Burning of Sutton

The story of the burning of Sutton, or Suttonville, county seat of Braxton, on December 29, 1861, is familiar to most people who've read the basic history of West Virginia and the Civil War. I had not considered the merits of the story until I was reading Kenneth W. Noe's essay in "The Civil War in Appalachia", called "Exterminating Savages". Mr. Noe writes-

"With the new year came even greater ferocity. On January 1, Crook personally led six companies out of Summersville and 'into the very heart of Africa', as the Marietta [Ohio] Home News later tellingly puts it. The column moved northward towards Sutton, Braxton County's seat, which reportedly had been occupied and burned by Confederates the previous day. The rumor proved to be false, and the next morning Crook returned to camp with two of the companies"

I was not sure what he meant. Was the burning perhaps on another occasion? But, no, this was the December 29 event.

The only official report can be found in "The War of the Rebellion, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies", Volume 5, page 496-

"On the 29th, Suttonville, garrisoned by one company (Rowand's) First Virginia Cavalry, was attacked by 135 rebel guerrillas. The company retreated to Weston, and the guerrillas burned the town and what commissary stores were there".

There is a little more to the report, which I will treat later in this brief essay. John D. Sutton's "History of Braxton County and Central West Virginia", published in 1919, is a rambling mixture of fact and hearsay, with anecdotes of Sutton's burning placed in no real order. He states on page 194 that on Dec. 29 a company under Capt. John S. Sprigg attacked Sutton and routed a company of Roan's (sic) cavalry, and that during Sprigg's absence Capt. Tuning began burning the town. When Sprigg returned the hotel owner John S. Camden appealed to Sprigg to stop the burning, which was done. He states that the hotel had been used as a hospital. Mr. Sutton also says that the town was later attacked by a Charles Rogers and a small squad of men, who were responsible for the burning of the hotel and other buildings. A Charles L. Rogers is listed among Union prisoners from March of 1862 from Braxton County.

On page 192 he relates a story that a young woman named Phoebe Hefner had gone to Sutton to get the aid of Mrs. Humphreys for her sister Elizabeth, who was ill. She and Mrs. Humphreys were prevented from leaving the town that day by a Union officer, and on her return home found that her sister had died. It was said that she sought out the guerrillas and told them of the strength of the Union garrison in Sutton, as she had heard the muster roll and knew the soldiers' disposition, and this prompted the attack on Sutton.

But why was Sutton attacked? Certainly not to avenge Miss Hefner. And not because of the rapacity of rebel forces, as some West Virginia historians seem to infer. No, Sutton was attacked because it had unfortunately become a real military target. Charleston was about 65 miles to the southwest and had been taken by Union forces in October. Troops in Charleston could be supplied by boats loading cargo sent down the Ohio River and then up the Kanawha River, but it could more easily be supplied by the Weston-Gauley Bridge Turnpike, with goods transported from the B&O Railroad in Clarksburg to Weston and sent south along a supply route through garrisoned towns, and Sutton was a garrison town on that route.
Map of Weston-Gauley Bridge Turnpike
Map of Weston-Gauley Bridge Turnpike
Company K of the 1st (West) Virginia Cavalry was stationed in Sutton. Despite the designation of "Virginia", most the the men in the regiment were from Pennsylvania and Ohio. Capt. Thomas W. Rowand, who organized Company K, was from Pennsylvania. He was absent on Dec. 29 and his 2nd Lt. was in charge. Braxton County, as well as most of the counties around it, had supported Virginia's secession from the United States, and most of the citizens of Sutton had relatives in Confederate service, including John Camden, the owner of the hotel, who had 3 sons in the Confederate army.

Most descriptions of the rebel forces depict them as being uniformed, so they were more than just the usual band of local guerrillas. There is uncertainty as to whether or not there had actually been a battle, or just a rout. About 35 Union soldiers were captured and paroled, and the remainder retreated north to Weston, with Capt. Sprigg in pursuit. It was when Capt. Sprigg returned that he found the town in flames and ordered a halt to the burning. Central to most traditional versions of the story is the presence of a Capt. Jack Tuning, or "Chewning", who supposedly started the burning in Capt. Sprigg's absence and attempted to extort money from property owners, in particular Mr. Camden the hotel owner. However, there is no mention of Jack Tuning in any of the contemporary or official accounts of the burning. Jack Tuning had been a Braxton County farmer whose crops and stores had been burned by Union soldiers. He was a well-known figure during the war in central West Virginia, described as large and hearty, with a quick temper. According to J.D. Sutton, a soldier asked who ordered the burning halted and was told "Capt. Tuning". So just who ordered buildings burned, or stopped the burning, seems to be in dispute.

Recorded in the diary of a Union soldier from the 36th OVI, John T. Booth, is written "Colonel Crook and Lt. Col. Clark returned to town, it having come to the Colonel's knowledge that the rebels after burning the Union portion of Sutton decamped, taking to the woods, metaphorically speaking". What is meant here by the "Union portion of Sutton" is not the residences of Unionist citizens, but rather that portion of the town that housed and served the Union garrison. According to W.D. Rollyson, the specious representative in the Wheeling legislature for Braxton County, "The Union people will not suffer much by this outrage as there was but one Union house in the place." So what was burned were the structures giving aid and comfort to the Union forces. There was only one brick structure in Sutton, the court house, so when the hotel was burned it would have been very easy for the fire to spread.

We find mention of the second attack in the West Virginia Legislative Handbook of 1927 "The town was again attacked by Chas. Rodgers [sic] who had but a small squad of soldiers. They burned the Camden hotel and some other buildings. A house stood where the Racket Store now stands, opposite the hotel which had been used as a Federal hospital." I can find no other description of this second attack or who Charles Rogers was. Did the hotel burn in the first attack by Capt. Spriggs, or was it Charles Rogers?

On January 8, 1862, the Wheeling Daily Intelligencer reported the burning in Sutton, and quoted from a letter written in late 1861 from a "W.D.R." who accompanied Rosecrans forces some months before. "We are at the most forbidding village in Western Virginia...Its homely Court House is now a military hospital, and its contemptible jail a fitting receptacle for mischievous rebels. There is a tavern or two in town, and four or five comfortable frame houses, but the ensemble is that of desolation and distress." An article in the Charleston Daily Mail (3/27/38) repeats the story of Phoebe Hefner, and then says "Another version is that the town was burned at the request of the property owners, who were then with the Confederate army. They learned that during their absence the Federal troops were using their homes for the storage of commissary supplies and for stabling their horses. Whatever the cause the destruction was almost complete as only four houses were left standing." If the town consisted of an hotel, tavern, courthouse, and "4 or 5 comfortable frame houses", and yet 4 houses were left standing, it is hard to judge just how much was burned since there didn't seem to be that much to start with. Certainly the hotel and courthouse were burned, and probably several houses.

When the rebel forces left the town the Union soldiers returned and offered to take whatever citizens who wished it to Weston. Mr. & Mrs. Camden, the hotel owners, left for Weston but never returned, some saying they died some time shortly after their departure. Mr. Camden was described in a letter to the Wheeling Daily Intelligencer on January 20, 1862, merely signed "Justice, Weston", "Camden, brother of the judge of that name, and also a secesh, the rebel par excellence of that country, and who above all should have been killed, was not only spared by special interdiction, but was even cared for to such an extent that he was moved to Weston, to preserve his precious life from further danger."

General Milroy and Gen. Rosecrans ordered companies of the 1st (W)VA Cavalry and 3rd (W)VA Infantry to secure Sutton and drive out the rebels. Col. Crook in Nicholas County also left for Sutton with 6 companies of the 36th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. As bad as the burning of Sutton had been, no one had been killed, and what followed was the real tragedy in the burning of Sutton.

The remaining part of the report from the Official Records, Part 5, page 496 goes as follows:

"Colonel Crook, with four companies, went in search of the same gang from Summersville, encountered the flying rascals in Clay and Braxton, killed 6, and chased and scattered them into the mountain towards the Glades.
On the 30th, Colonel Anisansel, with three companies of the First Virginia Cavalry and three of the Third Virginia Infantry, marched to punish the marauders, and pursued them into the Glades in Webster County, killed 22 and burned 26 houses, thus breaking up their nest."

The devil is in the details. On January 7, 1862, Capt. Warren Hollister (Co. D, 36th OVI, Monroe County, OH) reported that "according to positive instructions I was to lay waste and destroy the county. This was an unpleasant but necessary part of the warfare. Consequently, for a distance of 16 miles there not a lot left...forage or habitable building, and as we ascended the mountain I could trace our path for miles by the cloud of black smoke that showed itself in the distance"

Captain William Dunham of the 36th in a letter to his wife wrote "...one instance that was particularly hard, they burned Chapman House, saw no one but a little girl, who said her father was away and had been for some time, had three little brothers-who had run and hid when they heard the yankees coming-the girl had a small child in her arms-but our fellows fired the house and everything on the place that would burn...They took a young man prisoner, sometime before the fight...he stated that there was about 100 men at Chapman's store, and he thought they were the same that had burned Sutton, a day or two before, but protested that he had not been with them, and I believe his statements were correct for had be been one of them, he would not have been there...Well they kept him till they got within a few miles of home, and then in cold blood, barboursly shot him... A. Price then run up and shot him again with the pistol he took from the man he killed in the fighting and thus put an end to his life-the boys described his screams when he was shot first as heart rending-they left him unburied. My God has it come to this?"

At the small hamlet of Gardiner's Store the Ohio soldiers ordered people from their houses. According to the diary of John Booth of the OVI, one woman took to her bed and refused to move, cursing the soldier. He then grabbed a shovel of burning coals and threw it on her. She fled the house, her goods were set outside and the house burned. Booth continues "...all the buildings here about burned, the women supplying a requiem...in loud, bitter and angry shouts and hurrahs for "jeff davis" and the "southern confederacy" [and] calling us by the endearing name of "BRUTE" '. Kenneth Noe says

"The 36th then returned to Summersville,'burning everything that fire would destroy along [the] line of march. Creating a broad path, marked with destruction and ruin, the earmarks of that...war they had...compelled the North to unwillingly engage in.' It was the victims who were to blame."

John Booth recorded in his diary "The wounding of [Sergeant Thomas J.] Stanley was avenged."

"Justice, Weston" in his letter to the Intelligencer wrote-

"The troops rested on the 4th. On the 5th, Col. Anisansel sent out a scouting party, consisting of one hundred cavalry and the same number of infantry, to scout the "Nicholas Glades," in Webster county.

The other parties - those sent to the Glades - were resolved not to be idle. They passed through the country like a basom of destruction, burning houses, killing men, and capturing property. No doubt they killed some arrant scoundrels, and destroyed some hideous dens of iniquity, that had harbored many a bushwhacking rebel. But of course they had no time to determine nice points of ethics or other dry casuistry; and hence they perhaps killed some poor creatures who were running for terror, rather than guilt; and possibly they left squalid, shoeless children, (most of the children in that country are shoeless,) and helpless, innocent women, without shelter for the rest of the winter."
The War of the Rebellion, A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Volume V, Washington, DC, Government Printing Office, 1881, page 496
Sutton, John Davison, History of Braxton County and Central West Virginia, McLain Printing Co., 1967 ed.
Noe, Kenneth W. & Shannon H. Wilson (eds.), The Civil War in Appalachia, Univ. of Tennessee Press, 1997. Prof. Noe's essay "Exterminating Savages", pgs. 104-130
Mollohan, Marie, By The Banks of the Holly: Notes and Letters From the Desk of Bernard Mollohan, iUniverse, 2005
Mollohan, Marie (ed.), Another Day in Lincoln's Army: The Civil War Journals of Sgt. John T. Booth, iUniverse, 2007