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Burning Springs at center of secessionist enclave

May 22, 2013
By Dave McKain , WVweb

BURNING SPRINGS - Burning Springs, 30 miles from Parkersburg, sat in the middle of a strong secessionist enclave, which included parts of Wirt, Calhoun and Roane County.

It was also the epicenter of the area's blossoming oil industry and populated with thousands of outsiders trying to strike it rich. Many of these outsiders were northerners which made them targets for the secessionists, who joined together as maurading bands of loosely defined guerrillas. Many were more interested in robbery than military conquest.

In the early days of the civil war, reports from the Burning Springs area were rampant regarding harassment -including several killings - and property destruction. This caused local politicians to call for military assistance. Union Gen. George McClellan responded, sending troops into Wirt County with the first invasion forces in May, 1861.

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Burning Springs, 30 miles from Parkersburg, was the epicenter of the blossoming oil industry and was of key interest to both Union and Confederate forces.

Recently discovered correspondence -a letter to G.W. Ralston from a Mr. Hovey, who ran a floating general store on the Little Kanawha River at Burning Springs - reports a skirmish at Burning Springs on June 26, 1861, with a report that 140 Union troops arrived at Burning Springs and engaged in a successful battle with guerrillas that lasted for two hours.

It was reported that after the battle the troops returned to Elizabeth and were furnished a hearty meal by Union forces stationed there. Rathbone letter offers no reports of casualties or unit names in this early skirmish.

Rathbone also mentions several subsequent harassments of guerrillas upon locals at Burning Springs throughout the summer and fall of 1861.

The second report of a battle at Burning Springs comes from a saved diary of Anthony Harris. Harris reported that the confederate guerrilla unit to which he was assigned attacked and burned the Fort Hill at Burning Springs, in May 1862. There are no official confirmations of this action.

The third report is the famous May 9, 1863, Jones Raid, led by Confederate Gen. William "Grumble" Jones at the end of his lightning raid across the state.

Jones reported to Gen. Robert Lee that he "burned all the wells, and destroyed 150,000 barrels of oil and all the means of production."

A local observer reported "General Jones in at Burning Springs with 1,000 cavalry.

"Burned all the oil and wells, drank all the whisky and ate all the provisions," the observer reported. The report of the destruction of 150,000 barrels has proven to be an exaggeration. Jones' forces probably destroyed over 20,000 barrels, still a huge amount of oil. This attack and destruction is the first reported destruction of an oilfield in war, and one that probably gained Jones large credit in the Confederacy.

The constant attacks and harassments almost shut down the Burning Springs oilfield.

Shortly after the war began, J. C. Rathbone, whose family had a large stake in Burning Springs and its oil and gas industry, formed his own Union Regiment to enable the positioning of troops to protect his oilfield. He brought the unit up to strength in the late fall of 1861 and it was mustered into the Union Army as the 11th West Virginia Regiment. As a result, Rathbone was appointed colonel in the Union Army to head the regiment.

In Sept. of 1862, Rebels arriving in Spencer Rathbone's entire command consisting of five companies of the 11th West Virginia Infantry. Rathbone surrendered Spencer without offering a defense. Shortly after news of the surrender reached upper echelons of the Union, Rathbone was permitted to resign his commission and return to civilian life.

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