4th West Virginia Cavalry

HISTORY

The Fourth West Virginia Cavalry was organized August, 1863, as a one year regiment. The field officers were Joseph Snider (formerly of the 7th West Virginia Infantry), colonel; Samuel W. Snider, lieutenant-colonel; Nathan Goff, Jr. (of the 6th West Virginia Cavalry), Charles F Howes and James A Smith, majors.

The regiment served in General Kelley’s command and did splendid service. The principal event in which the regiment took part occurred when in the performance of escort duty, January 30, 1864, while conducting a supply train from New Creek to Petersburg; when at Medley, two and a half miles below Moorefield Junction, Colonel Snider, who was in command of the train guard, met at this point Lieutenant-Colonel Quirk, commanding 23 rd Illinois Infantry, falling back before the advance of the enemy. Colonel Snider being the ranking officer took command of the forces, and at once formed line of battle in the following order: The 23 rd Illinois, Lieutenant-Colonel Quirk, on the left. A detachment of the 2nd Maryland in the center, four companies of the 4th West Virginia Cavalry were placed in position on the right flank, as also a detachment of the Ringgold Battalion, Lieutenant Spear. Two companies of the Fourth were ordered to take position on the left flank. The two remaining companies of the Fourth were placed in the rear of the center to be used as the exigencies of the engagement might demand. Colonel Snider had scarcely gotten his command in position when the enemy opened upon him with two pieces of artillery; their infantry advancing at the same time, was met by a galling fire from Snider’s front, and caused them to fall back. Thrice the enemy tried the same thing with the same results. During the engagement in front of the enemy was extending his flanks to the right and to the left, either of which outnumbered Snider’ s command. The results was that Colonel Snider was compelled to withdraw his command in order to prevent capture. He lost his train, but made a gallant defense; he was, however, fighting more than double his own command. The loss in this engagement was five killed, thirty-four wounded, and a large number captured. Among the latter was the gallant young Major Nathan Goff, Jr.

No apology will be offered for the somewhat extended reference to Major Goff which follows, for it is doubtful if West Virginia has given the nation a more distinguished son than he, having rendered his State and Nation most brilliant service no less in peace than in war.

General Goff seems to have born under a lucky star. His father, no less than his uncle for whom he is named, were well to do and influential citizens when he was born. Many more of his kindred were independent and powerful socially. Hence the lines of his youth were cast in pleasant places. Most boys who started with the advantages he had would have made but little of themselves; probably he would not have he not begun and continued as though his future depended entirely upon his own exertions. Early in his boyhood he took to his books, and was sent to the best schools of his native town, and later attended the Northwestern Academy, at Clarksburg, and was under the care of Dr. Gordon Battelle, its principal. There he laid the foundation of a good education. As a boy he was studious, yet full of fun and fight. He never seemed to take the family bent for business, but started early for a profession. In 1859, he entered the popular and national College at Georgetown, D.C. Here the outbreak of the war found him. He at once took sides with the Union. Early in April, 1861, and while the guns of Sumter were echoing over the land, he threw aside his books, went home, and in May enlisted as a private soldier in company G, Third Virginia Union Infantry. This was a step hardly to be expected of one so situated in life as was young Goff. He had youth, and health and wealth; in fact, everything that would seem to have the power to allure him from the struggles of war.

The author of “Loyal West Virginia From 1861 to 1865″ is well qualified to speak of young Goff, residing from boyhood in the same city – Clarksburg, Va. Enlisting together in the same regiment, serving together throughout the war, we can say that the army may have contained more conspicuous names, but it contained no braver soldier, no truer hearted, manlier man than Nathan Goff, Jr. He was only nineteen years of age, and still more youthful in appearance when he joined the army, but his superior soldierly qualities early brought him to the front, and he was elected second lieutenant of his company. A year later, he was commissioned first lieutenant and adjutant. With his regiment he participated in the battles of McDowell, Cross Keys, Front Royal, Warrenton Springs, Rappahannock Station, Second Bull Run, Rocky Gap, Droop Mountain and other engagements of greater or lesser note. In 1864, he was promoted to major of the Fourth West Virginia Cavalry. In the engagement near Moorefield – already referred to – Major Goff’s horse was shot; falling upon the major’s leg, he could not extricate himself, and he was taken prisoner and sent to Libby prison at Richmond, Va.

Then Goff and several more Federal officers were consigned to close confinement, and noticed that when the Federal sentence against Armsey and the other Confederates, for whose safety they were held, was carried into effect, they would be put to death as an act of reprisal. For months Goff lived in the shadow of death, subjected to all the rigors and privations incident to the limited ability of the enemy to supply their prisoners with the necessaries of life.

His imprisonment tended to bring out his strongest traits of character; he never flinched or murmured, but waited upon his fate like a strong man. He was a great favorite among the prisoners before his solitary confinement began, and his selection as a hostage for Major Armsey caused great feeling among them, as well as at his home, where he was so well known and a general favorite. As soon as the Federal Government had been notified that he would be shot if Armsey was executed, naturally his powerful friends made great efforts to save his life. For weeks the decision hung in the balance a hair’s weight would have turned, and he and his comrades were suffering not only the tortures of half-fed, closely confined prisoners of war, but of a terrible uncertainty as to their fate, that was even worse than prison treatment. It was while this suspense was irksome and all absorbing that he gave evidence of a strength of character as unexpected as it is rare in man. In a letter to President Lincoln in relation to his confinement, now on file in the War Office, the following striking passage occurs: -

“If Major Armsey is guilty he should be executed, regardless of its consequences to me. The life of a single soldier, no matter who he may be, should not stand in the way of adherence to a great principle.”

After months of confinement, an exchange of Armsey for Goff was arranged, and each officer returned to his regiment.

When Goff reached Washington, after his imprisonment, he was sent for by President Lincoln , and there occurred between the President and the young officer a most remarkable scene. Goff, who was intent upon effecting the release of his comrades whom he had left in prison, made the interview the occasion of depicting to the Executive the sufferings of the prisoners. His eloquent recital of their hardships brought tears to the eyes of the great-hearted President, and even moved the stoical Stanton, who was present. The result of this appeal was that arrangements were soon made for an exchange of prisoners, which was promptly afterwards carried into effect.

Not very long after his return north, Goff joined his regiment, which he found at Grafton. But a little time had elapsed after his return, when Major Armsey, for whom he had been held as hostage and exchanged, was again captured by Union forces and was placed in jail at Clarksburg. The news had no sooner become known among the people, that the man for whom Goff had so greatly suffered was in their power, than his life was in danger. Just at this time Goff happened to come down from Grafton to his home, and he at once stayed the fury of the citizens by saying to the angry crowd: “Let no friend of mine lay a hand upon this man; he is entitled to our protection, as prisoner of war.” The act and these words, beyond all question, saved the life of Armsey, as the latter has many times since testified.

This incident in the life of the young soldier shows the inherent manhood of his character while yet a boy. Forgetting the hardships he had endured, he remembered only that by the laws of war this prisoner had done nothing to forfeit his life, and he used, as he had need, all of his great personal popularity among his townsmen to save his life. He left the army not long after this incident, after having been made brevet brigadier-general of Volunteers, for gallant and meritorious services on the field.

[Source: Loyal West Virginia from 1861 to 1865, by Theodore F. Lang]

SERVICE

Organized at Parkersburg and Wheeling, W. Va., July and August, 1863, for one year. Attached to Wilkinson’s Brigade, Army of West Virginia, to December, 1863. 3rd Brigade, 2nd Division, West Virginia, to April, 1864. Kelly’s Command, Reserve Division, West Virginia, to June, 1864.

SERVICE.–Duty at Parkersburg, Clarksburg, Grafton, New Creek and other points on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad till June, 1864, guarding railroad and operating against guerrillas. Actions at Salt Lick Bridge October 11 and 14, 1863. Operations in Hampshire and Hardy Counties January 27 to February 7, 1864. Action at Medley, Williamsport, January 29-30. Mustered out June 23, 1864.

[Source: Compendium of the War of the Rebellion, by Frederick Dyer]

LOSSES

Regiment lost during service 30 by disease.

[Source: Compendium of the War of the Rebellion, by Frederick Dyer]

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Colonel Joseph Snider Letters, West Virginia State Archives