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Brigadier General John Imboden

Brigadier General John Imboden

US Civil War

Brigadier General John Imboden was a highly competent Confederate officer and savvy businessman whose contributions to the war are almost always overlooked, if even known. That is regrettable because several aspects of Confederate strategy and Union response can’t be understood without recognizing his cleverness. And in fact, traditional civil war history still presents these battles as if he wasn’t there.  General Imboden made several significant contributions to the war despite no prior military experience. In a letter of 1884, Imboden claimed to have been a participant in a total of “67 encounters with the enemy, battles, affairs, etc., in which the fighting was hard.” He was slightly wounded twice. The major battles included First Bull Run (Manassas), Gettysburg, New Market, and Piedmont. Although he had no prior military experience other than limited militia training, Imboden rose to the rank of brigadier general in the Confederate Army.

It seems interesting that the Confederates had men like Imboden and Forrest and Mosby who had had little prior military experience but who nevertheless made major contributions.

What these men have in common that gave them so much effectiveness was that they had all been born and raised in the area that they defended, and they knew the people and the geography extremely well.

John Imboden was born near Staunton, Virginia, on January 16, 1823, Imboden enrolled at Washington College in Lexington (now Washington & Lee University), but didn’t graduate. He taught school for a while at the Virginia Institute for the Education of the Deaf, Dumb, and Blind in Staunton. Although a competent teacher, he chose to study law and opened a practice in Staunton, where he was twice elected representative to the Virginia legislature. Although he did serve in the state legislature, he was unsuccessful in his bid to be a representative at the Virginia Secession Convention. 

At the outbreak of the war, he was commissioned captain of the Staunton Artillery. Despite no prior military training, he was immediately put into action within 36 hours of Virginia’s secession. His next success after that action was at First Manassas, where he made a crucial contribution. After that, he was a member of an illustrious review board of great importance with an illustrious lieutenant colonel.

john imboden

He took a highly nuanced position in regard to secession that he would have championed at the secession convention.

The policy he advocated was independent secession, and the maintenance of an independent state, which could mediate between the North and South and lead to the formation of a new Union, with local rights more clearly defined.

Imboden’s first military operation occurred on April 19, 1861, less than thirty hours after Virginia’s secession, when he marched the Staunton Artillery into Harpers Ferry to capture the Harpers Ferry armory and arsenal, 

At First Manassas, he found a good position near the Henry House as the Federal attack fell upon the Confederate flank, and became engaged with the famous batteries of Ricketts and Griffin. For half an hour after the Confederate infantry were driven, Imboden’s battery fought alone, finally retiring and taking a new position supported by Stonewall Jackson. He remained in action until the ammunition was exhausted.

He then served on an important investigation. Captain Imboden and two others constituted a board of investigation, which reported in its explanation of the failure to pursue McDowell to Washington that the supply chain (food and transportation) was inadequate.

Imboden spent most of 1862 with Stonewall Jackson in the Valley campaign, not as an artillerist, but as a leader of partisan rangers. Even after Jackson left to assist Lee in the Peninsula and other eastern battles, he remained in the Valley. Then on January 28, 1863, he was promoted to brigadier general and ordered on a crucial raid in northwestern Virginia. 

The Jones-Imboden Raid

In early 1863, realizing that the Unionist western part of Virginia was potentially going to divide itself and seek admission as a separate free state, a plan was hatched to cripple the supply routes to Wheeling The Baltimore and Ohio RR was the prominent transportation and communication line as well. The basic idea was to secure supplies, disrupt the B&O Railroad, raise recruits and, if possible, cripple the Unionist government. The plan called for destruction of at least one B&O bridge between Maryland and Wheeling, and to attack the garrisons along the way. Two separate Confederate cavalry brigades were sent to attack various portions of this line, 

The first, led by a general who exhibited hot-tempered anger and whose speech was marked by profanity, led the first group. They succeeded in burning a few bridges but failed to take the town and the key bridge. Starting more east in Lacey Spring VA, his route took a winding path through western Virginia and Maryland. His failure led to courts martial of his subordinates and ultimately demotion, but it really wasn’t his fault, he had been defeated by a stubborn defense and a stout geography.

The second was led by a mild mannered, genteel general who was assisted by a subordinate whose grandson achieved great success in a later war. Starting in Staunton VA, this group was highly successful in burning bridges and eluding the chasing union army, who were unable to travel on the same roads as the raiders. As General Halleck complained, “The enemy’s raid is variously estimated at from 1,500 to 4,000. You have 45,000 under your command. If you cannot concentrate enough to meet the enemy, it does not argue well for your military dispositions.”

The Jones-Imboden Raid was led by the irascible Brig Gen WE “Grumble” Jones and the politically astute Brig Gen John Imboden.  It is called the Grumble-Imboden Raid. The primary target of the Jones group was the B&O Bridge in Oakland MD. The secondary targets were the Cheat River and Tray Run bridges in Rowlesburg VA. The latter was the site of a full day battle in which fortune lay in the balance. Ultimately the Union force held in large part because the steep hillside and narrow river passageway was easily defended by a group of townspeople assisting the army. Jones burned 9 other bridges and captured 2 trains instead. He went on to capture West Union and Cairo, burned 5 more bridges, and blew up a railroad tunnel.

General Lee declared the Cheat River Bridge to be the primary target and called it “Lincoln’s Lifeline”. Buckhannon VA was the target of the Imboden group, which succeeded because the Union force retreated, being outnumbered. Imboden ultimately captured a 28 wagon supply train. The destruction of oil fields and thousands of cattle in the Kanawha Valley and the destruction of railroad bridges was a success but failed to prevent West Virginia from entering the Union several months later.

The major objective of his mission was too cripple the Unionist government forming in Wheeling, WV. Buckhannon was captured because the Union force retreated, being outnumbered. Imboden ultimately captured a 28-wagon supply train. The destruction of oil fields and thousands of cattle in the Kanawha Valley and the destruction of railroad bridges was a success. But Jones’s mission to destroy the B&O RR bridge in Oakland MD failed and a battle at the Cheat River Bridge also failed.

West Virginia seceded from Virginia to join the US several months later. In the final tally, the confederate s reported that 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. However, a key bridge had not been take, union politicians escaped, and West Virginia was admitted to the Union.

Battle of Williamsport

The pursuit of Gen. Lee's rebel army, July 10, 1863.png
Union soldiers, with heavy guns (30 pounders), marching toward Frederick after the battle at Gettysburg.

Probably General Imboden’s most important contribution to the war was the defense he set up around Williamsport following the Battle of Gettysburg. The defense was so formidable that despite Halleck, Stanton and Lincoln demanding a battle before Lee got away, Meade would not attack a position so strong that he believed it would be akin to Marye’s Heights.

General Lee traditionally receives the credit for this 9 mile defensive line, and indeed he and his engineers developed a fantastic perimeter fronted by rain flooded fields. Lee set up the line with artillery placing any attack in a crossfire. Meade was right, it would have been insane to try.

But often glossed over is that Lee started where Imboden left off.

Lee had not reached the town until a couple of days after an important cavalry attack that Imboden defended against. During the Confederate retreat, Imboden escorted the wagon trains with thousands of wounded soldiers back to Virginia. 

Following the Battle of Gettysburg, the retreating Confederate troops and ambulance train occupied Williamsport. Expecting to cross over the pontoon bridge they had constructed to get to Maryland, Lee had not been informed that a cavalry raid on Jlu4 had destroyed the bridge. Moreover,  there had been many days of rain after the battle, causing the Potomac River to rise. The Confederate Army was therefore trapped by the impassible Potomac. Imboden was assigned to leading the ambulances, subsistence trains and cattle plundered during the campaign back to Virginia, with the active army in the rear as protection. When he arrived in Williamsport, he found the bridge out, the fords impassable, and no way to get over the river.

Arriving at Williamsport, Imboden found the pontoon bridge destroyed, and Federal cavalry attacked the wagon train of wounded. On July 6, 1863, the Potomac River flooding at Williamsport, Maryland, trapped Imboden’s wagon train. He put together a defensive force that included an artillery battery and as many of the wounded who could operate muskets. 

Late in the afternoon of July 6, 1863, Union cavalry under the command of Brigadier General John Buford arrived east of Williamsport, flanking the town. Brigadier General Judson Kilpatrick took a different route that took him down the main road.  At sundown Union Brigadier General George A. Custer and his Michigan “Wolverines” arrived to fight but were quickly withdrawn. 

There were insufficient healthy soldiers around to man the defenses. Imboden asked his wagon drivers to join the fight with walking wounded, and over 600 readily volunteered. This hastily organized force turned back attacks from Union cavalry generals John Buford and Judson Kilpatrick, saving the wagon train. Imboden, with the river at his back, put on a stubborn defense until General Fitz Lee’s cavalry arrived and the Federals were driven off

Imboden fooled the enemy by advancing a line of infantry about 100 yards beyond the crest of the ridge and then slowly pulling the men back out of sight.

On July 6, Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick‘s cavalry division drove two Confederate cavalry brigades through Hagerstown before being forced to retire by the arrival of the rest of Stuart’s command. 

By July 7, Brig. Gen. John D. Imboden stopped Brig. Gen. John Buford‘s Union cavalry from occupying Williamsport and destroying Confederate trains. On July 6, Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick‘s cavalry division drove two Confederate cavalry brigades through Hagerstown before being forced to retire by the arrival of the rest of Stuart’s command. 

On the morning of July 14, Kilpatrick and Buford’s cavalry divisions approached from the north and east respectively. Before allowing Buford to gain a position on the flank and rear, Kilpatrick attacked the rearguard division of Maj. Gen. Henry Heth, taking more than 500 prisoners. Confederate Brig. Gen. J. Johnston Pettigrew was mortally wounded in the fight.

On July 16, Brig. Gen. David McM. Gregg‘s cavalry approached Shepherdstown where the brigades of Brig. Gens. Fitzhugh Lee and John R. Chambliss, supported by Col. Milton J. Ferguson’s brigade, held the Potomac River fords against the Union infantry. Fitzhugh Lee and Chambliss attacked Gregg, who held out against several attacks and sorties, fighting sporadically until nightfall, when he withdrew. Meade chose not to attack Lee in his trenches, believing the position could not be successfully breached.

Return to the Valley

In the Fall of 1863, Lee requested Imboden take charge of an important assignment. Lee noted that Union troops were once again appearing in the Shenandoah Valley. He also knew that Meade was massing his army again near the Rappahannock River.  He asked Imboden to distract a force 7 miles east of Harper’s Ferry by attacking a contingent of Union troops in the Valley.

Meade and Lee were engaged in the Bristoe and Mine Run Campaigns. The Union command recognized the strategic value of the Shenandoah and despite the frequent back and forth of control; they were waiting for the moment when sufficient force could be dedicated for its final denouement. Until then, a foothold at Charles Town kept the Valley bottled up so that Lee couldn’t move that way without their knowing.

The Union general commanding the garrison was advised to return to Harper’s Ferry, but he rejected the idea that the little town he was in was a serious target. Colonel Benjamin L Simpson had only been in service for 17 days before the attack. He was a Baltimore shipbuilder whose military experience had been limited to militia.

Despite being overwhelmed by a cavalry attack and an artillery barrage, compelling the Union army to abandon the town, a last minute event saved his entire command from defeat While the general had to relinquish control of the town for a time, reinforcements did arrive from Harpers Ferry, so that only about 375 men were taken prisoner and the town was not burned. While his raid was successful, it had little overall impact on the fall campaigns, which ended shortly thereafter as the two armies went into winter quarters. For the Union’s part, at considerable loss, they saved Charles Town from being sacked and burned and turned back Imboden’s raid, which if had been allowed to continue may have had a larger strategic impact on the campaign in central Virginia.

Imboden was not with Lee when he surrendered at Appomattox.

After a bout with typhoid in the fall of 1864, Imboden finished his wartime service performing prison duty in Aiken, South Carolina.

After the war, Imboden practiced law in Richmond, Virginia, and then spent his last years in the mining industry in Washington County. He died in Damascus, Georgia in August of 1895, and is buried at Richmond, Virginia in Hollywood Cemetery.

US Civil War

Brigadier General John Imboden

Civil War Historian Dr. Lloyd W Klein

Civil War Historian Dr. Lloyd W Klein Dr. Lloyd W. Klein is Clinical Professor of Medicine in the Cardiology Division of the University of California, San Francisco. In addition, Dr. Klein is an accomplished consultant, author, lecturer and investigator. In addition, with over thirty-five years’ experience and expertise in managing myocardial infarction and tailoring coronary revascularization strategies. 

Moreover, Dr. Klein is a nationally recognized expert in individualizing coronary revascularization strategies. He has published extensively on analyzing operator quality and decision making.

Dr. Klein is also an amateur historian who has read extensively on the Civil War with a particular interest in political and military leadership and their economic ramifications. Furthermore, Dr. Klein has published numerous articles on the Civil War. Moreover, with a special concentration in why decisions were made and the people who made them. Lastly, using his professional experience in appraising leadership, he is especially insightful in evaluating the internal and external motivations which influenced decisions in battle and in the political hall.

Please see Dr. Klein’s Works:

Siege of Vicksburg

The Battle of Shiloh

The Hampton Roads Conference

Sherman’s March To The Sea

Why Did the North Win the Civil War (and, Alternatively, Why Did the South Lose?)

The Atlanta Campaign : The Conundrum of General Joseph E Johnston

The “Lost Order” Of General Lee

What caused the South to start the Civil War?

Was the Reconstruction of the Civil War successful?

Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Greatest Victory

Brigadier General John Imboden