May 9, 1863: Confederate Raiders Set Fire to the Oil Field in Wirt County

Oil wells near Parkersburg around 1910

On May 9, 1863, Confederate raiders set fire to the prosperous oil works at Burning Springs in Wirt County. Just two years before the Civil War, Burning Springs had become the birthplace of Western Virginia’s oil industry. When the war began, it was one of only two oil-producing fields in the world.

The destruction of Burning Springs was the culmination of a month-long raid through Western Virginia led by Confederate generals William “Grumble” Jones and John Imboden. When their men arrived at Burning Springs, they set fire to the oil, tanks, engines for pumping, engine houses, wagons, and boats filled with barrels of oils. The boats exploded and sent burning oil into the Little Kanawha River, which became a sheet of flame, emitting thick clouds of jet-black smoke into the air. In his report to General Robert E. Lee, Jones described the fiery sight as a ‘‘scene of magnificence that might well carry joy to every patriotic heart.’’

After the war, hundreds of new wells were drilled in the Burning Springs area until the oil industry declined in the late 19th century.