The Battle of White Sulphur Springs:
Averell Fails to Secure West Virginia

By Eric J. Wittenberg
(4/20/12 Civil War News - Web Exclusive)

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Illustrated, photos, maps, appendices, notes, bibliography, index, 192 pp., 2011, History Press, www.historypress.net, $21.99 softcover.

 

As a “child of the Civil War,” the state of West Virginia, admitted into the Union on June 20, 1863, witnessed incessant warfare throughout four bloody years of conflict.

Despite the complexities of the Civil War in West Virginia and the contributions of nearly 25,000 men to the Union war effort and approximately 15,000 to the Confederate cause, only a handful of historians such as W. Hunter Lesser, Mark Snell and John Stealey, have engaged in serious scholarship about the conflict in West Virginia.

With the publication of his latest book as part of the History Press’ Sesquicentennial Series, noted cavalry expert Eric Wittenberg can add his name to this small, but august, group of historians of West Virginia’s Civil War.

Wittenberg’s interest in the Aug. 26-27, 1863, Battle of White Sulphur Springs stemmed from a February 2010 trip through Greenbrier County, where an obscure historical marker about the Battle of Dry Creek, another name for the engagement, caught his attention.

Since Wittenberg had never heard of this fight, he decided to research and write this book. Using a wealth of published and unpublished primary material, he has created a first-rate analysis of this forgotten engagement.

After Union Gen. Joseph Hooker made Gen. William Averell a scapegoat for the Union disaster at Chancellorsville, New Yorker Averell found himself assigned to command a contingent of troops from Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. That 4th Separate Brigade served in Gen. Benjamin F. Kelley’s Department of West Virginia.

When Averell reported to Kelley in the summer of 1863, Kelley informed him that he wanted Averell to take his brigade on a mission. He was to drive Confederate troops under Col. William “Mudwall” Jackson from Pocahontas County, capture Huntersville, and then move on to Lewisburg to secure the large law library there — established by the Virginia State Supreme Court — for the benefit of the new West Virginia government.

The first portion of Wittenberg’s study lucidly analyzes Averell’s background and the construction of his command. Additionally, it traces the brigade’s early successes and the difficulties they confronted with Confederate bushwhackers. Finally, it examines the uncertainty that Averell’s raid brought to the Confederate commander responsible for control of the region, Maj. Gen. Samuel Jones.

The Confederate troops who ultimately shouldered the burden of blocking Averell’s path to Lewisburg consisted of approximately 2,300 men commanded by Col. George S. Patton — grandfather of the famed World War II general.

In the book’s second portion, Wittenberg expertly recounts Patton’s successful efforts at White Sulphur Springs to fend off the roughly 1,300 troops of Averell’s force, as well as the “half-hearted and not well managed” pursuit of Averell by Mudwall Jackson’s cavalry.

In addition to discussing the battle’s tactics, Wittenberg examines the role civilians played in the engagement’s aftermath, including the actions of Patton’s wife Sue and the Sisters of Charity in caring for the wounded.

Wittenberg concludes his study with an examination of the Confederate government’s decision to move the law library from Lewisburg to Richmond. The author also offers a positive analysis of Averell’s performance despite his inability to achieve the mission’s final objective.

This cogently crafted, first book-length history of the Battle of White Sulphur Springs serves as a reminder of how many areas of Civil War history still need significant attention in terms of written scholarship and battlefield interpretation and preservation.

Reviewer: Jonathan A. Noyalas

   

Jonathan A. Noyalas is assistant professor of history and director of the Center for Civil War History at Lord Fairfax Community College in Middletown, Va., and the author or editor of eight books on Civil War era history.