July 17, 1861 – A Federal force sought to clear Confederates out of the Great Kanawha Valley, while Confederates tried consolidating and coordinating their armies in western Virginia.
In early July, Major General George B. McClellan assigned Brigadier General Jacob D. Cox to mobilize 2,500 Federal volunteers at Camp Dennison near Cincinnati. This would be the second prong of McClellan’s offensive in western Virginia. Cox’s men were to move up the Ohio River to Point Pleasant, and then advance into the Great Kanawha Valley to confront two Confederate forces:
- Brigadier General Henry A. Wise, former governor of Virginia, led the Army of the Kanawha at Charleston; Wise’s main force consisted of his 2,850-man “Legion” and some 1,800 state volunteers having joined from nearby counties.
- General John B. Floyd, another former Virginia governor and former U.S. secretary of war, posted his troops at Wytheville, 125 miles south of Wise.
Cox’s “Kanawha Brigade” consisted of three regiments. Two traveled on steamships from the Ohio up the Great Kanawha River, while the third marched along the riverbank in advance. As they approached Charleston, Floyd received orders to move to Wise’s support. As Cox inched closer, McClellan reported: “I am in constant expectation of hearing from General Cox, that his efforts to drive the Wises out of the Kanawha Valley and occupy the Gauley Bridge (40 or so miles southeast of Charleston) have been crowned with success.”
The forces of Cox and Wise clashed west of Charleston at Scary Creek on the 17th. After both sides exchanged volleys, the Federals tried a flank attack but were repelled by Confederate reinforcements that pushed them back to their camp on the Pocatalico River. The Federals suffered 10 killed and 35 wounded while Confederates lost four killed and six wounded. This minor engagement stalled Cox’s advance, which enabled Wise and Floyd to move closer together.
McClellan learned of Cox’s setback two days later. He ordered Cox to maintain his position while McClellan deployed reinforcements to confront Wise from the north. McClellan reported to Washington that Cox had been “checked on the Kanawha,” and although Wise had stopped Cox’s advance on Charleston, McClellan called the fight “something between a victory and defeat.” He then pleaded: “In heaven’s name give me some general officers who understand their profession. I give orders and find some who cannot execute them unless I stand by them. Unless I command every picket and lead every column I cannot be sure of success.”
Cox’s Federals began another advance on the 24th, moving eastward from the Pocatalico River toward Wise’s Confederates at Tyler Mountain, eight miles away. The Federals scattered the enemy pickets, then found the camp abandoned. Cox continued the advance toward Charleston, hoping to destroy Wise’s army.
The opposing forces traded shots from across the Kanawha River. When Cox brought up a cannon, the Confederates set fire to a steamboat to prevent it from Federal capture, and then withdrew into the woods as night fell. A small Federal pursuit could not find Wise’s Confederates, who had retreated toward Gauley Bridge, leaving Charleston and the Kanawha Valley in Federal hands.
The “Kanawha Brigade” entered Charleston the next day, where Mayor Jacob Goshom and other officials surrendered the city. To prove that his men had been “vilely slandered” by Confederate charges that the Federals would loot and pillage, Cox ordered his men to pass through town without stopping, or even to “shout or make any unnecessary noise.” This would provide “contrast to the profane and disorderly behavior of the rebel army.” The Charleston residents would not be asked of their political opinions, and business would go on as usual. However, anyone caught consorting with the Confederates would be “remorselessly punished.” As Wise’s Confederates retreated, they wrecked the Elk River suspension bridge to slow the Federal pursuit. However, nearby coal barges could easily be converted into bridges of their own.
The loss of Charleston, combined with the earlier defeat at Rich Mountain, alarmed Confederate officials at Richmond so much that Major General Robert E. Lee, military advisor to President Jefferson Davis, received orders to go to western Virginia and inspect operations. Lee would work with Brigadier General William W. Loring, whom President Davis had sent to inspect the Army of the Northwest, which had retreated to Monterey after its defeat at Rich Mountain.
Lee arrived at Staunton by train on July 28 to begin his first field duty for the Confederacy. While he had no official authority over Loring, Lee’s mission was to determine if the Army of the Northwest could take the offensive. He was also to try coordinating efforts of the three western Virginia commanders (Loring, Wise, and Floyd).
Back in the Kanawha Valley, Cox’s Federals pursued Wise’s forces eastward from Charleston, with skirmishing along the way. With Cox about 10 miles away, Wise burned the Gauley Bridge over the James River along the Kanawha Turnpike. Wise hoped that this would give him time to link with Floyd at White Sulphur Springs, 75 miles farther.
The Federals reached the Gauley Bridge on the morning of July 29 and captured enemy supplies that had not burned. Destroying the bridge prevented Cox from continuing his pursuit, but unbeknownst to Wise, Cox’s orders had been to stop at the bridge anyway. The Federal mission was only to clear the Kanawha Valley of Confederates, and that had been accomplished. However, the Federals soon learned that the Gauley Valley region was much more pro-Confederate than most areas of western Virginia.
That same day, Lee arrived at Monterey on horseback. He met with Brigadier General Henry R. Jackson, who had taken command of the Army of the Northwest after the death of Brigadier General Robert S. Garnett. Jackson requested an officer with more experience than himself to take command. Lee next met with Loring at Huntersville, where Lee urged him to take command and push the Federals out of the region. Loring replied that he needed time to establish a supply base and did not know when he could take the offensive.
Lee returned to Monterey on the 31st, where he took unofficial command of the army. Lee “spent a day conferring with General H.R. Jackson and inspecting the troops there encamped with General Jackson.” Lee noted that the troops were demoralized, hampered by rain and a measles outbreak. Ladies of Augusta County asked Lee to present a flag to the 21st Virginia. Lee complied but told one of the regiment’s captains, “I would advise you to roll up that beautiful banner, and return it to the ladies for safe keeping. You are now in for a number of years of hard military service, and you will not need your beautiful flag.”
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