As of June 20, the dispositions of the Federal and Confederate forces in western Virginia were as follows:
- The main Federal force in western Virginia, led by Brigadier General William S. Rosecrans, was at Grafton. Major General George B. McClellan, the overall commander of all Federals in the region, was on his way to take personal command there.
- Brigadier General Robert S. Garnett’s Confederate Army of the Northwest was at Laurel Hill and Rich Mountain, ready to oppose McClellan’s impending advance.
- A detachment of the main Federal force, consisting of Colonel Lew Wallace’s 11th Indiana Zouaves, was at Cumberland, Maryland.
- Major General Robert Patterson, commanding the Federal Army of the Shenandoah, had the bulk of his force at Williamsport, Maryland, while he looked to move down the Potomac River to Leesburg, Virginia. From there, he could threaten the flank of Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard’s Army of the Potomac at Manassas Junction.
- The main portion of General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate army was stationed between Martinsburg and Winchester.
- A detachment of Johnston’s army under Colonel A.P. Hill was at Romney.
- Johnston’s 1st Brigade under Colonel Thomas J. Jackson was advancing on Martinsburg with orders to destroy the vital Baltimore & Ohio Railroad depots before they fell into Federal hands. They were also to support Colonel J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry operating in the area, and to watch for a possible advance by Patterson from Williamsport, 15 miles northeast.
- Brigadier General Henry A. Wise’s Confederate Army of the Kanawha was in the Kanawha Valley, waiting to oppose an advance from Brigadier General Jacob D. Cox’s Federals moving east toward Staunton.
Around noon on the 20th, Jackson’s forces entered Martinsburg. Confederates were generally disliked by western Virginians; one soldier called the region “the meanest Abolition hole on the face of the earth, Martinsburg especially.” The Confederates quickly set about destroying the 56 locomotives and 305 coal cars in the town, while Federals across the Potomac did nothing to stop it.
Patterson notified General-in-Chief Winfield Scott of his desire to occupy Harpers Ferry, but cautioned that it might take some time for him to do so because there were unconfirmed (and untrue) rumors that Confederates had reoccupied the town. Some of Patterson’s Federals occupied Bakersville, four miles north of Sharpsburg, Maryland, with pickets stationed toward Sharpsburg and Mercerville.
Major General Robert E. Lee, overall commander of Virginia forces, issued General Orders No. 28 for Confederates who had been defeated at Philippi and Romney: “It is impossible that a surprise can take place if a due vigilance is exercised, and outposts and sentries are well established on the approaches to any given point and strictly perform their duty.” Noting that soldiers had “wasted their ammunition in the most reckless and shameful manner,” this “abominable practice” had led to several casualties. Lee instructed the men to “pay regard to the importance of carefully handling their arms and economizing their ammunition.”
Garnett, whose Confederates held Laurel Hill and Rich Mountain, requested two cavalry companies as reinforcements to defend against the growing Federal presence around Grafton and Philippi. Garnett also requested more artillery, preferably rifled. He claimed that Federal scouts had advanced to within three miles of his camp, and although they probably numbered no more than 7,000, they were still stronger than his force of only 4,500.
On the 21st, McClellan led 20,000 Federal troops in 27 infantry regiments, four batteries, and two cavalry troops into western Virginia. McClellan’s objectives included linking with his forces already posted in the Grafton-Philippi region, preventing Confederates from disrupting the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, confronting Garnett’s Confederate Army of the Northwest (and possibly Hill’s Confederates at Romney), and protecting Unionist civilians in the region.
That same day, Patterson submitted his plan of operations to Scott. The plan involved moving his army to Maryland Heights, opposite Harpers Ferry, with a detachment continuing on to Leesburg to join with Colonel Charles P. Stone’s forces. Scott generally agreed with this plan, and now waited for Major General Irvin McDowell, commanding the Federal Army of Northeastern Virginia at Arlington, to submit his proposals. Patterson began consolidating the Federals in Maryland by calling on Colonel Wallace’s 11th Indiana, though technically under McClellan, to move eastward and join him since Patterson was closer.
Beauregard received word of Patterson’s potential move on Leesburg and notified Confederate President Jefferson Davis: “The enemy appears to be aiming at Leesburg. I have sent another regiment there.” Davis in turn wrote to Johnston:
“If the enemy has withdrawn from your front to attack on the east side of the mountain, it may be that an attempt will be made to advance from Leesburg to seize the Manassas Gap road and to turn Beauregard’s position… In that event, if your scouts give you accurate and timely information, an opportunity will be offered to you by the roads through the mountain-passes to make a flank attack in conjunction with Beauregard’s column, and with God’s blessing to achieve a victory alike glorious and beneficial…”
McClellan arrived at Grafton early on the 23rd, and later that day he issued a proclamation to his army: “Soldiers! I have heard that there was danger here. I have come to place myself at your head and to share it with you. I fear now but one thing—that you will not find foemen worthy of your steel.” McClellan assigned 5,400 troops to guard the B&O line. He also warned his men not to embolden secessionists or do anything to undermine the new “restored” Unionist Virginia government: “Bear in mind that you are in the country of friends, that you are here to protect, not to destroy.”
McClellan gathered information and determined that A.P. Hill’s Confederates at Romney were there to stop the Federals from moving on Winchester. McClellan wanted Patterson to help him drive Hill out of Romney while he sent his main force against Garnett’s Confederates to “drive them into the mountains.” Once that was accomplished, McClellan planned to “clean out the Valley of the Kanawha.”
McClellan spent the next couple of days reorganizing his 20,000-man army. One column was at Philippi, one was at Grafton with orders to guard the Cheat River Bridge, and one was at Clarksburg, where McClellan was headquartered. Garnett had just 4,000 men guarding the mountain passes 20 miles south of Philippi. He wanted to destroy McClellan’s columns while they were separated, but he needed more men to do it. Garnett was also disadvantaged by a Unionist citizenry hostile to his army and reluctant to provide any intelligence regarding the enemy. Garnett reported:
“I have been, so far, wholly unable to get anything like accurate or reliable information as to the numbers, movements, or intentions of the enemy, and begin to believe it almost an impossible thing. The Union men are greatly in the ascendency here, and are much more zealous and active in their cause than the secessionists. The enemy are kept fully advised of our movements, even to the strength of our scouts and pickets, by the country people, while we are compelled to grope in the dark as much as if we were invading a foreign and hostile country.”
Meanwhile, Patterson’s Federals reconnoitered the area around Maryland Heights and Williamsport, and received word that there were 25,000 Confederates between Williamsport and Winchester. He asked Scott for permission to attack the force at Martinsburg and drive it south to Winchester. However, Patterson acknowledged that Scott might not allow him to do this because it could cause the Confederates to retreat east and reinforce Beauregard’s army at Manassas.
At Martinsburg, Jackson’s Confederates finished destroying the B&O line along with the buildings, shops, and roundhouse. There was a strategic purpose behind this destruction, but Marylanders who depended on this railroad condemned the troops as vandals. Jackson had opposed the move from the outset, but he dutifully carried out Johnston’s orders. Jackson did arrange for any salvageable locomotives to be sent to Strasburg for repair so they could be used by the Confederacy.
On the 27th, McClellan began moving his Federals out of Clarksburg to confront Garnett, with one brigade under Rosecrans heading for Buckhannon, 30 miles south. The advance was slowed by Federals stringing up telegraph lines as they went so they could maintain communications with headquarters. Rosecrans reached Buckhannon on the 30th, and using the newly strung line, he reported to McClellan that the roads had been secured and the march a success.
At Hagerstown, Patterson sent a reconnaissance to Williamsport to determine whether his army could cross the Potomac and defeat the Confederates in the vicinity. Scott had supposedly sent orders for Patterson to cross into Virginia, and he sent another message asking why Patterson had not yet crossed. Patterson claimed to have never received the crossing order.
Patterson then explained to Scott that he had been told that Johnston’s force was estimated at 15,000 men, which was larger than his 14,000-man army. Johnston also supposedly had 22 guns to Patterson’s six. But in reality, Johnston only had 10,600 men scattered among various detachments, and of these only 278 were artillerymen.
On the 29th, Patterson received word that some 2,000 Confederates had reentered Harpers Ferry and seized Maryland Heights across the Potomac. Patterson pondered whether the Confederates intended to advance into Maryland via Sharpsburg. However, Colonel Stone asserted that there were no Confederates at Harpers Ferry, even though Patterson’s scouts reported that Confederates had entered the town around 3 a.m.
The next day, Patterson was informed that he would be receiving more troops and artillery. Based on this, he was now finally confident that he could move into Virginia successfully. He reported to Scott: “I cross at daylight to-morrow morning.”
- Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
- Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), The Coming Fury: Centennial History of the Civil War Book 1. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1961.
- Davis, William C., First Blood: Fort Sumter to Bull Run. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
- Johnston, Joseph E., Narrative of Military Operations During the Civil War. Sharpe Books, Kindle Edition, 2014.
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- Wert, Jeffry D. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.