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I-64 gas stop sparks book on obscure W.Va. Civil War battle

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Eric Wittenberg was driving back to his home in Columbus, Ohio, from a speaking engagement in Virginia when the author crossed the West Virginia line, noticed that his gas gauge was approaching empty, and took the exit ramp at White Sulphur Springs to fill up.

"At the edge of the gas station's parking lot, there was a historic marker for the Battle of Dry Creek -- a battle I wasn't familiar with," Wittenberg recalled. "While I was waiting for my wife to come out of the convenience store, I wandered over to read it."

Wittenberg was surprised to learn that the federal force involved in the 1863 battle was led by Gen. William Woods Averell, a Union cavalry officer he had researched and written about in producing his 2006 book, "The Union Cavalry Comes of Age: Hartwood Church to Brandy Station."

After reading the sign, Wittenberg said he realized that "maybe I didn't know as much about Averell as I should have."

Wittenberg, the author of "The Battle of White Sulphur Springs: Averell Fails to Secure West Virginia," and a leading authority on Civil War cavalry operations, will be the guest speaker during a Kanawha Valley Civil War Roundtable meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday in South Charleston Public Library.

The bloody, two-day battle on the outskirts of White Sulphur Springs during the summer of 1863 is the topic of Wittenberg's free public lecture.

Wittenberg's connection with the battle began in February of 2010, with the refueling stop along Interstate 64.

As his trip home continued, Wittenberg stopped at Tamarack and bought a copy of Tim McKinney's "The Civil War in Greenbrier County" to begin researching a fiercely fought battle that was known by a variety of names, including the Battle of Rocky Gap, the Battle of Dry Creek, the Battle of Howard's Creek, the Battle of White Sulphur Springs and the Battle of the Law Books.

The last name for the engagement stems from the main objective of Averell's mission -- to seize the contents of the Virginia Supreme Court's law library, housed in the Greenbrier County Courthouse in Lewisburg.

Before the Civil War broke out, Virginia's Supreme Court met at least once each year in Western Virginia, where, for the sake of convenience, a law library identical to the one in Richmond was maintained in Lewisburg. The law library was needed in Wheeling to help the newly formed state of West Virginia create the framework for its own Supreme Court of Appeals.

Averell, a West Point graduate and wounded Indian Wars cavalry veteran, served with distinction during the Peninsula and Seven Days campaigns in Virginia in 1862. He was named commander of the Army of the Potomac's 1st Cavalry Brigade, which he led during the Fredericksburg Campaign later that year. In 1863, he led the 2nd Division of the Cavalry Corps to victory in the Battle of Kelly's Ford, but a few months later, took part in Stoneman's Raid during the Chancellorsville Campaign, an action that proved to be a disaster for the Union.

Gen. Joseph Hooker relieved Averell of his command for a perceived lack of aggressiveness during the raid. "I think Averell got a raw deal," Wittenberg said. "He did nothing wrong, in my opinion."

Averell was sent to what became the new state of West Virginia to take over command of the 4th Separate Brigade, a mish-mash of mounted infantry, infantry and artillery units.

"Averell took command of these infantry regiments and, in just a few weeks, turned them into effective cavalry," Wittenberg said. "They had to learn to march and fight in formation. It's supposed to take months to train cavalry. Averell did it in just a few short weeks before he was ordered to Lewisburg."

In August 1863, Averell's force of 1,300 cavalry, infantry and artillery units was ordered to seize the law library at Lewisburg and destroy a section of the Virginia-Tennessee Central Railroad in nearby Virginia.

After passing through Huntersville in Pocahontas County, the Union force made its way to the eastern edge of White Sulphur Springs on Aug. 26 via a narrow, boulder-rimmed canyon known as Rocky Gap. There, they encountered a force of 2,000 Confederates under the command of Col. George Patton, a Charleston lawyer and the grandfather of the famed World War II general of the same name.

The larger Confederate forces repelled several attempts by Averell's men to break through their lines and move on toward their objective in Lewisburg. Fighting, including several cavalry charges and artillery duels, continued throughout the afternoon and into the next morning. Averell, concerned that the ammunition supply of his greatly outnumbered force was nearly depleted, broke off the attack and organized a retreat.

"It was a toe-to-toe slugging match for a day and a half, with heavy casualties on both sides," Wittenberg said. "It was a neighbor-versus-neighbor type of fight, with most of the soldiers coming from West Virginia. Most of the Confederate force came from the Charleston area."

While Wittenberg believes Averell made the correct decision to withdraw, "it was a Confederate victory, both tactically and strategically."

Union losses were 26 killed, 125 wounded and 67 captured. The Confederates lost 20 killed, 129 wounded and 18 missing.

Among the Union dead was Averell's aide-de-camp, Capt. Paul von Koenig, a German baron who came to the United States with his brother at the start of the war, initially serving with a New York infantry regiment.

"He died leading a cavalry charge," Wittenberg said. "Trying to figure out his life story, and how he came to be in this battle, has been a fascinating part of researching this book."

Later in 1863, troops under Averell's command were victorious in the Battle of Droop Mountain. But in 1864, during the Valley Campaign in Virginia, Averell was again relieved of his command, after failing to meet the expectations of Gen. Phil Sheridan.

"But don't feel too sorry for him," Wittenberg said. "After the war, he patented an asphalt paving process that made him very wealthy."

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.


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