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A History of The Middle
New River Settlements
and Contiguous Territory.

By David E. Johnston (1906).

  
 

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Chapter VII.  1861 - 1865  (Part 5)

 

General Cox had sent forward to Pearisburg, Virginia, under Colonel R. B. Hayes, of the 23rd Ohio regiment of infantry, from whence it was driven by a brisk skirmish, by General Heth's forces on the 10th day of May with a loss to the Confederates of two killed and four wounded, among the latter Colonel Patton slightly; the loss to the Federals was two men killed, and five or six wounded, among them, Colonel Hayes slightly.

The Federal advance under Major Comly, of the 23rd Ohio regiment, reached Pearisburg on May 6th.  Major Comly in his report says: "arrived here and took the place completely by surprise.  No houses burned-citizens all here.  We have captured one Major, one Lieutenant Colonel, and fifteen or twenty other prisoners."

Colonel Hayes with the remainder of his regiment arrived on the evening of the 7th.    On the 8th in his report to Colonel Scammon he, among other things in speaking of Pearisburg and its people, says: "this is a lovely spot, a fine, clean village; most beautiful and romantic surrounding country, polite and educated secesh people."

Between the 1st and 10th days of May, General Cox had advanced with the main body of his forces to French's Mill, now called Oakvale, on East River, eleven miles south of Princeton and seventeen miles from Pearisburg.  Having learned of the retreat of Hays' regiment from Pearisburg and that Heth's forces were pursuing and that his rear was threatened by both Wharton and Marshall, General Cox made up his mind to advance no further, but to return to Princeton; however, before doing so and to guard against an attack from Wharton's column moving north toward Princeton, he detached on the evening of the 15th and sent westward up the Cumberland Gap and Prices' turnpike road Lieutenant Colonel Lewis Von Blessing, with five companies of the 28th, four companies of the 37th and two companies of the 34th regiments of Ohio infantry; but Von Blessing seems to have returned to his camp, and on the 16th moved up East River again, camping about Mill's that night, and moving toward the cross roads on the morning of the 17th.

General Wharton's regiment camped on the night of the 16th at the Peery-Gibson farm at the southern base of  East River Mountain, breaking camp at a very early hour on the morning of the 17th.  The men were in light marching order, encumbered with only one wagon containing medical stores, among which was a barrel of whiskey.  Whorton's instructions were to press forward to Princeton, this being the point of concentration for the three Confederate columns advancing upon General Cox, whose troops or a part of them had  had quite a lively skirmish west of Princeton on the evening of the 16th with the vanguard of Marshall's forces.

On reaching the top of East River Mountain, early on the morning of the 17th, Colonel Wharton discovered some three miles away to the east, Colonel Von  Blessing's command advancing westward along the turnpike road.  Wharton did not stop to see; his orders were to go to Princeton, gallant, faithful soldier as he was, he performed his duty; that is obeyed his orders.  Without halting, but pressing forward, passing the junction of the road before Von  Blessing's column reached that point, and throwing out a rear guard he took the road to Princeton, Von Blessing following and taking the short route by the old mill of Calfee and Bailey and into the turnpike near the present residence of Mr. Estill Bailey;  Von Blessing, apparently, in fact evidently, not knowing Wharton was in his front, or if he did he took it to be a very small force with which if he over took, he would have no difficulty in dealing.  Colonel Wharton on reaching Pigeon Roost Hill, found himself in full view of Princeton and only about one mile south thereof    halting his regiment and reconnoitering, he discovered that instead of Princeton being in possession of the Confederates under General Marshall, as he had been led to suppose, that it was occupied by the Federal troops.  In the meantime he had heard the sound of Marshall's guns west of Princeton on the New Hope road.  He at once made disposition of his troops, placing Major Peter J. Otey, late an honored member of Congress from Virginia, but who died a short time ago, in command of three companies of infantry and one piece of artillery under Lieutenant B. Langhorne, and with instructions to Major Otey, the next in rank to himself to place a line of men on the front towards Princeton, and one facing to the rear with instructions for these lines to furnish support to each other as necessary might require, he took a guide and started to find General Marshall.   At the place where Colonel Wharton made his formation the road winds around the hill in the form of nearly a double half circle.

General Cox knowing that his Lieutenant was on the Wythe, Grayson and Raleigh Turnpike road, and doubtless being advised of Wharton's movements, with whom Von Blessing was likely to come to blows, sent forward a battalion of infantry to reinforce Von Blessing.    This advance having been discovered, Major Otey threw forward to meet this force two companies of infantry, one of them the Grayson company under its fearless and gallant leader Captain William A. Cooper, and one gun under Lieutenant Langhorne.   This small force met the advance of the Federal battalion and repulsed it, thereby preventing its union with Von Blessing.  The situation just then was critical for both sides.   Von Blessing was cut off from his friends, and Wharton's regiment placed in a position to be attacked both  front and rear at the same time.  Von Blessing could not help hearing the sound of the contest between Langhorne's gun, Cooper's men and the Federal's, and no doubt this caused him to hasten his steps, for he knew of the force he had been following from the cross roads, and had evidently made up his mind that they would soon be between two fires and killed or captured.  Overtaking Wharton's medical wagon, causing  Dr. J. M. Estill, the regimental surgeon, and his corps of assistants to hurriedly seek shelter behind the Confederate battle line, Von Blessing's men unloaded the barrel of whiskey,heretofore mentioned, and soldier like they soon had out the head, and imbibing freely they got enough to make them largely forget their tiresome, worn out condition, and soon hurried on to the field of slaughter and death.  Marching by the route and perhaps also by the thought that they would capture the Confederates in their front, they approached without discovering Wharton's men in position as above described, and suddenly meeting a rapid and concentric fire were thrown into utter confusion and panic.  Under orders from Major Otey the Confederates charged, and the Federals fled, closely pursued by the exultant Confederates.  Major Otey sprang over the fence in the bend of the road, and met face to face a large burly German Federal soldier, armed with a Belgian rifle, which he presented at Otey, the latter firing at the German with his pistol striking the ground about his feet, and railing out at him, saying: "Why are you trying to shoot me when you know that your men are running?"  to which the German replied, "Well, Mister, my gun ain't loaded."

Retreating for about one mile on the road over which they had just advanced, and reaching Brush Creek, they were piloted by some one who knew the country, over a by-path through the farms of Bratton, Straley and others, to a point on the Princeton and Twelve-Mile Fork road, about two miles south of the first named place.  Here they were within two miles of the town now occupied by General Cox, and why Colonel Von Blessing did not move immediately into the town is unexplainable, except upon the supposition that General Cox was yet at French's Mill.  There can be no sort of question that Colonel Von Blessing and his men were greatly demoralized, consequent upon their being suddenly attacked, in fact surprised.  His loss according to his own report, was 18 killed, 56 wounded and 14 captured, while the Confederates lost but one man and he killed by accident, and nine wounded.  The total Federal loss around Princeton during  the two days of partial engagements, was 23 killed, 69 wounded, and 21 missing.  The total loss of the Confederates was three killed, 21 wounded, among them Captain Elliott of Kentucky, mortally and who soon died.  Von Blessing on his march from the bridge over Brush Creek, two miles south of Princeton, and in passing through the farm of Mr. H. W. Straley, met him in the road on his horse on his way from the mill, whither he had been to get bread for his family.  He took charge of Mr. Straley, as also of his horse, and dismounting him, placed a wounded Federal soldier on the horse.

The fight at Pigeon Roost Hill took place about 10 o'clock on the morning of the 17th.    Colonel Von Blessing, with his badly scared and demoralized men, did not reach the Princeton and Twelve Mile Fork road until towards the middle of the afternoon, and although only four miles away he did not reach the mouth of Twelve Mile Fork at Spangler's, until after dark.  He halted at the mouth of the fork for several hours, and then retraced his steps to the right-hand branch of that fork and up the same, passing out through the farms of Major William M. Reynolds and Charles Stinson, and directly across the front of General Heth's command occupying the Princeton and French's mill roads, and on through the Gooch and Gribsby farms to the old Logan road near Pisgah Church.  Before fair dawn on the morning of the 18th they had reached the farm lately owned by T. K. Lambert, formerly by Captain William A. Cooper, and were in sight of the Princeton and Red Sulphur roads, whereupon they discovered a troop of Confederate cavalry passing, which seemed to give fresh impetus to their fleeing capacity; in fact they were so alarmed that they cried out, "Rebel Calvary! Rebel Cavalry!"  and broke into panic and wild confusion, fled with all speed on and along the old Logan road, throwing away guns, cartridge boxes, indeed everything that could in any way impede their making a successful run; which did not end until they had joined at Spanishburg, nine miles away, General Cox's column retreating from Princeton.  The reader no doubt has asked himself the question, what became of Mr. Straley, his horse and the wounded man?    So soon as the panic began at Lambert's farm the wounded man on Strayley's horse dismounted and fled with his comrades.  Mr. Strayley  seized his horse's bridle and attempted to mount, but his saddle turned and the already affrighted horse became only the more frightened and simply kicked himself free from the saddle.  Mr. Straley did not stop to gather up the saddle, but mounting the horse without the saddle, sped rapidly through the woods and swamps, until he reached home some four miles away.

The Confederate column under General Heth had on the 17th advanced on and along the French's Mill and Princeton road to the west side of the Adam Johnston farm and about four miles from Princeton; having ample time by continuing the march to have joined battle with General Cox before nightfall, but for some reason best known to General Heth, he halted his command at the point indicated until after night.  A wagon and team belonging to General Cox's  forces had driven out on this road in search of some baggage left at a farm house by the Federals retreating from French's Mill , and a Federal courier was captured, from whom Heth got information which induced him to retire his forces to Big Hill, about two miles north of French's Mill.  Whether the courier was sent specially to mislead General Heth no one on the Confederate side knew, but Heth's non-action and retrograde movement enabled General Cox to retreat in safety, and he did so that night, in fact began his retreat before night, for Marshall's command occupied the village the next morning.

As before stated, Marshall's column advance on the New Hope Church road, and did not encounter resistance until it reached a point about one mile east of New Hope Church, where it met the Federal skirmishers.  The 5th Kentucky regiment under Colonel A. J. May led the advance, and rapidly pushed the Federal skirmishers back upon their reserve at Princeton.  General Marshall brought forward his battery, planting it on the high bluff just  west of the dwelling house owned by the late Leander P. Johnston.    The Federal battery in opposition to Marshall's, one parrot gun was posted on the cemetery hill about one half mile west of Princeton, and was supported by some companies of the 37th Ohio regiment under Colonel Moore.  The pressure from the columns of Marshall and Wharton from the south and west, and the threatening attitude of Heth's column from the east, caused General Cox to withdraw from Princeton and return to Flat Top.  He began his retreat on the evening of the 17th , but all did not get away until in the early morning of the 18th, when the forces of Marshall occupied the village of Princeton about sunrise of the same morning.  In the skirmish on the New Hope road between Marshall's forces and the Federals, the loss of the former was a few men wounded, while the latter had two or three killed and several wounded.

Lieutenant Colonel Lewis Von Blessing the commandant of the Federal force which was defeated by Wharton's Virginia regiment on Pigeon Roost Hill, on the morning of the 17th of May, made to his superior officer his report, in which among other things, he states:    "It is difficult to give the force of the enemy against us in the fight of the 17th.  They fired all sorts and all Calibers of balls, even with fire balls and hand grenades.  The dead of the 37th regiment number 11, so many having been recognized, and 36 severely wounded have been transported to Princeton and left in the hands of the enemy.  Seven slightly wounded have been brought back to the regiment, and 18 are still missing from the four companies engaged in the combat.  The loss of the 28th regiment is 5 killed and 10 wounded; from the companies of the 34th regiment 2 wounded."

Except a few troops from Kentucky, and from the Virginia border along the Kanawha, Ohio and Sandy waters, the men who fought the battles around Princeton were chiefly New River Valley men.  It may here also be noted that a number of companies of New River Valley men served in General Jackson's corps.  Pulaski, Wythe and Montgomery Counties furnished three or more companies to the 4th Virginia regiment of the Stonewall brigade, while Monroe furnished one company and the 27th regiment of the same brigade.

Of the numbers Federals and Confederates engaged in this campaign, they were not far from equal, with perhaps a slight preponderance in favor of the Confederates.    General Cox certainly out generaled the Confederates, and the military critics will say in reviewing this campaign its management and results, that the Confederates woefully blundered, and that their adversary took advantage of their blunders, escaping when within their grasp.  It may be added here that of the fatally wounded on the Confederate side at Clark's house on the 1st of May, Greene Bryson died at the house of William Ferguson, on Wolf Creek, and Montgomery Cox reached his home in Wytheville, where he soon expired.

In the little village of Princeton, out of near an hundred houses, only about nine or ten remained after the burning.  The suffering of the non-combatants, the old men, women and children, who were compelled to abandon their homes, and the county, and most of whom never returned, are beyond the powers of description.

After the close of the military operation around Princeton in the spring of 1862 General Heth moved across New River and marched upon Lewisburg, then occupied by a Federal force, with which on the 23rd of May he fought a severe battle in which his troops were totally defeated with considerable loss.  The Federal forces numbered about 1500, Heth's about 2,000.  The Federal loss was 13 killed, 53 wounded and 7 missing; the Confederate loss was 38 killed, 70 wounded and 100 captured together with four pieces of artillery.  Among the Confederate officers captured was Major George M. Edgar.    Captain Thomas W. Thompson, of Mercer County, commanding a company in Edgar's battalion, was permanently disabled by a severe wound.

Between the close of this campaign and the advance of General Crook's Federal army in the spring of 1864, no very considerable body of Federal troops entered the County of Mercer.  There were numerous scouting parties and frequent small skirmishes between small bodies of Federals and Confederates during this period.  There are some things and incidents to be related which occurred during this period along the border and in the County of Mercer which are reserved until the proper date is reached in which these events occurred; and a return will now be made to the movements of the army of Northern Virginia, which, as will be recollected, was left in camp in front of Richmond after the close of the Seven days battles.

About the time of the close of the fighting around Richmond on the first day of July, 1862, the Federal General Pope making himself troublesome in Northern Virginia, Major General Jackson with his corps in the latter days of July marched in the direction of Rapidan, and on the 9th day of August fought a fierce and bloody battle at Cedar Mountain, in Culpeper County, with a large part of General Pope's army, in which the latter was defeated and driven from the field, but that night and the next day being largely reinforced, and greatly outnumbering the troops under General Jackson, the latter retreated across the Rapidan to await help from General Lee, who by this time believing himself and Richmond safe from any attack from the army of General McClellen at Harrison's Landing, on August 13th sent forward General Longstreet with his division, including Kemper's brigade, to the assistance of General Jackson; and on the 15th himself left for the Rapidan.

General Lee prepared to strike Pope's left, but that distinguished General took fright and retired behind the Rappahanock, whither General Lee closely followed; and for several days continual skirmishing and artillery duels were kept up at the fords along that river, until finally General Jackson had so far removed to the left and up the river as to allow General Longstreet to occupy his place on the river front, and so to speak pulled the bridle off Jackson and turned him loose after Pope.

General Lee sent General Stuart with a portion of his cavalry to sever Pope's connection with Alexandria and Washington, which he in some measure accomplished, but not fully on account of the terrific rainfall, and at the same time impelled General Jackson's corps on the 22nd and 23rd up the Rappahannock to Warrenton Springs; Pope marching up on parallel lines, but not fully understanding the significance for the movement, rather supposing at the first that Jackson was making for the Valley.

Jackson still pushing up the river on the 25th with his three divisions, crossed the upper Rappahanock and bivouaced that night at Salem, on the Manassas Gap Railroad, General Lee in the meantime occupying as far as possible Pope's attention on the Rappahanock with Longstreet's troops.  General Jackson continued his movement until he reached the rear of the Federal army, cutting its line of communications and capturing immense stores at Manassas Junction, appropriating so much thereof as he could use and get away with, destroyed the remainder.  General Longstreet's corps soon followed, taking the same route pursued by Jackson's corps, and on reaching Thoroughfare Gap on the evening of August 28th found it held by the enemy.  Next morning the forward movement began, Kemper's brigade following another, moving through the gap while some other Confederate troops by a flank movement had caused the enemy to withdraw from his strong position in the gap.

 

 

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