Rowlesburg, West Virginia was another stop on my recent trips to see Civil War sites in the Mountain State. I’ll admit before the visit my familiarity with the battle was limited to the name, date, and leaders. And there is not a lot out there in the way of resources. There isn’t even a battle summary from CWSAC!
At the time of the Civil War, Rowlesburg was (and still is) a railroad town. The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (B&O) passed over the Cheat River just east of town. Then the railroad crossed multiple viaducts over the mountains while heading west. Both sides recognized the importance of these structures early in the war. Federals garrisoned the town in 1861 to protect the valuable rail line. General Robert E. Lee considered the bridges “worth to me an army.”
In April 1863, the Confederates launched a much delayed raid into western Virginia (as West Virginia was not yet a state!). General William E. “Grumble” Jones led a brigade to raid the rail lines between Oakland, Maryland and Grafton, Virginia. Concurrently General John D. Imboden targeted the Tygart Valley with his new command. The Confederates aimed to destroy facilities along the railroad, disrupt communications with the Unionist government in Wheeling, and gather new recruits. The raid looked good on paper, but heavy rains delayed departure.*
Jones arrived outside Rowlesburg on April 26. After assessing the situation, he opted for a two-pronged attack on the town’s garrison. One force, seen in red on the map below, proceed up the River Road (modern West Virginia Highway 72) . A smaller detachment, depicted in black on the map, proceeded over a hill to the east end of the railroad bridge with orders to burn the structure.
Major John Showalter with 250 men, reinforced with civilian volunteers from the town, defended the town at the time of the raid. Showalter took advantage of the terrain and placed barricades along the River Road and placed artillery on a hill overlooking the town. Their positions are shown in blue on the map above.
A mixed force of soldiers and townspeople, supported by artillery fire, thwarted the Confederates attacking the east end of the bridge. Meanwhile along the River Road, the 6th Virginia Cavalry under Colonel John S. Green ran into a Federal barricade. Instead of rushing through the defenses, Green opted to dismount and skirmish. The Confederate attack then stalled. With terrain restricting movement, a stalemate developed. Despite repeated attempts, Green’s men could not push through the Federal defenses.
Jones withdrew at night and continued his raid in the direction of Oakland. While damaging the rail facilities there, the main targets of the raid were left untouched at Rowlesburg. Jones laid the blame for failure on Green, pressing formal charges. The bridges and viaduct intact, the B&O continued to support the Federal war effort in western Virginia. And within a matter of weeks, the area would formally become West Virginia.
Touring Rowlesburg today, five markers provide interpretation. Four are recent additions by the Rowlesburg Area Historical Society. I will say that, while thankful for the markers, I found them quite wordy. Just seemed as if a dissertation was pasted onto the displays.
The community has an active revitalization movement which has also secured an overlook on Cannon Hill, occupied by Federal artillery during the war. I didn’t make it up to Cannon Hill, saving that for another visit. However I did attempt to view the viaducts on the west side of town. Unfortunately heavy summer growth prevented a good photo. An archival photo of these impressive structures will have to do for now (more are here from the Historic American Building Surveys).
Overall I was impressed with the work done by local groups at Rowlesburg. Reenactments and other activities have raised awareness. The townspeople I spoke with were rightly proud of their history!
* Recall at that same time, rains also delayed Federals launching a raid into central Virginia and way out west, rains disrupted Marmaduke’s raid on Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Someone would do well to offer a study of how weather affected the campaigns of 1863.