- The Washington Times - Friday, October 28, 2005

In the Civil War, fighting in northwestern Virginia differed from the panoramic clashes between large armies farther east.

In the highlands, the steep, heavily forested terrain favored small bands of men who could strike their foe quickly and disappear into the deep woods. Because of this, men who knew the obscure mountain paths and trails were prized assets for both sides.

Early in the conflict, Unionists such as John Slaton and Sampson Snyder quickly gained renown in the region, leading patrols harassing local secessionists.

Neither, however, could match the record of Bill and Zeke Harper. For 2 years, these woodsmen specialized in guiding Rebel raiders against targets along the B&O; Railroad and stalking their former friends and neighbors in vicious guerrilla warfare.

Hunter, adventurer

William Harper was born on March 20, 1814. Son of the famed panther hunter Adam Harper, he grew up at the family farm along Clover Run in Tucker County.

Over the years, this solitary mountaineer became one of the greatest nimrods of the high Alleghenies. Even though he was 47 when the war began, Bill, always ready for a good scrap, promptly offered his services to Virginia forces as an independent scout and guide.

Younger brother Ezekiel was born on Nov. 28, 1823. Although he also rambled over the mountains in his youth, the wiry lad had a more scholarly bent than his 13 siblings. An avid reader, he kept close track of national affairs and dreamed of venturing out into the world and finding his fortune.

In the fall of 1848, Zeke headed west to find gold in California. Forced to spend the winter in Iowa, the next spring he joined a wagon train of “forty-niners.” Upon reaching the sinks of the Humbolt River, the hardy mountaineer struck out alone across the Sierra Nevada on foot. After many thrilling adventures, he finally reached the gold fields.

Over the next 11 years, Zeke made his mark as a prospector, Indian fighter and merchant. Although he had made two brief trips back home during this time, the solitary wanderer returned for good in 1860.

Like Bill, he immediately sided with the Confederacy when the war broke out.

Long retreat

In July 1861, the brothers were out in front of Brig. Gen. Robert S. Garnett’s forces spying on the Yankees. While Zeke kept a sharp lookout for the enemy along a stretch of the Northwestern Turnpike between Grafton and West Union, Bill was watching the bluecoats around Philippi.

On July 12, Zeke was returning to Garnett’s camp on Laurel Hill to report in. Along the way, he discovered that the general had abandoned his works there after learning of Col. John Pegram’s defeat at Rich Mountain on the 11th. Now Garnett’s men, who were blocked by Union forces from retreating south, were headed toward Zeke in a circuitous route that their leader hoped would get them to safety in Monterey.

Harper, knowing that a nearby section of the road the Rebels intended to use was almost impassable, quickly gathered a gang of men and cut a bypass through some bottomland. Once the project was in full swing, he mounted up and raced off to find Garnett.

The next morning, Zeke found Garnett and the army at Pleasant Run. He told the general that his best chance of escaping was to follow Horse Shoe Run road to its intersection with the Northwestern Turnpike at Redhouse, Md.

When asked to guide the column, Zeke, preferring to stay with the rear guard and fight, vehemently protested, exclaiming that he “could kill more Yankees than any 30 Rebels!” Garnett’s terse rebuff, however, changed his mind.

Later that afternoon, Garnett became the first general officer killed in the war when he fell mortally wounded in a skirmish at Corrick’s Ford.

Stopping an army

Bill Harper met the column along the trail and suggested another route that would lead them to the pike at West Union. Zeke, however, quickly nixed the idea, and his frustrated brother dashed off to the rear looking for action.

Not long afterward, according to the late West Virginia historian and Harper relative Fritz Haselberger, Bill, armed with his faithful blunderbuss, waited for the Yankees atop Alum Hill Gap. When they finally appeared, Bill fired one shot.

Mistaking the roar of the antiquated weapon for cannon fire, the Federals halted and deployed their artillery. In the meantime, the mountaineer vanished into the forest, having single-handedly stopped a force of 4,000 men and given his hard-pressed comrades extra time to get away.

Deadly shootout

The retreat continued that evening and on through the rainy night. The van of the 10-mile-long column reached Redhouse about 2 a.m. on the 14th. An hour later, Zeke and four other scouts rode east to check the pass over Backbone Mountain.

After a nerve-wracking ride, the men found the gap clear and galloped back with the good news. Five days later, the weary survivors of the long retreat straggled into Monterey, minus most of their arms, baggage and wagons.

Not long afterward, Zeke added to his growing fame while patrolling the rugged mountains of Pendleton County with a band of guerrillas.

The men recklessly charged into a company of Union cavalry. Promptly capturing two horses, Zeke galloped off and was just about to make his escape when a bullet sent his stallion crashing to the ground.

Quick as a cat, Zeke bounced to his feet and ran for his life, stopping for just an instant to kill a Union trooper who was hot on his heels. Finally, Zeke and two of his men turned to shoot it out with their pursuers. The Federals killed his compatriots, but Harper escaped into the brush.

The ‘Swamp Dragons’

On Jan. 8, 1862, brother Bill was back in action leading some bushwhackers in a fight against Capt. George R. Latham’s Company B of the 2nd (West) Virginia Infantry at Armentrout’s. After the skirmish, Latham left a mortally wounded soldier at a nearby home.

According to an anonymous source, “the home guards came in a few days and bayoneted him in his bed and threw him in the river.”

The Harpers usually were very, wary but occasionally there would be a slip-up. In May, Zeke was leading 20 partisans on a raid near Beverly.

After robbing a store, the Rebels made their way to Shaver’s Mountain and stopped to cook supper. Harper, though, was unaware that Capt. Sampson Snyder and his band of “Swamp Dragons” were close by.

Unexpectedly, the Northerners burst into the camp, scattering the graybacks and capturing their stacked rifles and some delicious mutton.

The next day, to Zeke’s eternal embarrassment, Snyder surprised him again along the banks of Gandy Creek. Upon reaching Staunton, though, he redeemed himself by sending word to Maj. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson that a Union army led by Maj. Gen. John C. Fremont was advancing through the mountains toward the Shenandoah Valley via Franklin.

At the front

During the next year, the brothers helped Col. (later Brig. Gen.) John D. Imboden in three ill-starred attempts to destroy the B&O;’s Cheat River bridge and two large viaducts deep in the Alleghenies at Rowlesburg.

That August, Zeke guided Imboden and 600 of his partisan rangers through the mountains toward the colossal structures until they were discovered and forced to turn back at Parson’s Mill.

In November, Bill led the colonel and about 300 men in another failed mission that ended when the Confederates retreated after capturing a small garrison at St. George.

In April-May 1863, the Harpers were at the front of both wings in the famed Jones-Imboden raid, with Bill guiding Brig. Gen. William E. “Grumble” Jones’ failed strike on Rowlesburg and Zeke — now a private in the 19th Virginia Cavalry — leading Imboden’s foray through central (West) Virginia.

Dangerous odyssey

The duo’s activities during the summer and early fall of 1863 remain somewhat clouded, but by late October, Zeke was back prowling around Tucker County. After completing his mission, he stopped at the homestead on the 28th to visit his parents. That night, Yankee soldiers and some local Unionists easily captured their nemesis.

Zeke then began a dangerous odyssey through the new state of West Virginia on his way to Wheeling. Fearful of assassins and possible rescuers, Federal officers kept the chained prisoner under close guard.

At Clarksburg, where a large crowd gathered to ridicule the Rebel hero, an Irishman shouted, “Faith! And he is a little man to fire a salute over and for the officers to get drunk over when he was captured.”

Later on, in Wheeling, when an officer mockingly asked him what he could do to make his prison cell better, Harper snapped back, “A picture of the goddess of liberty in chains.”

Zeke also served stints at Camp Chase, Ohio; Rock Island, Ill.; and Point Lookout, Md. Union authorities exchanged him on Feb. 15, 1865.

A final clash

On a snowy night in late 1863, Bill also ran out of luck. The scout stopped to spend the night at the home of Leonard Harper deep in the mountains of Pendleton County, W.Va.

Around 2 a.m., the household was awakened by men shouting, “Where’s Bill Harper?” Then, as the intruders rounded up Leonard, his wife, Phoebe, and their two daughters, Bill silently raised a window and crawled out on the snow-covered porch roof. Closing the window, he covered himself with a white sheet.

He might have remained unseen, but his nerves got the best of him, and he fired a wild shot through the window when one of the men looked his way. Then jumping to the ground, he sprinted for the woods.

About 100 yards from the house, Sampson Snyder blocked his path and called out for him to surrender. Bill answered Snyder with a pistol ball that barely missed the “Swamp Dragon” and then sliced the captain’s hand with a swipe of his bowie knife. Before Bill could make his escape, however, Matthew Helmick emptied his revolver into the scout’s chest.

After pitching Harper’s body into the hog pen, the Unionists proceeded to ransack the house and steal all of the horses. The next morning, Catherine Trimble, one of Leonard’s daughters, found the swine feasting on Bill’s frozen corpse.

A sad end

Zeke survived the war and returned to Tucker County. Except for some sojourns in the west, he lived there the rest of his life. Over the years, he accumulated 4,500 acres and gained wide renown as a country doctor. Owner of a fine home, he insisted that his builder dig a secret tunnel he could use if the Yankees ever came after him again.

On March 18, 1892, Zeke died from the effects of a savage beating he had received a few nights before.

The lifelong bachelor had made the mistake of opening the door to some cold, wet strangers and inviting them inside. Once they got the drop on the old man, the robbers clubbed him senseless and threw him in an outhouse.

Someone discovered him a few hours later, but the tough, old grayback had fought his last battle.

Steve French is a teacher in Martinsburg, W.Va., and a member of the Harpers Ferry Civil War Round Table.

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