The Wooden Bible
THE DECISION TO GO TO WAR
Being a soldier was not what John Bunyan Thompson visualized when he moved his family from Belington to Pleasant Creek. He selected a home site just north of Philippi. John was a metal forger, a darn good smithy. He could work the hearth, bellows, and hammers better than any man around. With the coal mines beginning to open near Grafton, he saw a profitable venture in tool making.
It did not happen that way; at least not
His ancestors had come from Culpepper County, Va., by way of the timber camps of Pendleton County. They were southerners, with strong ties to the state of Virginia. His younger brother, James DeCabe, had already expressed loyalty to Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy. His father and mother, Major David and Mary Alleen, foresaw the divide of loyalties in Barbour County. They declared themselves too old to take sides. By this they escaped the controversy.
John Bunyan, on the other hand, read everything he could about Abraham Lincoln and what the new president was trying to accomplish. John liked what he read. The fever of war was dominating all conversation and public opinion. Men were volunteering to one side or the other. John felt obligated to take action but his leanings were to support the North.
He moved Sarah, who was now expecting their third child, along with their two young sons, Francis Luther and Solomon David, into a cabin near the Carlin School. This was down the slope from Clemtown and nearer to Arden. From there he felt the boys could get started with their education while he was away.
John Bunyan Thompson then caught the train to Philippi and took the oath for the 15th West Virginia Volunteer Infantry. He was immediately mustered in and shipped to the area of Cumberland, Md. Here Company “F” was assigned to guard the Baltimore & Ohio railroad line.
The next three years could best be described as a time of “Blood and Guts” more so than “Battlefield Glory.” The brutalities of this conflict, brother again brother, were to be cast upon him.
It has been nearly three years since John Bunyan Thompson mustered into Company “F,” the Barbour County Company, of the 15th West Virginia Infantry. Men of the 15th were tired, bewildered, and homesick. Three officers and 50 enlisted men had been killed or mortally wounded in battle. Twice that many were seriously injured in bloody fighting. Add to that the hundreds of their rank that had died of exposure, disease and causes unrelated to battle while in the field. Considering that the 15th was only a very small contingent of the entire Army, the total death and destruction was bewildering.
John Bunyan felt luck, more than being a good soldier, had kept him from harm to this point. He knew that the next bullet fired could find its mark on his forehead and he, like many of his comrades, could sleep for eternity under the soil of a Virginia battlefield. The thought of never seeing Sarah and his children again haunted him.
Guarding the B&O railroad in Maryland gave members of the 15th a false sense of security relating to the horrors of battle. Nightly, a small band of Confederate raiders would attempt to blow up a bridge, rip up tracks, or sabotage a marshaling yard. These sorties were easily repelled without much damage to the 15th.
After the Confederacy suffered a major loss at Gettysburg, this all changed. Rebel units came through Pennsylvania and Maryland, enroute to their southern encampments, and reigned terror on small towns in their path. Chambersburg and Hagerstown were burned. The 15th, in Cumberland, was under siege for several days. Fighting was intense.
The major battlefield then moved to the Shenandoah Valley. In the same manner that the B&O was supplying Union troops in the mid-west, the Tennessee and Virginia Railroad, which ran through the New River valley, was supplying General Lee’s forces in the Shenandoah. The 15th was quickly marched south and pressed into action at the bloody and costly battles of Cloyd Mountain and at the New River Bridge. The 15th, as part of Gen. Rosecrans’ forces, were ordered to cut that supply route. They were successful but at a high price.
During the next year, the 15th was continuously engaged in campaigns, fighting more than 30 battles, including Winchester, Strasburg, Lynchburg, and Cedar Creek.
It was the encounter at Cedar Creek that John Bunyan remembered most. Thirty one thousand Union troops were encamped along Cedar Creek and positioned to stop the Confederates from again advancing northward into the capital of the United States. Major Gen. Philip Sheridan was in command. These Union troops were relaxed, comfortable, and confident that no enemy dare attack them. They were too strong to be defeated. Or, at least, they thought so. The 15th was encamped on the outer edge of the main forces.
In the early morning hours of Oct. 19, 1864, the very able Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early, with 21,000 tired, hungry, but determined southern soldiers, mostly from Alabama and Mississippi, conducted a surprise attack on the Union position. General Early intentionally, and with skilled planning, divided his forces into three units.
The first followed a seldom used, obscure trail, crossing the Shenandoah River several times to confuse any observer, and approached the Union encampment from the east.
The second unit took an equally evasive route, but through the western foothills, for an attack from the west.
The third, with cannons, moved forward for a frontal attack.
As the sun appeared in the eastern sky and morning fog hung over the Union camp, while the Yankee soldiers slept, Early’s force attacked. The Union was caught totally off guard.
The first Northern unit to discover the Confederate forces advancing was the 15th. Consequently, they became the only unit to exchange fire with the attackers. Their gun fire alerted the remainder of the Union camp. The 31,000 Northern troops were totally routed. These disorganized soldiers left everything except their weapons and ammunition, and fled into the foothills directly north of Cedar Creek.
On that night, General Sheridan had been socializing with the wealthy and politically connected in the city of Winchester, 15 miles to the north. When he heard the distant fire of cannons, he realized the unexpected had happened. He mounted his magnificent black horse and rode, at top speed, to the
General Sheridan had an amazing ability to rally his men and execute a counter attack. Fortunately for him, General Early’s half-starved soldiers found food in the abandoned Union encampment and put down their arms to fill their empty stomachs.
Sheridan and these brave Union troops pulled victory out of the jaws of defeat.
But the war was not yet over for John Bunyan and the 15th. What was yet to come moved John, emotionally, for the remainder of his life.
In the next episode, John Bunyan Thompson has a chance encounter with the great Gen. Robert E. Lee.