Major General George B. McClellan, commanding the Federal Department of the Ohio, had envisioned a two-pronged Federal advance into western Virginia. The first prong, led by McClellan himself, had routed the Confederate Army of the Northwest at Rich Mountain and now held positions around Beverly. The second prong was to wipe Confederate resistance out of the Great Kanawha Valley.
In early July, McClellan assigned Brigadier General Jacob D. Cox to lead a force of 2,500 men that would become the second prong. Cox’s men were to leave Camp Dennison near Cincinnati and move up the Ohio River to Point Pleasant. From there, they would advance into western Virginia 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 who had joined from nearby counties.
- General John B. Floyd, another former Virginia governor and former U.S. secretary of war, led a force 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. McClellan reported to Washington: “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.” As the Federals closed in on Charleston, Floyd was ordered to support Wise.
The forces of Cox and Wise clashed at Scary Creek, west of Charleston, on the 17th. Both sides exchanged volleys before the Federals tried a flank attack, but Confederate reinforcements came up and pushed them back to their camp on the Pocatalico River. The Federals sustained 45 casualties (10 killed and 35 wounded), and the Confederates lost 10 (four killed and six wounded). This minor engagement stalled Cox’s advance and gave Wise and Floyd more time to join forces.
When McClellan learned of Cox’s setback, he ordered Cox to hold his position until Federal reinforcements could arrive and confront Wise from the north. McClellan reported that Cox had been “checked on the Kanawha,” but the engagement at Scary Creek had been “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’s men continued forward to the Kanawha River and traded shots with the Confederates on the other side. When Cox brought up a cannon, the Confederates withdrew into the woods. A Federal detachment pursued but could not find Wise’s men, who had retreated toward Gauley Bridge. This left Charleston and the Kanawha Valley in Federal hands.
The “Kanawha Brigade” entered Charleston the next day and received the surrender of Mayor Jacob Goshom and city officials. 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 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. But nearby coal barges remained intact, and they could be easily converted into bridges of their own.
The loss of Charleston, combined with the earlier defeat at Rich Mountain, was disastrous for the Confederate cause in western Virginia. The Federals now controlled all the valuable railroads, waterways, and coal and salt mines in the region. They also established a strong staging area for potential invasions of the Shenandoah Valley and eastern Virginia. These defeats alarmed Confederate officials so much that they sent Major General Robert E. Lee, military advisor to President Jefferson Davis, to inspect operations in western Virginia. Davis hoped that Lee “would be able to retrieve the disaster we had suffered… and, by combining all our forces in western Virginia on one plan of operations, give protection to that portion of our country.”
Lee would work with Brigadier General William W. Loring, whom 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 two-fold: to determine whether the Army of the Northwest could take the offensive, and to coordinate the efforts of the three western Virginia commands (Loring’s, Wise’s, and Floyd’s).
Back in the Kanawha Valley, Cox’s Federals continued moving eastward out of Charleston in pursuit of Wise’s troops. Skirmishing took place along the way. With Cox within 10 miles, the Confederates burned the Gauley Bridge spanning the James River, along the Kanawha Turnpike. Wise hoped that this would buy him enough time to join forces with Floyd at White Sulphur Springs, 75 miles away.
The Federals reached the Gauley Bridge on the morning of the 29th and captured enemy supplies that had not burned. Destroying the bridge did prevent Cox from continuing his pursuit, but unbeknownst to Wise, Cox had been ordered to stop at the bridge anyway. The Federal mission to clear the Confederates out of the Kanawha Valley had been accomplished. However, the Federals would soon learn that residents of the Gauley Valley region were much more sympathetic to the Confederate cause than most other western Virginians.
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. Loring resented the fact that Lee, whom he had ranked in the U.S. Army, now ranked him. Lee was aware of this and delicately urged Loring to take command of the 10,000-man army and launch an offensive to push the Federals out of the Greenbrier Valley 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 (out of deference to Loring) he took indirect 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 by defeat while struggling with incessant rain and an outbreak of measles. He complied with a request from ladies of Augusta County to present a flag to the 21st Virginia, but he told a regimental captain, “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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- Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. Kindle Edition 2008, 1889.
- Davis, William C., First Blood: Fort Sumter to Bull Run. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
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