West Virginia: Site of the First Military Battle for Oil

    PHOTO: Dan Kemper
    PHOTO: Dan Kemper

    When you hear the term oil field, if you’re anything like me, your mind is instantly transported to the hot and dusty deserts of the war-torn Middle East.

    Though it is true that throughout the vast majority of the 20th century and nearly all of the 21st century, military conflict, largely connected to man’s thirst for oil has ravished this portion of the globe, one thing that you may find surprising is that the very first military battle for oil in the history of man on earth occurred in Wirt County, West Virginia.

    According to an application to the National Register of Historic Places, dated August 1970, at the outbreak of the American Civil War, there were only two producing oil fields in the entire world, one in Titusville, Pennsylvania, and another in West Virginia’s Wirt County, this one was known as Burning Springs.

    Originally, known for its booming salt industry, the area that became known as Burning Springs experienced a population rush almost overnight, creating a community of 5,000 residents.

    Writer Joe Geiger states that “the discovery drew thousands of people to Burning Springs, turning it into ‘‘a Sodom of sin, anointed with oil.’’ Lighting in the town was provided by the abundant natural gas from the wells.”

    With its petroleum products being shipped to a refinery in Parkersburg and being used in everything from oil lamps to fuel for the Union’s industrial war factories, the West Virginia oilfield served as one of the most critical components to the North’s war effort.

    Realizing the importance the Western Virginia facility played in powering the production lines of the Federal Government, Confederate General William E. Jones, lead his Virginia soldiers west through the mountainous terrain of Central West Virginia in the spring of 1863, raiding railroad bridges, telegraph lines and key Yankee infrastructure.

    Arriving in Wirt County on May 9, the Confederate army set fire to oil, oil tanks, engines for pumping, engine houses, wagons, and oil-laden boats.

    According to historian Tim McKinney, “The boats exploded, sending burning oil down the Little Kanawha River until the stream became a sheet of flame with massive clouds of dense, jet-black smoke filling the air.”

    In his report to Gen. Robert E. Lee, Jones described the fiery sight as a ‘‘scene of magnificence that might well carry joy to every patriotic heart.’’

    Louis Reed, author of the 1963 book, “Conflict & Error in the History of Oil,” writes that the estimated loss of oil to have been 300,000 barrels.

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    PHOTO: Dan Kemper

    The oil historian states, “Despite the silence of history on this point, Burning Springs was the most important industrial complex in enemy hands destroyed by the Confederates in the course of the War.”

    In additional to killing 25 Yankee soldiers, wounding 75 more and capturing another 700, the attack on Burning Springs slowed Northern production efforts and gave the South a renewed spirit to fight.

    In 2004, a park was opened at Burning Springs and oil is occasionally pumped from the well for souvenirs.

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    1. My grandma told me that her in-laws met during the Civil War at the Burning Springs Hotel. Great grandpa’s Union Army unit was patrolling the area and stopped for a rest break at the hotel. Great grandma was working at the hotel and was told to take water to the soldiers. Great grandpa returned after the war and they were married.

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