John McCausland was born on Sept. 13, 1836 in St. Louis to John McCausland and Harriet Kyle Price, both members of Irish Protestant families. He was one of three siblings, the others being Robert and Laura. Laura died as a child, but Robert became a successful doctor.
In 1843, both of their parents passed away, and the boys went to live with their grandmother in Staunton, Virginia, until her death just 6 years later. From then on, they lived in Henderson with their widowed aunt, Jane Smith.
McCausland attended local one room schools, as well as the Buffalo Academy, until he was 16. Then, he enrolled himself in the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, from which he graduated at the head of his class with an engineering degree in 1857. Not long after, he was hired by his alma mater to teach mathematics and artillery. In 1859, cadets from VMI were present at John Brown’s execution, and their officers were none other than John McCausland and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.
In 1861, upon the outbreak of the Civil War, McCausland immediately raised a company of artillery from Rockbridge County, Virginia. He was to be appointed their captain, but declined in favor of a friend, William Pendleton. Instead, McCausland came to the Kanawha Valley as a lieutenant colonel and raised the 36th Virginia Infantry. For the rest of 1861, he and his men took part in numerous small battles throughout the Kanawha and New River valleys.
In 1862, McCausland was ordered to Fort Donelson, Tennessee, where he suffered a disastrous defeat. He was sent back to West Virginia, where he sent Joseph Lightburn on a retreat towards Point Pleasant. For the next year and a half, he spent his time harassing Union troops throughout southern West Virginia.
In 1864, he was ordered to join General Albert Jenkins of Cabell County and prevent the Union from invading southern Virginia. This ended in the Battle of Cloyd’s Mountain, where General Jenkins lost his life and McCausland was promoted to brigadier general. From here, McCausland worked his way back towards Lexington, to defend it from the Union army commanded by Gen. Hunter. McCausland held Lexington for a short time, watching the battle from a tower at VMI, before retreating to Lynchburg, burning every bridge as he went. After successfully defending Lynchburg, for which he was presented a golden sword by the city council, he joined the attack against the retreating Hunter.
McCausland’s most notorious moment during the war came in July of 1864, when he was ordered to ransom Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. If they refused to pay, which they did, he was to burn the town in retribution for Hunter’s burning of Lexington, which he did. Somewhere around 520 buildings were destroyed, with a value of over a million dollars. He was later present at the battles of Moorefield, 3rd Winchester, Cedar Creek, and Five Forks, leading up to the surrender at Appomattox.
Fearing he would be tried for war crimes for his burning of Chambersburg, McCausland fled to France and Mexico, only returning after being assured by General Ulysses S. Grant that there would be no trial. Grant, in fact, pardoned McCausland in 1869.
McCausland returned to Mason County in 1867 after selling his land in St. Louis, buying a large farm near Southside at the age of 31. He led a relatively quiet life, visiting Point Pleasant occasionally. Though, when called upon, he did not hesitate to serve on committees that would improve Mason County, the largest of these being the Ohio River Improvement Committee. He was also asked to run for Congress by local citizens, but decided against it.
In 1878, he was attending a convention in White Sulphur Springs hosted by fellow CSA General Fitzhugh Lee when he met Emmett Charlotte Hannah and fell in love. They were married later that year and had four children: Samuel, John Jr., Charlotte, and Alexander.
During the flood of 1884, the one I wrote about last week, there was only one spot on the McCausland farm that remained above water, and it was on this spot that the General chose to build his home. This home still stands, a marvel of the General’s own engineering skills, and it is undergoing restoration by a descendant.
By the time of his death on January 22, 1927, he was one of the largest landowners in Mason County, owning over 6,000 acres. An “unreconstructed rebel” to the very end, his body was brought to the family cemetery above Henderson by Captain Tom Reynolds on a boat draped in the Confederate “Stars and Bars” flag, owing to the river being above flood stage at the time.
Information from the Weekly Register and WV State Archives.
Chris Rizer is the president of the Mason County Historical & Preservation Society and director of Main Street Point Pleasant, reach him at [email protected]