The Battle of Greenbrier River: “Go Back and Shoot Your Damn Guns!”

Thursday, October 3, 1861

Just as the first slivers of dawn lit the eastern face of Greenbrier Mountain, Rebel pickets near Travellers Repose in Western Virginia heard the rolling rumble of what could only be a battery of Union artillery. Through the morning mist, across an open field on the west side of the West Fork Greenbrier River, they could see Union infantry forming for battle. The pickets fired, hitting two Indiana boys before running back to their guard station to sound the alarm.

General Reynolds had marched his 5,000 Union troops twelve miles through the night to bring them to the doorstep of Camp Bartow and roughly 1,800 Rebels.

A Georgia regiment quickly formed between the east river bank and a mill race to hold off the thousands in the advancing Union ranks. They held their ground, firing volley upon volley, buying time for the rest of the camp to man the defenses. After an hour of hard fighting, the Georgians fell back to the parapets.

Three Union batteries opened upon the camp from behind an orchard, and by 8am, the Rebel battery was returning fire. The Confederates were greatly out-gunned, the Union firing four shots to their one. Throughout the morning, the thundering artillery was incessant and deafening.

An Indiana soldier described “the storm of shot and shell traversing mid air not more than fifty feet from our heads” as “at once terribly grand and terrific.”

The Rebels clung to their entrenchments and the Union troops laid flat on the ground, behind fences and anything else that might afford cover.

After an hour and a half, the fire began to die off. Not wanting to frontally assault the camp, General Reynolds chose to test the left flank. Waiting for his men were troops from Arkansas and Virginia. As the Yankees marched towards them, the Rebels fired one sharp volley that sent the advancing line scrambling back.

The artillery again picked up. Shells exploded over huddling Confederates as balls tore some men to pieces. The arm of a Union artilleryman was hit by a projectile, all but severing it from his body. With cool calmness, he pulled out his pocket knife with his good arm, and sliced through the remaining flesh and skin until the dead arm fell to the ground.

A Virginia regiment had adopted a kitten who, as the bursting shells kicked up dirt and rocks, playfully chased down the debris, batting and tumbling over and atop the parapets.

As the battle raged on, the Confederates established a field hospital to treat their wounded. Normally, a yellow flag was used to denote its location, but, unable to find a yellow flag, the surgeon hoisted aloft a white flag. In short order, a Union messenger, sent by Reynolds, rode forward under a flag of truce and inquired from a Rebel Colonel if the flag meant that they were surrendering.

“Go back and shoot your damn guns!” the Colonel replied and the battle continued.

Union officers urged Reynolds to commit all of his forces and attack the camp. Certain it would fail, he ordered that the Confederate right flank be tested. Four regiments from Indiana and Ohio marched over a small hill towards the river. As they came within the range of the Rebel guns firing cannister, the Union troops were met with the shotgun-like fire of hundreds of inch-round balls. Their lines melted away as their commanders implored them to rally.

As they fell back, General Reynolds thought he saw Confederate reinforcements pouring into camp. Though this was probably only a few companies of a Virginia regiment that had been posted a few miles east, it was enough to convince him that he could not take Camp Bartow. By 1pm, the Union artillery was limbered and the men fell in for their long march back to Cheat Mountain. Before dusk, they had returned.

Most of battle was artillery. The Confederate camp was destroyed, most tents were ripped through by Union cannonballs. During the duels, the Union artillery of thirteen guns fired over 11,000 rounds. Though the powder and ammunition expended led both sides to believe that the other suffered terribly, the casualties were surprisingly light. The Confederates had six dead and thirty-three wounded (with thirteen missing and taken prisoner). Union casualties were nearly equal, at eight killed and thirty-five wounded.1



  1. Mostly from Rebels at the Gate by Lesser, who did an amazingly amount of research on this battle. Brilliant! []
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The Battle of Greenbrier River: “Go Back and Shoot Your Damn Guns!” by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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2 thoughts on “The Battle of Greenbrier River: “Go Back and Shoot Your Damn Guns!”

    1. I guess I don’t know for sure, but it would seem so, yep. Probably didn’t even realize there was a battle going on. I’ll do some checking around to see if I can find something definite later tonight. 🙂

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