In perhaps the first raid on an oilfield in warfare, a regiment of Confederate cavalry in the spring of 1863 attacked the oil town of Burning Springs in what would soon become West Virginia. The rebel raiders destroyed equipment and thousands of barrels of oil.
On May 9, 1863, the Burning Springs oilfield was destroyed by Confederate raiders led by Gen. William “Grumble” Jones. His brigade of Confederate cavalry attacked near the Ohio River in far western Virginia.
This surprise attack along the Kanawha River marked the first time an oilfield was targeted in war, “making it the first of many oilfields destroyed in war,” said David L. McKain, a noted West Virginian petroleum historian and author.
According to McKain, Gen. Jones later reported his rebel troops left burning oil tanks, a “scene of magnificence that might well carry joy to every patriotic heart.”
West Virginia Oil History
“After the Civil War, the industry was revived and over the next fifty years the booms spread over almost all the counties of the state,” explained McKain, who founded and an oil museum in Parkersburg (and was often seen in his black truck searching local valleys for rare oilfield artifacts).
Almost a century earlier, George Washington had acquired 250 acres in the region because it contained oil and natural gas seeps.
“This was in 1771, making the father of our country the first petroleum industry speculator,” noted McKain, author of Where It All Began, a history of the West Virginia petroleum industry.
As early as 1831, natural gas was moved in wooden pipes from wells to be used as a manufacturing heat source by the Kanawha salt manufacturers.
A thriving commercial oil industry grew in Petroleum and California – towns near Parkersburg.
Then in 1861 at Burning Springs, the Rathbone brothers’ spring-pole oil well reached 303 feet – and began producing 100 barrels of oil a day.
“These events truly mark the beginnings of the oil and gas industry in the United States,” said McKain, who died in 2014.
“Drilling and producing of both oil and natural gas continues throughout the state to this day,” added McKain, founder of the Oil and Gas Museum in Parkersburg.
The incredible wealth created by petroleum was key to bringing statehood for West Virginia during the Civil War, he claimed.
“Many of the founders and early politicians were oil men – governor, senator and congressman – who had made their fortunes at Burning Springs in 1860-1861,” McKain explained. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation admitting the state on June 20.
Confederates attack Oilfield
When Confederate Gen. William “Grumble” Jones and 1,300 troopers attacked Burning Springs in the spring of 1863, they destroyed equipment and thousands of barrels of oil.
“The wells are owned mainly by Southern men, now driven from their homes, and their property appropriated either by the Federal Government or Northern men,” said Gen. Jones of his raid on this early oil boom town.
Gen. Jones officially reported to Gen. Robert E. Lee that:
All the oil, the tanks, barrels, engines for pumping, engine-houses, and wagons – in a word, everything used for raising, holding, or sending it off was burned.
Men of experience estimated the oil destroyed at 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.
The Oil and Gas Museum, maintained by volunteers, added a small museum at Burning Springs and a park at California, about 27 miles east of Parkersburg on West Virginia 47.
In addition to Where It All Began, McKain published The Civil War and Northwestern Virginia – The Fascinating Story Of The Economic, Military and Political Events In Northwestern Virginia During the Tumultuous Times Of The Civil War.
The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Support this AOGHS.org energy education website with a contribution today. For membership information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2019 Bruce A. Wells.