September 15, 1861 – While Brigadier General William S. Rosecrans’s Federals operated against Confederates near Carnifex Ferry, another Confederate force to the north targeted Federals stationed on Cheat Mountain.
General Robert E. Lee, the unofficial commander of all Confederate forces in western Virginia, directed General William W. Loring’s 15,000-man Army of the Northwest to move against Federals stationed on Cheat Mountain. Lee considered this a key position because it overlooked several mountain passes as well as the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike. However, the Confederates had been hampered by drenching seasonal rains and rough terrain. Loring’s resentment of Lee’s presence (Loring had outranked Lee when they were both in the U.S. army) did not help matters either.
Brigadier General Joseph J. Reynolds’s 9,000 Federals atop Cheat Mountain were outnumbered, but the Confederate army was divided. One wing faced Reynolds from Traveler’s Repose to the east, and another faced Reynolds from 10 miles south at Valley Mountain, along the Huntersville Turnpike.
Resolving to attack the Federals’ right flank, Lee issued Special Orders No. 28 through Loring. This complex plan put all five army brigades in motion in various directions:
- Colonel Albert Rust of the 3rd Arkansas would secretly lead 2,000 men along a hidden route to attack Colonel Nathan Kimball’s 14th Indiana isolated on Cheat Summit.
- Brigadier General Samuel R. Anderson’s men would advance on the western crest of Cheat Mountain and seize the road from Tygart’s Valley behind Cheat Summit.
- Brigadier General Henry R. Jackson’s men would advance on the mountain’s east side once Rust opened the path, then prepare to move up the turnpike.
- Lee’s three remaining brigades (in two columns) would confront five Federal regiments under Brigadier General Joseph J. Reynolds guarding the turnpike west of Kimball’s men at Elkwater in the Tygart Valley.
The five Confederate columns began advancing early on September 11, struggling through the woods, hills, and mud in cold rain. Despite the harsh elements, all five brigades reached their designated positions by nightfall, with some skirmishing taking place at Conrad’s Mill. Lee entrusted Rust, who had very little military experience, to open the assault at dawn the next day. The sound of his men firing would signal the remaining troops to attack.
When the Federals awoke on the 12th, they were unaware that they had been nearly surrounded. Confederates pressed them at Elkwater and seized the wagon road as planned, but they stopped to wait for Rust to open the general engagement. Before Rust attacked, his troops captured some Federal pickets who falsely boasted that 5,000 comrades were waiting for an attack within strong fortifications. Rust observed the defenses and concluded that it was “madness” to attack. When two Indiana companies fired at Rust’s troops, they broke and fled.
Near Elkwater, Lee waited for the signal until he realized that the element of surprise had been lost. As he ordered a withdrawal, his Confederates clashed with Federal troops in a heavy exchange before running into Anderson’s rear and then taking up defensive positions. Meanwhile, the remaining two Confederate brigades still awaited Rust’s signal. The day ended in confusion on both sides, with many Confederates heavily fatigued from exposure to the elements.
Lee and Loring met early on September 13 to discuss their next move. Unwilling to concede defeat, Lee ordered a reconnaissance in force to see if it was still feasible to attack the Federal right flank. One of the scouting parties sent to reconnoiter was led by Lee’s son Rooney and Lee’s aide-de-camp Lieutenant Colonel John A. Washington, great-grandnephew of George Washington. Indiana troops fired on the party, killing Washington while Rooney and the others escaped.
Learning Washington’s identity, the Federals brought the body back to camp, distributed his belongings as souvenirs, and carved out a plaque where he was killed: “Under this tree, on the 13th of Sept., 1861, fell Col. John A. Washington, the degenerate descendant of the Father of his Country.” Federals returned Washington’s body to the Confederates under a flag of truce the next day.
Lee finally learned on the 14th that Rust did not launch his surprise attack because he had determined that “the expedition against Cheat Mountain failed.” In reality, Rust lost his nerve. Although he had 2,000 men against just 300, Rust allowed Federal prisoners to convince him that they badly outnumbered his force. This destroyed not only the element of surprise, but Confederate morale. Federals sustained 81 casualties (21 killed and 60) in the action. Confederates lost about 100.
Lee considered launching another attack, but the relentless rain, along with damaged morale and the growing presence of Federals in the region prompted him to begin withdrawing on September 15. Lee’s orders announced that his men had “completed” a “forced reconnaissance of the enemy’s positions” without mentioning the original plan of attack that had failed.
The complex plan, the poor weather, and the failure of commanders to properly execute made Lee’s Cheat Mountain expedition a failure. Even worse, Lee had made no substantial gains for the Confederacy in western Virginia since arriving in the region six weeks before.
The Cheat Mountain disappointment and the Carnifex Ferry setback eventually deprived the Confederacy of the vast resources (salt and lead works, coal mines, water power, etc.) of western Virginia. Lee received harsh criticism from both the Confederate press and his own men, who nicknamed him “Granny” for his seemingly feeble effort to take Cheat Mountain.
The Confederates returned to the original positions at Traveler’s Repose and Valley Mountain. Lee soon ordered Loring to lead his Army of the Northwest toward the Kanawha to help Floyd and Wise in confronting Rosecrans. This allowed Reynolds’s Federals to claim undisputed control of the Allegheny passes and enabled them to expand their foothold into all northwestern Virginia as well.
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