Monday, June 13, 2011

150 Years Ago: Romney

1860 B&OImage via Wikipedia

On the morning of June 13, 1861, Union troops under Colonel Lew Wallace crossed into Romney, Virginia (now West Virginia), ran off the Confederates there, and went back the way they came.

Now barely two months past Fort Sumter, the war was still just a series of small skirmishes where the armies got a little too close together.  Wallace received orders to travel from Cumberland, Maryland, to Romney to dislodge some Confederates in the town, a strategic point on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.

It was vital that the Union control the B & O.  It connected Washington to the western states.

Wallace commanded the 11th Indiana Infantry Regiment, a Zouaves unit.  They crossed the Potomac by train, then marched south to Romney, some 25 to 30 miles away.  Most of the action took place at a covered bridge that crossed the South Branch of the Potomac at the entrance to the town.  There the Confederates had a battery of two guns and sharpshooters in a nearby house, Sycamore Dale.

Wallace's advance guard crossed the bridge at a run, leapt down an embankment and engaged the troops in the house.  As Wallace got more troops across the bridge, they combined and drove the Confederates out of the house.  Wallace ordered it to be burned.  When he returned later, he found that the owner, David Gibson, had talked his troops out of it.  Wallace listened to Gibson's plea and withdrew the order, and used the house as his headquarters during his brief stay in the town.

The Confederates and most of the residents of Romney scattered out of the town.  Wallace searched the town for weapons and supplies, then withdrew back to Cumberland.  It's not clear why Wallace withdrew.

Oral history and a town marker claim that Romney changed hands 56 times during the war.  It was probably fewer than ten.  After Wallace's departure, Colonel A. P. Hill brought a larger force of Confederate troops in to occupy the town the next day.

Lew Wallace would go on to become a major general, but his postwar career would be much more successful.  He would serve as governor of New Mexico Territory and as U.S. Minister to the Ottoman Empire, but he would become world famous as the author of Ben-Hur.


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