Major General Robert E. Lee had come to western Virginia as a military advisor to Confederate President Jefferson Davis. While he had no authority to issue orders to the Confederate army 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 5,000-man Army of the Northwest under Brigadier General Henry R. Jackson, soon to be replaced by Brigadier General William W. Loring. This force was divided between Monterey and Huntersville.
- The 3,000-man Army of the Kanawha under Brigadier General John B. Floyd near Sweet Springs.
- Brigadier General Henry A. Wise’s 2,500-man “Legion” near Lewisburg, which was actually a portion of the Army of the Kanawha.
Wise had relinquished the Kanawha Valley by burning the Gauley Bridge and retreating toward Lewisburg. Floyd wanted to join forces with Wise, raise 10,000 volunteers, and push the Federals in the Valley back to the Ohio River. Floyd informed President Davis that recruiting volunteers should be easy because he had “never witnessed a better spirit than seems to be almost universal.” Lee urged Wise to join forces with Floyd, but Wise resisted because he did not get along with Floyd. Wise also reported that the Kanawha Valley was overrun by Unionists, and his men needed rest before they could join Floyd.
Lee visited Loring at his Huntersville headquarters and urged him to move against the Federals holding Cheat Mountain, about 40 miles to the north. From there, the Confederates could gain control of the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike, which gave them access to the vital Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. Loring had outranked Lee in the U.S. Army, and he resented Lee observing his operations and giving advice. He opted to stay put for now and regroup. Thus, it seemed that the three independent commands would remain so, which would render them ineffective against superior Federal forces. Adding to this was the unrelenting rains and unforgiving terrain of western Virginia.
On the Federal side, Brigadier General William S. Rosecrans was the overall commander in western Virginia. One of his forces held Cheat Mountain, with troops on the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike and within fortifications at Elkwater. Lee envisioned Loring’s Confederates attacking each Federal position separately. Federal General-in-Chief Winfield Scott, anticipating Lee’s plan, ordered Rosecrans to “push forward rapidly the fortifications” under construction.
A second Federal force held the Kanawha Valley under Brigadier General Jacob D. Cox. Cox’s Federals had chased Wise out of the Valley and stopped at the Gauley Bridge. Rosecrans began consolidating his forces at various points, and he sent reinforcements to Cox. When Rosecrans received orders to hold the Gauley Bridge with Cox’s men, he decided to reinforce Cheat Mountain while having Cox take up defensive positions. The Federals also worked to string telegraph wire so that Rosecrans could rapidly communicate with all his commands.
Floyd and Wise finally met for a council of war at White Sulphur Springs on the 6th. The men were political rivals, having both been former Virginia governors, and neither had much military experience. 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.” Nothing substantial was decided upon in this meeting.
Meanwhile, General Lee wrote to Brigadier General John J. Reynolds, commanding the 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.”
Reynolds responded the next day: “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.” 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 Loring’s army, but they could tell Loring where the Federal were positioned. Conversely, most Federal prisoners had been taken in the Battle of Bull Run, so they would most likely return to northern Virginia rather than reinforce Rosecrans. While the plan to exchange soldiers was held up, both sides agreed to exchange two non-combatants.
Lee then turned back to the Floyd-Wise situation. Wise had written to Lee asking that his command remain separated from Floyd’s (if they were to join forces, Floyd would have the higher rank). On the 8th, Lee responded that failing to unite would “destroy the prospect of the success of the campaign in the Kanawha District,” and he again suggested that the two commanders join forces.
That same day, Floyd informed Wise that he was planning to lead his Confederates back into the Kanawha Valley, and he asked Wise how many troops he could contribute to the movement. Wise replied with a verbose letter explaining why he could not move, and stating that he would provide exact numbers “very soon.” It was becoming more apparent that any cooperation between Floyd and Wise in the Valley would be impossible.
- Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee. Scribner, (Kindle Edition), 2008.
- Guelzo, Allen C., Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2004.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- Pritchard, Russ A. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.