A figure well- known to the Round Table Lt. Col. Joe Whitehorne addressed the meeting at the National Army Museum on the little known raid on Salem , Virginia in December 1863. 2,500 men based in the Potomac Valley were led by Union General William Averell deep into enemy territory to break up a strategic railroad. Because of the Virginia /West Virginia border some historians, being in Joe's view "state myopic", have not understood the whole operation in its full complexity. The same was true of many of the actual participants.
After describing the terrain of Virginia and its four regions (the Mountains, the Great Valley, Piedmont and Tidewater), Joe examined why West Virginia went its own way, becoming recognised as a separate state of the Union in June 1863. To the east, the people of Piedmont and Tidewater were largely of English descent. Later immigrants, arriving through Philadelphia, passed into the State through the Great Valley and by way of the Ohio River which bordered on the west. These latter immigrants (many from Northern Ireland and Germany) had little or no connection with the seat of power in Richmond.
Being very mountainous, western Virginia was unsuitable for slave based farming. Economic links were with Pittsburg using the Ohio River. So there was less connection with the east of the state where large farms engaged in surface farming. In the west, mining was prevalent and there were more entrepreneurs as opposed to those in the east who inherited farmland.
The counties in the east of the state, with good transportation, were bigger than those in the west where there was no major transportation. Because of the constitution of the upper and lower houses of state government, the east dominated the political power of the state. West Virginia tended, therefore, to look north - to Pennsylvania and beyond - for investment.
Both North and South recognised the strategic importance of western Virginia: manpower and produce were important but so too was control of the railroads such as the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Early battles in the summer of 1861 secured the western part of Virginia for the Federals. By the end of 1861, the Federals had forces on the western side of the Alleghenies threatening the Shenandoah Valley.
It, therefore, became feasible to have a new state. Delegates left Richmond and went to Wheeling where they voted to seek recognition by the United States and a state constitution was written.
1862 saw Stonewall Jackson operating in the Shenandoah Valley. For the Antietam campaign, he took with him troops from the Kanawha Valley. Guerilla warfare broke out and Joe saw parallels here with what is currently happening in Iraq: insurgents intending to make a new state unviable.
Joe discussed some of the characters who would play parts in the events surrounding the raid on Salem They included Brig. Gen. Benjamin Kelly , formerly a freight agent for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad , who was a source of inspiration for Averell . Averell's counterpart in this area was Samuel Jones, a veteran of the Mexican War, who commanded Georgia troops. His task was to secure the railroads in his area such as the Virginia Central. Col. John Eccles commanded four brigades in Louisburg. A.W.L. Jackson, who was known as "Mudwall" because he was never a "Stonewall", commanded a brigade which patrolled mountain passes.
1863 had seen the Jones - Imboden raid, the first manifestation of Confederate desperation to get horses. That raid reached almost to the Ohio Valley. It was an economic raid which saw oil wells destroyed. The raid galvanized Washington and Averell was sent to West Virginia to bolster Brig. Gen. Kelly. Averell, a West Point graduate from New York, had fought out west before the Civil War. Although he displayed sound leadership and personal courage, he did not go for the jugular. Later in the conflict, Sheridan would relieve him from duty for lack of aggression.
Averell's Fourth Brigade included three mounted infantry regiments and three batteries of horse artillery. His men had single shot Enfields. Thus they could move fast but operate as infantry.
After two earlier raids in August and November 1863, Kelly asked Averell to lead another raid, this time to the railroad depot at Salem. This was against the backdrop of Halleck's concerns, following the disaster at Chickamauga, for Burnside who was threatened in Knoxville, Tennessee, by Longstreet.
Averell said multiple diversions - four of them - were required : one aimed at Louisburg ; one requiring a link with former West Pointer , Col. Scammon's 23rd Ohio ; and two to threaten Staunton (one of these involving Col. Wells' 24th Massachusetts based at Harper's Ferry). Meanwhile Jubal Early reached the siege at Knoxville, enabling Samuel Jones' troops to return to West Virginia.
Averell's force consisted of the 2nd, 3rd and 5th West Virginia mounted infantry and the 14th Pennsylvania cavalry. The main raid and diversions were to commence on 8 December with Wells, at Harper's Ferry, to start two days late heading towards Harrisburg, all with the, intention of leading the Confederates to think Staunton was to be the target.
Wells' troops marched in foul weather where streams became torrents and it was a physical challenge of the first order.
By 15 December, Averell was in the the south near Salem. On 14 December, Scammon had abandoned Louisburg. Thinking the Confederates were after him, he left. Jones in turn went back north. The Confederates focused on Averell but he decided to go on. Wells was very aggressive and seemed poi! to launch an attack on Staunton. The Confederates reinforced Staunton an moved north of Wells. Meanwhile, Av continued moving south. Fitzhugh Lee was deployed to deal with the raid on 15 December when R.E. Lee was also convinced that Staunton was the target.
On 16 December, Averell made a dash for Salem, a small college town and railroad depot. It was a supply depot for operations in eastern Tennessee. While the quartermaster was sent out on patrol from which he did not come back, Major J.C. Green awaited the arrival of a train due at midday. Averell and his men arrived!
Averell reported on the estimated goods destroyed:
1000 sacks of salt
2000 bales of flour
100,000 bushels of shelled corn
10,000 bushels of wheat
50,000 bushels of oats
2,000 barrels of meat
1,900 pounds of sugar
16 miles of railroad track
The train got away!
Various forces were ordered to intercept Averell. Jubal Early, in command of the efforts to stop the escape of the raiders, was still convinced that Staunton was the target and sent his troops in the wrong directions. As Averell used back roads in the Covington area and Drop Mountain, only "Mudwall" Jackson, in the Clifton Ford area was in his way. By now the Confederates thought Averell was going to go through the Valley.