The Skirmish at Matheny Chapel
The Matheny Methodist Church now stands where a skirmish between Confederate and Union forces met in the Spring of 1862. While this skirmish did not influence or change the tide of the war, it did give nomenclature to the region and heightened the notoriety of the area due to the significant figures who participated in the skirmish. It also helped to shape the landscape of the region, and as one story teller would have it, gave rise to a popular folklore legend where the cries of a wounded Union soldier can still be heard to this day.
Backstory and Context
In the early setting of 1862, Union companies H and I of the Thirty-seventh Ohio Infantry under Lieutenant Gustav A. Wintzer left Oceana in Wyoming County bound for McDowell's farm to confront Confederate forces. The confrontation left one Union soldier dead with Wintzer and his company captured. Captain Charles Messner heard the news and left Wyoming County Courthouse (in Oceana) with 2 companies, and within a mile and a half, met Confederate forces. One company, led by Charles Stewart, met the Confederate forces at a hill in Matheny Chapel, that overlooks the present day Matheny Methodist Church (Graham, p. 108). The Confederate forces were a faction of "The Logan Wildcats", a division of Confederate soldiers organized and led by William "Devil Anse" Hatfield. Whether Devil Anse directly participated in this skirmish is unclear, however the Logan Wildcats were a smaller force and Devil Anse has been recorded throughout history to frequent Wyoming County several times.
At the start of the skirmish, Charles Stewart of the Union Home Guard quickly realized he was outnumbered and began to retreat across the Laurel Fork Stream to the heavily wooded hillside (Blankenship, p. 158). The Logan Wildcats gave heavy pursuit, largely in part due to one Union soldier in particular, W. H. H. Cooke, aka "Little Harry". W. H. H. Cooke was a former Confederate soldier of the 22nd Virginia Regiment who had turned his allegiance to the Union. "Perhaps some of the Confederates (the Logan Wildcats) longed to lay claim to the honor of killing Cooke because he was a 'turn coat'" (Blankenship, p. 158). As Cooke and the rest of his company were retreating, Cooke was shot through his haversack, but the bullet was lodged in a book that Cooke was reading in his spare time called Comstock's Natural Philosophy.
As the Union soldiers retreated, another group of the Logan Wildcats encircled the hill hoping to flank the Union soldiers. The Logan group came upon a three men, Squire George W. Stewart, Charles P. Stewart and William C. Wills, who were simply playing cards near their home in the woods. When the three men heard the commotion, they began to investigate the action and ran into the Logan group. As they began to flee from the Logan group, Wills was shot in the foot and fell. Both Stewart men ran along Bear Branch and spent the night under a cliff. The following day, the Stewart men returned to search for Wills, but found him dead from a second gun shot wound to the body. "To this day, the scene of Wills' murder is called Wills Hollow" (Bowman, p. 119).
According to Wyoming County Circuit Clerk, local historian and story teller, David "Bugs" Stover, "Many folks believed that the ghost of William Wills can still be heard late at night echoing throughout the midnight air saying 'Will, poor will'. But others believe the folklore is explained by the many whippoorwill singing their songs as they fly at night". Whether the legend is true or can be explained by the naturally occurring aviary of the area, the skirmish at Matheny Chapel has given notoriety to a small rural town in southern West Virginia.
Blankenship, Paul R.. From Cabins to Coal Mines: A Bicentennial History of Oceana, West Virginia, and Surrounding Areas. Edition 1. Volume 1. Beckley, West Virginia. Central Printing, 1999.
Bowman, Mary Keller. Reference Book of Wyoming County History. McClain Printing Company, 1965.
Graham, Michael B. On This Day in West Virginia Civil War History. The History Press, 2015.