It had been over a month since Union Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan invaded northwestern Virginia, and every week, additional volunteer regiments arrived to reinforce him. It had been over three weeks since Confederate forces fled from Philippi. Their commander, Col. George A. Porterfield, was replaced with Robert E. Lee’s adjutant general, Brig. Gen. Robert S. Garnett. He proceeded to fortify positions at Laurel Hill and Rich Mountain in Barbour and Randolph counties to guard the two main mountain roads leading into the Shenandoah Valley.
As Maj. Gen. McClellan maneuvered his forces into position in front of Laurel Hill and Rich Mountain to confront Garnett, pro-Union delegates in Wheeling declared secession illegal and agreed to form a Restored Government of Virginia to represent the state in Washington, DC. It appointed Francis H. Pierpont governor. Toward the end of June, counties under Union control held elections for new delegates to the Restored Government.
In Randolph and Tucker counties, Dr. Solomon Parsons, a delegate to the Wheeling Convention, was the only candidate.
The 2nd Rockbridge Dragoons, led by Capt. John R. McNutt and Lt. Robert McChesney, were camped with Brig. Gen. Garnett at Laurel Hill. On the night of Friday, June 28, 1861, Lt. Robert McChesney and nine picked men rode northeast toward St. George, then seat of Tucker County, along the Cheat River on a scouting mission and to disrupt the election.
Detached companies of the 15th and 16th Ohio Infantry Regiments and the 1st Virginia (Union) were stationed around Rowlesburg guarding the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, 18 miles north of St. George. In early June, Capt. Hiram Miller of Company H, 15th Ohio Infantry Regiment, hauled away a secession flag fluttering over the courthouse in St. George. Now his unit returned to make sure the election went smoothly.
The next morning, Saturday, June 29th, Lt. McChesney and his men, with a handful of local Home Guards, proceeded to St. George, where they found the vote had already taken place. They traveled north along a mountain road following the Cheat River toward the residence of Adam H. Bowman, an attorney, which was being used as a polling place.
Capt. Hiram Miller got word of their approach and prepared an ambush. Company H was concealed on either side of the road and allowed McChesney and his small troop to advance deeper into their trap. McChesney (or someone in his party), however, noticed the soldiers and turned to escape. Shots rang out. Lt. McChesney was mortally wounded, and three of his men were wounded and escaped. It was said Capt. Miller shot the young Confederate officer.
One man from the 15th Ohio, Pvt. Nathan O. Smith, was killed, and one wounded. Smith was the first combat death in his regiment.
Col. James Irvine of the 16th Ohio ended up with Lt. McChesney’s personal effects, which he returned to the lieutenant’s family. He wrote: “I will, therefore, not speak of it further than to say that he bore himself gallantly, and my sympathies were greatly enlisted for him when he fell. What should have been our common country, lost a brave and gallant man.”
In the opening weeks of the American Civil War, even two dead soldiers seemed like a heavy toll, and both fallen men were mourned back home as martyrs for their cause. In the intervening years, however, small events like the Skirmish at Bowman’s Place have largely been forgotten. Even at the time, the skirmish had no bearing on the outcome of that larger campaign, and no after action report was even written about it—at least not one published in the official records.
Fansler, Homer Floyd. History of Tucker County, West Virginia. Parsons: McClain Printing Company, 1962.
Maxwell, Hu. History of Tucker County, West Virginia. Kingwood: Preston Publishing Company, 1884.
Morton, Oren F. A History of Rockbridge County, Virginia. Staunton: The McClure Co., Inc, 1920.