In 1850 the Virginia Assembly authorized construction of the Abb’s Valley and Tug River Turnpike to connect Tazewell and Wyoming Counties. Three times, when the Union made incursions into Wythe and Smyth counties, it surely used this turnpike which passed through McDowell to enter Tazewell County.
- Brevet Brigadier General Toland (Pendleton’s History of Tazewell) passed through with about 1000 Federal cavalry troops in July of 1863, on his way to Wytheville, where he was killed and his attack repulsed. He entered Tazewell County through Abb’s Valley.
- In August of 1863, a small Federal detachment again moved on the turnpike on its way to Smyth County to destroy the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad near Marion. It entered Tazewell County through Horse Pen Cove. Alerted, the Confederates in Marion scattered the raiders.
- Brigadier General W. W. Averill, with a brigade of cavalry numbering about 2500 troops made the third incursion in May of 1864 and entered Tazewell through Abb’s Valley.
Horace Greeley in The American Conflict; A History of the Great Rebellion in the USA has this to say about the the 1863 Wytheville attack:
The more important military operations in and from West Virginia, during 1863, (included) as follows:
A raiding expedition, 1,000 strong, consisting of the 2nd Virginia (Union) cavalry, Col. John Toland, and 34th Ohio infantry (mounted), which struck out from Browntown, West Virginia, crossing Lens mountain to Coal river, and thence moving southeasterly by Raleigh and Wyoming Court House, zigzagged over the Guyan, Tug, and several other ranges of mountains, swooped down on Wytheville, a village of 1800 inhabitants, and a place of considerable importance. Hitherto, they had passed over a rugged, wild, and sterile region, having very few inhabitants and no elements of resistance; but, charging into Wytheville, they were fired on from the houses, whereby Col. Toland was soon killed and Col. Powell, 34th Ohio, mortally wounded, as were several of their leading subordinates. After firing some of the buildings whence they were thus assailed, our men, abandoning their dead and wounded, fell back two miles and encamped; starting for home, under Lt. Col. Franklin, 34th Ohio, early next morning. Hungry, worn out, and dispirited, they lost nearly half their horses on their devious way homeward: wending from early dawn till midnight over the roughest mountains, and being four days without food, till they struck Tug Fork the second night, where they found and killed some cattle. Misled by a treacherous guide, they wasted next day wandering through the mountains finding ratios and feed at Fayetteville; having ridden over 400 miles, lost 83 men, with at least 300 horses, and endured as much misery as could well be crowded into a profitless raid of eight days.
- Greeley, Horace. The American Conflict; A History of the Great Rebellion in the USA, 1860-1865.
2v. Hartford: O. D. Case & Co. Chicago, G. and C. W. Sherwood. 1866. p. 403.
Pendleton, William C. History of Tazewell County and Southwest Virginia, 1748-1920. The
Overmountain Press. Johnson City, Tennessee. 1989.
McDowell’s terrain, by and large, did not accommodate large troop movements, as Col. J. D. Hines, Union, suggests in his following messages:
ELKHORN FORK OF SANDY, MCDOWELL COUNTY
August 6, 1862
Brig. Gen. JACOB D. COX:
GENERAL: We have reached this point, about 35 miles from camp, after a much longer time than I had hoped to occupy. Here, after a march of about 8 miles along a fair mountain path, made from 6 o’clock to 1 p. m., I find the men so exhausted that I fear to risk them much farther lest I may have to leave some on the road. I have accordingly determined, after much deliberation and more regret, to select a few tough, hardy men and unite them with a few countrymen, and proceed by rapid marches across McDowell to Tug Fork and thence into Tazewell, to ascertain beyond a question whether any forces are really in that region. The remainder of the officers and men I send back to camp by easy, careful marches. This course will, I think, deceive the enemy and induce him to send out some small detachments, under the belief that our forces are gone, which may possible be “gobbled” up in the mountains.
The information is that about 300 or 400 poorly armed men are in Abb’s Valley, under command of Hounshell, and that 50 men are at Cartwright’s, ( Moses or Thomas, 1860 McDowell Census, ages 46 and 27) on Tug Fork. If this proves to be true, we will try to surprise the 50 men and return by way of Wyoming Court-House.
Marshall was, by reports, at Liberty Hill (Tazewell County) on last Saturday with 2500 to 3000 men, but report now says that he has left for East Tennessee or Kentucky. If possible I will find out the whole truth. If all my plans succeed I hope to reach camp by Saturday evening.
J. D. HINES
Lieut. Colonel, Commanding Detachment
MOUTH OF ELKHORN FORK
McDowell County, Va., August 8, 1862
GENERAL: When I left camp it was with the intention of going into Abb’s Valley, but on reaching the forks of Tug, at the Jump Mountain, I heard of Witcher, with about 175 men, going toward Wyoming Court-House, on Monday, and also heard of fighting at that place. On reaching the Tug road, I found a small party of the enemy’s cavalry had passed up the road with 8 prisoners of the Thirty-seventh Regiment, captured at Wyoming, one a lieutenant. I placed the force in ambush and posted a picket to watch the road. In half an hour the picket bagged a cavalry messenger, with dispatches to Colonel Hounshell, in Abb’s Valley, to send a reinforcement of 100 men. I also learned that companies are forming in Logan and Boone, and that men are being recruited even in Kanawha County for the rebel service. In the course of the evening, we captured several citizens. During the night I determined to march down Tug for Wyoming; with a view to cut off the return of Captain Witcher. We left our bivouac at 3 a. m. this morning and marched rapidly down Tug Fork to Shannon’s (James Shannon, HH #131 in 1860, age 31), 5 miles, where we seized Captain Witcher’s wagons (two), considerable flour, pack-saddles, guns, and several boxes of muskets and rifle cartridges, all of which were destroyed by fire. One of the wagons and many blankets had been captured from us. We seized Shannon and carried him with us. Leaving Shannon’s we crossed over Elkhorn Ridge in quest of rations, and thence down Elkhorn River to this place. This afternoon I hope to reach a point north of Indian Ridge, on Guyandotte, 9 miles from Wyoming Court-House. If Witcher is still in that place we will try him; if gone on to Logan, I shall pursue him if there is any chance of success. My force is 80 regular troops and 40 mountaineers, good men and brave. The force in Abb’s Valley, from the best information of persons who have seen it, about 400 men under Colonel Hounshell. Marshall’s forces, about 2500, were at Liberty Hill, but it is nearly certain that a part, if not all, of his force is now marching down Louisa Fork, but for what purpose I do not know. I hope to do some good toward Wyoming Court-House and reach camp on Monday. This is a country of magnificent distances.
With great respect,
J. D. HINES,
Lieut. Colonel, Commanding Detachment
Hines’ reports demonstrate that the Unionists knew which McDowell citizens were and were not their allies and that Unionists monitored citizens’ activities as well as those of military personnel. His reports also demonstrate that, although there were very few large military movements within McDowell, there were certainly smaller military forays into McDowell. Having a large or small number of troops did not affect an officer’s absolute authority over civilians.
- Cornell University. Making of America. War of the Rebellion. Series 1, Volume 12, Part III,
pages 542-43 and page 547. 1885.
- Colonel Houshell,CSA, referred to in Col. Hines’ letter to General Cox as being in Abb’s Valley with 400 men, also made incursions into McDowell County and noted “arduous marches”:
CAMP MOORE, August 23, 1862
DEAR SIR: Upon Wednesday evening, 19th instant, I received information that Godfrey’s (Union) company was in the vicinity of Tobias Belcher’s(HH 188,1860, age 37), and at once determined upon giving them pursuit. I made detachments from each of the respective companies in camp, amounting to 100 men, and proceeded at once to prepare the command with cooked rations for three days and forty rounds of ammunition. At 9 o’clock upon Thursday, the 20th instant, the detachment moved by the way of the Tug Fork of Sandy, thence up the North Fork of Tug over the ridge to the waters of Elkhorn, and thence down the Elkhorn to James Totten’s (HH #191, 1860, age 39), and bivouacked there over the night. Early upon Friday morning the detachment moved from Totten’s up the Laurel Branch in the direction of Godfrey’s camp, upon the waters of the Pinnacle Fork of Guyandotte. We surprised them at Allen Mylam’s (Milam’s; HH #194, 1860, age 39), breakfasting, and captured 3 prisoners, 2 horses, and 21 rifles. The detachment immediately moved upon the enemy’s camp at the Pinnacle and found it deserted. All their stores, with some cattle, fell into our hands. We returned by the Index upon Cage’s Ridge to William Belcher’s (HH #185, 1860, age 45) and bivouacked there upon the night of the 21st instant. Upon the 22d we returned to camp. The men deserve great credit for the hardihood discovered upon these arduous forced marches. I enclose you a letter from Captain Godfrey (Yankee) to the notorious William Walker, of Wyoming County, and also a list of his Union company. I think it would be well to publish his roll in one of the Richmond papers.
D. S. HOUNSHELL
S. P. HALSEY, Adjutant
Hounshell’s report likewise points out that the Confederates knew who supported them and who did not support them and that they too kept tabs on citizens as well as military personnel. In addition, the Confederate officer had the same authority over civilians that the Union officer had. Whether a citizen supported the Confederates or the Unionists, military personnel, whatever their persuasion, could and did demand that the citizen feed not only the men but also their animals. When civilians did their best to hide their supplies, their property was ransacked.
- Cornell University. Making of America. War of the Rebellion. Series 1, Volume 51, Part II,
Page 610. 1897.
- NOTES ON ATROCITIES IN McDOWELL AND SURROUNDING AREAS
The William Belcher mentioned in Hounshell’s report might be the William Floyd Belcher who was shot, along with his son Paris, by approaching rebels on 4 Sept 1864. According to information posted by Larry Smith at coalexchange.com/smith/html, “Paris, trying to run to (the) cabin to warn of approaching Rebels, was shot in the back. His father, William, was taken and shot while his family looked on. Both were buried in a common grave on Burke Mountain on the old Belcher farm above the town of Keystone, WV.” Such incidents were not isolated nor confined to McDowell County.
In Hurley, Buchanan County, Virginia, “marauding Rebels” hanged Elijah Baker, founder of the Baker Clan in Buchanan County and in McDowell County. The Confederates removed Col. Menifree of the 2nd Virginia State Line, under whom the above D. S. Hounshell served, because of excesses committed by his troops. Charges against Menifee included allegations that he had no control over his men. Meniere’s men may or may not have been the guilty party in the Baker incident.
Scott Cole, author of 34 Battalion Virginia Cavalry, writes that Col. Vincent A. Witcher, commanding officer of the 34th VA Battalion, was accused of inventing the “Witcher Parole. . .which consisted of breaking down a strong sapling and attaching one end of a rope to the top of the tree and the other end around the neck of the transgressor, and allowing the sapling to fly back to its perpendicular position. . .”
Atrocities occurred on both sides. J. N. Harman, in his Annals of Tazewell County, cites an incident involving Osborne Dillon, a Confederate soldier who served in the 23rd Battalion, Infantry, Co. D. Osborne was captured in McDowell County, tied to a tree, and shot. More than likely, the perpetrators committed this type of murder more than once.
Robert M. Baker, who, with Brian E. Hall, created the 39th KY Mounted Infantry Webpage, relates that he believes that two enlistees from McDowell County, Privates George W. Charles and Adam Davis, captured and convicted on trumped-up charges of desertion, were executed by a Confederate firing squad in Tazewell County on 1 Jan 1863. Charles and Davis were neighbors in the 1860 McDowell Census and, more than likely, brothers-in-law. No record in this research has been found to indicate that either ever served in a Confederate unit (Details upon this matter, as well as upon an investigation after the war, may be found at Baker and Hall’s website.).
Civilians and military personnel in McDowell and surrounding counties suffered atrocities throughout the war.
- Baker, Robert M. and Hall, Brian E. 39th KY Mounted Infantry Webpage.
- Cole, Scott C. 34th Battalion Virginia Cavalry. H. E. Howard, Inc. Lynchburg, Virginia, 1993.
Harman, John Newton, Sr. Annals of Tazewell County, Virginia, 1800-1922. W. C. Hill
Printing Company, 1922.
- Smith, Larry. coal exchange.com/smithhtml. McDowell County Genweb Page.
Weaver, Jeffrey. j. weaver300/grayson/vacwhp.htm.