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Bringing back the battle

LEWISBURG, W.Va. -- For an engagement that lasted less than one hour, the May 23, 1862, Battle of Lewisburg was packed with action, ranging from a surprise attack and an artillery barrage to an infantry assault, a cavalry charge and a panicked retreat.

"It had a little bit of everything -- even a bridge-burning," said Kendall Wilson, events coordinator for the Battle of Lewisburg's 150th anniversary observance, which begins on Friday.

The historic Greenbrier County town still bears scars from the brief but bloody battle.

On a wall of John Wesley United Methodist Church, "you can see where a cannonball struck," said Wilson. "Another cannonball is still embedded in the wall of a home on Lee Street," he said.

On a hill behind North Hall Museum, under a cross-shaped earthen mound, 95 Confederate soldiers, most of them casualties of the Battle of Lewisburg, are buried in a mass grave.

While more than 1,000 spectators are expected to watch a re-enactment of the 1862 battle on Sunday, potentially hundreds of thousands more viewers will be able to get a glimpse of the full-dress replay. The 2 p.m. re-enactment is scheduled to be filmed by helicopter for use in the Smithsonian Channel's "Aerial America" series, according to Wilson.

The real Battle of Lewisburg began shortly after dawn on May 23, 1862, as about 1,400 federal soldiers led by Col. George Crook were beginning to eat breakfast at their encampment along both sides of the Midland Trail, the route of present-day U.S. 60.

Crook (who would gain fame after the war for capturing the Apache chief Geronimo) was returning from a raid on railroad facilities at Covington, Va., when he learned that a Confederate force led by Brig. Gen. Henry Heth was headed toward Lewisburg.

Crook's force, which included two Ohio infantry regiments and part of a West Virginia cavalry regiment, arrived in Lewisburg -- then a town of 800 with strong Confederate sympathies -- on May 22 and set up camp, planning to engage Heth's troops. They didn't have long to wait.

Heth and his force of 2,300 men arrived at the outskirts of Lewisburg under the cover of darkness, and established a battle line bolstered by six artillery pieces on the eastern end of town. At about 5 a.m. on May 23, Heth ordered his artillerymen to fire on the unsuspecting federals.

The Union troops were taken by surprise, but were quick to respond. Crook ordered his infantrymen to attack both ends of the Confederate line, while sending his mounted cavalrymen on a galloping charge through downtown Lewisburg to the center of Heth's position.

Though outnumbered, Crook's soldiers -- who had drilled steadily throughout the winter at a camp near Summersville -- quickly overpowered the less-disciplined Confederate troops. Heth organized a retreat to the east, burning the bridge spanning the Greenbrier River at Caldwell behind him.

In all, 80 Confederates were killed in the battle, while another 100 were wounded and 157 taken prisoner. They left behind four cannons, 300 rifles and 25 horses for Crook's men to seize. The Union force had 13 men killed, 60 wounded and 6 prisoners of war taken.

The New River Community College Auditorium is the main venue for this year's Battle of Lewisburg anniversary program. "It's located right on the site where Union troops were camped when the battle began," Wilson said.

The first event for the battle's 150th anniversary observance is a 7 p.m. Friday program titled "1862 Through the Eyes of Black Leaders of the Day," featuring presentations by re-enactors portraying escaped slave and social reformer Frederick Douglass, Charles Town-born black nationalist and Union Army officer Martin Delany and others.

Saturday's events include a battalion dress parade at 10 a.m., followed at 11 a.m. by "1862 Through the Eyes of the Generals," a program featuring re-enactors portraying noted Civil War generals voicing their outlook on the war during its early days.

At 1 p.m., Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson re-enactor Steve Cassell will discuss often misunderstood aspects of the legendary general's Civil War life, followed at 2 p.m. by a ladies' tea at the General Lewis Inn. At 4 p.m. on Saturday, re-enactors will stage a skirmish along Lewisburg's Church Street. At 8 and 9 p.m., ghost tours of Battle of Lewisburg sites will depart from the New River Community College Auditorium's steps.

On Sunday, re-enactors camps open to the public at 9 a.m., followed by camp church services at 10 a.m. and a battalion dress parade at 11 a.m. The Battle of Lewisburg re-enactment will begin at 2 p.m., followed by demonstrations of battlefield surgery and medical care. Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.


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