This week marks the 150th anniversary of the Battles of Cloyds Mountain and the New River Bridge, significant events in the civil war that took place right in Virginia Tech’s backyard. Included in Special Collections’ vast Civil War and manuscript collections is the diary of John Holliday, a non-commissioned officer in Company C of the 91st Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment who fought in these battles, giving us a unique first person perspective of this campaign. His first diary, with entries from May 1st to August 8th, 1864, has been digitized and is available at Special Collections Online.
Holliday joined the regiment in Spring 1864, and according to his first diary entry, dated May 1st, 1864, he was stationed in Fayetteville, in the newly-formed state of West Virginia. On May 3rd he began to march south through the Appalachian Mountains into confederate Virginia with 6,100 men in the three brigades of the Union Army of West Virginia under the command of General George Crook. Crook’s objective was to destroy the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad, cutting off an important supply line for the Confederate army. The rail depot in Dublin and the bridge across the New River in Radford were his primary targets.
After a week of marching, on May 9 Holliday and the rest of Crook’s forces reached a small gap through Cloyd’s Mountain, Virginia, just 5 miles north of Dublin, where confederate forces under Brig. Gen. Albert Jenkins had set up a defensive line, hoping to catch the Union forces in a choke point. Holliday’s brigade, under the cover of the woods, managed to flank the confederate line on the left and divide their attention in the fight.
Holliday wrote, “advanceing under a heavy fire we arrived at the edge of the woods in front of their works… up the hill amid a Storm of Bullets we went driveing the enemy before us, at this moment a Rebel officer Riding a fine Black horse Rode along their lines waveing his hat in full View of both friend and foe tried to Rally his Broken Regt,, in This he failed many a Rifle was aimed at him but he rode off the field apparantly unharmed… The field was ours but at a heavy Cost not less than five hundred of our little Division was either Killed or wounded during the fight”
The battle, though small and involving relatively few troops, contained some of the most savage fighting and highest percentages of casualties in the entire war. The Union sustained 10% losses, while the Confederates sustained more than 20%. In all, more than 1,200 men lost their lives.
Having defeated the Confederate line, Crook’s troops moved into Dublin and destroyed the railroad depot. After camping for the night, on the morning of May 10 they set out again towards Radford and the New River bridge.
“at ten oclock we arrived within one mile of the Bridge. the roar of artillery in our front showed that the enemy was there and ready to dispute our passage at The Bridge…soon shot and shell went screeching through the air….they kept up a heavy fire cutting off limbs of trees around us. one of these falling wounded Sergt. B Lowman of Co. G. another shell striking near by killed two of the 7th Va Cavalry one of them a mere boy the shell striking him on the Breast tore him almost in atoms… our men fired the Bridge the flames spread Rapidly at this moment the enemy Gave way and three Prolonged cheers arose from our division the enemy was in full Retreat,, once more the day was ours,, each Regt formed above The Bridge and watched it untill the Vast structure went down,, three cheers was then given for Genrl Crook our noble Leader”
The next day (May 11) Holliday traveled to Blacksburg, spending the night at the Preston and Olin Institute, which just eight years later would become the first campus building for Virginia Tech (then known as the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College).
“Broke Camp early marched to Blacksburg a small Town in Montgomery County Containing Several fine houses the largest is the college a large Brick Building here we halted for the night had some Slight skirmishing on entering the Town in which a col of the militia was killed.”
After a night in Blacksburg, on May 12 Crook’s forces began their retreat back into West Virginia, crossing over Mountain Lake. Rain made their crossing a difficult one. “it has been raining all afternoon Cold and wet which makes it tiresome marching.” The considerable mud the troops encountered forced them to abandon many wagons and heavy supplies including some artillery along the roadside just past the Mountain Lake lodge, earning one hilltop the name ‘Minnie Ball Hill’ for all the minnie balls that were dumped there.
In the following months, Holliday and the 91st Ohio would go on to join the Valley Campaign, fighting in the battles of Lexington (June 11), Lynchburg (June 17-18), Winchester (July 20, 23-24) and Martinsburg (July 28), all recorded in detail in his first diary. An interactive online exhibit that traces some of Holliday’s movements across Virginia and West Virginia is available here.