A Scary Affair at Scary Creek

The Battle of Scary Creek, Virginia was fought July 17, 1861 upon a series of hills along the banks of Scary Creek at the junction with the Kanawha River in western Virginia. Confederate forces under Captain George S. Patton had emplaced a masked battery that commanded the river road and an important bridge over Scary Creek in days previous to check the Union advance up the Kanawha. Patton commanded a force of several independent companies in Virginia state service, along with a few cannon from Hales Artillery under Lieutenants James Welch and Charles Quarrier, the entire force numbering roughly 800 men.
Union Brigadier General Jacob D. Cox determined to send out a reconnaissance force of roughly 1,000 men consisting of the 12th Ohio Infantry under Colonel John Lowe, about 100 troops from two companies of the 21st Ohio Infantry under Colonel Jesse S. Norton, a cavalry company under Captain John S. George, and two rifled cannon under Captains William S. Williams and Charles S. Cotter. Colonel Lowe commanded the expedition and was ordered to locate the enemy and determine the size of his force- its mission was not to get into a fight, but a fight it had.
The below letter from Captain William S. Williams published in the July 31, 1861 issue of the Ohio Repository gives a sparkling account of the part played by the Union artillery in this small battle- his gun knocked out one of the iron pieces of the enemy (killing Lieutenant Welch in the process) and made the fire so hot on Quarrier’s gun that he retreated from the field. A second letter from Corporal Jeriboam “Jerry” B. Creighton, who served Williams’ cannon as the gunner, saw publication in the Tiffin Weekly Tribune from July 26, 1861.
It is interesting that both men laid the blame for the “failure” of the expedition at the feet of General Cox, ignoring the fact that the mission was to develop the position of the enemy, not drive them away from Scary Creek. But once action commenced, the ardor of these early volunteers was such that anything short of driving the enemy with the bayonet was viewed as an unjust restraint. Colonel Lowe’s lack of firm direction elicited comment from Captain Williams, and Williams’ statements were corroborated by Colonel Norton after his release by the Confederates. The press blew these comments up to charging that Colonel Lowe showed cowardice at Scary Creek and had he properly supported Norton’s charge as Norton had requested, victory would have been won at Scary Creek. As Gunner Creighton surmised, “Had the infantry officers done their duty after we had silenced the enemy’s battery, we would have routed them from the field.” Colonel Lowe would be killed in action less than two months later while leading his regiment into action at the Battle of Carnifex Ferry. 
Knowing the interest you have been taking in our artillery company, I thought I would drop you a line as to our whereabouts. We are now about 50 miles up the river. I have command of two pieces, one rifled and the other smooth, acting lieutenant with the rank of captain. Captain Suland of Frankfort, Kentucky has also command of one rifled piece and one smoothbore, and commands the battery. Going up the river we acted as advance guard. We were compelled to throws shell into nests of Secesh on several occasions. On Wednesday morning last, we were ordered by General Cox to take up two rifled pieces, Cotter commanding one and I the other, and Colonel Lowe of the 12th Ohio with his regiment and command, and Colonel Jesse S. Norton, the gallant little fellow with two companies of the 21st Ohio, about 100 men. And with this handful of men we were ordered to take Governor Wise’s division stationed about four miles above on the river.
Colonel John Williamson Lowe, 12th Ohio Volunteer Infantry

We started and got along very well, when nearing their camp we drove in one of their pickets, the great body of infantry then flanked our right and left on each side of the road. The artillery was then ordered forward by Colonel Lowe. We went up the road with our horses under the gallop and the first thing we noticed was a shower of grape and ball falling thick and fast, which apparently for the moment appeared to dumbfound our boys. We were in a narrow lane, and I ordered them to throw down the fence and we took our position over the fence in an open wheat field right in range of their guns and about 300 yards distant. Their balls at first flew over us, but soon lowering them to bear on us. I came to the conclusion there was rather much buzzing about my ears and took my place by my piece and tried to keep the boys cool, which was unnecessary for they were all right.
Colonel Jesse S. Norton, 21st Ohio Infantry. The "gallant little fellow," as Williams remembered him, won fame for his gallantry at Scary Creek where he was wounded and captured, but his penchant for controversy eventually led to his undoing.

Charley Myers took my horse and the next thing I saw him doing was leading the horse around hunting some tobacco he had lost in the stubble, cannon balls and grape flying in all directions about his head- characteristic of a Dutchman! About this time Johnny Haven of Ravenna was cut nearly in two by a ball. All of their fire was directed at our guns. The first ball we fired was a little high, passing over their entrenchments and took off a colonel’s head while sitting on his horse on the other side of their breastworks. It was diamond cut diamond for a time until we could see through the smoke that their guns were in a bad condition, wheels flying in all directions and in a few minutes one of their guns was knocked about 20 feet and another round dismounted and dismantled their forces entirely, and not a soul about them.
Battle of Scary Creek, Virginia overlaid on modern map of Scary, West Virginia. (Author's work)

A number of sharpshooters were stationed under cover of the woods attempting to pick us off at our guns, but did not succeed although there was more than one of the boys’ caps knocked off. We then moved our pieces over by a house and fired into some old log houses under the hill that were full of Secesh, and who were pouring a destructive fire into Colonel Norton’s little band. We bored them and they came out like bees, while the colonel at the head of his men was disputing the ground at the point of the bayonet. Here the colonel fell wounded and many a brave fellow was attempting to drag himself away from this point, although men were biting the dust in all directions, yet victory seemed to be ours for the enemy was retreating and where the Secesh battery had been we saw through the smoke the old stars and stripes were waving.
Our artillery boys set up an unearthly yell, but before they were through cheering we had a dose of grape from the flag in question. When the smoke cleared away, much to our dismay, we discovered it had but three stripes. I told my gunner Jerry B. Creighton to fetch it down and the next moment the color bearer was seen dangling ten feet in the air. Colonel De Villiers of the 11th Ohio and Colonel Woodruff of the 2nd Kentucky and his lieutenant colonel and several other officers (who were up on the other side of river scouting) hearing the cheering of our boys, supposed the victory won and crossed the river in a boat just in time to be taken prisoners for when that flag was replanted on their entrenchments, they had received large reinforcements from Coal Creek along with a field piece which accounted for the grape. We silenced their remaining gun again, but our ammunition was fast giving out and our guns were so hot we could scarcely work them and so with the infantry, those that did fight had not more ammunition (there was part of the 12th Ohio that had done but little) and our boys were almost exhausted.
When we fired our last ammunition, our boys dripped down by the guns covered black with smoke and powder and lay there panting with fatigue and asking for water. All our boys did nobly, not one flinched. We lay there expecting reinforcements from camp; General Cox had about 4,000 men there but none came. The cavalry made one charge, shot off three of their guns, and then stayed behind the church until the battle was over. Thus out of ammunition and a few men against all of southeastern Virginia, as we have since learned, we had all but one thing to do and that was retreat. Colonel Lowe was in the rear behind the hill. There we went into things under Lowe’s directions, pell-mell, and our retreat of course was about the same thing. Lieutenant Colonel Neibling of the 21st Ohio and several others sent to General Cox and pleaded and begged of him to let them take men up to our rescue, as they knew well from our firing that we were fighting a much superior force. Lieutenant Colonel Neibling cried like a child to take up the balance of Colonel Norton’s regiment. But General Cox told him to get back to his tent and not show his weakness.
Lieutenant Colonel James M. Neibling, 21st Ohio Volunteer Infantry. "Colonel Jim" became incensed when General Cox refused to allow him to march the remaining 8 companies of the regiment to Scary Creek. Cox told him to "go back to his tent and not show his weakness," but relented when news arrived that the expedition had met with defeat at Scary Creek. Colonel Neibling wrote the following,

"You may judge our feelings when we first heard the firing of the cannon. The General and myself were talking at the time and I insisted on going to their support, but he refused to listen to anything I might say. As the fight was on the other side of the river, I insisted on crossing but he would not hearken to my entreaties until the dispatch came that Colonel Norton was taken prisoner and that Colonel Lowe of the 12th was returning. We started on double quick time, but before I could get there, we met our boys returning, some of them out of ammunition, and entirely worn out, so much so that I could not rally men and officers to go back as they said it was almost night."

Well, we retreated, the artillery leaving the field last. The notorious Jenkins was ordered to charge after us but he said, “he’d be damned if he would ride after those guns with his men.” The fight lasted about two hours and 40 minutes. After we got near to camp, we found another regiment coming to our relief, but it was too late. The amount and killed on the enemy’s side is unknown, nor never will be. Our dead were all left on the field, but a great many of our wounded we brought away with us. Johnny Haven, as we picked him up, tried to cheer when he saw the stars and stripes. The amount of wounded I can’t tell, suffice to say the cabins of three steamboats are laying full. We’ll give them another turn up there in a few days again.
Tiffin Weekly Tribune, July 26, 1861, pg. 3; account of Corporal Jeriboam “Jerry” B. Creighton, Williams’ Independent Battery, Ohio Volunteer Light Artillery:
“You will of course know the result of the battle of Scary Creek before these few lines reach you. I was in that battle and let me tell you in all candor it was a hot little battle. We were in range of musketry and rifle shot and at the same time in open sight of the enemy’s artillery. I must say in due respect to the Rebels that they have done some damned good shooting. Your humble servant was gunner of one of the detachments (we had two pieces in action) and green as he is, being only 15 days in the service when the battle was fought, he had the good luck of knocking a colonel’s head off at the first shot. Shortly after we dismounted one of the enemy’s guns, sending it whirling in all directions. I believe my whole mind was on the enemy’s battery, trying my best to knock it to Kingdom Come and I feel confident of having done it to them.
Brigadier General Jacob D. Cox not only incurred criticism from his troops, but drew General George B. McClellan's ire for his expedition's less than triumphant performance at Scary Creek. McClellan pleaded with Colonel Edward T. Townsend "in Heaven's name, give me some general officers who understand their profession." 'Mother' Cox learned, and by the end of the war became a respected commander in the 23rd Corps and later Governor of Ohio.  

We stood a good two hour’s fight and had not our ammunition given out, we would have driven the devils off the field. We are under obligations to Mother Cox, our general, for this inhuman defeat. We were about 1,000 strong with two six-pounder rifled cannon. Had Cox given all the available forces under his command, instead of keeping the greater part of it within three miles of the battlefield for his protection, we would have gained a glorious victory. I believe every man in his brigade is down on him for mismanagement, cowardice, etc. We are told that ex-Governor Henry Wise ordered Captain Jenkins’ cavalry to charge on our artillery, but Jenkins said he would be damned if it would pay to charge on the artillery and that the devil himself could not stand before them. We were only 400 yards from the enemy’s battery from the commencement of the fight and closed on them several times during the engagement. Had the infantry officers done their duty after we had silenced the enemy’s battery, we would have routed them from the field.”
Captain Albert Gallatin Jenkins wisely refused to charge the Union cannon at Scary Creek, but his troopers gathered in quite a haul when several Union officers imprudently crossed the Kanawha on a skiff after the battle thinking that their forces had driven the Confederates from town. Jenkins' men captured Colonel William Woodruff (2nd Kentucky Inf.), Colonel Charles De Villiers (11th Ohio Inf.), Lieutenant Colonel George W. Neff (1st Kentucky Inf.), and two captains from the 2nd Kentucky (Austin and Ward). Captain Gustavus Bascom of General Cox's staff related that the group had galloped away from camp to attempt to watch the fight, and seeing a building fired, mistakenly believed it was a signal that Federal forces had won the day. They crossed the river and galloped amongst Jenkins' troopers (few of any of the men who fought on either side at Scary Creek wore uniforms that would give clear identification as to which side they represented) and Bascom relays what happened next:

"Woodruff cheering and speaking of their victory and DeVilliers scolding them and threatening to report them to General Cox for burning some buildings which were being destroyed to prevent our force from occupying them. They were of course nabbed. Some of them seized hold of DeVilliers’ horse to arrest him, but he declared that he would trample them if they did not release him. He would not surrender to any but the commanding officer.”


Post a Comment

Most Popular Posts

Bullets for the Union: Manufacturing Small Arms Ammunition During the Civil War

Dressing the Rebels: How to Dye Butternut Jeans Cloth

Arming the Buckeyes: Longarms of the Ohio Infantry Regiments

A Buckeye Remembers Scenes of Horror After the Battle of Corinth

Mauled at Resaca: Eight Fatal Minutes for the 36th Alabama

Standing like pillars of adamant: the 61st Ohio at Freeman's Ford

The Cannons are Now Silent: The Field of Death of Tupelo

Buckeye Rapid-Fire: The 21st Ohio and the Colt’s Revolving Rifles

Dedicating the Gettysburg National Cemetery

A Galvanized Yankee Executed at Tullahoma