The Western Virginia Military Situation: August 1861

August 26, 1861 – Confederates won a minor clash in southwestern Virginia, while General Robert E. Lee continued struggling to coordinate the movements of several stubborn commanders in the region.

Lee had come to western Virginia as a military advisor to President Jefferson Davis. Although he had no authority to issue orders to the Confederate commanders, he hoped to persuade them to work together against the Federals rather than operating independently. By this month, there were three different commands:

  • The Army of the Northwest under General Henry R. Jackson, soon to be replaced by General William W. Loring. This force was divided between Monterey and Huntersville.
  • The Army of the Kanawha under General John B. Floyd near Sweet Springs.
  • Brigadier General Henry A. Wise’s “Legion” near Lewisburg, which was actually a portion of the Army of the Kanawha.
L to R: Robert E. Lee, William W. Loring, John B. Floyd, Henry A. Wise | Image Credit:
L to R: Robert E. Lee, William W. Loring, John B. Floyd, Henry A. Wise | Image Credit:

Lee urged Floyd and Wise to join forces and take back the Kanawha River Valley after relinquishing it to the Federals in July. Wise resisted because he did not get along with Floyd. Lee urged Loring to consolidate his army and advance northward to Cheat Mountain. Loring resisted because he had outranked Lee in the U.S. army and did not appreciate his advice. Adding to this was the unrelenting rains and unforgiving terrain of western Virginia.

Floyd proposed linking with Wise and raising another 10,000 recruits, informing President Davis that he had “never witnessed a better spirit than seems to be almost universal” in the area. The force would then move northward and attack Cheat Mountain, or even possibly invade Ohio. However, Wise reported that the Kanawha Valley was overrun by Unionists, and his men needed rest before they could join Floyd.

On August 6, the first council of war between Floyd and Wise took place at White Sulphur Springs. Wise delivered a two-hour speech tying American history into his current situation, describing his “retrograde movement” (i.e., retreat) from Charleston to the Gauley Bridge. Wise then asked Floyd where he wanted to go. Floyd said, “Down the road.” Wise asked what then, and Floyd replied, “Fight.” The commanders made no strategy decisions.

To the north, the Confederates remained stationary as Loring disagreed with Lee’s plan to confront the Federals at Cheat Mountain. On the Federal side, General-in-Chief Winfield Scott, anticipating Lee’s plan, directed Major General William S. Rosecrans, who had replaced Major General George B. McClellan in command of western Virginia, to “push forward rapidly the fortifications ordered by General McClellan” in July.

Rosecrans responded by beginning to consolidate his forces at various points. He also sent reinforcements to the force under Brigadier General Jacob D. Cox at Gauley Bridge, which threatened the Confederates of Floyd and Wise. When McClellan at Washington ordered Rosecrans to hold Gauley Bridge with Cox’s men, Rosecrans decided to reinforce Cheat Mountain while having Cox take up defensive positions.

The Confederate threat in western Virginia was made to look worse than it truly was when Unionist politician John S. Carlisle wrote to Secretary of War Simon Cameron: “For God’s sake, send us more troops and a general to command, or else we are whipped in less than ten days.” Carlisle estimated enemy strength at 20,000 men, with 8,000 at Monterey and 8,000 west of Huntersville, as well as an army of “considerable size” under Floyd and Wise advancing on Wheeling.

Although the Confederates truly did outnumber the Federals, they only had 12,000 men east of the Federal positions at Cheat Mountain. And Floyd and Wise were nowhere near Wheeling, and if they ever joined forces, they would still have only 3,800 effectives to confront Cox’s Federals, who would soon be reinforced. And most importantly, torrential rains had slowed active operations almost to a halt.

During this lull, Rosecrans sought to ease Unionist fears by issuing a proclamation to “The Loyal Citizens of Western Virginia” from his Clarksburg headquarters. He urged the people to obey the law and oppose secessionists: “Their tools and dupes told you you must vote for secession as the only means to insure peace, that unless you did so, hordes of abolitionists would overrun you, plunder your property, steal your slaves, abuse your wives and daughters, seize upon your lands, and hang all those who opposed them… (secessionists) have set neighbor against neighbor and friend against friend; they have introduced a warfare only known among savages.

“Citizens of Western Virginia,” Rosecrans concluded, “your fate is mainly in your own hands. If you allow yourselves to be trampled under foot by hordes of disturbers, plunderers, and murderers, your land will become a desolation. If you stand firm for law and order and maintain your rights, you may dwell together peacefully and happily as in former days.”

Also during this time, Lee sent a message to Brigadier General John J. Reynolds, commanding Federals at Cheat Mountain: “With a view of alleviating individual distress I have the honor to propose an exchange of prisoners. If you will cause to be forwarded a list of those in your hands including those placed on parole an equal number of U. S. troops, man for man or similar grade, will be sent to the point most convenient to their present abode. An exchange in this manner can be conveniently effected. Very respectfully, R. E LEE, General, Commanding.”

Reynolds responded the next day: “SIR: Your proposition inviting an exchange of prisoners is cheerfully acceded to. A list of prisoners in our possession including those paroled will be delivered at the house in Tygarts Valley where this note is written on the 9th instant. Very respectfully, J.J. REYNOLDS, Brigadier-General, Commanding.”

However, Reynolds did not get permission from Rosecrans first, instead requesting retroactive approval: “Now, first, is this action on my part approved, and secondly, can it be effected here?” Rosecrans did not approve. Since most Confederate prisoners were from western Virginia, Rosecrans worried that they would not only reinforce Lee’s army, but they would know the Federals’ positions. Conversely, most Federal prisoners had been taken in the Battle of Bull Run, so they would most likely return to northern Virginia and not help Rosecrans. While the plan was held up for soldiers, both sides agreed to exchange two non-combatants each.

Meanwhile, the bickering between Floyd and Wise continued, with Wise asking Lee to keep their forces separated and Floyd wanting them to unite and take the offensive. Lee urged Wise to work with Floyd, or else it could “destroy the prospect of the success of the campaign in the Kanawha District.” Floyd went over Lee’s head to Davis, alleging “great disorganization amongst the men under General Wise’s command,” and hoping to “remedy the evil.” Floyd then announced that since he outranked Wise, he would assume overall command of both his and Wise’s men.

Wise initially resisted Floyd’s orders to join his force, arguing that his men were plagued with typhoid and measles; a regimental officer told Wise that the “troops are now decimated by disease and casualties occurred by weeks of exposure” to rain and cold. Wise then instructed his men to disregard any orders coming from Floyd unless approved by Wise first. Floyd countered by ordering Wise’s cavalry to join him, adding, “Any orders whatever in any way conflicting with this I hereby revoke.” Floyd then told Davis that Wise’s “unwillingness to co-operate… is so great that it amounts practically almost to open opposition.”

When Wise finally advanced his man on a 17-mile march to Carnifex Ferry as ordered, Floyd decided to advance his force there as well without telling him. Since Cox’s Federals had abandoned the place, both Confederates forces were not needed there, so Floyd ordered Wise to countermarch back to his original position. This enraged Wise, who complied nonetheless.

On August 23, Floyd reported to Secretary of War LeRoy Walker that his force had captured Carnifex Ferry and cut communications between Cox and Rosecrans. This enabled him to, “when sufficiently strong, either to attack General Cox in his flank or rear, on the Kanawha River, or to advance against the flank of General Rosecrans, should General Lee so direct.” Floyd then requested “three good regiments… to replace the Legion of General Wise, which can be used to better advantage by General Lee.” Since Wise’s legion consisted of three regiments, Floyd’s request essentially meant that he did not want to advance any further unless the Confederate government replaced Wise’s entire command.

Meanwhile, Cox fell back to Gauley Bridge after advancing to Carnifex Ferry and Cross Lanes. The 7th Ohio, a regiment in Cox’s command under Colonel Erasmus Tyler returning to the main force, inadvertently camped within a half-mile of Floyd’s Confederates on the night of the 25th. Floyd consulted with one of his officers, Colonel Henry Heth, who advised, “There is but one thing for you to do, attack them at daylight tomorrow morning.”

The next day, Floyd’s 2,000 Confederates routed Tyler’s green 7th Ohio at Cross Lanes. The inexperienced Tyler had failed to post pickets to warn of Floyd’s advance. The Federals began wavering upon the sight of the enemy troops and then panicked when the Confederates fired into them. Quickly outflanked, the Federals fled in a rout, suffering 15 killed, 50 wounded, and up to 100 taken prisoner. Survivors straggled back to Cox’s main force at Gauley Bridge. This engagement emboldened Floyd and increased his animosity toward Wise.

Wise continued asking to be permanently separated from Floyd, prompting Lee to respond that Floyd’s “Army of Kanawha is too small for active and successful operation to be divided at present. I beg, therefore, for the sake of the cause you have so much at heart, you will permit no division of sentiment or action to disturb its harmony or arrest its efficiency.”

By the end of August, Cox’s Federals held Gauley Bridge, with Wise’s Legion to the east at Dogwood Gap and Floyd’s Confederates to the northeast at Carnifex Ferry. Floyd expected Cox to retreat back into the Kanawha Valley, but he received intelligence on the 31st that Cox was advancing to confront his force. Floyd responded by ordering Wise to reinforce him. When Wise discovered that this intelligence was false, he ignored Floyd’s order. The hostility between Floyd and Wise continued until finally boiling over in September.


References; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 62-63; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 53, 56, 58, 60; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 2733, 2826-37; Guelzo, Allen C, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 113-14; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 103-04, 108; Pritchard, Russ A., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 407


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