On November 6, 1863, the last major battle for control of southeast West Virginia ended with a Union victory when Union General William W. Averell accomplished a textbook victory against his entrenched foes under Confederate General John Echols. In the frantic retreat that followed, Echols managed to keep his command intact to fight another day. Averell seized Lewisburg after his victory, but Confederate reinforcements began mobilizing to cut off his retreat, and he soon returned to his headquarters in Beverly. Not until a month later, on his third attempt, was Averell able to force his way south into Virginia and destroy the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad. On July 4, 1928, after years of organizing and fundraising by veterans who fought at the battle, Droop Mountain Battlefield became West Virginia’s first State Park.
When Union Brigadier General William Woods Averell was transferred to West Virginia in May 1863 to take command of the Fourth Separate Brigade, it was likely intended as a backwater assignment to punish Averell, who was one of many scapegoated by Union General Joseph Hooker after his defeat at Chancellorsville. Averell--a career U.S. Army cavalryman--turned to his new assignment with gusto, and within two months had transformed the West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio troops of his command into a well-drilled outfit.
Their true test in battle together was at White Sulphur Springs, on August 26-27, 1863, where roughly half of Averell’s brigade had its nose bloodied against fellow West Virginians under the command of Colonel George S. Patton (grandfather of the famed World War II general). Their objective had been to seize Lewisburg and the law books of the Virginia State Supreme Court for use in the newly-formed state of West Virginia (ratified June 20, 1863), but Patton blocked Averell’s approach in a day-long slugging match at the Battle of White Sulphur Springs. Averell withdrew the next morning and dodged Confederate ambushes back to Beverly.
Two months later, fortified by the lessons learned in August, Averell headed south to cut the railroad once more. He mustered nearly three times the numbers: 3,800 cavalry and infantry supported by two artillery batteries, instead of the mere 1,300 he had commanded at White Sulphur Springs. His force, leaving Beverly on November 1, marched by the familiar roadsparalleling the Greenbrier River, most of which they had used two months prior. Further improving Averell’s chances of success was a columnn of 2,500 additional Federal troops on their way from Charleston, West Virginia, under General Alfred Duffie (though a similar reinforcement columnn from Charleston had failed to arrive in time to help Averell at White Sulphur Springs). Duffie was meant to link up with Averell in Lewisburg on November 7.
Averell’s men first made contact with organized Confederate forces on November 4 in Huntersville, roughly halfway on their march to Lewisburg. Their adversaries turned out to be the 19th Virginia Cavalry under Confederate Colonel William Lowther “Mudwall” Jackson, a cousin of the famous Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson killed at Chancellorsville earlier in 1863. Jackson quickly alerted the Confederate commander in Lewisburg, Brigadier John Echols, who in turn sent word to his superiors and prepared to march to Jackson’s aid. For his part, Averell advanced at a leisurely pace while steadily pushing back Jackson’s skirmishers, knowing that he would outpace Duffie to Lewisburg if he moved too quickly.
On the afternoon of November 5, Jackson broke contact with Averell and retreated to the flat top of Droop Mountain, a formidable height Averell would almost certainly need to secure before continuing southward. He could not hold it with the few troops at his disposal, however. Late that night, Echols was finally convinced to join him (Echols was understandably concerned that his force could be caught in a pincer movement by Averell and Duffie if he advanced farther north); his troops began their 14-mile night march at 2am on November 6.
At dawn, Averell set his plan in motion. The result would be a nearly flawless textbook victory--exceedingly rare among Civil War battles, especially when coordinating multiple prongs of attack simultaneously. When scouts reported back on the enemy’s position atop Droop Mountain, Averell knew that a frontal attack would suffer hideous casualties (perhaps a lesson learned from several desperate cavalry charges at White Sulphur Springs). Instead, he split a large force (the 28th Ohio and 10th W.Va.) off onto the southwesterly Lobelia Road, which eventually ran like a dagger into the Confederate left flank. Averell’s artillery was to raise a ruckus on the main approach and convince Echols that the main thrust of the attack was to come there, up the Hillsboro Road.
Echols foolishly left the Lobelia Road, despite warning from troops stationed on the flank. For their part Averell’s lieutenants, with synchronized watches in difficult terrain, pulled off something nearly unheard of in warfare of the era--a perfectly coordinated attack. Around 2pm, Colonel Augustus Moor’s 28th Ohio Infantry crashed into the Confederate extreme left. To Moor’s left, the 3rd, 2nd, and 8th W.Va. regiments, which had quietly crept up steep slopes to the Confederate lines through the brush, commenced their attack when Moor’s muskets began firing. Soon, the Confederate left flank was buckling and Echols was forced to pull troops from his center and right to shore it up. Averell’s loud artillery demonstration and the conspicuous mustering of the 14th Pennsylvania on the Hillsboro Road had successfully transfixed Echols’ attention and convinced him that Averell’s intended attack lay there.
When Echols shifted troops to deal with his left flank, Colonel J.M. Schoonmaker and his Pennsylvanians rushed upon his weakened center. Fighting along the line was fierce and close in the dense brush, but Echols was outnumbered and Averell’s shrewd maneuver deprived the Confederates of Droop Mountain’s natural advantages. After two hours of frenetic struggle, the Rebel line broke and fled. Echols organized a rearguard and kept his command from disintegrating through several miles of dogged pursuit by Averell’s troopers. He fled Lewisburg the following day, but the pincer movement he feared never materialized--Duffie stopped seven miles from Lewisburg on November 6 so as not to reach the town a day early.
Averell marched into Lewisburg on November 7 as planned. The next day, however, hearing (incorrectly) that Confederate troops were beginning to mass against him, he moved his command to White Sulphur Springs and began the journey northward to Beverly again. Conflict with Duffie, scarcity of supplies, and perhaps career considerations prevented Averell from following up on his victory by achieving his primary objective farther south--the destruction of the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad. He would do so on his third and final “Salem Raid” the following month.
Noted Civil War historian Terry Lowry has disputed the long-held claim that Averell’s victory at Droop swept the last Confederate resistance from the state, pointing out larger conditions in the theater of war that may have prevented the Confederate government from investing more time and effort into reclaiming West Virginia. Nevertheless, Rebel troops did not return to the area in force for the duration of the war.
On July 4, 1928, Droop Mountain Battlefield was dedicated as a State Park--West Virginia’s first. A number of the battle’s survivors were present at the dedication, which attracted 10,000 spectators and over 1,000 automobiles. Despite the new 125-acre park’s popularity, little was built there until 1935, when a Civilian Conservation Corps group was encamped nearby and built a number of the interpretive monuments still in use today, though at the cost of many of the monuments erected at the park’s dedication. Recent scholarship and preservation efforts have led to a small museum on the premises and a resurgence of interpretive markers at the site, which holds reenactments of the battle every other year.