New Clue in Ravenswood Mystery Skirmish

Yesterday, I posted about a mystery skirmish mentioned in Union Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s July 5, 1861 report to Assistant Adjutant-General E. D. Townsend that supposedly took place around present-day Ravenswood, West Virginia along the Ohio River in early July 1861. The engagement is not listed in any source that I am aware of.

He wrote:

“Six companies occupy Wirt County Court-House, where Union men have suffered much. Four companies at Ravenswood repulsed O. J. Wise night before last. I hope that he [is] determined to renew the attempt, as in that case he will have been cut off by a column of twelve hundred men under Colonel Norton, that were to reach Ripley from Letart’s at 2 p. m. yesterday. I shall not be surprised to learn before this letter is close that he is captured.”

McClellan mentions someone named Norton, who is probably Col. Jesse S. Norton of the 21st Ohio Infantry Regiment. When the Civil War broke out, President Abraham Lincoln called for three-month volunteers to help “suppress the rebellion”, and hundreds of young men mustered into the 21st Ohio at Camp Taylor in Cleveland, Ohio.

As military commander of Ohio’s volunteer forces, George B. McClellan sent the 21st Ohio to secure the Ohio River, a major waterway that bordered what was then Virginia (today, West Virginia).

I was under the mistaken assumption that the 1st Kentucky must have been involved in the skirmish at Ravenswood, because that was their area of operation when Union Brig. Gen. Jacob Dolson Cox began his invasion of the Kanawha River Valley. However, the 1st Kentucky didn’t enter Virginia until July 8th.

According to the 21st Ohio’s unit history in The Union Army: A History of Military Affairs in the Loyal States 1861-65, Vol. II (1908):

“On May 23, the regiment moved to Gallipolis, stopping at Columbus for arms and accouterments. It remained in camp until July 3, when it was ordered to Ravenswood, W. Va., by Gen. McClellan, to reinforce other troops there, expecting an attack from O. J. Wise, whose forces were at Ripley. It made a forced march to Ripley, surprised and drove the Confederates away, and then returned to Gallipolis by steamer. On July 11, it became part of Gen. Cox’s brigade and marched to Red House…”

So here we have confirmation that not only was the 21st Ohio in Ravenswood around July 3-4, but that it was “expecting an attack from O.J. Wise.” This was Capt. Obadiah Jennings Wise (1831-1862), commander of an infantry company called the Richmond Light Infantry Blues.

Here’s where things get interesting. In his report, McClellan claimed four companies (presumably from the 21st Ohio) “repulsed” O.J. Wise at Ravenswood, implying Wise had attacked the units but then withdrew. The unit history claims an attack by Wise was only “expected,” but that the 21st Ohio marched to Ripley and “surprised and drove the Confederates away.” Implying a brief engagement happened at Ripley.

The regimental history at Ohio History Central says it more explicitly:

“After reaching Ravenswood, the 21st and other Union forces advanced to Ripley, Virginia (modern-day West Virginia) and attacked Confederates under the command of O. Jennings Wise. The Northerners routed the Southerners in this engagement. The 21st then boarded steamships and returned to Gallipolis.”

McClellan contradicts this version of events. In a July 6th telegram, he said:

“A well-concerted movement to catch O. J. Wise, with his eight hundred men, at Ripley, on the 4th, failed in consequence of the rapidity with which the rebels fled at the first notice of the approach of danger.”

Although it’s certainly possible McClellan was mistaken, primary sources tell us that Capt. O.J. Wise’s company attacked elements of the 21st Ohio at Ravenswood on July 3, 1861, was repulsed, and then the 21st Ohio pursued Wise to Ripley the next day. Most likely outnumbered, Wise’s unit fled south.

We still don’t know how severe the engagement at Raveswood was, or whether anyone was killed, wounded, or captured. But this information, so far, seems to indicate some type of combat between these two units took place.

If you have or find any information about this skirmish or the units involved, please leave a comment below!

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