The Summer of ’63
In the summer of 1863, 150 years ago historians were wearing out their writing pens recording all the history that was taking place in our country. President Abraham Lincoln had begun to close his grip on the south and could begin to see a change in the tide of war.
His moves to place the telegraph system under federal control proved to be an important strategic advantage in directing his generals in the fields. Lincoln was truly the first president to be Commander and Chief of the armed forces. The telegraph system gave him information from battles and troop movements. In his war room in Washington he could look at maps of the country and plan how he wanted his generals to deploy troops. Lincoln’s assessment of the battlefield from information he received was not always welcomed by his generals in the field.
During the war Lincoln also placed the railroads under federal control. The north had thousands of miles of railroad to move troops and equipment around the country. With the information from the telegraph system and the railroad to respond to battle strategy, Lincoln had by the summer of 1863 changed the war in favor of the north.
The new state of West Virginia was of strategic importance due to the B&O railroad that operated in the western part of the state. But Lincoln may have seen the real importance of the new state was to support his Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. Most believed he also wanted to be sure the railroads and oil fields of central West Virginia would fall under federal control.
In 1863, only a couple of oil fields were producing large amounts of crude oil in the country. In nearby Wirt County, Burning Spring was one of the major oil fields of the day. The confederates understood that oil was an increasingly important part in the war effort. In May 1863 confederate forces under the command of General William Jones raided deep into the state to destroy the Burning Springs oil fields. His men set them ablaze, destroying hundreds of wooden oil derricks. As much as 150,000 barrels of crude oil were set on fire during the confederate raid. The Little Kanawha River was described as a “Sheet of Fire” as the burning oil ran into the river and flowed down stream blackening the sky as it headed towards the Ohio River.
The raid may have not been of great importance in the overall outcome of the war, but southern troops that raided into West Virginia became part of the southern strategy to spread terror in the newly formed state in the summer of ’63.
Much has been written about General William Tecumseh Sherman’s march to the sea in 1864. His army of 62,000 men foraged off the land in their southern raid to resupply their needs from the local countryside. History has both criticized and praised his army actions during the march. But, history has not taken much notice of the similar raids into the north by much smaller forces of confederate troops.
In September 1862 Confederate General Albert Jenkins crossed from western Virginia into Ohio near Portland. He commanded 350 cavalrymen who resupplied themselves from the local towns and farms as they moved north, disrupting telegraph service and communications. His raid also spread terror among the local citizens. After crossing into Ohio and appropriating horses and supplies from local farmers the general and his men quickly returned south through western Virginia.
Less than a year later on July 19, 1863, near the same river crossing at Buffington Island, a confederate General John Morgan led nearly 2,500 handpicked cavalrymen into a battle with federal forces. Morgan had hoped to cross at the island, but high water blocked his escape into West Virginia. Union Cavalry surround his command and captured nearly 1,700 of his men. Some were swept down river in their attempts to escape. Morgan himself manages to escape federal forces but was captured a short time later.
The battle of Buffington Island has been largely forgotten by history over the 150 years since the conflict. The battlefield memorial near Pomeroy, Ohio, is the only testament to the men who fought and died along the Ohio River 150 years ago. Federal troops were supported by naval gunboats that guarded crossings all along the Ohio River. After the battle soldiers killed during the fighting were laid to rest in a nearby cemetery. Federal soldiers’ grave sites were marked with their name. Confederate soldiers were buried in unmark graves.
History has remembered the major battles of the long ago conflict, but when you take the time to look at local history, you will find the area along the Ohio River played an important part in the final outcome of the war.
That long summer is now all but forgotten except by those who love history. But those events are still part of our world today. Oil and gas in the area is still important to our state and its economy. The railroads that played a vital role in moving federal troops today moves coal, chemicals, and many other products that are produced in our state. The Ohio River, a major waterway to supply troops fighting in the south is today one of the busiest waterways in the country. West Virginia came into its own that summer of ’63, not only as a state, but as an important part of the union. It is a position we still play today in the strength of our country.
Take a little time this summer to read about our state’s history. You will find how important it was in keeping the union intact. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll grow to appreciate our history as you look Thru the Lens.