One hundred fifty years ago this week, the wide, lush pastures bracketing the tree-shaded South Branch of the Potomac River just north of the Hardy County farming community of Moorefield must have been a welcome sight for Brig. Gen. John McCausland and the 3,000 Confederate cavalrymen in his command as they rode toward what they hoped would be a peaceful campground offering several days of rest and rejuvenation.
McCausland and his troops had ridden long and hard during the past week.
On July 30, 1864,under orders from Lt. Gen. Jubal Early, McCausland and his troops left the Shenandoah Valley, crossed through Maryland, and looted and burned the defenseless town of Chambersburg, Pa.. The razing of Chambersburg was in retaliation for Union troops commanded by Gen. David Hunter looting and burning several communities in the Shenandoah Valley, including Lexington, Va., and its Virginia Military Institute, earlier that summer.
After thoroughly sacking Chambersburg, McCausland and his men were ordered by Early to turn south and burn Baltimore & Ohio Railroad bridges in the vicinity of Keyser in Mineral County. On Aug. 5, McCausland’s force battled a smaller but stubborn and well-positioned Union garrison on the outskirts of Keyser, and was eventually driven away when a trainload of federal reinforcements arrived and immediately joined in the fray.
Tired and discouraged, McCausland opted to fall back to Confederate-friendly Moorefield to regroup and await new orders.
“When McCausland arrived at Moorefield, he carelessly selected his camps, concerned more with good grazing pastures for the horses than with any sense of military security,” wrote historian Scott Patchem in “Shenandoah Summer: The 1864 Valley Campaign. “His men forgot about the war for a while, bathing themselves and their clothing and swimming their horses in the South Branch of the Potomac River.”
McCausland also let his command be divided by the river, allowing roughly half his troops to camp on the north side of the South Branch, while the other half occupied the fields on the south side of the stream, Patchem observed.
Local partisan commander John McNeill warned McCausland of the perils of splitting his command, and suggested another campsite a few miles away, but the general ignored the advice. In fact, McCausland established a headquarters bivouac a few miles away from both of his troops’encampments, in the brick,two-story Samuel McMechen home -- now a bed and breakfast inn -- in downtown Moorefield.
On the night of Aug. 6, Patchem wrote, McCausland’s troops, who were not equipped with tents, slept under shelters fashioned from blankets stretched from fence rails, expecting to spend the next few days relaxing in camp.
But Brig. Gen. William Averell had other plans.
When the Union general arrived in the Hampshire County town of Springfield on Aug. 6, he learned that McCausland’s force was believed to be camped at Moorefield after being driven from Keyser the previous day. Although Averell had a force only half the size of McCausland’s, he immediately pushed on, hoping to engage the Confederate cavalrymen in a surprise night attack. About midnight, at the Mill Creek community about halfway between Romney and Moorefield, Averell met with his staff to go over intelligence gleaned by scouts and draw up a plan of attack.
During the predawn hours of Aug. 7, Averell sent a group of “Jesse Scouts,” or federal troops disguised as Confederates, toward Moorefield, where they surprised and captured Confederate pickets near their encampments. Averell’s main force was not far behind, storming into the two riverside camps and routing the hastily awakened cavalrymen, who were unable to reach their horses and managed to form only a few skirmish lines before being overrun.
“A desperate hand-to-hand fight took place in the river,”near the site where the Romney-Moorefield road forded the South Branch, according to the battle account of Capt. Edwin Bouldin, commander of the 14th Virginia Cavalry. “Thus the Yankees were checked for a while,”Bouldin recounted.
But it was too little, too late.
Confederate Brig. Bradley Johnson, the second man in McCausland’s chain of command, was asleep in Willow Wall, the mansion owned by David McNeill family, located a short distance from one of the riverside encampments, when federal troops attacked. Awakened by shouting and gunfire, “the brigadier twisted into his boots and jacket, donned his hat, and bolted toward the door,”Patchem wrote. “Bounding down the stairs, he ran out the front door and saw Union troops only a few yards away. Johnson turned around and fled into the house and out the rear door pursued by a half dozen federals wieldling Spencer carbines.” Once outside, Johnson jumped over a fence, spotted a riderless horse, climbed aboard, and “galloped toward the 8th Virginia just ahead of the pursuing federals.”
McCausland also managed to elude capture or worse. By the time he arrived at the battle scene, most of his troops had fled into the hills or had been captured.
In all, Averell’s force captured 415 Confederate troops, not to mention more than 400 horses and numerous household items taken during the looting of Chambersburg. Thirteen Confederates were killed and 60 wounded in the battle, while 11 of Averell’s men were killed and 18 wounded.
The battle is considered an overwhelming victory for Averell and his Union troops. For McCausland’s commander, Gen. Jubal Early, the Battle of Moorefield “had a very damaging effect on my cavalry for the rest of the campaign,” he later wrote.
McCausland went on to fight for the Confederacy during the Seige of Petersburg and the Appomattox Campaign. After the war, facing arson charges for the burning of Chambersburg, he fled to Europe to join the French Foreign Legion, seeing combat in Mexico before he was pardoned by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1867.
A native of St. Louis, McCausland, starting at age 13, was raised by an aunt and uncle in Mason County after his parents died. Before the war, he attended Buffalo Military Academy in Putnam County and later graduated from, and taught math at, the Virginia Military Institute, where Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was also a faculty member.
McCausland spent nearly 60 years after the war managing his large farm in the Pliny area, building his stately “Grape Hill” home, which still stands, in 1885. He remained an unrepentant Confederate and “Lost Cause” advocate until his death in 1927.
McCausland may have been the last surviving Confederate general. While some sources credit Texan Felix Robertson, who died in 1928, as being the last living Confederate general, others point out that in 1865, the Confederate States of America’s Senate rejected Robertson’s 1864 appointment to the rank of brigadier general, disqualifying him from retaining oldest surviving general honors.
Reach Rick Steelhammer at email@example.com or 304-348-5169.