Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Collins: "The Jones-Imboden Raid"

[The Jones-Imboden Raid: The Confederate Attempt to Destroy the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and Retake West Virginia by Darrell L. Collins (McFarland ph.800 253-2187, 2007). Softcover, 15 maps, photos, notes, bibliography. Pages total/main: 217/194 ISBN: 978-0-7864-3070-3 $35]

In the shadow of the looming clash between Lee and Hooker at Chancellorsville, the enterprise that ultimately became the Jones-Imboden Raid1 could claim some fairly ambitious political, military, and economic aims of its own. Originally conceived by John H. "Hanse" McNeill as a battalion-strength lightning strike on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad bridge at Cheat River, subsequent interest in the endeavor expanded its scope into a multi-pronged raid. It's goals were many fold. Beyond a generalized disruption of the new state of West Virginia, the raid was also a Confederate recruitment drive. Additionally, the troopers planned to impress goods and forage freely. The bridges (especially the vital Cheat River Bridge) and tracks of the B&O were also targeted for destruction. While the others appear attainable, the goal of actually pushing Federal troops out of the state appears far fetched to us today. Union forces in the immediate area outnumbered the raiders by at least three to one, and cavalry is particularly unsuited to the task of invasion and occupation.

Writing a memorable cavalry raid history is difficult, but author Darrell Collins has previously demonstrated his ability with a fine Salem Raid study. The description of rapid movements over long distances in a narrative can subject readers to a constant, mind numbing barrage of unfamiliar names and places. Collins largely avoids this trap by smoothly reorienting the reader at each turn and inserting maps at regular intervals. The author writes well, and his research is sufficient2 to construct a reasonably detailed military history of the raid, as well as an enlightening picture of the civilian experience3. According to Collins, West Virginia citizens suffered significant property loss, regardless of political orientation.

Collins' analysis of the effectiveness of the Jones-Imboden Raid is penetrating. Rather than discouraging support of the new government of West Virginia, the Confederate incursion served to stiffen the resolve of the Unionist population. Few recruits flocked to Confederate colors, and wholesale impressment provoked a backlash against the state's considerable population of secessionist sympathizing residents. This widespread practice of seizing horses and cattle from citizens (thousands were obtained in this manner regardless of political affiliation) also did little to inspire allegiance to the Confederacy. Desertion and march attrition largely offset gains in army recruitment and impressment of horseflesh. The effect of the damage to the B&O was fleeting and disappointing as well. While the iron railroad bridge at Fairmont was destroyed, the Cheat River Bridge (a major objective) was untouched and the railroad was up and running throughout its length within ten days. One of the most interesting and successful aspects of the raid was the destruction of the oil fields near Burning Springs. Not originally an objective, the action caused severe economic damage to the industry, effectively ending it for the duration of the war.

While acknowledging the great difficulty of catching cavalry with infantry, Collins is highly critical of the timidity of the Union military response (especially that of the hapless Gen. Benjamin Roberts) to the movements of Jones and Imboden. Under the overall direction of Gen. Robert Schenck, the instinct of what to do was present at times, but the general showed a complete inability to inspire his subordinates to action. On the other side, while the raid failed to meet expectations, the author generally finds little fault with the actions of the Confederate commanders. With so many unrealistic goals, this view is reasonable. However, the author appropriately takes Jones to task for instances of hesitancy that cost him several opportunities to inflict more extensive damage to the B&O [the failure at Cheat River Bridge is the most egregious example].

With The Jones-Imboden Raid, author Darrell Collins provides us with the first modern, book length treatment of the subject. It's another fine effort by this author. Well written, skillfully analyzed, and persuasively argued, I would recommend this volume to all serious students of cavalry raids and any reader interested in the Civil War in West Virginia.

1 - Brigades under William E. "Grumble" Jones and John D. Imboden participated in the raid, with Jones operating generally along the line of the B&O and Imboden covering his southern flank. Starting from the Shenandoah, the Confederate raiders executed a grand counterclockwise sweep through the length of West Virginia before returning to the valley.

2 - Being unfamiliar with the sources available for this raid, I am reluctant to complain too heavily of the limited nature of the bibliography. However, for a work of this scope, I was expecting to find more manuscript and primary source materials listed.

3 - The raiders' negative impression of the residents of the southern region of West Virginia on the raiders is reminiscent of the similar attitude toward rural Arkansans examined by William Shea in his essay published in
Civil War Arkansas: Beyond Battles and Leaders.

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