|The central counties of what is now West Virginia, from Wirt through to the
Shenandoah Valley, were kept in constant turmoil during the early years of the
Civil War by raids and forays made by irregular bands of Confederate partisans.
Considerable military force was needed to keep these bands in check and to
protect the persons and property of those who adhered to the federal
government. For that reason a large part of the loyal Union troops recruited in
the area were kept in the home country to combat guerrillas during the first
two years of the war.
In the Calhoun County area, the home ground of several partisan bands and a
convenient refuge for irregulars from neighboring counties, a reign of terror
existed. Civil government had completely broken down, stores were looted and
closed, the mail routes and post offices were discontinued, business was
suspended, and the county officers had abandoned their offices and taken to
the hills as rangers and guerrillas.
The whole area reverted to a primitive state, where each man seemed to be on
his own, though as a whole the population was about equally divided in loyalty
to Confederate Virginia and to the federal government. The rebel partisans
were more active in their operations and more direct in their methods of
Arnoldsburg was then the nominal county seat. The town consisted of only a
few houses, a store building, and a cut stone foundation for a courthouse, but it
was the largest town in the county, and it became the rallying point for
secession dissidents soon after the break of hostilities.
In the summer and fall of 1861 Federal troops had made several dashes into
the county to skirmish with rebel partisans, but it was not until early in 1862
that a military post was established to control the roving bands and insofar as
possible restore order in the county.
Naturally enough, these troops were centered at Arnoldsburg where they set
up Camp McDonald, a post named in honor of Colonel Adonijah J. McDonald,
late commanding officer of the county's 186th Regiment, Virginia Enrolled
Militia. One company of the occupation force--Company C, Eleventh (West)
Virginia Infantry--was made up for the most part of men who belonged to the
disbanded militia regiment.
And opposing them were the irregular bands led by Peter Saurburn, Major
George Downs (pictured left), Dan Duskey, and Perry Conley, and others made
up of county men who were also former members of Colonel McDonald's 186th
Recruiting for the Eleventh (West) Virginia Volunteer Infantry was commenced
under Colonel J. C. Rathbone, of Parkersburg, in October 1861, but it was not
until the last days of December that the first two companies--B from Wirt
County and C from Calhoun--were completed.
These companies, instead of being sent to a training camp to be instructed in
the art of war and the duty of soldiers, were immediately armed and sent into
the field to combat the irregulars in Wirt, Roane, and Calhoun counties.
Other companies were forwarded to Camp McDonald as fast as they were
completed and mustered. Outposts were set up in the three counties, with
regimental headquarters at Spencer under Colonel Rathbone.
About the first of May 1862, Camp McDonald was garrisoned by four
companies of the Eleventh under command of Major George C. Trimble, of
Maj. George Downs camp had been set up, with wagon trains and a
considerable amount of military stores, a rich prize for the partisans who
furnished their own arms and equipment and subsisted off the country where
they happened to be operating.
Scouts brought word that the irregulars were concentrating in lower Braxton
County and were said to be four hundred strong under command of Captain
George Downs, a forty-year-old Calhoun farmer and miller, who held a
commission in the Virginia State Rangers from Governor John Letcher.
The purpose of the concentration, it was said, was to make an immediate
attack on Camp McDonald. In fact, the march had already begun.
Major Trimble was quick to act. With two companies he marched up the West
Fork of the Little Kanawha to meet the rangers, expecting to find and disperse
the scattered bands.
After an all day and night march, scouts overtook him with the news that the
partisan forces had divided and that by a flanking movement a large force was
in the act of cutting him off from his base at Camp McDonald. Retracing his
steps, with stops to search every house along the line of march, Major Trimble
and his small command reached the camp late on the evening of May 5, his
men worn out with three days of marching under full pack.
As a precaution the lines were extended, the guards were doubled, and orders
were issued to permit no person to enter or leave the limits of the camp.
A heavy fog settled over the valley during the night, and when morning of May
6 came, visibility was limited to a few hundred feet. During the night, covered
by darkness and the fog, the rangers had crept in and had taken strong
positions on the hills overlooking the camp.
Fortunately for the sleeping soldiers, a ranger scout ventured down the hill to
get a better view of the lay of the land. In the dim half-light of the early morning
he was detected by an alert sentry, who fired at him.
The shot aroused the camp. Drummers beat the long roll, the half-dressed
soldiers turned out and formed in lines of battle. The partisans opened a heavy
fire while the men were forming, but the blanket of fog prevented accurate
shooting, and the partisans could only fire at the general location.
Lieutenant James Robinson, commanding Company C, was ordered to clear
the point overlooking the camp from which the heaviest fire was directed, a
mission that was carried out within minutes.
Lieutenant G. W. Baggs, with Company A (Snake Hunters), was sent to clear
the opposite hill, and within ten minutes had reached the top and opened fire,
driving the attacking force back out of range. Lieutenant Nicholas Poling
(pictured left), with a detachment, took a strong position in the dwelling of
Peregrine Hays, county sheriff, but at that time a participant in the fight on the
part of the south. Company F, under command of Lieutenant George W.
Parriott, took position to defend the camp and all approaches to the
Firing was kept up for about three and a half hours, with amazingly little
damage from such a large expenditure of ammunition. The attacking force,
armed with makeshift weapons ranging from old flintlocks and mountain rifles
to army models taken from slain or captured soldiers, could not compete in
range or firepower with the Enfield and Harpers Ferry rifles of the Union
As the fog lifted and visibility cleared, the attackers turned their
fire on the horses, killing and wounding several. But the superior range of the
Union guns forced them to melt back into the heavy forest and to retreat from
the field. In all this fighting and shooting the Eleventh Regiment had only one
casualty, Private Francis Cunningham, Company C, who received a rifle ball
through the arm and shoulder while aiming his piece.
On the ranger side, Joseph W. Burson was shot through the head and killed
instantly. It was at his home in April 1856, that the Calhoun County government
was organized. Captain John Elam Mitchell, a Methodist Protestant minister
from Gilmer County, was shot through the hips and mortally wounded. Martin
Douglas, who rated as a ranger corporal, was seriously wounded and crippled
for life. It was, all in all, a very light casualty list for a prolonged skirmish.
Most of the men were under fire for the first time, and the whole outfit was not
yet battle-toughened, but the men of the Eleventh acquitted themselves very
creditably that day. A volunteer reporter for the Wheeling Intelligencer dwelt
on the coolness and courage of the men, and as an illustration pointed out that
while the firing was the hottest, the cooks of Company A stirred up the
campfire and cooked breakfast, even while rifle balls were spattering around
in their general neighborhood.
The attacking force, made up of several independent groups, was more a mob
than a disciplined military unit. Allowing for the usual exaggerated estimate of
opposing troops, it is very likely that Captain Downs did not command more
than fifty or sixty men in the attack.
In later months, after capture and a sojourn at Camp Chase, this same Captain
Downs did organize members of the independent rangers into an effective
cavalry unit which became Company A, Nineteenth Virginia Cavalry, in the
regular Confederate service. This regiment was commanded by Colonel William
L. Jackson, later a brigadier general, who was dubbed "Mudwall" in order to
distinguish him from his better-known cousin, General "Stonewall" Jackson.
Captain Downs was promoted to major, Nineteenth Virginia Cavalry, before the
end of the war.
True, the skirmish at Arnoldsburg was a minor affair as battles are measured,
but it had a considerable significance in determining control of the central
counties. The result of the fight, however, was curiously confused. To this day
the researcher who depends upon the newspapers of the East, or even upon
the scanty and exaggerated reports in the Official Records of the Rebellion,
will find recorded that the rebels destroyed the camp, captured the defenders,
and made off with the arms and military stores. In fact, the exact opposite is
On May 8, two days after the fight, Colonel Rathbone, then at Parkersburg, sent
a telegram to Brigadier General B. F. Kelley, commanding the district and
specially charged with controlling the guerrillas, that "our forces at
Arnoldsburg, under Lieutenant Parriott, surrendered the place to 400 Southern
troops," and that Spencer was in possession of the rebels.
General Kelley dispatched troops to retake the "captured" towns and at the
same time sent an alarming wire to General John C. Fremont, commanding the
West Virginia district. In turn, General Fremont wired Secretary of War Stanton
giving news of the "surrender," adding that several were killed on both sides.
When the reinforcement sent by General Kelley reached Arnoldsburg, they
found all serene, and only Private Cunningham nursing wounds received in
And there the official record was permitted to rest. Down in cold type in the
book, even though the attacking force was repulsed and driven out of the area,
the battle at Arnoldsburg is listed as a Confederate victory.
- This story was reprinted from Boyd B. Stutler's West Virginia in the Civil War,
Education Foundation, Inc., Charleston, West Virginia 25324.
MORE ABOUT THE ARNOLDSBURG SKIRMISH
Shortly after the skirmish at Arnoldsburg, Lieutenant James P. Conley was a
member of a group that were part sent to Laurel Creek and the rest to Birch
River looking for bushwhackers. His brother, Perry Conley, was one of the
The guerrillas were located, and in a hand to hand conflict. James killed his
brother Perry. James was advanced to 1st Lieutenant 12 September 1862 but
was dismissed 12 September 1864. A large two-story house located in the Big
Bend of the Little Kanawha River was used as a fort by George Downs and
Peter Saurburn, and their Partisan Rangers. Perry Conley, another of the
guerrillas, operated on the North side of the river, ranging back into Gilmer,
Braxton and Webster counties. In December his gang murdered at least two
people and robbed seven families.
Perry (Peregrine) Hayes and Ben Haymond returned from Webster County
where they had taken refuge when portions of the 10th Regiment reached that
region. On the way north they fired on a supply train near Bulltown. Robert
Ervin, another ruffian, returned to Calhoun County and was one of the
right-hand men of Perry Hayes.