McNeill’s Rangers

This entry is part 2 of 12 in the series The Partisan Rangers
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John Hanson McNeillEvery independent military force during the Civil War was founded and commanded by a strong leader. McNeill’s Rangers were no exception. Commissioned under the Partisan Ranger Act (1862) by the Confederate Congress, it was commanded by Captain John Hanson McNeill of western Virginia.

McNeill was born near Moorefield, Virginia (now West Virginia). In 1848, he moved with his wife and four children to Boone County, Missouri where he operated a cattle business. 

In 1861, he formed and was named commander of a company in the Missouri State Guard, seeing action in BoonvilleCarthageWilson’s Creek, and Lexington. Although captured and imprisoned in St. Louis, he escaped on June 15, 1862, and made his way back to Virginia.

Making his way to Richmond, he asked for permission to form an independent unit that would operate in the western counties of Virginia in order to disrupt Union activities in the area. There was a virtual civil war within a civil war in this area, very similar to the fighting that was taking place in northern Virginia.

McNeill was granted permission on September 5, 1862 and was given command of Company E of the 18th Virginia Cavalry. The unit grew to a 210-man battalion when First Virginia Partisan Rangers (62nd Virginia Mounted Infantry) came under McNeill’s command.

Although McNeill’s Rangers exercised military discipline during their operations, many Union commanders considered them no better than bushwhackers,” not entitled to protection when captured, as was the case with other prisoners of war.

McNeill’s frequent raids on Piedmont, a town in Hampshire (now Mineral) County, West Virginia— and on Cumberland, Maryland — were aimed at disrupting the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad service. It is estimated that over 25,000 troops were diverted by Federal commanders to guard the B&O against McNeill’s force.

Piedmont, a small town at the foot of the Allegheny Mountains, was a frequent target due to its important machine shops and vast stores of railroad supplies. The main line of the B&O passed through a narrow valley at Piedmont. At the time, Piedmont was also the temporary seat of Hampshire County — Romney having been given up as the county seat because of repeated Confederate raids.

McNeill conducted a number of raids against the B&O Railroad before the successful Jones-Imboden Raid that took place in late April and early May 1863. McNeill proposed the plan for the raid. His plan was the destruction of an important bridge of the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad, which was vital to the Union supply lines through western Virginia.

McNeill’s idea was expanded into a two-prong attack. Gen. Jones was to attack the B&O between Grafton (West) Virginia and OaklandMaryland. Gen. Imboden would attack Union garrisons at BeverlyPhilippi, and Buckhannon. The object of the raid was to secure supplies, disrupt the B&O Railroad, raise recruits and, if possible, cripple the Unionist government in Wheeling.

The raid was extremely successful with a total of 7,000 troops tying down some 45,000 Union troops. In the final tally of the raid, it was estimated that about 30 of the enemy were killed and 700 prisoners taken. Some 400 new recruits were added, as well as a piece of artillery, 1,000 head of cattle, and some 1,200 horses. Sixteen bridges had been destroyed, an oil field, many boats and rolling rail stock.

Also in 1863, McNeill’s Rangers attacked Piedmont and caused great destruction to the railroad yards there.

The President of the B&O, John W. Garrett, reported on to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton that “the extensive machine and carpenter shops of Piedmont have been burned. The engine and cars of the east-bound main train and two-tonnage trains have also been destroyed. Five other engines damaged. … The heat of the fire at the wreck of the trains at Bloomington had been too intense to permit much work, but during the night we expect to have the entire road again clear and train running regularly.”

Captain McNeill’s official report to James A. Seddon, the Confederate Secretary of War, reads:” …We burned some seven large buildings filled with the finest machinery, engines, and railroad cars; burned nine railroad engines, some seventy-five or eighty burthern cars, two trains of cars heavily laden with commissary stores, and sent six engines with full head of steam toward New Creek. Captured the mail and mail train and 104 prisoners on the train. …”

McNeill’s Rangers continued their operations into 1864 not only conducting raids against Union Army facilities but also against pro-Union irregulars in West Virginia. Northern Pendleton County, in particular, was pro-Union and organized the “Pendleton Home Guards” which frequently confronted the roving Confederate bands.

John McNeill’s final action took place on October 3, 1864 when his unit attacked a detachment of the 8th Ohio Cavalry Regiment guarding a bridge at Meems Bottom near Mount Jackson, Virginia. Although it was a victory for his forces, he was severely wounded in the predawn raid. He was taken first to the Reverend Anders Rude home nearby, then moved to Hill’s Hotel in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

He died there on November 10, 1864. He was first buried in Harrisonburg with full Military and Masonic honors. Several months later his Rangers returned his body to Hardy County for reinterment. He is buried in Olivet Cemetery in Moorefield, West Virginia, next to the Monument to Confederate Dead, surrounded by the graves of other Confederate soldiers.

McNeill’s son, Jesse Cunningham McNeill, took over command of the Rangers and continued the fight. On February 22, 1865, Jesse McNeill and 65 Rangers travelled 60 miles behind enemy lines to Cumberland, Maryland. Without being detected, they captured both Union Major GeneralGeorge Crook and Brig. Gen. Benjamin Kelley from their beds. They evaded pursuing Federal cavalry and delivered the captured generals to Lieutenant General Jubal A. Early who forwarded the prisoners to Richmond.

 

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