Guyandotte, a Hotbed of Secession, Burned by Union Mob!

November 11, 1861 (Monday)

The news of the massacre of Union troops by Confederate partisans under Col. Albert Jenkins at Guyandotte in Western Virginia, was both false and spreading quickly up and down the Ohio River. It was true that Jenkins had surprised, battled and then captured most of the Yankees under Major Kellian Whaley’s small command (including Whaley himself), but there was no massacre. Both sides had suffered light and relatively equal casualties during the short skirmish, but the outrage over supposed cold blooded murder committed by Rebels and townsfolk alike, was unjustified.

This doesn’t, however, mean that things were handled well by either side.

During the night, word of that the Rebels had occupied Guyandotte reached Col. John Ziegler of the 5th Virginia (US), encamped a few miles away at Ceredo. The 5th Virginia boarded the steamship Boston and arrived off the banks of town at 8am. Seeing that they were about to be attacked, Jenkins’s men, along with fifty or sixty captured Union soldiers, as well as several Unionists citizens who refused to swear an oath to the Confederacy, left at the double-quick.1

A few from the Confederate rear guard fired upon the Boston, which returned fire with their small cannon. One of the shots crashed through one of the homes of a secessionist. With the Rebels vacating the town, the steamship pulled to the Ohio side of the river where they were greeted by a mob of Unionist Ohio Home Guards. The Ohio Unionists were allowed to board the Boston and were taken across the river to Guyandotte.

Two Unionists citizens of the town ran to the riverbank, waving white flags, imploring the Union soldiers to have mercy. The Home Guards believed them to be secessionists and ignored them. The Boston landed a mile north of town and immediately burned down the house of a secessionist.

The 5th Virginia and mob of Ohio Home Guards marched into town, where they saw the bodies of several Union soldiers. Rumors that the citizens conspired with the Rebels sent them into a frenzy. Soon, the town was on fire. Women and children, allowed to take with them only what they could carry, were forced into the streets as their homes were set ablaze.

It wasn’t, however, just the secessionists who suffered. The first house fired was that of a Unionist. Mrs. Charlotte Douthit’s husband, a local merchant and Unionist, had been carried off by the Rebels. The torch was applied to her house and Mr. Douthit’s store, despite her pleading.

Later that day, Union cavalry under Col. William Bolles arrived into this inferno. Col. Ziegler’s Union troops were very literally pillaging and burning the entire town. Bolles called upon Ziegler to stop the destruction, but Ziegler said that he could do nothing to pacify his men. Col. Bolles and the 2nd Virginia (US) Cavalry took it upon themselves to stop the rampaging Federal troops. It was only with the threat of violence that they were compelled to stop.

Sixteen citizens were made prisoners and sent to Camp Chase Prison in Columbus, Ohio.2

Meanwhile, as the Rebels retreated south along the Guyandotte River with their prisoners and booty, they kept up a brisk pace. While Jenkins men were on horseback, the prisoners were on foot. They, according to Major Whaley, were marched forty miles that day.

During the long march, Whaley chided Jenkins for making the prisoners suffer the treacherous journey with nothing to eat. Whaley then begged Jenkins to take them to a field and shoot them, rather than have the prisoners subjected to this slow death. Finally relenting, Jenkins gave each prisoner a horse to ride.

Later, a messenger from Guyandotte reached Jenkins’ march and told him that Union troops had entered the town and killed several citizens. Though untrue, it sent the Rebels into a fury. They surrounded the prisoners, yelling, “kill the damned abolitionist scoundrels!” Jenkins’ second in command, Col. John Clarkson, somehow convinced them to not kill the prisoners.

That night, Major Whaley was able to escape. A few days later, he would meet up with Col. Ziegler and fight again another day.3


Slow Reinforcements, but They’re Hardly Needed

Union General Cox and about 700 men from his brigade were more or less stuck between 4,000 entrenched Rebels at Cotton Hill and a swollen Kanawha River. While Cox waited for reinforcements that wouldn’t come until the next day, he decided to try to push the Rebels up and over Cotton Hill.

In the morning, Cox sent half his force, mostly Kentucky troops, to push the Rebels back. This they did, advancing between the New River and Cotton Hill. The several hundred Rebel skirmishers kept up a regular, but light fire as they fell back towards their main body. As the Kentuckians approached the hill, they could see the Confederate baggage train moving down the road to Fayette. Floyd was getting ready to pull back even farther.

During the afternoon, about 150 men from Cox’s force moved up the Fayette Pike, over Cotton Hill, past the old Rebel camp, to Laurel Creek. They were merely following the enemy and little fighting occurred.

In fact, Cox had lost only two killed, one wounded and six missing during this whole strange operation against Cotton Hill.4

Floyd, on the other hand, was in over his head. He believed that his position on Cotton Hill could be held against an enemy five times his number. The tables were turned, and he couldn’t even hold it with a force five times greater than the enemy.5

That night, the reinforcements under General Benham that Cox had been waiting for were camped at the mouth of Loop Creek, several miles to the east. They had been there for a week and, though General Rosecrans had ordered them to move several times, there they remained. This camp was in view of the Rebel position, but Floyd had just now noticed them. Floyd believed them to be 5,000 strong, though they were no more than 1,500. Believing that Benham was there to cut off his line of retreat, or at least fall upon his left flank, Floyd retired his main body back three miles, out of harm’s way. Any time over the past week, Benham could have easily cut Floyd off, but did not.6

  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p412. []
  2. “The Tragic Fate of Guyandotte” by Joe Geiger, Jr., West Virginia History Magazine, Volume 54 (1995). []
  3. From the Wheeling Intelligencer, December 4th, 1861, as printed in The Rending of Virginia: A History by Granville Davisson Hall. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p273. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p285. []
  6. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p285. []
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Guyandotte, a Hotbed of Secession, Burned by Union Mob! by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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