In Chapter Twenty-One of Panther Mountain: Caroline’s Story, Frank Backus takes his wife Caroline and children Adam Clark and Lucy to Caroline’s parents’ home before leaving to join up with his Union home guard unit.
Home guards were formed in Virginia during colonial times. The early militia units became known by other names during the Civil War.
“While most secessionists joined regular Confederate regiments, many Union men stayed with the county militia regiments, which were then dubbed “Home Guards” or “Scouts”. These men were looked down upon by soldiers in regular army regiments but were useful in guarding rail lines and as local forces fighting Confederate guerillas.”
A letter found in the West Virginia State Archives gives insight into the needs of one such Scout company. William H. Powell, a Wheeling native who was in 1864 Colonel of the Third Brigade, West Virginia Volunteer Cavalry writes to West Virginia Governor Arthur Boreman to ask for 50 Nicholas County militia men to be recognized as either state troops or as serving the U.S. Government. The request underscores the weight that such an association would carry for this band of Union scouts. It appears that they would be taken more seriously by Confederate guerillas if they were officially identified as representing state or country. As it was, Captain Isaac Brown’s Nicholas County Scouts were considered by Rebel factions to be nothing more than “Union bushwhackers.”
The man who informed Captain Powell of the need for this designation was my great-great-grandfather Benjamin Franklin Backhouse (name changed later to Backus).
Here is text of the entire letter:
Headquarters 3rd Brigade Cavalry 3d, Div Dept W.Va.
Charleston, W.Va. Mar 28, 1864
Gov., W.Va., Wheeling, W.Va.
I received a visit this evening from Mr. B.F. Backhouse of Nicholas County informing me of an organization in that county of state troops organized by Mr. Isaac Brown of said county-formerly a member of Capt. J.R. Ramsey’s Home Guard Co. on the 3d inst of 30 men strong which number can be increased to 50 in a very short time if the organization will be recognized by the commissioning of said Brown as capt. of said company and B.F. Backhouse as 1st Lt. and Henry Hendricksen as 2d Lt. This organization is well known to the rebel troops who have for so long a time been allowed to prowl about through that section of country and are regarded by them as Union Bushwhackers. The fact that a want of sufficient protection to the citizens of that section of county, the operations of the enemy render it absolutely necessary that these men should remain at home for the protection of their families and homes. And if so, it is very important and indeed absolutely necessary that while these men are thus engaged in protecting their own homes and those of others in the valley, and whilst their former operations in this particular compels them to keep up such an organization for their own individual personal safety, justice to them demands, if possible, that they should be so organized as to secure to them the protection of the Government against the treatment they would be subjected to unless recognized either as State Troops or as belonging to the army of the United States. The organization can certainly be made to serve a very good purpose and can doubtless in a very short time procure their own arms and horses from the enemy and thus equipped be rendered valuable scouts and guides for more extensive movements. I know nothing particular in regard to the qualifications of the parties named as the proposed officers for the organization. Mr. J.R. McCutchen of said county can post you in regard to that matter. I only therefore speak as to the necessity of the recognition of the organizations for the reasons assigned. You of course are the best Judge as to whether it can or cannot be done, anything you may wish to communicate to the parties, I will take great pleasure in forwarding same to them. P.S. The 91st O.V.I. and two companies of my command have just been ordered to Summersville to garrison that post until further orders.
The rumor of a rebel force being concentrated at Lewisburg is false, neither are there any troops at Princeton Mercer County of any importance. We are much in need of horses for my brigade though I understand we will be supplied in a very short. The balance of the 3d Regt. W.Va. Cav have been ordered by Genl Sigel to report to Gen’l Duffie and also two companies of the 4th W.Va. Cav. under command of Maj. Slack of said Regt. who is now here.
With kind regards,
I am Gov.
Your Obdt. Serv.W.H. Powell
Col. Comg 3d Brig. Cav
3d Div Dept W.Va.
It is interesting to note that the people like my great-great-grandfather who protected their communities during the Civil War were not respected by regular U.S. soldiers. According to family history documents I’ve found, the Nicholas County Union Home Guards and Scouts did much more than just protect their own houses and the nearby railroad lines. They provided vital information to U.S. troops about Confederate troop and guerilla movements and put themselves at great risk for capture, injury and death to protect their families and friends. Some were, indeed, captured and taken to Confederate prisons. It seems to me the homegrown defenders of Panther Mountain and other communities deserved more credit than they received in the 1860s.