During May of 1862, General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was successfully conducting the Shenandoah Valley Campaign for the Confederacy while Confederate Brigadier General Henry Heth was defending Lewisburg in western Virginia.
Having marched east past Lewisburg earlier to the banks of the Jackson River in search of enemy forces, Col. George R. Crook had not encountered any Confederate forces to engage, but when he received news that Gen. Heth was occupying Lewisburg, Col. Crook, who had earned the nickname, “The Grey Fox,” ordered his men to retrace their footsteps.
Awakened by the early morning sounds of cannons firing on May 23, 1862, the townspeople of Lewisburg were quick to realize their town was under siege.
Little did they know what the outcome would be, just that they were depending on Gen. Heth, an 1846 graduate of West Point, to defend them with his force of 2,200 men in gray. Nor could they have known that the Union Army’s Col. Crook, an 1852 graduate of West Point, would win the day by outmaneuvering General Heth, despite Col. Crook’s command of a smaller force, the Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment made up of 1,400 men in blue. The Battle of Lewisburg lasted less than an hour, but 80 soldiers from Heth’s Brigade were slain, 100 wounded, and 170 captured by Col. Crook’s well-trained forces.
Having camped on a hillside and in the fields north and west of Lewisburg along Midland Trail, Col. Crook’s forces had been preparing for breakfast near daybreak when General Heth gave his command to attack the encampment in hopes of gaining an advantage via surprise. However, Col. Crook expertly led his men to repel the assault. He launched a counterattack that included the use of artillery, rifle fire by his infantrymen, and a cavalry charge that proved instrumental in routing General Heth’s forces deployed on the left flank of his center-defensive position in the town.
Historians and military strategists have weighed in on General Heth’s strategic mistakes, noting that rather than deploying his infantrymen behind heavy logs that would have provided much better protection, he opted to deploy them in a wheat field facing the logs that the Union infantrymen quickly reached some 120 feet from where General Heth’s forces were left without adequate cover, rendering intended surprise without protection as a fatal mistake that added to the number of casualties suffered.
The second strategic mistake noted was that in setting up his defense of the town, General Heth ordered his artillery to be moved into the town from the high ground overlooking where Crook’s infantrymen eventually pushed forward and took cover to fire at General Heth’s men, utilizing the logs that could have served as cover for the Confederates had General Heth deployed them there.
Col. Crook’s forces suffered only 13 dead and 57 wounded, but Col. Crook was one of those wounded. Not knowing if General Heth had reserve forces to launch his own counterattack, “The Grey Fox” chose not to pursue General Heth who had retreated toward what is now Caldwell. After the Confederate forces crossed the Greenbrier Bridge over the Greenbrier River, General Heth gave the order to burn the covered bridge to prevent Col. Crook from pursuing had he chosen to do so.
The plume of smoke that day from the burning bridge was visible from Lewisburg where the public buildings were filled with those wounded and those administering first aid, and a log structure that was reportedly serving as a makeshift hospital near Fort Savannah was filled with amputated limbs piled as high as the window sills.
The Battle of Lewisburg was one of the shortest battles of the Civil War, and the loss ended General Heth’s advancement in rank as a Confederate military leader after he retreated south from the burning bridge to Union.
On the other hand, Col. Crook, who had fought Indians in California and Oregon prior to the Civil War, recovered from his wound and engaged the Confederate troops by playing a significant role in the battles of Five Forks, Amelia Springs, Sayler’s Creek and Appomattox Court House.
However, Col. Crook is not best known for the role he played in the Civil War, rather he is best known for his victories in the West during the Indian wars against such opponents as Chief Crazy Horse where “The Grey Fox” was eventually placed in command of the Department of Arizona in 1871 and promoted to the rank of brigadier general. The Indians, out of respect for his leadership, gave “The Grey Fox” his enduring nickname, “Chief Wolf”.
Lewisburg was spared further attacks on the town throughout the war (1861-1865) that resulted in the split of Virginia that formed West Virginia, with the state line being drawn between Greenbrier County and Alleghany County near Crows, Virginia. However, there were several battles fought within a 30-mile radius of the town, two at nearby Tuckwiller Hill, one at Dry Creek, one at White Sulphur Springs, and another at Droop Mountain.
Today Lewisburg, named for General Andrew Lewis who won fame defending the frontier against Chief Cornstalk of the Shawnees, is steeped in battle lore from the French and Indian War (1754-1763) through the Civil War; and it has become a bastion for the fine arts where only one of four Carnegie Halls remains and the Greenbrier Valley Theatre has been designated as The Professional Theatre of West Virginia.