During the Civil War, bands of partisans infested the hills, mountains and valleys of present-day West Virginia. These clans carried on vicious and quite personal warfare and were known by a variety of names. Formally called a Home Guard if Union or a Ranger unit if Confederate, some preferred monikers such as Nighthawks and Snake Hunters.
One of the more effective of these bands patrolled the High Alleghenies and was known as the Swamp Dragons. The Dry Forks Home Guard - as it was known originally - was formed early in the war in Randolph County by 21-year-old Sampson Snyder and his father, John. The two physically powerful backwoodsmen led a force that never numbered more than 60, but the company more than made up for its lack of numbers with a hatred of Rebel soldiers and Southern sympathizers.
The Swamp Dragons would be branded with their nickname by Job Parsons, a 72-year-old grayback: The old man likened their tactic of bushwhacking to that of the "dragonflies" who waited in the mountain swamps to prey on unwary travelers.
The Swamp Dragons especially despised Bill and Zeke Harper, famed Confederate scouts from nearby Tucker County.
One of the band's signal contributions to the Union was its help in turning back Confederate raiders bent on destroying the strategic B&O Railroad bridge and extensive trestle works near the town of Rowlesburg. On two occasions, the Swamp Dragons would play a key role in thwarting the Confederates.
In August 1862, Col. John D. Imboden led a force of 300 Partisan Rangers toward Rowlesburg. With Zeke Harper as a guide, everything was going according to plan until word reached Jane Snyder, daughter of John, that the Rebels were in the vicinity. Mounting a fleet horse, she raced through the night to nearby Parsons Mill and warned Yankee soldiers to fall back and alert the bridge guards at Rowlesburg.
Moving toward the village of St. George the next morning, Imboden found that his advance had been discovered and promptly decided to retreat. As the Rebels fell back across the mountains, they were harassed constantly by sniping. Later recounting a futile chase of three Swamp Dragons, the colonel wrote, "If I had caught them I intended hanging them in three minutes."
Imboden did get some personal satisfaction during the raid. While riding in advance of his men near St. George, he encountered John Snyder, who, to the colonel's chagrin, had him in his sights. Imboden would later describe the incident in a letter: "I fired at him with my revolver. He dropped his gun like a hot potato and leaned forward on the neck of his horse to escape. . . . I wounded him badly, but I fear not mortally."
In April 1863, the Confederates launched a raid into the mountains, with Rowlesburg once again the goal. As Imboden advanced on Beverly, and then Buckhannon, a cavalry force led by Rebel Brig. Gen. William E. "Grumble" Jones and guided by Bill Harper headed for Rowlesburg by way of the Northwestern Turnpike.
The Swamp Dragons picked up Jones' trail soon after he crossed the Allegheny front but limited their actions to reconnaissance. On April 26, as a small Union infantry force fought off Jones' feeble attack on Rowlesburg, the Swamp Dragons were driven out of St. George by some of Jones' outriders.
In the summer of 1863, the Rebels came up with a plan to strike the Swamp Dragons at their stronghold near Harmon. Long after the war, former Confederate Col. Elihu Hutton wrote of the mission. Hutton, then a lieutenant, took 27 men across the mountains on foot and was able to surprise and capture Sampson Snyder and a few partisans at Snyder's home. A few days later, after fighting off a rescue attempt by the captain's followers, Hutton was walking alone with Snyder when the mountaineer slammed him to the ground and escaped into the brush.
Hutton recalled, "Snyder was a powerful man and there was nothing to prevent him from taking my pistol and shooting me but he seemed content with shoving me aside and running."
Other often-told stories about the partisans recount their clashes with their mountain enemies, the Rebel Harpers. In May 1862, the Swamp Dragons scattered Zeke Harper and 20 of his men near Shaver's Mountain as the Rebels were eating supper. The Unionists then helped themselves to their enemies' intended meal of sheep and deer.
A more brutal encounter took place on a dark night in December 1863, when Capt. Snyder and 15 Swamp Dragons caught up with Bill Harper at the home of his Uncle Leonard in Pendleton County. Flushed from his hiding place on the snowy roof of the cabin, the scout jumped to the ground and fired a shot that narrowly missed Snyder.
In the ensuing struggle, Harper slashed Snyder's hand with his bowie knife. Fortunately for the captain, Mathais Helmick quickly blasted five bullets into the Rebel. Then, after pitching Harper's body into a nearby hog pen, the Unionists ransacked the cabin, took all the family's horses and left. Early the next morning, Harper's cousin Catherine Trimble queasily pulled the scout's frozen body away from the swine.
On April 12, 1864, Snyder and his men were taken into the West Virginia State Guards by Gov. Arthur I. Boreman. Throughout the rest of the war, the Swamp Dragons stayed alert for the small bands of Rebel raiders that would venture across the mountains to steal horses.
When members were discharged on April 15, 1865, the company, which still included old John Snyder, numbered 43. Today, they are occasionally remembered in the recitation of an epic poem of the mountains, "The Midnight Ride of Jane Snyder."