In perhaps the first attack on an oilfield in warfare, Confederate raiders destroyed Burning Springs in the spring of 1863.
Referring to his cavalry brigade’s destruction of petroleum facilities in northwestern Virginia (soon to be West Virginia), the rebel general noted in his report to Gen. Robert E. Lee: “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…”
On May 9, 1863, the booming oilfield community of Burning Springs fell to Confederate raiders led by Gen. William “Grumble” Jones. His Confederate cavalry burned cable-tool drilling tools, production equipment, and thousands of barrels of oil.
The surprise attack along the Kanawha River by Gen. Jones marked the first time an oilfield was targeted in war, “making it the first of many oilfields destroyed in war,” proclaimed oil historian and author David L. McKain in a 1992 book.
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 hear.”
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 an oil museum in downtown Parkersburg. He collected many of the artifacts on display in the former warehouse – and often was seen driving his black truck loaded with rare oilfield equipment.
Almost a century before the Civil War, 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 a comprehensive 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.
Burning an 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: 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 West Virginia Oil and Gas Museum was established thanks to David McKain, who added a small museum at the site of Burning Springs and an oil history park at California (27 miles east of Parkersburg on West Virginia 47). In addition to his Where It All Began, McKain in 2004 published The Civil War and Northwestern Virginia.
Learn more about petroleum’s strategic roles in articles linked at Oil in War.
Recommended Reading: 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 (2004). Where it All Began: The story of the people and places where the oil & gas industry began: West Virginia and southeastern Ohio (1994); . Your Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.
The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2021 Bruce A. Wells.
Citation Information – Article Title: “Confederates attack Oilfield.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL:https://aoghs.org/oil-almanac/confederates-attack-oilfield. Last Updated: May 3, 2021. Original Published Date: May 5, 2013.