Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Local News

March 30, 2014

Those Who Served Museum working on Civil War exhibit in Memorial Room

PRINCETON — Tony Whitlow, a former state senator and Mercer County assessor has invested several years of planning, design and construction of the memorial room on the second floor of the Mercer County War Memorial Building. But as with any project, he can see there is more work remaining to be done.

“I’m working on a Civil War display that will provide some detailed information of the Battle of Pigeon Roost,” Whitlow, president of the For Those Who Served Museum board of directors said. “I’ve called Janna Brown, the WVVA-TV chief meteorologist, and asked her if she would narrate the story of the battle dressed in Civil War period clothing and standing in front of a blue screen so we can put maps of the troop movements behind her.”

The memorial room is open to the public at all times when the memorial building is open. The room includes several vignettes honoring the men who died in service to their nation during the nation’s wars. Several of the displays representing different wars are complete, but the Civil War is only represented by mannequins in Confederate and Union uniforms.

“Since the battle of Pigeon Roost was fought right here in Princeton, I thought a presentation showing the various troop movements during the battle would be helpful for visitors to learn more about the battle,” Whitlow said.

The battle itself was only one part of a much more challenging series of military engagements that included an intense skirmish at the Henry Clark House, a tavern that was built of logs and was destroyed in 1954 for the construction of the West Virginia Turnpike, according to Kyle McCormick’s “Story of Mercer County.”

A federal army under the command of General Jacob Cox — made up mostly of soldiers from Ohio — was camped about two miles south of Flat Top on April 30, 1862. An advanced guard from Cox’s army started moving south that evening, and camped at the Clark house their first night.

Early the next morning, May 1, 1862, an independent company called the Flat Top Copperheads engaged in combat with the advance guard. Both sides suffered some losses, but as the main body closed in on the Union advance guard, the Confederates withdrew into Princeton where Col. Walter Jenifer ordered Princeton set on fire, and according to McCormick, Jenifer also ordered the burning of Rocky Gap in Bland County, Va.

Lt. Col. Rutherford B. Hayes, later president of the United States was in command of the advance regiment. He wrote about the fire in his memoirs. He wrote that on approaching Princeton, “great clouds were rolling in the sky,” and he knew the town had been set on fire.

“The women wringing their hands and crying and begging us to protect them, with the fine town around us in flames, made a scene long to be remembered,” Hayes wrote. “The troubles of the women, who have been either burned out by secesh or robbed of chickens and the life by our men are of concern this morning.”

Cox’s objective was to destroy the Virginia & Tennessee Railway in Dublin, Va. The plan was conceived by General W.S. Rosecrans, commander of the Department of West Virginia. Hayes traveled east from Princeton to Giles County, Va., but the travel was slow with the Ohio soldiers building roads the whole way. Conversely, the Confederate defenders had devised a heliograph or mirror system across the mountain tops that enabled them to communicate with Richmond, Va., in about two hours. When the Union soldiers under Hayes arrived in Pearisburg, Va., the defenders — including (then) Captain Geroge S. Patton, the grandfather and namesake of World War II General George S. Patton — eventually forced Hayes to retreat back to Princeton.

“The country, after the road strikes New River is romantic, highly cultivated and beautiful,” Hayes wrote of his impressions of Giles County. “Giles courthouse is a neat pretty village with a most magnificent surrounding country both as regards to scenery and cultivation.”

Although he didn’t agree with secession, Hayes obviously liked the people according to the passages that McCormick quoted. “The people are secesh but are polite and intelligent,” Hayes wrote. “Found more intelligence and culture than anywhere else in Virginia.”

The battle of Pigeon Roost took place on May 16-17, 1862. “With no roads, only trails and 90 percent of the land of Mercer County woodland, troop movements were hazardous and intelligence of what the enemy was doing even more difficult,” McCormick wrote. “On the 16th, there were four armies and five troop movements to be considered and the armies were placed on May 16, as follows: General Cox with a Federal army was stationed in Oakvale having retreated from Pearisburg; closing in on him from Glen Lyn was Confederate General Henry Heth.

In Bland County, General G.C. Wharton was coming in with a small army from the direction of Wytheville, Va., to aid Heth; that night, in the vicinity of Rock, there was an army of Kentuckians under the command of General Humphrey Marshall and fast closing on Princeton,” McCormick wrote. “There were three Confederate forces and one federal army.”

According to McCormick, on the evening of May 16, Cox sent a regiment of German conscripts commanded by Col. Von Blessing along East River to Ingleside with the idea of coming up on the Confederates in Princeton from Ada and the Gap of the Ridge. Early on May 17, Cox moved his army from Oakvale into Princeton for a time until Marshall and his Kentucky Confederates pushed Cox out. Wharton crossed East River Mountain and came in behind von Blessing and the Germans. When von Blessing tried to hurry his troops into Princeton, they encountered a detachment of troops from Marshall’s army at Pigeon Roost. The Confederates commanded by Major Peter Otey ambushed von Blessing.

“Pigeon Roost was so named because of the millions of wild pigeons that constantly roosted there,” McCormick wrote. Von Blessing retreated toward Ingleside, learned that Cox was headed back to Beckley. Von Blessing took his troops up the Athens Road, and eventually reunited with Cox’s main body near Spanishburg.

The Union losses in the battle included 23 killed, 69 wounded and 21 missing. Confederate losses were three killed, and 21 wounded. Von Blessing’s regiment lost the most with 18 killed, 56 wounded and 14 captured. The bodies of the Federal soldiers were buried in a cemetery at the corner of Douglas Avenue and North Walker Street, but were later moved to Arlington, Va.

In his 1957 story of Mercer County, McCormick, the long time editor of the Princeton Times and later, director of the state department of Archives and History, included several colorful stories to breathe life into the story.

— Contact Bill Archer at barcher@bdtonline.com

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