It is safe to say that for most Americans, the idea of a war being fought in the streets would be a foreign concept. Indeed, wars being fought within city streets within the past 100 years has occurred solely on foreign soil. During the American Civil War however, this was not the case. The street fighting was also not limited to the larger populated areas. In fact, just such a battle occurred in Wytheville in 1863.
During this time, Southwest Virginia was actually of vital important to the Confederacy. Nearby Saltville supplied much of the salt used for food preservation, Austinville had a lead mine which supplied the lead necessary for bullet manufacturing. Connecting all of these items was the railroad, which not only ferried supplies but troops. For these reasons, this area of the state became a target for Union attacks.
Colonel John T. Toland departed from a base close to Charleston, West Virginia on July 13th, 1863. With him was a brigade of approximately 870 Union soldiers. His orders were to disrupt the rail lines, telegraph lines, and both mines.
Their journey was not to be uneventful however. On July 14th while close to Beckley, West Virginia they were ambushed by Confederate troops. In spite of this, no significant losses occurred and they were able to drive off the attackers. A few other skirmishes occurred along the way as well, splitting and then reuniting the Union troops, but with no few casualties overall.
The day of July 17th ended with the brigade within 45 miles of Wytheville in Tazewell. If legend is true, here fate intervened which would change the entire outcome of the coming battle. As the story goes, a young woman by the name of Molly Tynes who was 26 at the time, learned about what Toland’s brigade was planning. She then took it upon herself to warn Wytheville of the coming attack. Leaving that afternoon by horseback, she traveled through the night crossing Big Walker Mountain to arrive in Wytheville the next morning with a dire warning. Understandably, many citizens quickly fled at the news, however a small force numbering anywhere from 50 to 120 civilians volunteered to stay and defend their town.
Molly was not the only one to learn of Toland’s advance. The Confederate army had also received word, and during this time was gathering and moving troops to counter the raid. At the base of Big Walker Mountain on the morning of the 18th, Toland’s troops were attacked by 350 Confederate soldiers. A running battle ensued, until the Confederate troops were forced to retreat due to being outnumbered. The retreat was a strategic one however, as they were then able to block the retreat of Toland’s forces.
Toland’s men arrived at Wytheville on the afternoon of the 18th. Due to encounters with isolated Confederate forces outside of the town, Toland was unable to get a clear picture into the town itself. Toland’s order was to have his mounted infantry charge directly into town overwhelming blockades along the way. His second in command, Colonel Powell, disagreed with these orders, wishing for a more cautious approach, but Toland’s command held. This was proven to have been a mistake. As the Union troops charged down present-day Tazewell Street, they found the road lined with a stake fence. Further, each house held those volunteers who had stayed behind to defend the town. These volunteers then began to fire on the cornered Union troops with muskets. To say this was unexpected was an understatement. This type of warfare was extremely unconventional for the time. A Union soldier who survived the battle described the street as nothing more than “an avenue of death”.
The street filled with dead horses, (approximately 80 by the end), and dead or wounded soldiers. Toland himself was shot through the heart early on as he was trying to direct the operation from horseback. Cornered troops were forced to charge over their own dead or take what cover they could behind them or risk the same fate. After Toland’s death, Powell was then in command, but he had also been shot in the side and was believed to be dying. In spite of their terrific losses, Union troops were able to organize troops to clear each building and overwhelm all resistance. All of this proved to be fruitless however, as other than personal property, very little damage had been done to the original targets within the town. The decision was also made that even though the Union currently held the town, Confederate reinforcements were coming and in an unknown number. This was proven to be true, as Confederate forces were already moving to block any retreat from the town. No more than 12 hours after Union occupation, the troops abandoned Wytheville to return to their base camp. Afraid to move Powell and believing him to be dying, the retreating men left him behind.
Already both main roads out were secured by Confederate troops, and the same force which had attacked Toland’s men at the base of Big Walker were now in pursuit. The Union troops were forced to retreat using mountain trails. Many horses gave out under the strain and were left dead and dying along the paths. On the 23rd, the troops arrived in Fayetteville after a long retreat with little to no food for the duration.
Many wanted to take revenge on the Union troops (including Powell), who were left behind for the damage and deaths they had caused. A group of local women worked to prevent this, and miraculously Powell healed. He was returned to the Union army the next year.
Today Wytheville has many historical markers pertaining to the battle, as does the area on the top of Big Walker Mountain known as Big Walker Lookout. Walking through the streets now, it’s hard to imagine that such horrors were inflicted by men, upon men, within the now quiet streets.
Izard, Walter, and Magill Smith. Field map of the north part of Wythe County.  Map. Retrieved from the Library of Congress
https://www.loc.gov/item/2002627472/. (Accessed January 28, 2018.)
Gleason, K.L., Good Golly, Miss Molly!
1863, The Raid on Wytheville
Mathews, L., 1979, Civil War Battle of Wytheville