7 heroic stories behind WV’s war memorials and markers


West Virginia has a fascinating military history, even longer than the life of the state itself.

The French and Indian War, Revolutionary War, Civil War and even the West Virginia mine wars all left their mark on the Mountain State. West Virginia heroes fought bravely in all of these, as well as every U.S. military engagement abroad.

There are roadside markers, community monuments and cemetery memorials with fascinating stories of trial, perseverance and heroism behind them.

Next time you’re taking your West Virginia road trip, take a break, pull over, and read some of these monuments. Better yet, read the stories below before you go, and visit their respective monuments. Loyalty and bravery run deep in the men and women of the Mountain State.

1. The captive

One of Appalachia’s earliest and most famous figures of war was not a soldier, but a civilian captive.

During the French and Indian War of the 1750s-60s, Mary Draper Ingles (1732-1815) was captured by Shawnee Native Americans at her family’s homestead near present-day Blacksburg, Virginia. From there, she was taken more than 500 miles to a Shawnee settlement at the confluence of the Scioto and Ohio rivers in present-day Ohio.

But she escaped. Not knowing anything other than that she should “Follow the River” (the name of a historical novel about her epic journey), she managed to walk along the Ohio, Kanawha and New rivers all the way back home, traversing some of West Virginia’s most rugged country in the process.

She finally made it back home, and later established a ferry on the New River with her husband William.

Today, Ingles is honored in the state and on the river that she walked along for so many hundreds of miles at the Mary Draper Ingles Bridge along I-64, which crosses the New River in Summers County.

2. Heroes of the north and south

The Civil War is a difficult period for all of the U.S., and especially so for West Virginia— a state caught between the north and south, its existence directly related to secession, yet still very Southern Appalachian in many ways.

There is a beautiful series of monuments and interpretive signs at “The Civil War Comes to Hardy County” near Petersburg, including 2 side-by-side panels of 2 charismatic heroes, one northern, one southern, both of whom overcame danger over and over again before giving their lives to their cause in Western Virginia.

General James Mulligan (1830-1864) was an Irish-American New Yorker who dashingly led the troops of his “Irish Brigade” while wearing a green scarf.

Throughout the war, he was wounded numerous times, and captured and released twice. But he quickly rose through the ranks as the Union Army tried to secure the new state of West Virginia through the summer of 1863. Unfortunately, the luck of the Irish Brigade’s general finally ran out the next year, when he was captured near Winchester, VA, and died a prisoner.

On the Confederate side, Captain John H. McNeill (1815-1864) was a native western Virginian, born and raised in Moorefield. Like Mulligan, he was frequently wounded and captured, once even escaping a Union prison camp to return to Hardy County and fight for the Southern cause.

Leading 210 of his “McNeill Rangers,” he carried out a “bushwhacking” campaign against Union forces— stopping supply trains, stealing food and cutting off communication between northern armies. He was finally killed in 1864, while capturing a bridge over the Shenandoah River.

3. The cavalryman

Most of us know that the Battle of Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876 was a disaster for the U.S. Cavalry. General George Armstrong Custer led the 7th Cavalry into what he thought would be a small Lakota Indian village in Montana, but instead was one of the largest Native American armies ever assembled. Every soldier in Custer’s Company was killed.

Sergeant Benjamin C. Criswell (1849-1921) of Moundsville, was not in Custer’s Company, but part of a pack train. Nevertheless, he managed to rescue the body of a fellow soldier from behind Lakota lines during the battle, braving heavy fire and taking a wound to the neck. Criswell received the Medal of Honor for his heroism in 1878.

Today, a plaque honors this West Virginia hero in his home town of Moundsville, at the Marshall County Courthouse.

4. The airman

While Americans of all races were fighting abroad in WWII, our own nation was still deeply segregated at home. One of the most inspirational stories of African Americans who fought for their country before they even had full civil rights is the Tuskegee Airmen, a segregated flying unit of the Army Air Corps.

One of the original members of the Airmen, and definitely one of the most experienced, was Col. George S. “Spanky” Roberts (1918-1984). Born in Kanawha County, raised in Fairmont, and a graduate of West Virginia State College, Roberts was a true-blooded West Virginian.

During the darkest days of WWII, the Tuskegee Airmen had one of the most dangerous jobs imaginable– escorting and protecting bombers flying over the North African Sahara.

By the war’s end, Roberts had flown more than 100 missions over Africa, the Mideast and Europe. He went on to see President Truman’s desegregation of the military in 1948, and became the first African American officer to command an integrated unit. After serving in Korea and Vietnam, he moved into a civilian position as a California banker.

You can find the Col. George Roberts Memorial Bridge in Fairmont.

5. The mountaineers

You can fight a war in difficult conditions, and perhaps no conditions are more adverse than the snowy, cold, mountainous terrain of the Alps in Europe.

After seeing how small, light armies of tough outdoorsmen were fighting off Italians in Albania or Russians in Finland, Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall decided to convert his 10th Division into a mountain fighting unit. The end goal would be to aid the invasion of Germany through the treacherous Swiss Alps.

In 1943, the 10th Division began intense training in the most advanced rock and mountain climbing techniques of the time, practicing on the non-Alpine, but very rugged peaks of Seneca Rocks in eastern West Virginia. Soldiers of the 10th Division then embarked to Italy, where they fought their way across rugged mountains and snow slopes, north, and then east into the Balkans.

When you make the adventurous trip to Seneca to marvel in some of West Virginia’s finest high country, don’t forget to check out the plaque honoring these brave Americans who put their lives “on the rocks” for their country.

6. The most decorated woman in the U.S. Army, ever

Ruby Bradley (1907-2002), who was born and raised in Spencer, was a career surgical nurse for the U.S. Army starting in 1934. While serving in the Philippines during the Pearl Harbor attack, she was captured by Japanese forces only 3 weeks into WWII. She spent next 37 months in brutal captivity.

But Bradley didn’t just languish away in the internment camp. Instead, she organized fellow captive nurses to give medical care and food to their fellow prisoners. By the war’s end, she had delivered 13 babies and assisted in 230 operations while suffering through the misery of the prison camp. When she was liberated, she only weighed 87 lbs.

After WWII, Bradley continued to rise up through the ranks of the nurse corps. By the Korean War, she was a captain, supervising hundreds of other nurses. But she still stayed “down in the trenches,” very much in harm’s way. During the 1950 evacuation of Pyongyang, she waited until the last minute, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of enemy troops, making sure that every one of her patients was evacuated.

Bradley retired as a colonel in 1963, and became the most decorated woman in the history of the U.S. Army, with 34 medals and awards. You can visit her memorial at the Roane County Courthouse.

7. The helicopter

No other war in U.S. history relied as heavily on helicopters as Vietnam. Military choppers scouted hostile enemy terrain, dropped off and picked up forces in the hot jungle, and provided air support for military campaigns. Flying low and slow, they were also very vulnerable to enemy fire. Flying an army helicopter was dangerous work.

Most helicopters from this era are now lost– destroyed, taken apart or even at the bottom of the South China Sea following the chaos of the Saigon evacuation. But one has made its way to Marion County’s Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Fairmont. The helicopter, a Bell UH-1 Iroquois, or “Huey,” was nicknamed “Super Slick” by its 4 man crew members.

For their time in combat, the crew mostly patrolled the Mekong Delta of Vietnam, but also supported expeditions in Cambodia and Laos. Although none of its crew ever died, Super Slick encountered plenty of enemy fire, and co-pilot Tom Feigel does recall being shot in the back once, though he was only bruised.

There’s a lot of history in the old helicopter. The crew, who didn’t know the plane was still intact until it was restored and added to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Fairmont, even came to visit it for a reunion in 2012.

There are plenty of other military heros out of West Virginia, from Stonewall Jackson to Chuck Yeager to Jessica Lynch.

What other monuments have you been to?

Discover more WV military history > 


This post was last updated on July 24, 2020