Feature Story August 15, 2007

Joseph R. Thompson, a Yankee Volunteer in the Civil War

by Diane Hill Zimmerman
© 2007
                             I sing not of the boy or man,
                             Nor of the "the Cannoneer";
                             But of all manhood's purest gold
                             the Yankee Volunteer.

                                    Anonymous, from the Cannoneer
       Civil War History is especially interesting to me,in part because of the crucial role West Virginia played in the War between the States - but also because I have three Gr. Gr.Grandfathers who served in the military. Two were in the Union army; Amos Jarvis from Lewis County enlisted in Company G, l0th Infantry Regiment West Virginia at the age of 43. He lost his right arm and was discharged on 23 Jun 1854. George W. Hill was in the Confederate Pendleton Reserves. This unit was organized in late 1864-1865, and was made up mostly of old men and young boys, those who couldn't serve in the regular army.
       Gr. Gr. Grandpa Joe Thompson of Harrison County also had a part. He was a "Yankee Volunteer" in the 1st WV Regiment, Light Artillery, Battery E, for three years of the Civil War. He left a wife and small child for an uncertain future of certain hardship and the real possibility of death. He would've had to had strong feelings for preserving the Union, as some of his immediate neighbors were ardently Confederate.
       He was born on 4 Oct 1836 at Boothsville, Marion County, Virginia, son of John W. Thompson and Frances T. Gray. He married Margaret Eliza Swiger on 8 Apr 1858 at Flag Run, Harrison County, Virginia. She was born on 22 Dec 1836 in Sardis District, daughter of Christopher Swiger and Susannah Black. She died 21 Mar 1906 and he passed away on 12 Mar 1918, both in Harrison County. They are buried in the old Odd Fellows cemetery at Brown, Harrison County, West Virginia. Their children were Harriet Anna, Lloyd G., Floyd E., Ella May, Ellsworth, Mattie E., Rosie L. and Claudius Melvin.
       My maternal grandmother, Mary Alice Harbert Smith, was the daughter of Harriet Anna "Annie" Thompson and Marcus Lafayette "Lafe" Harbert. Hallie Harbert in the picture below is her brother. Grandma Mary was married to Charley P. Smith. Their children were Harley, Lowell, Lois and Louise. I am the daughter of Louise who married Charles E. "Billy" Hill.
       Boothsville is a little community nestled into the curve where the Harrison, Taylor and Marion county lines intersect. I still have a lot to learn about the Thompsons but the Swigers were one of the original families to settle Brown's Mills, as it was then known. I've searched for the parents of Susannah Black but all I've discovered is they were from Scotland. An Andrew Black was in the same military unit as Joseph and was killed at Buchannon on the way to be mustered into the Union Army. He may have been a relative.
       There are few records of that era that focus on our state because of the circumstances surrounding its birth. One of the reasons is explained in the Adjutant General's 1864 Report for West Virginia, as follows: "...there are hundreds and thousands in the ranks who deserve the highest praise, who have won for themselves a reputation of which they may well be proud, and a reputation for the State [WV] which will make her and her soldiery prominent in the history of our national struggle, when it shall have been fully written by the impartial historian. Not so much of their acts have been portrayed in glowing accounts by newspaper correspondents, and not so much is known of the part they have taken, as of troops from other States, BECAUSE THE PRESS OF THIS STATE HAVE HAD NO CORRESPONDENTS WITH OUR ARMIES."
       Between the information from his pension application, county records, state and county histories and family lore, I was able to piece together a synopsis of his life.
       Joe and Maggie set up housekeeping at the head of Zacks Run where they owned several acres of land. This is described in the deed as: bounded on the north by A.S. Stout, east by John G. Rider [Righter], south by Benton Stout and west by Sidney Haymond.
       Other land is described in the deed as being "on the head of both forks of Flag Run, a branch of Tenmile Creek." He also owned some land in the Township of Brown where he sold half an acre to Marion Cunningham, excepting the oil and gas rights. This would be the property next door to the house where I was born in Brown. Carson "Carsey" and Beatrice "Beatty" Cunningham lived there with their large family while I was growing up.
       Grandpa Thompson sold several parcels of land over the years and still had some to leave to his children. He seemed to be an astute businessman, selling at a good price, sometimes on a land contract and charging interest. He usually retained the oil and gas rights and made some money from these. From one, he could have free gas to his home if he made the connection, the usual agreement.
       Joseph and Margaret had many friends and were well thought of in the community. They eventually had eight children, losing two daughters in young adulthood (Mattie and Rosie) to consumption [tuberculosis], an affliction that claimed many in my family.
       After the Civil War, they lived in Quiet Dell, near Clarksburg, possibly to distance themselves from their neighbors, the Righters, who supported the Confederate cause. There, the oldest child, Harriet Anna, was married to Marcus Lafayette Harbert, a widower with eight children. Gr. Gr. Grandpa Thompson spent his latter years living quietly in Annie's home on Little Rock Camp, having outlived his first wife by twelve years.
       When he was seventy, he married again to Nancy Sheets Bland, also widowed, at her home in Adamston, but they apparently didn't live together long. Like many older couples, they probably found they weren't as compatible as they wished and simply lived apart. At that time many older men married younger women so they'd have someone to take care of them and the women would have a home. Nancy died of burns in 1918.
       As was usual for that era, he had very little formal education, as evidenced by his poorly spelled, hand written will, as follows. His attorney, Richard V. Thompson, is his nephew.
       With my one (own) hands and a rashnal (rational) mind I Make this my lass will After paying my just debts I do Will and bequeath all my personal and real Estate to my Fore (four) sons With all my intrust (interest) in oil and gass. With the understanding They are to pay there too (two) sisters or Earrs (heirs) as follows. First, Harriet A. Harbert, the wife of Lafiet Harbert twenty-five Dollars. Also Ella May Harbert the Wife of Aldon Harbert fifty dollars Tho with understanding if Clodis M. Thompson is not living when this will goes on probate having no eairs (heirs) his Shear (share) of the estate shall go to his three Brothers or their eairs. Tho if Clodis M. Thompson Wife is not remarried she may have twenty-five dollars. I also reserve one hundred dollars in this will for my burial expenses including in this amount for monument to be place at my grave not to cost over fifty dollars.
       For Whitch I here set my hand and (SEAL)
              Joseph R. Thompson
       This will was made on December the 10th, 1913.
       Joseph R. Thompson
              W.H. Garrett
       I appoint Richard V. Thompson as my executor With E. W. Thompson Without Security.
       This is to show after giving Harriett A Harbert twenty five dollars in the original will I change my mine and gave her thirty-five dollars more.
              J. R. Thompson
       There was a bounty (bonus) offered to volunteers by both national and county governments and $13.00 a month pay. This minute salary doesn't seem like much of an attraction, but at the time, farmers in Harrison County rarely saw that much cash at once. There was an acute economic depression in the first months of the war and unemployment recurred periodically until 1863. Perhaps he was influenced by the avid recruiting campaign for the loyalties of West Virginians, sometimes so inflammatory that civilians were as much at risk as the combatants. One of the headlines of the era was:


              His neighbor, John G. Righter, was the leader of a guerilla group of Rebels and was later captured at Little Rock Camp. They must have had some interesting family reunions after the war, especially since two of his sons, Lloyd and Floyd, married two Righter girls, Florence and Ora, daughters of John G. Righter.
       Whatever his motives were, he demonstrated a great amount of courage when, at the age of twenty-five, he left his home to serve as a private in the Union Army. His service would take him through a range of experiences; from cosmopolitan Washington D.C. to the rugged Allegheny Mountains; from the camaraderie of the camp to the stark terror of battle; from the honor of tending the most complex weapons of the era to the dubious distinction of camp duty. He left a simple countryman and returned a seasoned sophisticate.
       There is a family legend related by Aunt Lois that When he left to be mustered in, his little daughter, Annie, not yet three years old, ran after him crying so hard she couldn't see clearly and fell in the "run."
       Grandpa Thompson was physically described on the Mustering-in-roll as a farmer with hazel eyes, light complexion, auburn hair, height five feet, ten inches and weighing 150 pounds. I was pleased to discover another red-haired ancestor.
       He enlisted in the artillery, in Captain Alexander C. Moore's Battery E, Virginia Volunteers, Light Artillery, at Clarksburg. they were to be mustered in at Buchannon in August 1862. After West Virginia statehood, this became Battery E, West Virginia volunteers, Light Artillery. Surprisingly, the Union Arm's heavy ordinance was served by officers and men detailed from the infantry, there being no trained artillery organizations. ( 1 )
       Battery E was known as the "Upshur Battery" Because of the predominance of men from that country. Joe Thompson's first military action occurred before he was mustered in or equipped and is recorded in the West Virginia Adjutant Generals Report for 1864: "On the 30th day of August whilst at Buchannon, before mustering into the United States service, [the battery] participated in an engagement at that place against the rebels commanded by General Jenkins; shortly afterwards it was mustered into service and equipped at Wheeling, W.Va."
       Further details are found in History of Upshur County: General A. G. Jenkins was a brilliant confederate Cavalryman, known for his lightning raids. In August and September 1862, he, with five hundred and sixty horsemen, planned a raid through West Virginia and Ohio, beginning at Beverly, W.Va. He had intended to combine forces with General Imbodin, who was at Cheat Mountain with a small force, but decided against this when the Federal forces learned of his approach and made preparations for defense. Jenkins, hearing of these preparations, captured a scouting party to verify this, taking two prisoners and killing one who refused to surrender. Determining that General Kelly had 1500 men there, he changed course toward Buchannon where there was an immense amount of supplies including several thousand stands of arms.
       Jenkins' men crossed Rich Mountain and marched without stopping for twenty-four hours through thirty miles of, in his own words, "the most complete wilderness I ever saw" losing part of his men and horses to exhaustion and injury. After halting to rest they proceeded down French Creek toward the town of Buchannon. General Jenkins stated that the population along this creek is" among the most disloyal [to the confederacy] in all Western Virginia."
       Rumors were rampant for several days prior to Jenkinsís arrival but the tension was so great for so long that by August 29th, people were beginning to relax. When information was received at headquarters that Jenkins really was coming. the Tenth West Virginia Infantry, about sixty men under Captain Marsh, and the Home Militia were called into service. [Apparently so was Grandpa Thompson's Battery E, without artillery - light or otherwise.] the Home Militia was not equipped regularly but came in from the farms with their shotguns, muskets and rifles on their shoulders, ready to fight.
       On the morning of August 30, these Federal forces moved out to entrench themselves on Battle Hill and were surprised to find that it was in the possession of the Confederates. they immediately threw up breastworks of rails, logs, straw stack, and other material and presented themselves for battle. Jenkins attacked and volley after volley was poured into the Federal ranks as they stood behind their temporary protection and reciprocated by shot; dauntlessly they held their positions endeavoring to drive back Jenkinsís men. Mounted and unmounted they fought until a time when the confederate fire was too hot for them to further withstand it and they began to retreat. The wounded of this battle were Henry Dight, regimental clerk of Co. E, a little Englishman, Marion Rose, Daniel Cutright, Henry Reger, and Andrew Black of the Upshur Battery. For the purpose of caring for these wounded the new residence of Miflin Lorentz, county clerk of Upshur county, on Locust Street now the residence of Hiram Piles, was converted into a hospital. Dr. J. r. Blair, assistant surgeon of the Tenth, was left to give them medical attention. Rose and Black died in twenty-four hours. Dight lived about ten days.
       Federal troops were over powered and scattered in every direction, usually in squads of four to ten. Some plunged in and swam the river above Buchannon near where the Griffin Saw Mill stood, others escaped into the woods and still others ran down the road leading in the direction of Clarksburg. One bunch consisting of William Hornbeck, William Burr, John Tenney, and G.S. Cutright were among those who attempted to swim the river when a group of CSA cavalrymen bore down on them. They succeeded in eluding capture but lost their guns. William Burr nearly drowned when he was seized by a cramp when midway of Buchannon River, and Cutright brought him to shore with the help of a white walnut pole.
The Adjutant General's Report also stated that Grandpa Thompson was captured at this time along with fourteen others. I can find no mention of this in his service record but it's very probably true because, according to the Battery Record, he remained in Clarksburg until the end of December. At least some of the battery was mustered in at Wheeling so he was probably on a three-month parole. ( 2 )

       After mustering in, Grandpaís unit was ordered to the South Branch Valley of the Potomac River. They were headquartered the majority of time at Fort Fuller, New Creek, now Keyser. "At times this place was strongly garrisoned, and it was frequently made the center from which important military movements were made. It was early determined by the Union government that New Creek should be occupied and held, and this policy was never departed from throughout the war." ( 3 )

       Fort Fuller was on the site of present day Potomac State College in Keyser. Their mission was to protect the B&O Railroad, a vital link to both the Union and confederacy, also the Northwestern Turnpike between Washington and Parkersburg and the South Branch and Shenandoah Valley. In the years 1862 and 1863, east and west from Harpers Ferry, B&O lost forty-two engines, three hundred and eight-six cars; twenty-three bridges; thirty-six miles of track; all the water stations and telegraph offices for one hundred miles; and the machine shops and engine houses at Martinsburg. Stonewall Jackson [a Clarksburg boy] was responsible for much of the loss.
       The majority of citizens in these western counties were loyal to the south so Federal armies had to watch their backs. The population that remained loyal was also frequent targets and some moved further north. Many of those remaining lost their property and/or their lives.
       The Shenandoah Valley lent itself to military strategy in addition to being a veritable breadbasket. It was a broad, sheltered avenue into Maryland and Pennsylvania, and also a place of safety for the Confederates to march upon the rear of Washington so long as the eastern gaps could be held, so the Federals maintained a vigilant watch.
       The valley witnessed constant turmoil. the town of Romney, on a natural invasion route from the Shenandoah to Potomac, changed hands 56 times. Harper's Ferry, where John Brown's raid on the U.S. Arsenal was a major factor in the war's beginnings, was also within marching distance. New Creek changed hands fourteen times.
       Battery E has several documented battles but Grandpa wasn't wounded in combat; rather he was captured twice and sustained two injuries that would mark him for life. On February 16, 1863 the day dawned to witness skirmishing near Romney and Grandpa's capture by the notorious McNeill's Rangers, in one of their lesser known raids. He was driving a wagon in a caravan of wagons hauling hay back to camp. Fortunately, he was given another three month parole.
       Grandpa Thompson may well have been fearful when McNeill's Rangers came upon him. Their reputation as one of the most notorious ranger groups on either side had preceded them. The group was led by John Hanson "Hanse" McNeill and his son, Jesse Cunningham McNeill, who took over leadership when his father died.
       One of the boldest exploits of the Civil War was the capture by them of two Major Generals of the Union Army, while they were surrounded by about eight thousand Federal troops.
       Towards the close of the war, about an hour before daybreak, on the cold, frosty morning of February 21, 1865, a troop of sixty-five Confederate cavalry led by Lieutenant Jesse C. McNeill, surprised and captured the pickets, rode into the heart of the city of Cumberland, Md., captured Major Generals Crook and Kelly, together with the latter's adjutant-general, Major Melvin, and, without the loss of a single man, carried their distinguished prisoners back into the Confederate lines. The prisoners were later released unharmed. ( 4 )

       Grandpa reported at Atheneum Prison in Wheeling on March 12, 1863. This prison was a processing area as well as a prison for holding captured Confederate prisoners. He was then sent to Camp Chase at Columbus, Ohio, for the next several weeks.
       It would be nice to think he just rested during this time but he was mustered into Co. C, 2nd Batt'n Paroled Cavalry, "formed from paroled prisoners of war for duty compatible with their parole by G.O. No. 72, A.G.O., of June 28, 1862."( 5 )

       He was exchanged for a Confederate soldier at Mechanic's Gap on May 9, 1863. All that remains of Camp Chase is a confederate Cemetery.
       I'll let Grandpa Thompson tell you in his first injury in his own words:
       "While I was Ingaged in greasing the wheel of my Piece at New Creek W.Va., June 16th 1863, while in the act of Putting in the Pin, some one of my Comrades without my consent commenced to revolve the Wheel and caught my fingers between the Pin and Hub of the wheel and mashed them, causing felons. [Inflammation of the cellular tissue and periosteum, as on a finger; a whitlow, or an inflammatory tumor within the sheath of a tendon or between the bone and its enveloping membrane]. He was unfit for duty from the 16th of June 1863 to 9th of August 1863 and both fingers remained crooked for life. This was after an all night march from Romney.
       The second injury occurred on one of the coldest night on record, January 10, 1864. Much of the South had temperatures below zero as far south as Memphis, TN. Grandpa's unit was being chased by General Lee and were forced into another night march. The artillery and wagons were placed on railroad cars but the horses had to be ridden back to camp. In the crossing the Potomac River, his horse slipped and his right foot got wet and subsequently, froze. He purchased some "Garyling Oil" and applied it but it never got well. For the rest of his life, the big toe was drawn around under the second toe, and his foot was stiff, had a running sore and hurt all the time. At times he couldn't wear even a specially made boot.
       He never saw a surgeon but treated his injuries himself with "poulteces" for his fingers and an oil for his toes. Army surgeons were much more prone to cutting off offending bits rather than treating them, usually without the benefit of chloroform or ether. Sterilization was unheard of as the effect of germs were yet unknown. Instruments were usually cleaned by wiping them on a apron. The men routinely cleaned their eating implements by thrusting them in the earth. Believe it or not, this was the first war to use ambulances and field hospitals for the wounded. In previous wars the wounded were left where they fell unless picked up and cared for by their comrades. Sanitary conditions in general were so appalling that more soldiers died from diarrhea than died in combat.
       He spent the last few weeks of enlistment stationed in one of the may forts near Washington, D.C.. He may have seen President Lincoln's body as it lay in state. He also must have participated in the two-day Grand Review of all Federal troops in the Capital. This was held so people in the East could have the opportunity to see and cheer the men who had carried the banners of the Union through four tragic years. The War Department ordered them to pass in review down Pennsylvania Avenue before General Grant and President Johnson and a cheering crowd of thousands. He was mustered out at Wheeling on June 28, 1865.
       Cousin Bob Harbert (the baby in the picture on page one) related a story that Grandpa Thompson had told him. It seems that on one occasion when they were either pursuing or being pursued, they moved so fast there wasn't time to eat. The only food he had in three days was a handful of sugar swept up from the ground near an overturned supply wagon.
       When my Uncle Harley was born, Grandma Mary, brought him to meet her grandfather Thompson, Harley was blessed with beautiful blond curls and had been dressed all in white. Grandpa Thompson gently stroked his hair and said, "He looks like a little angel." Uncle Lowell also remembers his gr. grandfather as a very old man with white hair, sitting in his bedroom reading a book.
       I used to like to sleep in my grandmother's bedroom because of the soothing sounds of the clock on the mantle. After I researched and wrote Gr. Gr. Grandpa Thompson's biography, Uncle Lowell, who had inherited the clock, told me it had belonged to Grandpa Thompson. I was so thrilled with this discovery that he gave it to me. It still works and now sits on a mantle in my home, chiming and tick-tocking away - its gentle sounds bridging the gap between his lifetime and mine.

Battery over-run by enemy

( 1 ) David L. Phillips, War Stories: Civil in West Virginia.
( 2 ) This was gentlemen's agreement between the adversaries to allow a detainee his freedom if he was non-combatant for three months.
( 3 )Paul M. angle, A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years, (Doubleday & Company, Inc. Garden City, New York). 1967
( 4 )John W. Bailey, The McNeill Rangers and the Capture of Generals Crook and Kelly
( 5 )Service Record

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