Walking in the footsteps of West Virginia infantry
Droop Mountain dominates the wide, beautiful plain in southern Pocahontas County known as the Little Levels. The mountain and the plain were the scene of a significant military action in 1863 when a large Confederate brigade attempted to stop a larger United States brigade from moving south toward Lewisburg.
U.S. forces consisted of 3,855 men, commanded by Brigadier General William W. Averell. West Virginia soldiers comprised the bulk of Averell's fighting forces and included the 2nd, 3rd and 8th West Virginia Mounted Infantry regiments, the 10th West Virginia Infantry and two batteries of the 1st West Virginia Light Artillery. The 28th Ohio Infantry, the 14th Pennsylvania Cavalry and an independent cavalry battalion rounded out Averell's command.
Confederate forces consisted of approximately 2,500 men and included the 14th, 19th and 20th Virginia Cavalry regiments, the 22nd Virginia Infantry regiment, the 23rd Virginia Infantry Battalion and two artillery batteries with a total of six guns.
Moving south from Beverly on November 3, 1863, Averell's forces quickly drove the outnumbered 19th and 20th Virginia Cavalry from central Pocahontas County. After a brief battle at Mill Point on November 5, the rebel cavalry withdrew to Droop Mountain, where they began work on a defensive position.
That afternoon, Brigadier General John Echols arrived with Confederate reinforcements and assumed command of the mountaintop position.
Rebel morale soared.
A band played to celebrate the arrival of Echols' troops and rebel yells could be heard on a hilltop south of Hillsboro, where Averell had established his command post. Cocksure in their mountaintop redoubt, the rebels were confident they could repel anyone foolhardy enough to assault the steep slopes.
That mission was given to the West Virginia mounted infantry.
The mounted infantry traveled on horseback but fought mostly on foot. West Virginia military officials met with President Abraham Lincoln in February 1863 to request that some infantry units be mounted to deal with Confederate cavalry raids. Lincoln thought the proposal made sense and ordered Army commander Henry Halleck to provide mounts for the infantry soldiers.
After establishing his command post, Averell wasted little time in developing a plan and issuing an operations order. He knew if the Confederates had time to dig in, it would be that much more difficult to force them from the mountaintop.
The attack on Droop Mountain would commence the next day, November 6. The 2nd, 3rd and 8th West Virginia mounted infantry regiments would attack up the steep northeast slopes of the mountain, but only after a strong supporting attack on the Confederate left flank had begun.
Averell ordered the 28th Ohio andﾠ 10th West Virginia to move back through Hillsboro, ascend the mountain to the north, and follow the ridgeline back to attack the rebel left flank. The route generally follows what is now Lobelia Road and Viney Mountain Road.
About 1:45 in the afternoon, the 28th Ohio and 10th West Virginia completed their end-around and assaulted the Confederate left flank. When Averell heard gunfire from the ridgeline, he ordered the three West Virginia infantry regiments to begin the frontal assault up the northeast slopes.
The determined flank attack forced the Confederate commander to move troops from the center of his line to the left. Rebel soldiers, having lost much of the bravado of the previous afternoon, became unnerved at the prospectﾠ of being surrounded.
Within two hours after the assault on the Confederate left, the West Virginia infantry climbed the mountain and assaulted the center of the Confederate line on the tip of the mountain.
Charging through heavy musket fire and aided by the successful flank attack, the 2nd 3rd and 8th West Virginia infantry regiments broke through the line, engaged the enemy in hand-to-hand combat, and sent the rebels running. The battle became a rout and the Confederate brigade retreated to Lewisburg.
A Walk on the Battlefield
Mike Smith, superintendent of Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park, probably knows more about the battle than anyone, but is always anxious to learn more. He wanted to get a feel for the terrain that Union soldiers traversed during the battle.
So, on May 15, 2010, Smith followed the footsteps of the 8th West Virginia Mounted Infantry regiment, which assaulted the steep slopes under musket, rifle and artillery fire, only to have a bayonet fight waiting at the top.
Starting at Averell's command post, the superintendent made his way over rolling farms that would have existed in 1863.ﾠ Stopping on hilltops along the way, he surveyed the battle area and the various routes taken by the federal regiments.
Far to the right, the northern ridge of Droop Mountain - the route of the flank attack. In a steep draw between where he stood and the distant ridgeline - the route of the 2nd and 3rd West Virginia regiments. In a field to the south of Route 219 - a Union artillery position. Directly to his front - the route of the 8th West Virginia Mounted Infantry.
After crossing a mile of farmland and traversing the rim of a sinkhole, 100 yards wide, he struggled through thicker and steeper terrain until he reached a clearing and the home of Jim Fleming.ﾠ
Fleming, a retired schoolteacher, historian and naturalist, owns the land where the main Confederate defenses were located. He led Smith through the property, across which the 8th Infantry attacked.
Smith recalled, with regret, that a past park superintendent had the opportunity to buy the property for a mere $3,000, but did not want additional land to maintain.
Following a dirt road, built long after the war, the pair looked in amazement up and down the steep slopes that West Virginia soldiers climbed, under fire.ﾠ Winding up and around the tip of the spur that was the front of the Confederate position, the road came to a saddle, that was inside the rebel lines.
Barely discernible was the remnant of a trench line, now almost completely lost to the elements.
Walking on his own another 150 yards, Smith reached an almost perfectly round, hilltop about 50 yards wide. Overlooking the road below, this knob was the center of the rebel defense.
The band that played to celebrate the arrival of reinforcements might have stood here.
Smith reflected for a moment on the carnage that occurred here and recalled stories told by Union soldiers.
One said the climb up Droop Mountain was so steep, you could not extend your arm straight out before feeling the ground in front of you. Another said the first dead Confederate he saw was a black man, laid back against a log with his cartridge case hanging open.
Smith continued on, approaching the boundary to the state park.ﾠ Through this area, rebels had retreated in disarray, not organizing again until they reached Frankford, 15 miles to the south.
When he reached the boundary to the park, the superintendent noticed an American flag, flying on a headstone in a small, private cemetery. He remembered it was this flag, with just 35 stars, that West Virginia soldiers carried up the mountain.
The 35th star represented their state - The Mountain State - what Lincoln called the "child of the Civil War."
Thanks to those soldiers, and many others, the flag now has 50 stars.
Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park features a museum, day park, hiking trails, two picnic areas with shelters, a lookout tower and two play areas for children. A battle reenactment will be held in October this year. For more information, see www.droopmountainbattlefield.com.