Last week, I wrote on Confederate General John McCausland, without a doubt the most famous Civil War veteran from Mason County. However, he wasn’t the only general that called this area home after the war was over.
Born in Wales in 1825, William Henry Powell’s family moved to America just two years later. They soon settled in Nashville, where his father worked for the Gennessee Iron Works. Powell, still a boy, followed in his father’s footsteps and began his long career in ironworking while in Nashville.
In 1843, after the Gennessee Iron Works closed, and the family moved to Wheeling to find work in Wheeling’s Rolling Mill Nail Factory. This, however, wasn’t enough for William Henry Powell. Barely four years later, he struck out on his own and helped found the Benwood Nail Works. He served as its superintendent for 6 years, during which time he lost an eye in an accident and married Sarah Gilchrist.
In 1853, Powell moved to Ironton, where he helped found the Bellfonte Nail Works. Not the kind of guy that wanted to be the company’s president and sit in an office, he again served as superintendent. He was still running this factory when the nation realized that the Civil War was going to be a long and brutal fight, and when Congress called for 500,000 more volunteers, Powell joined the Union Army.
The next month was spent raising recruits, and Powell personally raised an entire company of cavalry. After being told by the governor that Ohio was not taking any more cavalry recruits, this became Company B of the 2nd West Virginia Cavalry, and Powell was elected its captain. Other companies in this regiment came from Athens, Gallia, Meigs, and Washington Counties in Ohio, and Mason and Putnam Counties in our state.
The 2nd WV Cavalry rose to national fame over the next four years. Their first service was alongside Colonel James Garfield (yes, that James Garfield!) after which they were transferred to the Kanawha Valley. There, they successfully defended Lightburn’s retreat from Charleston, protecting over 700 wagons and removing Confederate General Jenkins from the valley. For his part in this, Powell was promoted to major.
His next action was in November of 1862, when he led 20 men against a Confederate camp of over 500. Catching them completely by surprise, Powell captured 114 rebel soldiers, 200 weapons, and several wagons. For this, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and awarded the Medal of Honor. He was soon promoted again, to Colonel of the 2nd WV Cavalry, but was severely wounded and captured in their next battle.
Released from prison in 1864, he returned to service under Generals Hunter, Sheridan, and Custer in the Shenandoah Valley. He retired from the army just before the end of the war as a two-star major general and returned to Ironton to manage the Ironton Rolling Mill, but like before the war, he couldn’t stay in one place for long.
In June of 1867, a brief note appeared in the Register that General Powell recently visited Editor Tippett and told him that the Clifton Nail Works and his new home were nearly finished, and he would soon be moving from his temporary home in Middleport to Clifton. Sure enough, by November, the Clifton Iron & Nail Works were turning out over 1,500 kegs of nails per week.
From that time, until an injury forced Powell to retire from the iron industry in 1871, almost nothing slowed production. The only interruption was in the spring of 1869, when the boilers attempted to strike for higher wages. General Powell, having agreed in 1867 that wages would be set equal to those paid in Wheeling and Pittsburgh, fired them all. An investigation by the Sons of Vulcan, the boilers’ union and the strongest labor union in the country at that time, found in the General’s favor and urged the workers to end their strike. When they again refused, the General found replacement boilers from Richmond and continued business as usual.
Following Powell’s retirement in 1871 following a bad horse-and-buggy accident, the Clifton Iron & Nail Works became the Standard Iron & Nail Works under various owners. It continued to be a major employer in Clifton until the 1884 flood destroyed over 5,000 kegs of nails and caused nearly $300,000 in damage. The business survived, but it soon moved to higher ground in Ohio.
As for his home that I mentioned, it still stands! Finished in 1867, the grand Italianate-style home still proudly overlooks Clifton and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Powell, not long after retirement, moved west to Kansas and Illinois and sold the house to H.H. Swallow, with whom he had founded the nail works. In 1885, Swallow sold it to Judge Benjamin Redmond, a man with too many achievements to cover in what’s left of this article. Suffice it to say that the home remained in the Redmond family until the 1980s.
Information from the Weekly Register, writings of Anna Lederer, and National Register.
The next meeting of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society will be next Saturday, Feb. 8, at 5 p.m. at the Mason County Library in Point Pleasant.
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.