A Situation Not to Be Endured: The 4th West Virginia at Cool Spring

    In the days following Jubal Early’s brief attack on Washington, D.C. in July 1864, Federal forces consisting of elements of the 6th and 19th Army Corps under General Horatio G. Wright along with General George Crook’s Army of West Virginia pursued Early’s army back into northern Virginia. Early left a heavy rearguard at the main Shenandoah River crossing at Castleman’s Ferry which advance elements of the Union army clashed with on July 17th. This set in motion the chain of events of what became known as the Battle of Cool Spring.

Among the regiments that took part in this battle was the 4th West Virginia Infantry which has an interesting history and a strong Ohio connection. The 4th West Virginia, although credited to the state of Virginia and later West Virginia, was an organization in which most of the companies were raised in Ohio, specifically the southeastern counties of Meigs, Gallia, Lawrence, and Athens. The regiment had a wide-ranging service, seeing action in the Kanawha Valley and in the September 1862 West Virginia campaign before being transferred to the Army of the Tennessee to participate in the Vicksburg and Chattanooga campaigns. After veterans’ furlough in early 1864, the regiment returned to its “home” state of West Virginia for service under General George Crook where it fought at Lynchburg and later at Cool Spring as described below

On July 18, 1864, the 4th West Virginia as part of Colonel Joseph Thoburn’s Second Brigade, moved downstream from Castleman’s Ferry and crossed at Judge Richard Parker’s Ford with the aim to drive off what was believed to be a thin line of Confederate pickets. In what proved to be a case of biting off more than he could chew, Colonel Joseph Thoburn soon found himself hotly engaged with a tough division of Confederates under General Robert Rodes aided by reinforcements that pinned him to the riverbank. By late evening, the Federals fell back across the river having lost 422 men during the engagement.

Quartermaster Sergeant Joseph A. Walsh of the 4th West Virginia wrote the following letter about the Battle of Cool Spring the day after the battle; while Walsh was not a direct participant, his account reads very much like a firsthand account no doubt from discussing the battle with his comrades immediately afterwards. His account was originally published in the August 4, 1864, edition of the Gallipolis Journal from Gallipolis, Ohio.


Lieutenant Colonel John Luther Vance of the 4th West Virginia performed the tough task of bringing his regiment off the field at Cool Spring without the loss of a man. "The heroic conduct of Colonel Vance in this trying ordeal cannot be too highly extolled," Walsh noted. The Gallipolis attorney mustered out of service in October 1864 and returned to Ohio to resume his law practice. He served a single term in Congress and operated the Gallipolis Bulletin newspaper for years; he passed away in 1921 just shy of his 82nd birthday. 

Camp of 4th Virginia Volunteer Infantry

In the field near Snicker’s Gap, Virginia

July 19, 1864

          Thinking a brief statement of facts in regard to yesterday’s fight may not be uninteresting to your patrons, many of whom have friends and relatives in the 4th Virginia Infantry, I herewith subjoin one the source of which is perfectly reliable. I was not a participant. I will commence by stating the order of crossing the Shenandoah River at Snicker’s Ford 1-1/2 miles distant from Snicker’s Gap and about one mile below the crossing on the Turnpike.

          The First Brigade under Colonel Wells in the advance followed by the Second Brigade under Colonel Joseph Thoburn and the Third Brigade under Colonel Daniel Frost. The whole commanded by Colonel Thoburn crossed at 3 p.m. Skirmishers were immediately thrown out to the front and the division formed as follows: the First Brigade on the left, Third Brigade in the center, and the Second Brigade on the right. In this position they lay for nearly an hour without any show of hostility and indeed without scarcely any indication of the enemy in our front. Up to this time, not a shot was fired. But now it was discovered that the enemy was massing on our right. The 4th Virginia Infantry was ordered on the double quick to the extreme right and formed near the crest of a small ridge running parallel with the river. Still further to the right and a little in advance of the 4th Virginia was placed a strong body of dismounted cavalry as skirmishers for the protection of the right flank of the line of battle.

          Whilst the 4th Virginia Infantry was forming, the enemy was seen in strong force moving to the right and into dense woods. They here threw out into the skirt of woods and in full view a small line in order to make a show of charging us whilst the main body of the enemy passed on under cover of the woods until they got entirely clear of our line and within 300 yards of the Charlestown Road which runs parallel with the river and along which our line extended. They then filed out of the woods and marched directly toward the riverbank. The dismounted cavalry, which were placed on our right to protect our flank, seeing the enemy bearing down upon them in such heavy force, fell back without firing a shot.

Colonel John L. Vance of the 4th Virginia immediately then took two companies to the right to protect our flank thus left wholly exposed. But the enemy, availing themselves of the advantage thus gained, had already taken position behind a stone fence running at right angles with our line. From this point, they poured upon us a terrible enfilading fire. Simultaneously, a galling fire was opened on us in front. Here, Lieutenant George A. Scott [Co. F] was mortally wounded, a loss severely felt by all. He was an efficient officer and a perfect gentleman. [Scott survived his wound and mustered out of service October 3, 1864.] His relatives and friends at home have the sympathy of the entire regiment. Here also Captain William S. Hall [Co. F], Captain Calvin A. Shepard [Co. I], and Lieutenant Michael Christopher [Co. H] were wounded; indeed, here it was that all our loss occurred.

The 4th West Virginia held a position near the Federal right flank during the battle along with some dismounted cavalrymen. When it came time to withdraw, Colonel Vance moved the men in small groups first to Parker Island, and from there to the east bank. Map courtesy of Shenandoah University. 

This situation, however, was not to be endured. Colonel Vance, seeing there was no other alternative, gave the command to fall back, whereupon they fell back in some haste to a stone fence some 50 yards in our rear and immediately upon the riverbank. The whole line as well upon the left as upon the right fell back to the riverbank. A great many, especially the dismounted cavalry, rushed into the river and I have learned many were drowned. At the stone fence on the bank of the river, Colonel Vance rallied the 4th Virginia with others and formed a line. The advance of the enemy was now checked and they were driven back.

That body on our right, however, continued their flank movement until it was discovered they were in the road and on the bank of the river. At this movement, the 116th Ohio commanded by Colonel James Washburn came to our assistance and whilst moving to the right its noble commander fell, probably mortally wounded. [Washburn sustained a gunshot wound to the face that cost him his right eye] But his men drove the Rebels off the road and took up position. And here let me in praise of the 116th say that better soldiers are nowhere to be found. We maintained our position at the fence until dark and then under imperative orders recrossed the river, bringing all off in safety. We could have held the position all night and Colonel Vance requested it, but that was denied him.

Colonel Joseph Thoburn

 During the time we lay along the fence, the enemy made repeated charges upon us and each time were handsomely repulsed. They did not once attempt a swooping charge of their whole line else they must have certainly taken us. But they charged first at one point and then at another. We were compelled when the enemy charged on our right to take men from the left and strengthen the right, and thus the men were kept continually changing from point to point. At one time, the enemy charged on our left with a strong line and was repulsed by less than 50 men. As they retreated, fresh men were brought up and they were punished severely. The officers and men of our regiment behaved nobly.

In bringing off our little command, Colonel Vance withdrew a few men at intervals along the line and sent them over on to a little island that lay near the middle of the river. He then selected a few more and ordered them to the main bank on the opposite side of the river and he continued to do this until all had passed over but himself and six men. These he crossed successfully having accomplished all without the loss of a man. The heroic conduct of Colonel Vance in this trying ordeal cannot be too highly extolled. He labored incessantly to beat back the insolent fore and after having accomplished his object he was the last man to cross the river.



Letter from Quartermaster Sergeant Joseph A. Walsh, 4th West Virginia Volunteer Infantry, Gallipolis Journal (Ohio), August 4, 1864, pg. 2


  1. I recieved many post from you just lately, there were not any post fo a long time but these make up for it thank you, please keep them coming, Extremely interesting.


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