One of the most infamous Moccasin Rangers was Captain
Perry Conley. His story is one that intrigues me. He took to the hills
with a band of guerrillas, while his brother, James P., enlisted with
the Union. This was not all that rare during the Civil War; yet, it is
difficult to consider the idea of two young brothers setting off to
fight on opposite sides to possibly meet on the battlefield that was
their own backyard.
Another detail that is left out of many stories about
Capt. Conley is that he was also a husband and father of two small
children. In the census of 1860, his children are listed as Caroline,
age three, and James P., age one. Could it be that his youngest son was
the namesake of his brother James? Could it be that these two Conleys
were more than brothers? Perhaps they were dear friends as well. In war,
a friend can soon become an enemy and love quickly changes to hate.
Perry Conley was 23 and stood 6’3. He was from Minnora.
Many knew him as the head of all the “Moccasin Rangers.” His particular
band was picked up from the area around the Upper West Fork of the
Little Kanawha River. Legends state that Conley was a leader even as a
child. His power and endurance were far beyond any man that stood
against him. He could out-run, out-fight, and out-lift anyone in his
section. He was said to have promised Gen. Henry A. Wise 100 Yankee
buttons for a good rifle. I think it would be accurate to say that
Conley’s band was indeed violent. His Rangers were known to have robbed
at least seven families and murdered two people.
The statistics of brutality may have reached a higher
number, but Conley did not last long. He was hunted and would meet his
end in combat in Webster County in 1862. The story of his death differs
depending on the source. In H.E. Matheny’s “Major General Thomas Maley
Harris,” a Lieutenant James P. Conley is said to have met the Moccasin
Rangers in hand-to-hand combat along the Birch River. The Conley
brothers, according to Matheny, met on the battlefield. In the midst of
hatred and in the heat of battle, Matheny states, “James killed his
Other stories do not mention James at the battle where
Perry was killed. Boyd Stutler in “West Virginia in the Civil War”
states that Perry Conley was surprised by an attack in Webster County.
He was mortally wounded at the first fire, but fought off his assailants
until he ran out of ammunition. He was then clubbed into submission.
Either ending is tragic. A young Perry Conley dies
perhaps at the hands of his own brother, a man for whom he named his
first son. There are no victors in war. The winning cannot outweigh the
losses. Capt. Perry Conley was indeed a notorious leader. His fame is
legendary and his sad ending is a testimony to the tragedy, heartache,
and senselessness of war.
“What a cruel thing is war: to separate and destroy
families and friends, and mar the purest joys and happiness God has
granted us in this world; to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love
for our neighbors, and to devastate the fair face of this beautiful
--Robert E. Lee, letter to his wife, 1864.