December 12, 1861 – Brigadier General Robert H. Milroy’s Federal advance from Cheat Mountain led to defeat in the last significant clash of the year in northwestern Virginia.
When General William W. Loring took most of his Confederate Army of the Northwest to reinforce General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley, he left behind about 1,200 men under Colonel Edward Johnson at Camp Allegheny atop Allegheny Mountain, along the Parkersburg-Staunton Turnpike. Milroy directed a portion of his 2,000-man force, stationed 20 miles west, to move against Johnson’s positions.
The Federals skirmished with enemy troops and seized some outposts along the Greenbrier River as the Confederates fell back to their main fort at Camp Allegheny. Milroy developed a plan to simultaneously attack the Confederate front and left. Milroy would lead three regiments directly against the camp while another two regiments under Colonel Gideon C. Moody moved 12 miles around the enemy left flank.
The Federals advanced the next day, but by that time Johnson had been warned of the approach and stationed pickets atop the mountain. The pickets fired on Milroy’s Federals as they began ascending the heavily wooded slope, hoping to get around the Confederate right near the turnpike. The Federals finally reached the summit, where they saw a strong line of defense in their front awaiting them.
Both sides exchanged fire but held their ground, despite portions of each line wavering at times. Federal ammunition began running low. Then Milroy, realizing that Moody’s Federals had never arrived to attack the Confederate left, finally decided to fall back. The Federals made one final charge, driving the Confederates back and giving Milroy enough room to disengage, collect their dead, and withdraw from the western face of Allegheny Mountain.
As Milroy’s men withdrew, Moody’s men finally advanced and attacked the Confederate left. The Federals could not break the strong Confederate defenses. Milroy arrived with some cavalry around 5 p.m. to assist, but by then it was too late. The collective Federal force moved back down the mountain and returned to their camp at Cheat Mountain. This sharp engagement cost the Federals 137 casualties (20 killed, 107 wounded, and 10 missing) out of about 1,800, while Confederates lost 146 (20 killed, 98 wounded, and 28 missing) out of 1,200.
Loring, with the main army at Staunton, ordered Johnson to hold Camp Allegheny. Johnson reported to the Confederate War Department:
“I cannot speak in terms too exaggerated of the unflinching courage and dashing gallantry of those 500 men, who contended from a quarter past 7 a.m., until a quarter to 2 p.m., against an immensely superior force of the enemy, and finally drove them from their position and pursued them a mile or more down the mountain.”
Johnson was promoted to brigadier general and nicknamed “Allegheny” Johnson.
This engagement effectively ended active operations in western Virginia for the winter. Later this month, Federal forces tightened their hold on the region by occupying Beckley and Suttonville.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 102; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 90, 94; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 148-49; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 180