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Many daring cavalry raids took place during the Civil War, operations that were glamorous and exciting, filled with rapid, decisive movements, panic and confusion and the destruction of key lines of communication and supply. Some, however, were noteworthy not for their glamour, but for their extreme difficulty, the tenacity of their commanders and the courage of the soldiers involved. Brigadier General William W. Averell’s raid on the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad at Salem, Virginia, in December 1863 was one such raid.

On December 5, 1863, Brig. Gen. Benjamin Kelley, commander of the Union Department of Western Virginia, ordered Averell to ‘proceed with all your available force now at New Creek, without delay, via Petersburg, Franklin, and Monterey, and then by the most practicable route to the line of the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad, at Bonsack’s Station, in Botetourt County, or Salem, in Roanoke County.’ Once arrived at whatever destination he chose, Averell was to ‘destroy all the bridges, water-stations, and depots on the railroad in that neighborhood, and otherwise injure and destroy the road as far as possible by removing the rails and rendering them useless by heating and bending.’ Kelley said that the operations were based on the ‘intimated’ wishes of Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, general-in-chief of the Union Army.

The eastern end of the 204-mile Virginia & Tennessee line was at Lynchburg, where cars transferred to the Southside Railroad could continue their eastward trek to Petersburg and Richmond. Heading west from Lynchburg, the Virginia & Tennessee ran through southwestern Virginia until it ended at Bristol, Tenn. At that point, the East Tennessee & Virginia Railroad took over and ran to Knoxville. Halleck wanted the Virginia & Tennessee cut to sever the vital network of railways that tied together the South’s Eastern and Western theaters and served as avenues for communications and supplies. The Virginia & Tennessee’s importance to the Confederacy was heightened by the fact that Southern troops under Lt. Gen. James Longstreet were operating in East Tennessee and had recently threatened Knoxville. By cutting the rail line, Union commanders hoped to deprive Longstreet’s men of needed materiel.

William Averell was an experienced professional soldier and cavalry officer. He had quickly risen to command the 2nd Division of the Cavalry Corps in the Army of the Potomac. But he had run afoul of Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, who was looking for scapegoats in the wake of the disastrous Battle of Chancellorsville in the spring of 1863. Hooker blamed Averell for his leading role in Maj. Gen. George Stoneman’s failed raid against Confederate communications prior to that battle. Averell was relieved of command and exiled to West Virginia, a backwater in the grand scheme of Federal military operations. There he was given command of the 4th Separate Brigade, an odd mixture of infantry and artillery units. He was ordered to turn the infantry into cavalry. Averell quickly shaped the brigade into a reasonably capable fighting force and began conducting operations in August 1863.

At the time Kelley issued his orders, Averell’s brigade had been in New Creek, W.Va., since November 18, having just completed operations against Confederate forces that resulted in a Federal victory at Droop Mountain on November 6. One month later, when he received Kelley’s orders, Averell was concerned that his brigade was not fully rested and ready to undertake a demanding operation. The horses were poorly shod due to a lack of horseshoes and forges.
Formerly a cavalry division commander in the Army of the Potomac, William Averell had been exiled to West Virginia after the Battle of Chancellorsville.
(Photo: U.S.A.M.H.I)

Kelley ordered Colonel Joseph Thoburn’s infantry to accompany Averell and guard his supply wagons. Averell, who chose Salem as his objective, foresaw the need for additional support in the form of multiple movements of Federal troops to confuse the enemy. After communicating those ideas to Kelley, Averell went to department headquarters in Cumberland, Md., on the evening of December 6 to develop a concerted plan of action.

Averell and Kelley’s complex plan called for four different commands, under Brig. Gen. Eliakim P. Scammon, Colonel Augustus Moor, Brig. Gen. Jeremiah Sullivan and Colonel Thoburn, to seize various locations and hold them until Averell could reach his destination and make good his escape. Scammon was to move his forces out of the Kanawha Valley and arrive at Lewisburg on December 12, watching to the north and preventing any Confederate response from that direction. Moor’s command was to arrive just north of Huntersville on December 11, look for enemy activity in the direction of Lewisburg on the 12th and 13th and remain near of Frankfort until the 18th. Finally, Sullivan and Thoburn would threaten Staunton from different directions and keep enemy forces there from reacting to Averell’s presence. Moor and Thoburn were to receive their orders directly from Averell, while Kelley was to issue orders to Scammon and Sullivan. A key part of the deception involved threatening the town of Staunton until December 20-21 in order to properly divert enemy attention.

Averell immediately returned to New Creek and rushed to complete preparations for the raid. On the morning of December 8, the brigade, consisting of the 2nd, 3rd and 8th West Virginia mounted infantries; the 14th Pennsylvania Cavalry; Major Thomas Gibson’s independent battalion of cavalry and Captain Chatham Ewing’s battery of artillery, set out from New Creek. The weather that morning was described as ‘bright and beautiful,’ but Averell reported–prophetically–having ‘many misgivings on account of our poor condition to overcome the wearying distances and confront the perils incident to such an expedition.’

The brigade, totaling some 2,500 men, headed southwest toward Petersburg, attempting to finish shoeing their mounts along the way. The lack of materials and a practical means of performing the chore while on the move, however, made effective efforts impossible. On December 10, the brigade arrived in Petersburg and was joined by Thoburn and his command of 700 infantry. The combined force continued southwest to Monterey, arriving there on December 11. At Monterey, the brigade drew supplies, along with forage for the horses. Averell had all men and officers who were judged to be unfit for the upcoming rough duty sent back to New Creek. On the morning of the 12th, in the midst of a driving, cold rainstorm–the portent of more poor weather to come–Thoburn’s command, along with most of the brigade’s supply train, turned southeast toward McDowell while Averell led his men southwest toward their objective at Salem.
Brigadier General Benjamin Kelley, commander of the Union Department of Western Virginia, hatched the idea for a raid on the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad based on the ‘intimated’ wishes of Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck.
(Photo: U.S.A.M.H.I)

Averell stayed off the main roads, instead moving the column down a rough path that ran beside Back Creek and occasionally climbing to run atop the steep ridgelines. The driving rain now mixed with sleet and snow, and an intensely cold wind blew from the north. The meandering path required the column to cross Back Creek no less than 13 times in the 23 miles from Monterey to Gatewoods. This was no easy task; the stream was rising steadily and was very swift.

As Averell’s command moved tortuously down Back Creek, the Confederate forces in the region began to react. Early on the morning of December 11, a patrol of 150 Partisan Rangers commanded by Captain Philip J. Thurmond encountered Scammon’s men on Big Sewell Mountain. The Confederates engaged the force long enough to discover that it was more than a meandering Federal patrol. Brigadier General John Echols, notified by Thurmond, withdrew his forces from Lewisburg to a point two or three miles west, across the Greenbrier River.

Upon receiving a report from Echols at his headquarters in Dublin, W.Va., on December 12, Maj. Gen. Samuel Jones, commander of the Confederate Department of Western Virginia, sent dispatches to the adjutant general in Richmond and to General Robert E. Lee at Orange Court House, reporting the situation and urgently requesting reinforcements. At the same time, Colonel William Jackson, commanding the 19th Virginia Cavalry, whose pickets had encountered Moor’s forces near Marling’s Bottom, received Echols’ dispatch and guessed that another Union force might be coming from the direction of New Creek or Hightown. Jackson then ordered a patrol under Captain Jacob W. Marshall that was positioned near Huntersville to retire to a position on Back Creek near Niter Cave, where elements necessary in the production of gunpowder were located, and watch for Federal movements. The small force would thus act as a tripwire directly in Averell’s path.

On the afternoon of the 13th, Marshall’s patrol encountered Averell’s force, and a brief skirmish ensued. Averell believed the Southerners were the rear guard of Jackson’s command, and reported them to have been dispersed. Marshall, who was now cut off, destroyed the cave and sent a courier to Jackson to report Averell’s presence. At the same moment, Jackson also learned that another Federal force, probably Thoburn’s, was threatening Staunton, and ‘an opinion was expressed that they were going down the Bull Pasture River’ to get to his rear. Jackson decided to fall back from his Warm Springs headquarters and moved all his forces to Hot Springs.

So far, the Federal plan of deception was working. The Confederate troops in the region were forced to react to multiple threats from different points and thus were unable to focus on the real threat represented by Averell. The complex operation, however, would soon start to unravel.

As planned, Scammon forced Echols out of Lewisburg on the 12th, while Moor approached the town from Marling’s Bottom. But Scammon, who apparently feared that he was going to be cut off by guerrilla action in his rear, pulled back from Lewisburg almost immediately. Moor, meanwhile, was trying to contact Scammon, who he assumed was still in Lewisburg. When his first messenger was captured by guerrillas, he sent a force of 20 cavalrymen to push their way through. They returned to Moor on the 14th to report that Lewisburg was deserted but that nearby Confederate forces had fired on them as they left the town. Realizing that he was unsupported, Moor retreated and arrived back in Beverly on December 17. A key part of the plan had collapsed. Confederate forces in the area would be able to focus on the real threat and converge on Averell once he showed his hand.

On the same day that Moor began his return to Beverly, Averell’s men steadily moved toward Salem. The rain had not abated, and the Jackson’s River could scarcely be forded when the column reached it. The Federals pressed on, however, and reached Callaghan’s that afternoon. There, a dispatch arrived informing Averell that Scammon had taken Lewisburg and that Echols had pulled back. Averell, thinking his plan was still in place, decided to rest and feed the horses for a few hours. He also sent a small diversionary force down the road from Callaghan’s toward Covington.

At 2 o’clock the next morning, with the weather improving, the column moved forward in darkness. Averell kept the men moving, and by 10 a.m. on the 15th they reached Sweet Springs, where they again paused to rest.

During their recess, another dispatch reached Averell, this time telling him that Scammon had indeed abandoned Lewisburg and that Echols’ forces were some four miles from Union, W.Va., to the north. Spurred by this news, Averell put the column back in motion at noon, and by 1 p.m. they had seized the road leading to New Castle. There, they captured a Confederate who told them that as far as he knew no one was aware of their approach. When they were within 12 miles of New Castle, Averell decided to send out another diversion, this time dispatching a patrol toward Fincastle.

These diversions did have some effect. On the same morning that Averell was moving toward New Castle, Jones reported from Union that ‘the enemy was at Callaghan’s last night. Reported coming by Sweet Springs to this place. I think it probable they will go by Covington and strike the iron-works, perhaps at the railroad, via Fincastle.’

By nightfall, however, the Confederates were aware that Averell was a mere 28 miles from Salem and that the railroad was ‘in the utmost danger.’ At 11 p.m., Jones sent another message to Richmond, stating: ‘I cannot throw any part of my force here [at Union] on the railroad in time to save it. You may be able to do so if you will send a force to check Averell on the railroad. I will endeavor to take care he does not escape through my department.’

All through the night of December 15, Averell pushed his brigade hard, determined to reach Salem by the next morning. Despite the brief rests the men and horses had enjoyed during the day, the hard march to Salem over that last week had taxed them. ‘The condition of the troops was bad,’ Averell reported. ‘Many horses were broken down, more lame, [and] some of the men were obliged to walk.’

As morning broke, the Union troopers were only four miles from Salem and could clearly hear trains in the distance. There they happened upon a group of Confederate soldiers who had ventured out seeking information about the reports of Federal troops. They now received that information firsthand. Averell questioned them individually in turn and learned that Maj. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee’s Confederate cavalry had left Charlottesville two days earlier to intercept them. More important, Averell learned that a train containing troops to guard the railroad and supplies was expected to arrive in Salem at any minute. The Union general reacted to this news by sending an advance detachment of 350 men and two 3-inch guns galloping into Salem to seize the depot before the train arrived.

As ordered, the group dashed into Salem and set about feverishly preparing for the train’s arrival. They first cut the telegraph lines, then tore up the railroad tracks near the depot, positioned one gun and took defensive positions. Within minutes the train, which was coming from Lynchburg, arrived loaded with Confederate troops. The Federals opened fire on it with the 3-inch gun. The first round missed, but a second shot went through the train diagonally. The engineer immediately stopped the train and began to back away. At that point, a third artillery round was fired at the train, which ‘hastened its movements,’ claimed Averell.

Shortly thereafter, around 10 a.m., Averell’s main body arrived in the town and began destroying as much of the rail facilities and supplies as they could. Parties of men were sent four miles east and 12 miles west down the line, where they set fire to five bridges and damaged as much track as possible. Meanwhile, in Salem, the depots and supplies were set ablaze, and three cars, a water station and a turntable were destroyed. In addition, the telegraph lines were cut for about a half mile. As the depots burned, the supplies within were also destroyed. Averell’s report of the damage put the destruction at ‘two thousand barrels of flour, 10,000 bushels of wheat, 100,000 bushels of shelled corn, 50,000 bushels of oats, 2,000 barrels of meat, several cords of leather, 1,000 sacks of salt….’ He also claimed a large amount of clothing and horse equipment was destroyed, along with 100 wagons and other miscellaneous items. The Confederate tally, however, claimed that only 148 barrels of flour, 150 bushels of wheat and 180 bushels of corn were destroyed.

At 4 p.m., Averell withdrew from Salem, having created as much mayhem as he could in six hours. His men had covered 80 miles in the last 30 hours, so Averell decided to stop seven miles from Salem and rest a few hours. As the men dismounted, it began to rain and the temperature began to drop rapidly. Both nature and the Confederate army were closing in.

Armed with the knowledge that Averell had attacked Salem, the Confederate forces in the region quickly moved to block his escape. Jones realized correctly that his best chance was to cut off Averell’s escape routes and slow him down enough for converging superior forces to be brought to bear. Jackson’s command was in the best probable position to perform the critical task of blocking the passages back to Federal territory, and on the 17th Jones ordered him to return to a position near Clifton Forge, about 15 miles northeast of Covington down Jackson’s River, and await further orders. At first light that morning, Jackson took a position near Jackson’s River Depot, where he could monitor a route through nearby Rich Patch and another through Clifton Forge, a few miles to the east. Jackson then sent out scouts toward Buchanan and Rich Patch. Detached from the Army of Northern Virginia, Major General Jubal Early had troops approaching Clifton Forge, but after receiving reports that Averell was returning to Salem, he diverted them to Buchanan.

Averell and his weary troopers’ route now took them along the bottom of Craig’s Creek, and the deluge of freezing rain that had begun on the 16th continued unabated, turning the creek into a swollen, churning torrent. The stream’s meandering route forced the brigade to cross it again and again, as many as seven times in only 10 or 12 miles.

As the men led their mounts into the freezing water, the horses sank to midrib. Their riders soon found that the current was so fast they had to turn their horses upstream and make them straddle sideways across the water. If they failed to perform this tricky maneuver properly, the current striking the horse in the side would sweep both horse and rider into the torrent, and several men were drowned as a result. The icy temperature took its toll, and soon the soldiers’ uniforms were frozen stiff and the horses were covered with icicles. After a few crossings, the horses began to balk and had to be whipped and spurred to force them back into the raging waters.

Ammunition became soaked and unusable. Averell began to fear that his command would be unable to fight effectively if they ran into Confederate resistance. Therefore, he kept the brigade moving throughout the 17th, into the night and on until sundown on the 18th, when they finally reached New Castle once again. His command was soaked, freezing cold, muddy and hungry. They dismounted to rest and eat, but within a few hours Averell received news that Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry was nearby at Fincastle and that Jones was between the Union troopers and Sweet Springs. At 9 p.m., the Federal commander reluctantly ordered the brigade to move out again, a detachment making another false advance toward Fincastle while the remainder of the brigade continued toward Sweet Springs.

Within a few hours the Federals ran into Jones’ pickets and skirmished with them, driving the Confederates back 12 miles, beyond the junction of the Fincastle Pike and the road to Sweet Springs. Averell assessed the situation. Lee was very close to his right and rear, and he knew he could not get through Sweet Springs without a fight that his weary men might not be up to. Averell saw that he had only two choices: He could move back to the southwest, around Jones’ right flank, through Monroe and Greenbrier counties, or he could move northeast to the Covington and Fincastle Pike. The former was the most circuitous route, while the latter was the most direct and therefore potentially dangerous. Averell chose the latter, rationalizing that the Confederates might not expect it.

The brigade moved forward once again, this time toward Covington, along a road described as a ‘deep, narrow defile.’ The roadbed was covered in ice, and horses repeatedly slipped and fell, slowing the advance. But Averell and his officers kept the command moving, and by midday on December 19 they were nearing Covington and the climax of the raid.

At noon on the 19th, Averell’s brigade reached the Fincastle Pike, some 15 miles from the Island Ford Bridge across Jackson’s River, five miles below Covington. Reports reached Averell that the river was unfordable and filled with ice floes–securing the span was the only option. The brigade quickly moved forward and, eight miles from the river, ran into a militia unit of 300 mounted men, which they pushed aside. Averell dispatched a force to closely pursue the militia and secure the bridge. What Averell did not know was that the span had already been prepared for burning as soon as the Confederates received word of the approaching Federal force. But his men moved too swiftly, reaching the bridge at a gallop and preventing its destruction. By 9 p.m. the four-mile-long main Federal column had reached the Island Ford Bridge and begun crossing.

Meanwhile, Jackson and a motley force of cavalry and militia tried to cut off Averell. The colonel had elected to move his men to the intersection of the Rich Patch and Covington roads. It was dark by the time he reached that point, and he soon discovered to his horror that Averell’s force had taken a shortcut off the Rich Patch Road. Most of the Federal column had already crossed the bridge. Jackson sent Colonel William W. Arnett and his 20th Virginia Cavalry up the Rich Patch Road to pin down the end of the column while he led the rest of his men toward the bridge. A night engagement, a rare event in the Civil War, ensued.

By that time, all of Averell’s brigade except the 14th Pennsylvania and some of the ambulances and supply wagons had crossed the bridge. Jackson’s men arrived and cut off the bridge, and Arnett’s men fell upon the 14th Pennsylvania, which continued to fight its way forward. But despite three attempts, the Federals could not reach the bridge. As morning approached, Averell sent word to the cut-off regiment to try to find another way across. He then set fire to the bridge to stop Jackson from following.

As the bridge burned, Colonel Arnett pulled back to prevent the 14th Pennsylvania from escaping via a nearby railroad bridge. This was a mistake. The besieged Federal cavalry instead took a pathway down into the river gorge and, despite the high, icy waters, managed to swim to the other side, losing four men who drowned. The regiment speedily rejoined the brigade and continued the journey back to Union lines.

A golden opportunity for the Confederates to stop Averell’s escape had been squandered in a confusing and frustrating night engagement. This failure could be attributed to the difficulties of communicating in the dark and to the fact that most of the troops on both sides probably had never before fought in darkness. Still another reason might have been poor Confederate discipline. A report filed with Jones by Major Edward McMahon, a quartermaster who arrived in Covington shortly after the skirmish, indicated not only that he thought Colonel Jackson was negligent and incompetent in his preparations for Averell’s arrival but also that the Confederate troops may have been more interested in pillaging than in stopping the Federals. He reported that townspeople told him ‘the soldiers were running about plundering and gathering up property abandoned by the enemy.’ Further, he alleged, ‘almost every crime has been perpetrated by the command from burglary down to rape.’ McMahon added, ‘Unless you order an investigation of these matters, the people here will demand it from the War Department, as the whole community are in a state of great excitement, augmented no little by the many petty crimes, and increased at last to fever heat by the rape on a most respectable lady.’ Not surprisingly, there was no mention of these incidents in either Jackson’s or Jones’ reports.

Although the Confederate threat was now gone, the travails of nature had not yet ended for Averell’s beleaguered troopers. The waters in all the streams remained high, and the temperature unbearably low. During the final three days of the march, the roads, bemoaned Averell, had the consistency of ‘a glacier’ and were so slippery that the artillery had to be pulled by dismounted men. On Christmas Eve, supplies from Beverly reached the column and the soldiers ate their first real rations in more than eight days. They kept slowly moving forward, however, and on December 26 the brigade finally arrived in Beverly.

The raid had accomplished little of military value. According to Jones’ report, the railroad was repaired in ‘three or four days’ and was actually improved by the resulting repairs. Apparently a few of the bridges burned had been in bad condition and their destruction provided a much-needed opportunity to replace them.

Averell reported losing seven men to drowning, seven wounded, one missing and 97 captured, most of them at the crossing near Covington. What his report could not reflect was that a staggering 71 of those 97 captured would eventually die in captivity, most at the notorious Confederate prison at Andersonville, Ga.

Despite the mixed results of the raid, Averell maintained a measure of satisfaction with the foray, for his brigade had borne up well under very trying conditions. In his report he proudly wrote: ‘The officers and men undertook all that was required of them, and endured all the sufferings from fatigue, hunger, and cold with extraordinary fortitude, even with cheerfulness. The march of 400 miles, which was concluded at Beverly, was the most difficult I have ever seen performed. The endurance of these men and horses was taxed to the utmost.’

The raid had one unexpected bonus for Averell’s bone-weary troopers. Noting that his men’s clothing had been ruined during the ordeal, Averell asked Halleck ‘to make them a New Year’s gift of a new suit throughout.’ This Halleck was glad to do–and without charging the men one cent of their regular clothing allowance.


>This article was written by Robert N. Thompson and originally appeared in the November 2000 issue of America’s Civil War.

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