Carroll’s Barrels - The Trick that Saved West Union

Just when I thought I knew everything of importance about the Jones-Imboden Raid on West Union, up pops a piece of historical trivia that puts a whole new twist on it. This month marks the 155th anniversary of that raid, a skirmish which proved to be the only fighting that took place in Doddridge County throughout the Civil War. I wrote about the raid at length in this column last year. (https://www.doddridgecountyheritageguild.com/jones-imboden-raid-in-doddridge-cou) But there was one detail pertaining to the raid which I did not mention, simply because I only recently came across it. That "detail" was a stroke of genius on the part of a Doddridge County officer that confounded Confederate troops and was largely responsible for the favorable outcome of the engagement. To my knowledge, it has not been documented by Civil War historians, but it certainly deserves recognition.

 

On April 20, 1863 President Abraham Lincoln signed the proclamation that gave his formal approval for the admission of West Virginia as the 35th state of the Union, to take effect sixty days later. Immediately after that proclamation, Confederate forces, under the command of Brigadier Generals William E. “Grumble” Jones and John D. Imboden, embarked on a month-long raid through West Virginia aimed at disabling the B&O and other railroads, disrupting the Union government at Wheeling, and capturing horses, cattle and supplies. On May 6th, 1863, those forces entered Doddridge County, one of their primary targets being the railroad bridge over the Middle Island Creek in West Union. That bridge, which we now know as the one overlooking the dam near the football field, was the longest and highest train bridge on the Parkersburg branch of the railroad.

 

The Rebels' arrival in Doddridge County was by no means a surprise. The day before the raid, six companies of the 2nd W.Va. Infantry, under Col. George Latham, and one company of the 11th W.Va. Volunteer Infantry from Parkersburg, arrived in Doddridge to augment the several hundred local Home Guard under the command of Captain John Carroll.

Eye Witness Describes Raid

One of those Home Guard soldiers was Lewis M. Maxwell (1843-1934), who I profiled in a previous article titled "Rail Splitter of Willow Bend." He was a son of Franklin Maxwell and Frances Jane Reynolds. In 1932 Lewis M. Maxwell shared his memories of the Jones-Imboden raid in an interview with Wilbur C. Morrison. The following excerpts of that interview appeared in the February 21, 1932 issue of  the Clarksburg Exponent-Telegram, which I came across in the Maxwell vertical file at the State Archives in Charleston:

“After the subject of the Civil War had been broached, Mr. Maxwell talked interestingly about the notorious Jones-Imboden raid through West Virginia and especially in Doddridge county. As a young man of 20 then, Mr. Maxwell was at an age when he realized what such a movement meant to the country and did not hesitate to give service as a member of the home guard in protecting people and property, although in justice to the raiders, they molested persons to a negligible degree.”

 

Smithburg Railroad Bridge Burned

Mr. Maxwell vividly recalls the raiders as they entered the West Union section of Doddridge county with the evident intention of capturing and looting the town. 

 

"We heard of their marching in this direction when they left Weston," Mr. Maxwell said, as he talks about the raiders, "and at home we were prepared for them when they arrived in this section. They crossed over from Weston, came down Meat House fork and burned the railroad bridge at Smithburg, just east of West Union."

 

"The raiders then circled back, came over onto Bluestone creek, passed down to where we now live to the Preston Fitz Randolph place just a little ways south of West Union and were confronted by a company of Union troops entrenched on a hill overlooking the valley which they had come down. They changed their mind and withdrew up the valley to the head of Bluestone creek, to the home place of my father.

 

"As they went down towards West Union, they tore the fences down as a measure to facilitate their retreat and so as not to depend entirely on the narrow road."

 

Clever Bit of Strategy

A clever bit of strategy, Mr. Maxwell remembered, was employed by Capt. John Carroll who was in charge of the Union troops at West Union. The company took its position on what was afterwards termed Block House hill just east of town, and waited Jones’ advance down Bluestone creek. Carroll had obtained a number of empty flour barrels and so placed them along the front top of the hill as to make it appear to the raiders they were cannon and when the latter saw them they turned and hurried back up the creek without firing a single shot.

 

Raiders Take Cattle and Food

"Asked if the raiders confiscated any property, Mr. Maxwell said they drove away twenty cattle belonging to Randolph and used them as food, at least he knew of one they butchered on one of his father's farms and ate. As they took the others along, he presumed they killed and used them all as they needed them.

 

"The raiders went into camp right on my father's home at the head of Bluestone creek," Mr. Maxwell said. "The officers occupied rooms in our home and my mother and a slave, 'Aunt Till,' cooked for and fed them.

 

"They gave Mother an order on the southern Confederacy for her to pay in addition to $25 in Confederate money, neither of which was of any monetary value. She kept the Confederate bills a long time as a reminder of their visit.

 

"The Raiders helped themselves to our corn, meat, hay, oats and the like and made fire out of fence rails. They arrived May 6 and left the next day. They ended up on another of father's farms, three miles to the southwest, where they killed and roasted the Randolph steer as already stated, passed over the south fork of Hughes river and went to Wirt county."

 

"When we received word that the raiders had left Weston and were headed in our direction, we kept close watch and drove our cattle and horses into the woods far away from the route of the raiders and kept them concealed until after they had come and gone.

 

Old Horse Left Behind

"We took 140 of our best cattle and twenty-one horses on to Pittsburgh and sold them as a precautionary measure.

 

"One of the officers as the raiders departed, following one night's camp 'to parch corn and fry meat's, as Mr. Maxwell expressed it, left an old horse tied to a sour apple tree on the Maxwell premises and someone, possibly one of the slaves, named the animal Jeff Davis. The horse, like the slaves, became a fixture in the family and that was all the recompense the elder [Franklin] Maxwell received for the property the raiders destroyed and the grain and meat they helped themselves to."

 

Carroll’s Barrels Save the Day

Let’s back up now to the “clever bit of strategy” described by Lewis M. Maxwell, an eye witness to the event. If you’re at all familiar with Blockhouse Hill across Middle Island Creek from West Union, and how it overlooks the train trestle and the road leading to it past the football field, you can easily imagine the scene. Captain John Carroll’s local militia would not have had the firepower or experience of regular Union infantry troops, so how were they to fend off the raiders and prevent them from destroying the railroad bridge, probably also the nearby covered bridge, and looting the town?

 

One way to keep the enemy from winning a battle is to discourage them from fighting it to begin with. And that’s exactly what John Carroll did. Whether planned in advance or a last-minute impulse, his placement of empty flour barrels along the front top of Blockhouse Hill was enough to make the Confederates stop in their tracks and abort the raid. Advancing quickly toward their target, and not being able to stop and analyze what they were seeing on the hill across the creek, the raiders were tricked into thinking that the barrels were cannon, and they wanted no part of an engagement against such heavy firepower. So the train trestle was saved, the covered bridge survived till the 1950 Flood, and the town was not harmed, all thanks to John Carroll’s barrels.

 

Captain John Carroll

On November 29, 1861, John Carroll was appointed Captain of the 6th (West) Virginia Regiment Volunteer militia. He mustered in as Captain of Co. M, 6th (West) Virginia Infantry on December 2, 1861 in West Union. He is described in the company descriptive book as being 5’ 11 ½” tall, dark complexion, gray eyes and dark hair. At some point in his military service, he incurred a broken leg and an injury to his chest. He mustered out in Grafton on December 1, 1864 upon expiration of service.

 

The resourceful Captain John Carroll was born in Preston County, (West) Virginia in 1826, a son of William Carroll and Lucinda “Lucy” Mott. A first cousin of renowned innkeeper Luke Jaco, he was residing in Doddridge County by the outbreak of the Civil War. He married Eunice M. Ball in 1854 and they raised a family of six children, his civilian occupation being farmer and butcher. John Carroll died in West Union on October 8, 1896, at age 68. His grave can be found at the top of the SDB section of Blockhouse Hill Cemetery, very near where his strategically placed flour barrels saved the day some 33 years before.

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