August 5, 1863 – Federal Brigadier General William W. Averell initiated another of the war’s many raids into West Virginia, which culminated in an engagement at White Sulphur Springs.
Averell led a force of about 2,000 men that included four cavalry regiments, mounted infantry, and two artillery batteries. The Federals moved west from Winchester, in the Shenandoah Valley, toward the Alleghenies. Their mission was to destroy bridges on the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad, and to wreck saltpeter and gunpowder factories near Franklin. The Federals were also to confront the forces of Major General Samuel Jones, the Confederate department commander.
Averell’s men arrived at Moorefield late on the 6th, having covered 58 miles in two days. Jones’s Confederates fell back but tried harassing the enemy whenever they could. The Federals skirmished with enemy outposts and drove them off. Three days later, Averell’s men began moving south into the mountains. The advance was slowed by a lack of supplies for both the men and the horses, as well as an ammunition shortage.
On the 22nd, Averell’s Federals forced the Confederates out of Huntersville on a retreat to Warm Springs. Averell then pushed the enemy east, and the Federals occupied Warm Springs on the 24th. They next destroyed the saltpeter works at Callaghan’s Station before advancing on White Sulphur Springs. Jones resolved to make a stand before Averell passed White Sulphur Springs, otherwise the Federals would have easy access to the railroad.
Jones directed Colonel George S. Patton (grandfather of World War II General George S. Patton, Jr.) to lead four Virginia regiments and an artillery battery (about 1,900 men) to stop Averell’s advance. Patton led the Confederates to Rocky Gap, a defile in the Alleghenies.
On the 26th, the Confederates formed a battle line on the road and in the surrounding woods. Averell’s cavalry dismounted to join the infantry in an attack on the enemy line. Both sides traded intense fire, as Patton’s men repelled several Federal charges against their right. Averell finally pulled back; he resumed the attack the next morning.
The Federals focused on the Confederate left this time, but they could not break Patton’s veterans. Averell withdrew around 12 p.m. back toward Callaghan’s Station, and his rear guard fended off a Confederate bayonet charge. The Federals suffered 218 casualties (26 killed, 125 wounded, and 67 missing or captured) while the Confederates lost 162 men (20 killed, 129 wounded, and 13 missing). Jones submitted a report to Confederate Adjutant General Samuel Cooper:
“We met the enemy yesterday morning about a mile and a half from this place on road to the Warm Springs. Fought from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Every attack made by the enemy was repulsed. At night each side occupied the same position they had in the morning. This morning the enemy made two other attacks, which were handsomely repulsed, when he abandoned his position and retreated toward Warm Springs, pursued by cavalry and artillery.”
Averell returned to Beverly four days later. His raid was largely unsuccessful because he did not break Confederate resistance in the region; he only destroyed two saltpeter works, and he captured just a few enemy troops and some cattle.
Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 344; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 639-40; WVGenWeb.org