Curious motorists traveling the valley of the Little Kanawha River southwest of Parkersburg may or may not stop at historic Burning Springs. A defunct country museum filled with oil-drilling paraphernalia may cause many curious travelers to slow down, but too few stop.
The museum itself is a bit of a mystery. Why is it here? An outpost of the West Virginia Oil and Gas Museum at Parkersburg, it was opened in the 1990s by the late David McKain, who battled to preserve all that he could of the history of the oil industry in West Virginia. Since his death, however, maintaining the site has proved difficult.
But the real mystery is not the museum. It's the history of the ghost town that once stood along the wooded banks of the Little Kanawha.
Here at Burning Springs, the first oil well in North America was drilled. Some historians think it beat Drake's famous well in Pennsylvania in production by a day. It's also the oldest producing oil well in the U.S., though it operates only on special occasions.
As many as 15,000 inhabitants lived here at the outbreak of the Civil War, though by war's end, only a handful of buildings remained, survivors of a hellish conflagration set by Confederate troops.
The "Burning Springs Mystery," as it was called by the late author and historian Louis Reed, an attorney and executive secretary for Senator Chapman Revercomb (1895-1979), concerns the almost-complete lack of information that would regard the destruction of the town and the nature of the fall of its wealthy and eccentric founder, Colonel John Castelli Rathbone.
What follows is a long inquiry into the mystery published by Reed in the 1970s, emended slightly for grammar and context. Because of this story's exceptional length, we're dividing it into three sections.
THE BURNING SPRINGS MYSTERY
Part 1: The mysterious Colonel Rathbone
The Rathbone family has been prominent in the oil industry for five generations — beginning with William Palmer Rathbone, more than a century ago, and ending, for the time being, with Monroe Jackson Rathbone, now chairman of the board of the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey. Nevertheless, the man who was once the most famous Rathbone of them all died in disgrace. His name was Colonel John Castelli Rathbone, and he was cashiered from the Union Army for cowardice—under mysterious circumstances—for surrendering his command to Confederate General Albert Gallatin Jenkins at Spencer on September 2, 1862.
The story of Colonel Rathbone is the story of the Burning Springs oilfield, a story that may yet become one of the best-remembered subjects of the Civil War, simply because Burning Springs was the first military oil objective in the history of warfare. That this story also exonerates Colonel Rathbone and his junior officer, Major George C. Trimble, and raises some embarrassing questions about Major General Jacob D. Cox, Edwin M. Stanton, and others, is merely one of the by-products of twenty-five years of research.
There seems to be no portrait, photograph, nor a valid description of Rathbone anywhere in the United States. People who claim to remember him, and he lived till 1908, say that he was a tall, silent man who was seen occasionally on the streets of Parkersburg going to and from services at the Roman Catholic Church. That was, of course, long after his dismissal from the Army. If he ever made a public speech in his own defense or wrote anything about his experiences for the benefit of posterity, no record has come to light.
John Castelli Rathbone was born at Saddle River, Bergen County, New Jersey, on October 10, 1818, the eldest son of William P. Rathbone and Martha Valleau Rathbone. His father was a retired sea captain who owned a farm in New Jersey and a townhouse in New York City. Sometime between 1835 and 1840, young "Cass" Rathbone, as he was always called, visited his married sister, Juliet Rathbone Van Winkle, at Parkersburg. There, he heard rumor of a collection of burning springs about twenty-five miles up the Little Kanawha River in what was then virtually a wilderness. Those were the day when fortunes could be made by tapping a vein of saltwater and setting up a salt factory, and, in the crude frontier misconception of geology, a burning spring, a place where natural gas bubbles to the surface, was a sure sign that saltwater could be found nearby.
Rathbone visited the site in person, convinced himself, and hurried back to New Jersey. In 1840, his father, old William P. Rathbone, bought the land upon which the springs were located and emigrated, with his family, to what's now Wirt County, West Virginia, and established Burning Springs. In 1842, he and his sons Cass and John drilled a well for saltwater at the springs. The result, in the tradition of those who bore into the bowels of the earth, was a disappointment: they found not saltwater but worthless petroleum.
Old William P. Rathbone then moved to the comparative luxury of Parkersburg, but Cass and John remained at Burning Springs, where they engaged in farming, steamboating, and trading with the mountainous interior. In 1849, John became the first postmaster of Burning Springs. In the course of time, someone learned how to refine petroleum into a product called kerosene, and, all of a sudden, worthless oil holes in Pennsylvania and western Virginia that had been the bane of the salt drillers' lives became valuable properties. Colonel Drake drilled the first well that was ever drilled in the expectation of finding petroleum, rather than in the hope of missing it, at Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1859, and within weeks thereafter feverish activity began at Burning Springs.
To try to capture the personality image of Cass Rathbone at the time—when he was soon to become one of the richest and most fabulous characters in the United States—is extremely difficult. There was something about him that defies analysis. It stands to reason, however, that he must have been a somewhat different personage from the silent, ghostly man who flitted about Parkersburg for nearly half a century after the Civil War ended. He was the eldest son, in charge of the family business. His father had died two years after their arrival. Whatever else may be said of him, he was no fool when it came to turning a dollar. With an established oil well on the premises and a sudden overwhelming demand for kerosene throughout the country, he now proved himself to be one of the most astute businessmen of his generation.
The Rathbone sons—Cass, John, and William—jointly owned 600 acres at Burning Springs. Instead of selling, leasing, or developing the tract personally, Cass divided the estate into one-acre parcels and offered to lease each for a royalty of the production to all takers. The result was the Burning Springs Oil Rush, a social phenomenon that is now forgotten because it was overshadowed almost immediately by the outbreak of the Civil War. People flocked to Burning Springs by the thousands. A town sprang up where there had been a farm only a short time before. Because the oil was but 300 feet below the surface, and operators frequently became millionaires overnight, the town itself became one of the wonders of the South. The operators drilled their wells as closely together as was possible on the one-acre tracts, though Cass Rathbone set aside a few acres for the needs of the growing population. Here, enormous piers and warehouses were built on the riverfront, and office buildings, boarding houses, and hotels lined the streets. One of these hotels, The Chicago House built in 1861, was three stories high, covered an acre of land, and contained suites for family living. It was known far and wide as the most luxurious hotel in Virginia. At the time Fort Sumter was fired on, a military census of Burning Springs showed that the permanent population was slightly above 6,000.
Every barrel of Burning Springs Oil was worth five to nineteen dollars at the wells. Though no production figures are available for 1860, 1861, or 1862, it is known that in the spring of 1863, the normal daily inventory of Burning Springs oil was 300,000 barrels, worth roughly $1,500,000. Of this amount, the Rathbones received at least one-eighth in royalties. Allowing for accidents, sabotage, and over-estimates, Cass Rathbone, during part of the period mentioned, must have had an income of $10,000 a day. Even after the town and the oilfield were destroyed, he received as his share of the estate of his father, for he was one of nine heirs, the sum of $2,160,000.
It is curious that even at the height of the oil rush, when newspapermen and artists foregathered at Burning Springs, there are no verbal descriptions and no artists' sketches of Cass Rathbone. Artists' sketches, made for newspapers and magazines, have been found for many other notables at Burning Springs, including that of brother John V. Rathbone. This reticence on his part—and it must have been reticence or, at least, a distaste for publicity—is one of the enigmatic facets of his character. He was a lone wolf from the beginning, and no one really knew him.
Burning Springs was on Confederate soil in a state that would shortly secede from the Union. The forces that were pushing the nation to the brink of war were intensified there, and rival gangs of bushwhackers armed themselves and spilled blood as soon as Virginia seceded. Cass Rathbone was a Yankee by birth, but he and his family were allied by marriage to the slaveholding planter aristocracy of Virginia. Nevertheless, as soon as hostilities began, he moved quickly, at his own expense, to keep the oilfield in Union hands. He organized a cavalry detachment of forty horses and men under the command of Captain Isaiah Hill and used them as scouts and guides. He bought uniforms and equipment for two companies of home guards to defend the oilfield against roving bands of Confederate bushwhackers known collectively as The Moccasin Rangers. These Home Guards clashed with the Rangers as early as June 1861, and the Rangers left one dead man on the field, a young man named James Monroe Lowther, who may, or may not, have been the first Confederate to lose his life on the soil of what is now West Virginia.
In the meantime, all western Virginia was in turmoil. When Virginia seceded from the Union, delegates from the western counties assembled in convention at Wheeling and set up the Restored Government of Virginia. The Convention elected Francis H. Pierpont as governor, not of West Virginia but of Virginia, and Pierpont continued to serve as Governor of Virginia after West Virginia was admitted to the Union in 1863. In fact, Pierpont occupied the governor's mansion at Richmond from 1865 to 1868. After the first battle of Bull Run, he took steps to ensure a continuing supply of volunteers for the federal government, and that is how and why the fabulous John Castelli Rathbone, who had a private army of his own, became a lieutenant-colonel, and later a colonel, in the Union Army.
It is proper to state that Colonel Rathbone did not seek his commission and that, as a matter of fact, he did not want it. The man who is making $10,000 a day has nothing to gain by becoming an army officer. He was offered the appointment because he already had two infantry companies and a troop of cavalry on his own payroll, and he accepted, according to the testimony of his niece, Mrs. Melvina Lee, because he was assured that the forming regiment would be designated for the sole and specific defense of the Burning Springs oilfield. The new regiment became the Eleventh Virginia Volunteers with Lieutenant Colonel John Castelli Rathbone as its commanding officer.
No sooner had he taken his oath as an officer of the Army of the United States than Colonel Rathbone learned an old lesson: when one has a promise, he ought to have it in writing. The new regiment was not designated for the specific defense of the oilfield but for general purpose and was promptly ordered out of Burning Springs to deal with the depredations of the Moccasin Rangers in adjoining Calhoun and Roane counties.
No useful purpose would be served here by relating the adventures of the regiment as they chased bushwhackers and fought skirmishes up and down the valleys of western Virginia. Rathbone did what he was ordered to do, as a good soldier should, apparently without complaint. He found himself in a most unenviable position, under the command of poorer patriots, as inexperienced militarily as he was himself: he was the only army officer in western Virginia who was a millionaire many times over. He was at odds with his superiors because he insisted that the defense of the oilfield was more important than chasing bushwhackers. This situation is proved by the circumstances that he was unable to obtain arms and clothing for his regiment from his immediate superior, Colonel J.A.J. Lightburn, even though Lightburn had the supplies at Charleston, about fifty miles distant. His problem with Lightburn is highlighted in a telegram sent by a member of the Legislature to the governor on the day of his surrender. On September 2, 1862, with the enemy before him, Rathbone had one complete company without arms or military clothing of any kind, and fully one-third of his regiment was either unarmed or improperly armed. Most of the arms and clothing that the regiment possessed, he had furnished himself.
In the summer of 1862, the Confederates were preparing for their first invasion of the North. As a prelude to that invasion, General Robert F. Lee sent Brigadier General Albert Gallatin Jenkins, with a small cavalry detachment, on a raiding expedition across western Virginia and thereby initiated what is rapidly becoming the greatest unsolved mystery of the Civil War. Jenkins' Raid, though comparatively insignificant because of the size of his force, was nevertheless a remarkable achievement in itself for he rode 500 miles through enemy territory, over and around thousands of soldiers and bushwhackers, invaded Ohio, and ended his expedition with about 300 more men than he had when he started. His report appears in the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, and the most remarkable thing about it is that Jenkins seems not to have realized that he missed the greatest opportunity of his life when he failed to capture one of the world's two oilfields for the Confederacy. He did capture the oilfield garrison, an incident that he disposes of in his report in three sentences as follows:
"After encamping and resting for a few hours after midnight, we again resumed our march, and about 4 p.m., September 2, reached Spencer, surprising and capturing Colonel Rathbone and his entire command, consisting of five companies of infantry [the Eleventh West Virginia]. Here, also, we got some fine arms, which we were compelled to destroy. We remained at this point until the next morning, when, having paroled all of our prisoners, as we had previously done, we moved on to Ripley in Jackson County, a point only 12 miles from the Ohio River."
If Jenkins considered the incident unimportant, he was not supported in his views by the War Department nor by the general public. He had crossed what is now West Virginia and invaded Ohio with only 500 horses and men, weaving his way through and around at least thirteen regiments of homegrown soldiers reinforced by a considerable number of troops from Ohio. He had carried off great numbers of horses and livestock. His exploit shook public confidence in the quality of its Union defenders. The commander of the Department of Western Virginia, Brigadier General Jacob D. Cox, Brigadier General B.F. Kelley, commanding the division, and Colonel J.A.J. Lightburn, commanding the District of Kanawha, were all definitely on the spot. Under the circumstances, a sacrifice to public clamor seems to have been required, and what more fitting scapegoat would be devised than the arrogant colonel of the Eleventh Virginia Volunteers, who, in addition to making himself a nuisance by insisting on the importance of Burning Springs, had suffered the ignominy of facing Jenkins in person and getting himself captured and then paroled?
The story of what happened to Colonel Rathbone and his aide, Major George C. Trimble, is set forth in the Official Records, or rather, that part of the story that the War Department wanted to be published is set forth there. A court of inquiry was convened in December 1862. Rathbone, who in the meantime had become commanding officer of a paroled prisoner-of-war camp, was given ten days' leave to attend the hearing. Major Trimble seems not to have been called to testify. The court took some testimony from unknown witnesses but made no findings whatever on the facts.
Then something happened that would be absolutely incredible today. Upon the recommendation of General Cox, the Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton without a court-martial or specification of charges, ostensibly on the orders of President Lincoln, dismissed Rathbone and Trimble from the service of the United States for cowardly conduct. The date of dismissal was January 6, 1863.
Part II: The Destruction of Burning Springs
The dismissal of these officers, however, did not end the story of Burning Springs. Throughout the first two years of the war, the oilfield continued to bring in gushers and dry holes and to make millionaires and bankrupts, according to the whims of fortune. The demand for oil was insatiable. The Federal Government, in 1863, issued kerosene lanterns to its soldiers in the field. Nevertheless, it seems to have taken the Confederate leaders more than two years to recognize a fact that should have been obvious at the beginning—that a producing oilfield, with a normal inventory of one-and-one-half-million dollars a day, in Union hands, in its own backyard, was a strategic military objective.
In the spring of 1863, just before the Battle of Chancellorsville, General Robert E. Lee sent Brigadier General William E. Jones with about 2,100 cavalrymen on an expedition into western Virginia with orders to destroy Burning Springs. That mission was accomplished on May 19, 1863, as is shown by General Jones' report to General Lee, published in the Official Records, as follows:
"From here we moved on Oiltown, where we arrived on May 9. The wells are owned mainly by Southern men, now driven from their homes, and their property is appropriated either by the Federal Government or Northern men. This oil is used extensively as a lubricator of machinery and for illumination. All the oil, the tanks, and barrels, engines for pumping, engine houses, and wagons—in a word everything used for raising, holding, or sending it—off was burned. The smoke is very dense and jet black. The boats, filled with oil in bulk, burst with a report almost equaling artillery and spread the burning fluid over the river. Before night, huge columns of ebon smoke marked the meanderings of the stream as far as the eye could reach. By dark, the oil from the tanks on the burning creek had reached the river, and the whole stream became a sheet of fire. A burning river, carrying destruction to our merciless enemy, was a scene of magnificence that might well carry joy to every patriotic heart. Men of experience estimated the oil destroyed at least 150,000 barrels. It will be many months before a large supply can be had from this source, as it can only be boated down the Little Kanawha when the waters are high."
There are four curious features of this report:
1. Jones does not report the destruction of the town itself with its attendant sawmills, stave mills, barrel factories, mercantile establishments, business houses, hotels, amusement places, and private dwellings. Persons who lived there estimated the permanent population of Burning Springs in 1863 at between ten thousand and fifteen thousand.
2. The operators at Burnings Springs totted up the oil destruction at 300,000 barrels instead of 150,000 barrels.
3. There was not then, nor is there now, any place on the Little Kanawha River called Oiltown.
4. There was no report of the destruction of the oilfield or the town in the press at the time, nor has a federal report on Burning Springs been found in the Archives of the United States to this day. In fact, there is no mention of Burning Springs anywhere in all the voluminous documents on the Civil War except the report of General Jones quoted above, and the American public does not yet know that the Confederates destroyed one of the world's two oilfields in 1863.
That Burning Springs and Oiltown were the same place cannot be questioned. There was but one oilfield on the Little Kanawha River at that time. The marks of the great fire on the river were plainly visible for fifty years after the war ended and have been seen by thousands of people still alive. Until recent times there were numerous eyewitnesses. The last known eyewitness died in 1949. Statements concerning the destruction of Burning Springs from some of these eyewitnesses furnish the other side of the story.
During the year 1862, the Congress of the United States passed a law severing the western counties of Virginia from the eastern counties and ordered that a vote should be taken upon a constitution for the new state at a special election. The election was held on March 27, 1863, during which voters adopted a constitution, which provided, among other things, for the gradual abolition of slavery. The date of the admission of the new state to the union was set by law on June 20, 1863, and, immediately after the election, a convention was called at Parkersburg for the purpose of choosing the new state officers and members of Congress.
Because the new State of West Virginia was news of the highest order, the proceedings of the convention at Parkersburg were attended by members of the press and duly published in the newspapers of the North and, to a lesser extent, the South. There was a telegraph office at Parkersburg to facilitate the work of reporters and to advise the War Department in Washington of the movement of the Rebels. The beginning of the advance of Jones' Cavalry was duly reported to the War Department, and in the press, but the only hint of the destruction of Burning Springs appears to have been a one-paragraph story in a dispatch from New York stating that raiders had burned the oil well on the Little Kanawha River as if there were only one well instead of hundreds. There is not a word about one-and-one-half million dollars worth of oil, forty-million dollars worth of equipment, and a whole town bigger than Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, burned to the ground.
Eyewitnesses recalled that May 9, 1863, one day before Stonewall Jackson died, was a clear, sunshiny day. With the news that the Confederates were heading west from Clarksburg, all activity in the oilfield halted. Word came that gunboats offering protection were at Parkersburg, and all the steamboats at the piers and in the river headed downstream loaded with refugees. The boats that General Jones wrote about were not steamboats but barges loaded with wooden oil barrels. There were not enough steamers for all those who demanded passage, and many of the stay-behinds took shelter in the forest. Among those departing were the officers and personnel of the Eleventh Virginia Volunteers, now commanded by Colonel Daniel Frost, the very regiment that had been raised originally for the defense of Burning Springs. When Jones' cavalry came, the town and the oilfield looked deserted. The soldiers, warning that the place would be burned, galloped in all directions, shouting for the civilian population to congregate in the streets. Soon several hundred civilians were rounded up, and these were herded upriver to the safety of the woods in which many of the inhabitants were hiding. Then the town was looted and set afire. The most terrifying part of the experience, according to one eyewitness, was the explosions on the waterfront. When the barges began to explode, flaming oil was sprayed over the countryside, even on the trees under which the inhabitants were hiding. Had the forest been bare, had the trees not been green, every living thing there would have perished. As it was, every building, every tank, every drilling rig, and every piece of equipment in Burning Springs were consumed. The soldiers were so terrified of their own handiwork that they retreated upriver as fast as their horses would carry them.
General Jones and all the survivors of Burning Springs attest that not a single Union soldier was there to defend it. Legend has it the soldiers were ordered downriver before the attack, and it is a fact supported by the muster rolls of the Eleventh Virginia Volunteers, now in the Archives of the United States, that the regiment was at Parkersburg on May 9, 1863. This is one of the curious aspects of the case, which, together with other recent discoveries to be referred to hereafter, make Burning Springs one of the great unsolved mysteries of the war.
Other witnesses have described the scenes at Parkersburg on that day. There, everything was in the wildest confusion because the word was that Jones was coming to capture the delegates to the Convention. The town was so filled with soldiers, sailors, and refugees from the oilfield that many persons were compelled to sleep in the open air. On the evening of May 9, 1863, the sky to the south was lighted by a great fire, and word came that the whole river was aflame. It was feared for a time that the burning river would engulf Parkersburg itself, though, as a matter of fact, the fire burned out near Elizabeth, about eight miles downriver from Burning Springs. That such scenes at Parkersburg should have been witnessed by the delegates to the Convention, the representatives of the press, the inhabitants of Parkersburg, and the larger part of the population of the oilfield without a word about them appearing in the newspapers—except some references which appeared in local newspapers—is one of the profound mysteries of the war. One is tempted to ask, where were the reporters, but that question is unfair because the army controlled the telegraph and reporters were compelled either to keep in the good graces of army commanders or to face expulsion.
The mystery, therefore, lies not with the correspondents but with the military authorities. Was the news suppressed? Certainly, the whole affair was a burlesque on military operations, and there were abundant reasons for secrecy and suppression. If the news was suppressed, the reasons for the suppression must have stemmed back to the very top of the government. In contrast to the stern and unrelenting attitude of the War Department toward Rathbone and Trimble, no army officer was ever called to account for the loss of Burning Springs. In fact, so far as the federal records go, Burning Springs was not lost. The wonder would be not that the story was suppressed, but that the suppression was so inordinately successful and permanent.
The destruction of Burning Springs now creates a dilemma for historians. The Archivist of the United States states that there are no federal reports in the archives on the destruction of the oilfield; the only official account is General Jones' report of the burning of Oiltown. At least two historical novels have been written about Burning Springs. One was turned down by a publisher on the ground that a novel about Burning Springs is not a historical novel, because there is no official record that the Burning Springs Oilfield was ever destroyed. The other novel, called "Full of Thy Riches," by Elizabeth and Margaret Ferrell, was published, perhaps privately, in 1944. If it was not for the Pierpont papers, now in the Library of West Virginia University, the service records of Rathbone, Trimble, Frost, and other members of the Eleventh, and the considerable body of published recollections of eyewitnesses, Rathbone and the oilfield would be as legendary today as King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
Was the story deliberately suppressed? Some historians point out that on May 9, 1863, and for days thereafter, the newspapers were filled with the aftermath of the Battle of Chancellorsville and the wounding and death of Stonewall Jackson. Jackson died on May 10, 1863. They argue that Burning Springs was simply not the big news of the day, and they have a point. However, the failure of the press to record the event does not explain the disappearance from the records of the War Department of any federal report at any time either to Burning Springs or Oiltown. The official report of Major Alonzo W. Adams, commanding the First New York Cavalry at Moorefield, describes the beginning of the raid, but thereafter all federal reports, either published or unpublished, are missing. Furthermore, both Rathbone and Trimble were officially exonerated after the war, though Trimble had to wait for his exoneration until after the death of Secretary of War Stanton in 1869.
Part III: Peeling the Onion
Burning Springs is the town and the oilfield that Rathbone saved for the Union by recruiting his own little army. It is the town and the oilfield that brought on the friction between him and his superiors because he insisted that Burning Springs was the most important place to the Union in western Virginia and ought to be defended at all costs. Burning Springs was, in sober truth, the most important industrial complex destroyed by the Confederates in the course of the war, but that circumstance did not help Rathbone with the War Department. His dismissal stood even after the place was destroyed. For nearly a hundred years, the dismissals of Colonel Rathbone and Major Trimble for cowardice have gone unchallenged. Legend and local histories have invariable depicted Rathbone as a coward and villain. What is the explanation of all this? Why did not Rathbone himself make some attempt to set the record straight? Was some deep, dark secret buried at Burning Springs?
Is Burning Springs the key to Robert Lincoln's oft-quoted assertion that he destroyed some of his father's papers because they contained proof of treason on the part of a member of the Lincoln cabinet? No one knows. The suspicion that something was out of kilter remains, though years of research have failed to uncover what it was.
The suspicious circumstances may be summed up by the following questions and answers:
Did Colonel Rathbone save Burning Springs for the Union by raising a private army of his own? He certainly did. Many years after the war, the federal government recognized its obligation and paid the amounts claimed by him.
Was Colonel Rathbone promised that the regiment he was to command would be designated for the specific defense of Burning Springs? This has not been proved by documents. Members of his family insisted that he was given such a promise, and pointed out that another regiment raised at the same time, the Sixth Virginia Volunteers, was designated for the specific purpose of defending the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.
Did Rathbone's superior officers fail to send him arms and clothing, even though they had them in stock? Yes. On August 22, 1862, only two weeks before the surrender at Spencer, his immediate superior telegraphed Governor Pierpont as follows: "I respectfully request that the headquarters of the Thirteenth Regiment be at Charleston to enable me to use the Fourth in front. I can clothe and arm the regiment any time it reports for duty. J. A. J. Lightburn—Gauley, Virginia."
Were some of Rathbone's soldiers at Spencer without arms and clothing? Yes. On September 2, 1862, the day of the surrender, a member of the Legislature of the Restored Government of Virginia telegraphed Pierpont as follows: "A company recruited in Wirt County by Captain Hill and Stoddard was at Spencer awaiting arms and clothing. A large number of them escaped unparoled. They desire you to arm them immediately and place them under the command of Captain Hill. Please answer immediately. J. A. Williamson—Parkersburg, Virginia."
Was Rathbone arrested after the surrender? No. He was sent to a paroled prisoner-of-war camp at Camp Chase, Ohio, and then made commanding officer of Camp Lew Wallace in Columbus. A court of inquiry was convened more than two months after the surrender.
Was Rahtbone ever court-martialed? No, and the following statement to that effect was authored on December 6, 1960, by Wayne C. Grover, Archivist of the United States: "It appears from the records that Colonel J. C. Rathbone and Major George C. Trimble were never court-martialed. A court of inquiry investigated the facts of the case and the two officers were dismissed by order of the President. The proceedings of the court of inquiry have not been found."
Did Abraham Lincoln order his dismissal? No. At least not in writing. The volume called Lincoln Indorsements, supposed to contain copies of all the papers that Abraham Lincoln signed as President, does not mention either Rathbone or Trimble.
What happened to General Cox and Colonel Lightburn after Rathbone was dismissed from the service? Both were promoted—Cox to Major General and Lightburn to Brigadier General.
Did any of the principal participants ever make an explanation of what really happened at Burning Springs? No. Not even Rathbone or Trimble. General Cox wrote and published a two-volume Reminiscences of the War in which he failed to mention either the surrender at Spencer or the destruction of Burning Springs. No federal reports have ever been found about the climax of Jones' Raid at Burning Springs, and the record of the court of inquiry into the surrender at Spencer was not found at the time the official records were compiled.
Was Rathbone ever exonerated officially'? Yes. President Andrew Johnson, without explanation, revoked his dismissal on May 18, 1866.
How could such things happen in a civilized country and not come to light for nearly a hundred years? That is, indeed, the question. To date, there is no satisfactory answer.
What about Major Trimble? His story is even more tragic than Rathbone's. Here is a man who may yet become the symbol in the reverse of the man without a country. His life is properly another story.
What finally happened to Colonel Rathbone? His life story is as strange and complicated as everything else in this twisted, mysterious case. Seldom has a man risen so high and fallen so low in such a short period of time. The year 1862 was the turning point in his life. Less than a month after the surrender at Spencer, his father, William P. Rathbone, died at Parkersburg. Colonel Rathbone had a large family, nearly all of whom died in infancy or adolescence. When General Jones burned the oilfield, Colonel Rathbone took the largest financial loss of all the operators at Burning Springs.
The dismissal of a high-ranking army officer for cowardice in wartime is a disgrace that is never lived down, especially when one continues to live amidst the enmities and hatreds born of bloody civil war. The picture of Colonel Rathbone that has survived is that of a broken old man who was scorned by his neighbors and pointed out to children on the street as the man who had been branded publicly as a coward. He had no intimates or friends.
In the course of time, control of the Rathbone destiny slipped from his faltering grasp, and he lost nearly all his money. In his old age, he moved to Kansas, where he died in his ninetieth year, a once fabulous character, who had been disgraced and forgotten. His body was shipped back to Parkersburg, where he was buried in the 14th Street Catholic Cemetery. His father and mother and his brother and sisters, insofar as their graves have been found, are buried in Protestant cemeteries.
Editor's Note: There are, or were, several burning springs in West Virginia—springs on which oil or gas might burn when lit. Another Burning Springs community is located near Malden, West Virginia. Burning springs were also noted on Madams Creek in Summers County and in Beckley in Raleigh County near Wildwood, the restored home of city founder Alfred Beckley.
Sign up to receive a FREE copy of West Virginia Explorer Magazine in your email weekly. Sign me up!