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Project explores West Virginia's role in Civil War

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - This week, 150 years ago, brave men from Union and Confederate forces clashed at a small town in south central Pennsylvania.

But the day after the bloody three-day battle, West Virginia's most decorated unit tracked and captured a supply train and hampered the fleeing Confederates even more.

Steve Cunningham, who works in Charleston Area Medical Center's Quality Improvement Center by day and is an avid historian by night, has studied the Civil War and West Virginia's role extensively.

He and Beth A. White, the executive director of the West Virginia Association for Justice, co-authored a journal piece for Civil War Regiments on the 1st West Virginia Cavalry's role in the war.

"The reason we did this project on some of these guys, I don't think people realize there were West Virginians who participated in some of these big events in U.S. history and made a big impact."  

When the 1st Cavalry was mustered it was part of Loyal Virginia's Union forces, but when West Virginia achieved statehood in June 1863, it became a West Virginia unit. Cunningham said that statehood at that point still was an "iffy-type situation" because no one could guess how the Civil War was going to turn out.

"The outcome of the war would have determined if these statehood guys would be seen as heroes or as traitors," Cunningham said. "If the south would have won that battle and forced some sort of truce or compromise, who knows what sort of things would have come out of that."

Cunningham said Gettysburg was more than a battle and actually had been a campaign. The events leading up to, during and after the battle all were important.

Four Union units from West Virginia participated in the Battle of Gettysburg, including the 1st Cavalry, the 3rd Cavalry, the 7th Infantry and Battery C Light Artillery.

The 1st Cavalry was assigned the defense of Washington in 1862 but that ended on June 24, 1863 and the men began their advance on Gettysburg to face the Confederates, according to Cunningham and White's journal article.

While the Battle of Gettysburg was bloody - more than 7,000 men were killed and 17,000 were wounded - the Union was the victor. After the battle, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's forces were retreating back to safe Confederate territory in Virginia.

The Union knew that and was in hot pursuit.

Maj. Charles Capeheart was a Pennsylvanian who joined the 1st West Virginia Cavalry with his brother, Henry Capeheart, who was the cavalry's surgeon and would later rise to the rank of brevet major general.

Henry Capeheart performed surgery all night long on the regiment's men, but was back in the saddle the next morning, White said.

Charles Capeheart was placed in charge of the regiment after Gettysburg. There was an order to destroy a Confederate supply caravan headed for Hagerstown. Capeheart and his men would be sent to do it, according to the article.

July 4, 1863 was a rainy day and by the time they found the wagon train in Monterrey Gap, Pa., it was dark. They could hear the thunderous sound of hooves beating the road but couldn't see the caravan in the dark and driving rain.

They charged on and captured the eight-mile-long caravan. When all was said and done, they had taken more than 1,300 prisoners, including 200 commissioned officers. It is unclear how many cavalry officers made the attack. Estimates put it between 100 and 400.

Capeheart was awarded the Medal of Honor for his leadership in the raid.

"I'm sure Robert E. Lee's men could have used those supplies," Cunningham said. "They weren't exactly in their home territory."

Cunningham, like others, got interested in Civil War history because he had ancestors involved.

"This stuff happened around here where we live," Cunningham said.

"I can talk about stuff that happened in Charleston or Wheeling and I can drive over there and look at it. I like reading about World War II but it's hard to connect with someplace over in Europe or in the Pacific."

Contact writer Ashley B. Craig at or 304-348-4850.


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