The 1863 Jones-Imboden Raid hit a tough but temporary roadblock at Greenland Gap.
The late afternoon stillness of April 25, 1863, was shattered when scores of Confederate horsemen suddenly charged from the shadows of Greenland Gap in northwest Virginia. Framed by sheer 800-foot sand stone cliffs patrolled by turkey vultures and ravens, the gap was only wide enough for a narrow, rutted road and a boulder-laden tributary of Patterson Creek. Pine, spruce, hemlock and mountain laurel choked the rocky path. Confined by these surroundings, the gray riders galloped forward in a long, slender column.
Ahead of the cavalrymen, a few dozen blue-coated defenders scrambled for cover inside a cluster of sturdy log buildings that commanded the road through the gap. Some of the Union riflemen remained outside and leveled their muskets at the enemy over hastily constructed stone breastworks. When the Rebel riders approached to within 75 yards, Federal muskets flashed. A curtain of bullets left several men and horses dead or writhing on the ground. In about 15 minutes, recalled the Union commander, the enemy rallied and made another attack.
For decades before the Civil War, Greenland Gap had been an important route for settlers through the eastern slopes of the Allegheny Mountains and into the rugged highlands of what is now West Virginia. Located in Hardy (now Grant) County, the gap took its name from the nearby village of Greenland, Va., a community dominated by Protestant separatists known as Brethren and nestled on a secluded crossroads at the western mouth of the pass. From Greenland a road led northward to the important Union transportation and supply hub at New Creek, Va., on the north branch of the Potomac River. Westward from Greenland, the road offered access to other key Union bases at Oakland, Md., and Rowlesburg, Va. The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, the major east–west line that linked the Northern states and was vital to the Federal war effort, passed through each of these centers.
Greenland Gap had begun drawing attention from Confederate and Union military planners earlier in April. The nearly mile-long rock-ribbed gash through New Creek Mountain factored into Confederate Brig. Gen. William E. “Grumble” Jones’ plans for a raid through the region. Jones’ incursion would be part of a two-pronged thrust into western Virginia designed by fellow cavalry commander Brig. Gen. John D. Imboden, who would lead the other arm of the expedition. Their goals were to destroy portions of the B&O; collect cattle, horses and provisions; disrupt the Union-sympathizing Restored Government of Virginia then meeting in Wheeling; and generally harass Federal forces wherever they found them. Confederate General Robert E. Lee had approved the foray and assisted in the planning. He advised the commanders on April 7, “Your movement must be expeditious and bold.” Lee also told his two subordinates to be cautious. “The utmost secrecy must be observed,” he wrote to Jones.
Despite Lee’s admonition about stealth, the Confederates weren’t able to fully mask their preparations, and Union scouts soon informed Federal authorities that something was afoot in the enemy camps. Union Maj. Gen. Robert C. Schenck, commanding the Middle Department, informed General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck on the afternoon of April 21 that “many circumstances now tend to indicate that the rebels are preparing to make some movement in force in Western Virginia.”
Union authorities quickly took measures to protect military and railroad installations in the area. To safeguard Greenland Gap, Captain Martin Wallace, with Lieutenant Julius E. Fletcher and 52 men of Company G, 23rd Illinois Infantry, were dispatched to outpost the crossroads at Greenland. Wallace and his detail were proud members of Colonel James A. Mulligan’s tough “Irish Brigade,” as the men of the 23rd called themselves. They marched from their camp at New Creek on the evening of April 21, 1863, slogging through rain and mud all night as they moved toward Greenland Gap.
Earlier that same day Jones launched his raid 70 miles to the southwest. He left his camps at Lacey Spring, near Harrisonburg, Va., with about 2,700 troops of all arms. “Unfavorable weather and the condition of the roads made the first three days to Moorefield exceedingly arduous,” Jones wrote afterward. He had planned to ford the south branch of the Potomac at the village. The rain-swollen river there was impassable, however, and Jones was forced to detour 25 miles farther upstream to the ford at Petersburg (not to be mistaken with the city of Petersburg in southern Virginia). The raging water at Moorefield also forced Jones to leave his foot soldiers and cannons behind. The 2nd Maryland Infantry and Baltimore Light Artillery returned to Harrisonburg.
The conditions at Petersburg were not much better when Jones arrived on April 24. With the timely aid of some courageous citizens who were familiar with the crossing, most of Jones’ command struggled across to the opposite bank. One trooper and several horses drowned in the swift current. More than 200 other men and horses unable or unwilling to cross were left behind. The Confederate force that finally emerged on shore at Petersburg consisted of the 6th, 7th, 11th and 12th Virginia Cavalry regiments; 34th and 35th Virginia Cavalry battalions; and 1st Maryland Cavalry Battalion—approximately 2,000 officers and men. “We were all of course as wet as rats,” recalled Captain Charles T. O’Ferrall of the 12th Virginia.
The force included a small pioneer corps made up of men from each regiment and battalion commanded by Lieutenant William G. Williamson, Confederate States Engineers. Williamson also guided a mule train laden with iron tools and kegs of black powder. The implements and explosives were intended for use against bridges along the B&O.
By day’s end Jones’ command had advanced a few miles north of Petersburg, where the men were issued five days’ rations of hardtack and bedded down for the night. The feisty general was eager to proceed with his mission the next day. According to information he had received, the pass at Greenland was unoccupied.
From the time he had arrived at Greenland Gap early on April 22, Captain Wallace had been preparing to defend it. He started by converting the Brethren church building into a makeshift fort. Stoutly built of logs and two stories high, the church was perched on a gentle slope about 50 yards south of the road near the mouth of the gap. Only the upper floor of the church had windows. At ground level the doors had been constructed of thick oak and girded with iron bars. “I had had the windows well barricaded,” recalled Wallace, and “the chinking knocked out between the logs” for loopholes. Wallace also preassigned his riflemen to positions in the church and ordered them to be ready to repel any attack.
Wallace earmarked two log houses nearby for strongholds. One cabin to the left sat between the church and the road; the other lay about 50 yards north of the road. Together the three structures formed a triangle and would pose a formidable obstacle to any enemy force attempting to exit the gap. Wallace strengthened his position by erecting stone breastworks near the buildings. Midway through the gap, where the road crossed a small bridge spanning the creek, the captain posted a sergeant and three privates to alert the camp if the enemy approached.
About noon on Saturday, April 25, a citizen reported that a large enemy force numbering several thousand was within a short distance and advancing upon New Creek. Wallace immediately dispatched several mounted scouts to assess the situation. The inexperienced civilian, however, had evidently exaggerated. The next several hours passed uneventfully for Wallace and his wary bluecoats.
About 4 p.m. Union Captain Jacob Smith with 34 men of Company A, 14th West Virginia Volunteer Infantry, arrived from New Creek with orders to relieve Wallace. The Illinoisans were instructed to rejoin their regiment at Grafton, Va.
Suddenly the tranquility of the afternoon exploded in wild shouts and gunfire. Wallace had barely finished reading the orders releasing him from duty at Greenland Gap when some of his pickets rushed out of the gorge with enemy troops close on their heels, advancing in force. Wallace ordered Smith to occupy the two log cabins with his men. Wallace then directed his own riflemen to take their positions in the church and advised them to be cool and deliberate. A few Federal soldiers caught outdoors during the pandemonium took shelter behind the stone breastworks as the Rebels appeared.
Earlier that afternoon, Jones’ Confederate cavalcade had ridden to within three or four miles of the eastern entrance to Greenland Gap before learning that Federal troops held the pass. Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Marshall of the 7th Virginia Cavalry, in the van of Jones’ column, led a party of scouts far enough into the defile to observe “certainly one and perhaps two companies” of the enemy. Jones feared a detour around the gap would take too long and might endanger the entire raid. “So I deemed it proper to attempt carrying the place by assault,” he later said.
Colonel Richard Dulaney led the attack of the 7th Virginia. The mounted gray column forged ahead and easily overwhelmed the Union pickets at the bridge. Federals soldiers who evaded capture sounded the alarm. Their cries saved the Union garrison from complete surprise. When the Rebel horsemen surged from the shade of the gap, they plunged into a gantlet of enemy rifle fire.
Colonel Dulaney was unhorsed and ended up sprawled on the dirt road with one of his arms bleeding severely. Twenty yards from the church, the attack wavered. More than half the troopers reined in their mounts and retreated to the safety of the gap. Momentum from their rush propelled the front ranks of the Virginians, about 200 strong, past the garrisoned church and cabins to the wooded ravines beyond. “This put us in rear of the enemy and cut off their retreat,” recalled trooper T.J. Young.
Wallace was not giving any thought to retreat. Enemy horsemen who had been funneled back into Greenland Gap regrouped within 15 minutes of their initial onslaught and hurled themselves at Wallace’s roadblock once again. This attack met with the same result. In the melee, Private Alexander Buck of Company E rode recklessly up to the church and fired all the loads of his pistol through the crevices of a barricaded widow. His horse was shot twice, bayoneted and killed, but the daredevil trooper survived the encounter unscathed. Three of his comrades were killed, 10 others were wounded and nearly two dozen horses were killed or wounded.
During this second clash, the men of the 7th Virginia who had first charged past the Union positions now sealed the other routes leading to and from Greenland. Rebel sharpshooters dismounted and worked their way into the thick growth on slopes to the west and south of the church and cabins. From there, they banged away with carbines and pistols at the enemy. Meanwhile Company B of the 1st Maryland Cavalry fanned out on the New Creek road to guard against any surprise from that direction.
Behind the 7th Virginia, other men of Major Ridgely Brown’s 1st Maryland dismounted and infiltrated the forested slopes and ravines to the north and south of the road. The Marylanders soon added their firepower to the Confederate barrage.
To bolster his fusillade, Jones called up the mounted riflemen of Lt. Col. Vincent Addison “Clawhammer” Witcher’s 34th Battalion of Virginia Cavalry. A contingent of Witcher’s men under Captain John Chapman moved on foot to the lofty heights north of the Union stronghold. From this higher vantage point, the mountaineer marksmen—to whom, Jones said, “the rifle is as familiar as is the hammer…to the blacksmith”—pointed their Enfield and Mississippi rifles at loopholes in the walls of the church and cabins. Some of Witcher’s men also secured the stone works erected by the enemy.
Even these fearsome gunmen did little more than annoy the Federals behind thick timber walls. One Confederate observed how difficult it was “to inflict serious loss upon them.” It was rare that they “put through the cracks and crevices of the log structure a chance ball that did fatal work.”
As daylight faded and the mass of his raiding column began to stack up well into the gorge, Jones must have longed for one of his cannons to blast aside the stubborn Yankees. Instead, he pinned his hopes on a white flag to end the impasse. A Union sergeant who had been captured at the picket post was given a look at the size and strength of Jones’ command. The hapless noncom, pale banner in hand, then met Wallace at the church to deliver Jones’ demand for an immediate surrender. The Rebels have “a force of thousands,” the sergeant warned his captain.
Wallace was defiant: “Go back with the rag; I don’t care if he has a million; I will not surrender until compelled.” The small arms fire resumed, only to cease in 10 minutes when the white flag came out again. This time Wallace received a written message from Jones. “He had force enough to take me beyond a doubt,” Wallace admitted later, “and unless I surrendered within fifteen minutes he would not be responsible for the consequences.” A messenger from the 14th West Virginia also reached Wallace at this time. Captain Smith wanted to know what his infantry men in the cabins should do. Wallace replied in kind to each message. He would fight on.
During the lull in action while the second flag of truce came forward, two companies of the 1st Maryland on the heights south of the church mistook the flag to mean the Yanks had surrendered, and rushed the building. “I repeatedly ordered them to fall back,” reported Wallace. “They did not, and I ordered my men to fire, which dispersed them.” Two Southerners were killed and one wounded in the encounter. Afterward the firefight crackled at long range for a considerable time.
Jones’ frustration mounted along with his casualty list. The general displayed yet another flag of truce. The bearer announced that Jones would “bring his cannon to bear upon the church” if Wallace did not surrender. “Tell him he has got none,” Wallace replied, adding, “if he has, bring them on. We are Mulligan’s men, and we will fight to the last crust and cartridge.”
The Rebel envoy requested time for the Southerners to remove their wounded. Wallace granted a 30-minute truce. While Jones removed his casualties from the acre-wide clearing around the church and cabins, Wallace dispatched a squad of bluecoats who gathered up enemy carbines, revolvers and sabers from the ground. When the cease-fire ended, Confederate gunshots echoed through the gap once again. The firing was light at first, then commenced briskly as night settled over the battlefield. Wallace, meanwhile, ordered his men to withhold their fire to conserve ammunition for the Rebel attack that was sure to come.
Jones assembled his dismounted storming parties in the road through the gap under cover of darkness. Gunfire from their comrades in the surrounding hills muffled the sounds of their preparations. Companies A and C of Brown’s 1st Maryland headed the assault force. Arrayed four abreast, they were followed by 170 men of Lt. Col. Elijah “Lige” White’s 35th Virginia Cavalry Battalion, better known as the “Commanches.” Brown’s and White’s soldiers toted carbines and revolvers. In the rear of the column, Lieutenant Williamson led a detail of pioneers armed with axes, torches and bundles of straw. Some thought was given to using the black powder that Williamson possessed to blow up the church; however, the idea “was abandoned as being possibly as dangerous to our people as to the enemy,” recalled Lieutenant George Booth.
Between 8:30 and 9 P.M., Jones’ shock troops made a break for the church. The men plunged through the icy waters of a Patterson Creek tributary up to their knees. “Our garments became stiffly frozen as quickly as we emerged from the stream,” Booth remembered. The assault force passed along the base of the mountain, where the rugged path brought them within range of the church. There the Confederates were in the open, revealed by the brightness of the moon. The two Maryland companies obliqued to the left and ascended the slope at a brisk pace to the rear of the church. White forged straight ahead with his Virginians and then let out the call for a charge.
Jets of flame erupted along the walls of the church from dozens of Federal rifles. White’s men faced a galling fire. Union lead from the church raked the Southerners in front while deadly rounds from the cabins tore into their right flank. The Federal barrage was incessant. A Confederate officer later recalled that the Yankees fired coolly and rapidly.
The Rebels absorbed these wicked blasts and continued to scramble forward until they reached the church. Several soldiers with axes rained blows on the thick oak doors. “We could not get in, but many of the men got close enough…to get below the line of fire,” Captain Frank Bond of the 1st Maryland reported later. Their immunity from gunshots was short-lived. Lieutenant Booth, who followed Captain Bond to the church, recalled, “I placed my back to the walls…when a blow on my shoulder forced me forward and half around, and a blaze of fire passed my face as I realized the enemy were now on the ground floor and were thrusting their guns between the logs of the wall.” From windows on the top floor, daring bluecoats hurled rocks and pieces of iron onto the swarm of Rebels below.
Enveloped by smoke and darkness outside, Confederate soldiers found themselves caught in the crossfire between friendly units attacking from opposite sides of the church. Bullets from Witcher’s men, who continued to snipe from behind rocks on the surrounding hills, “scattered…promiscuously all about the house,” said one Rebel. The close-quarters firing, a Southern officer later complained, “was far more fatal to [us]…than to the enemy.”
Into this hail of shot charged Lieutenant Williamson with his pioneers, wielding their axes and firebrands. The pioneers battered on doors and any windows they could reach with renewed effort. “They then were up to the building,” wrote Wallace, “and resting the muzzles of their carbines upon the logs, from which the chinking had been removed.” Barricades at the doors and windows began to give way under the relentless Rebel hammering. At one corner of the building flames began to crackle and spread.
In the midst of the chaos, Confederate Private Thomas E. Tippett of Company A, 35th Virginia Cavalry Battalion, scaled the chimney of the church with a bundle of straw and set fire to the roof. Elsewhere an anonymous cry warned that a keg of gunpowder had been placed beneath the church and was about to be detonated. “The powder business,” recalled one cavalry veteran, “very nearly caused a stampede among the Confederates.” The rumor proved false, “and the assault renewed with unabated vigor.”
Inside the smoke-filled church, Wallace prepared for the end. “The blazing roof was now falling in,” he recalled, and an outer wall was in flames. The specter had been raised that their refuge might be blasted to splinters with a keg of gunpowder. The Union commander finally displayed a flag of truce.
Obscured by darkness, the confusion of the moment or both, the flag was ignored. Wallace ordered his men to fix bayonets. “If they will not give us quarter,” he cried, “we will die like men.” Again Wallace asked for quarter. This time his plea was answered. Confederate Sgt. Maj. Edward Johnson of the 1st Maryland lunged through the battered doorway, pistol in hand, and confronted the Union captain. “The firing ceased,” wrote Wallace, “and I surrendered.” As they evacuated the doomed building, Wallace and his men tossed their weapons into the growing flames “to save them from the enemy.”
Scattered shots continued to come from a squad of West Virginians led by a Captain Scott, who refused to abandon the cabins. But with Wallace disarmed and the church wrapped in flames, White focused his attack against those Federals and soon forced their surrender.
The appearance of the Union survivors in the open sparked an immediate impulse for revenge among many of the Southerners. As one Virginian recalled, “the stubborn resistance of the Federals greatly enraged the Confederates, who had suffered much the greater loss.” Though casualty records vary, Confederate losses amounted to about nine killed and 30 wounded, in addition to many horses. The Union toll was two dead and six wounded. Eighty-three Federals who had surrendered suddenly found themselves at the mercy of their captors.
Confederate Captain Frank Bond tried to intervene. “It was all I could do to protect the prisoners,” he remembered. Ultimately Jones himself halted the disturbance. He was anxious to free himself from the torment of Greenland Gap. The quarrelsome brigadier spoke up: “They fought like brave men and did their duty. They shall receive honorable treatment.”
The Union prisoners were soon started under guard for Richmond. Meanwhile, Jones prepared his own forces for departure. Those too badly injured to be moved were left in the care of Dr. Wilber McKnew, surgeon of the 1st Maryland. Confederate and Union dead were buried side by side.
By 11 p.m., Jones started his horse soldiers on the final leg of their passage through Greenland Gap. The Rebel brigade marched in darkness without stopping and quickly emerged at the western entrance. A short distance farther to the west, the column breached the Alleghenies on a narrow, twisted road that followed the contours of the mountain uphill to the village of Mount Storm, Va. There, close to the Maryland border, Jones finally rested his weary men and horses until early afternoon on April 26, when they spurred deeper behind enemy lines.
An uneasy peace settled over Greenland Gap in the wake of the fiery clash. The air was still thick with the smell of death when Union Brig. Gen. Benjamin F. Kelley arrived on April 28. He listened to accounts of the spirited struggle and inspected the wreckage of the Brethren meetinghouse. “I counted today 18 dead horses within musket range,” he wrote in his report to General Schenck. “The affair at this place on Saturday was one of the most gallant since the opening of the war.” He implored Schenck “to apply to the Secretary of War to have every officer, non-commissioned officer, and private engaged in the fight presented with a medal in recognition of the gallantry displayed.” Schenck did forward the request to Halleck, but there is no evidence that anything came of it.
The Union defenders were imprisoned around Richmond. Wallace was exchanged and returned to his regiment at New Creek within two months. By October 1863, all of the men who defended Greenland Gap had been exchanged and returned to duty.
Jones had concluded his raid and returned to his base near Harrisonburg by May 26, when he penned a report to General Lee: “In thirty days we marched nearly 700 miles through a rough and sterile country…killed from 25 to 30 of the enemy, wounded probably three times as many, captured nearly 700 prisoners.” Two trains of cars, 16 railroad bridges and one tunnel were burned. A large number of boats and 150,000 barrels of oil were also put to the torch, and “about 1,000 cattle, and probably 1,200 horses,” were driven home with the raiders.
For their efforts, Jones boasted, his men and officers “would have won the admiration of the most approved Cossack.” In an earlier report to Lee, however, Jones had also lamented the action at Greenland Gap: “We experienced an unfortunate detention of four hours here, depriving us of important captures afterward.” He and his men would see further action at places like Rowlesburg, Morgantown and Fairmont, but suffered the lion’s share of their casualties at Greenland Gap.
Four decades after the Civil War ended, military historian John Bigelow Jr., in his classic The Campaign of Chancellorsville, chronicled the Jones-Imboden Raid and paid tribute to the bloody little struggle in the rugged foothills of the Allegheny Mountains: “The defence of Greenland Gap stands out as the finest thing of the whole operation, and seems really deserving of the much-abused characterization of heroic.”
And the local Brethren community? It never fully recovered from the calamity. Soon after the loss of the Brethren church, a blockhouse was erected by Federal soldiers near the site to defend the gap against Confederate guerrillas who continued to patrol the region until the war ended. It was not until 1866 that a new church was constructed at Cosner Gap, about five miles southwest of Greenland Gap. This time it was built entirely of brick.
Historian and cartographer George Skoch writes from Fairview Park, Ohio. For additional reading, see: A History of the Laurel Brigade, by William N. McDonald; and A Maryland Boy in Lee’s Army: Personal Reminiscences of a Maryland Soldier in the War Between the States, by George W. Booth.
Originally published in the January 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.