordered Green "not to be stopped by a mere inferior infantry picket, which was posted about a mile above the town, but to charge by and leave these men to the care of the regiments in his rear. If a heavy force awaited him in the bluff above the road along the river, then to dislodge them with sharpshooters."

Meanwhile, Jones moved his column to the east side of the turnpike bridge and halted. Here, near the mouth of Madison Run, he sent two hundred dismounted troopers up over a steep mountain called Palmer's Knob (now known as Lantz Ridge), a distance of a miles and a half, to strike the east end of the railway bridge at Rowlesburg. The purpose of this attack was to divert the attention of the Rowlesburg defenders, so that Green and his troopers could sweep into the town along the turnpike and overrun the garrison. According to Jones' report of the attack, Captain Weems, of the Eleventh Virginia Cavalry with 80 sharpshooters of his regiment and part of Witcher's battalion, was sent across the hills from the bridge on the northwest grade to attack the east end of the railroad bridge at Rowlesburg, and to fire it at all hazards.

Jones' Attack Fails
In the meantime,
Battle of Rowlesburg Marker image. Click for full size.
By Craig Swain, July 24, 2010
6. Battle of Rowlesburg Marker
Major Showalter was disposing his troops for defense of the town and railroad. He sent a small attachment to guard the Tray Run and Buckeye Run viaducts, and established a defensive line along the north side of the railroad embankment from the railway bridge to the River Hotel in town. Some crossties were hastily piled-up on the railroad track, and this, along with the embankment, formed a defense for his men.

Citizens of the town armed with a variety of weapons joined the soldiers. Showalter also sent a detachment of about 20 men under Sergeant Gallion of Company F and Lieutenant McDonald of Company L to guard the St. George pike, where Col. Green's detachment was approaching. This force took a position in some rifle pits on a steep hill overlooking the river road where it narrowed about one mile outside of town.

Weem's Rebel 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 the eyewitness account of Purinton, 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, Showalter's force of soldiers, armed with Enfield rifled muskets, and townspeople allowed the Confederates to come within "easy rifle range," then
Cheat River Bridge image. Click for full size.
By Craig Swain, July 24, 2010
7. Cheat River Bridge
A modern steel bridge stands near where the wartime wood and iron bridge stood.
opened with devastating fire.

According to other accounts, Weems's force was 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 along the side of the mountain, headed south to gain the lines of the Green's column across the river. Weems's attack had failed.

Meanwhile, the more desperate fight on the river road was raging. According to Purinton, it continued "at intervals from 3 p.m. until dark...." From their strong position overlooking the river road, McDonald's force fired on Jones's scouting party, who fell back to the turnpike intersection to report to Jones. Jones ordered Col. Green's 6th Virginia forward. It moved out cautiously toward the town. As the Confederates came to a narrow place in the road, about one mile south of town, McDonald 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. Private John Opie, one of Green's troopers, would later testify that
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Green's decision to halt was wise: "Had we charged, we certainly could not have reached the men in the rifle pits; but, on the other hand, would have been exposed to a heavy flank fire from them."

Col. Green then made another attempt to outflank McDonald's strong position. Receiving reinforcements from the 7th and 11th he sent troopers to cross the river. According to Wiley, "an effort was next made by the Confederates to cross the river, ... but so hot and well directed a fire was poured upon the adventurous party in the river, that they were glad to retreat to the shore." Nothing could be done to dislodge the force from its impregnable line. An enraged Jones arrived during this last assault and, after seeing that his troops were stalemated, ordered Green to hold his position until dusk and then pull back to the turnpike.

The battle of Rowlesburg was over. Lincoln's Lifeline was saved.
Topics. This historical marker is listed in this topic list: War, US Civil.
Location. 39° 20.773′ N, 79° 40.167′ W. Marker is in Rowlesburg, West Virginia, in Preston County. Marker is at the intersection of Poplar Street and Buffalo Street (West Virginia Highway 72), on the right when traveling west on Poplar Street. Touch for map. Marker is in this post office area: Rowlesburg WV 26425, United States of America. Touch for directions.
Other nearby markers. At least 8 other markers are within 8 miles of this marker, measured
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as the crow flies. The 1841 Mountain Howitzer (a few steps from this marker); Rowlesburg Veterans Memorial (within shouting distance of this marker); Cannon Hill (approx. 0.2 miles away); B&O Viaducts (approx. 1˝ miles away); Battle of Rowlesburg: "The River Road" (approx. 1.9 miles away); Aurora (approx. 6.2 miles away); Gantz Sand (approx. 6.2 miles away); Old Stone Tavern (approx. 7˝ miles away). Touch for a list and map of all markers in Rowlesburg.
Related markers. Click here for a list of markers that are related to this marker. Battle of Rowlesburg by Markers
Credits. This page was last revised on January 14, 2019. It was originally submitted on August 4, 2010, by Craig Swain of Leesburg, Virginia. This page has been viewed 1,330 times since then and 52 times this year. Photos:   1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. submitted on August 4, 2010, by Craig Swain of Leesburg, Virginia.
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Sep. 20, 2020