As September began, Confederate Brigadier General Henry A. Wise led the main portion of his “Legion” from Dogwood Gap to reinforce Brigadier General John B. Floyd’s Confederate Army of the Kanawha at Carnifex Ferry in western Virginia. Wise had already made the 17-mile march in August, only to be sent back by Floyd upon arriving. But now Floyd called him up again, fearing that the Federals at Gauley Bridge might be massing to attack him.
As Wise’s Confederates reached the cliffs overlooking the Gauley River, Wise received a message from Floyd: “From more recent information I think it doubtful whether the movements of the enemy require at this time the union of your force with mine, as embraced in my last order to you late in the evening. You will therefore retain your forces in camp until further orders.”
Furious about having to countermarch a second time, Wise wrote to Confederate Secretary of War LeRoy P. Walker: “I was so disgusted by these vacillating and harassing orders, that I determined at once with promptitude and dispatch to drive the enemy as far as possible back upon the turnpike towards their camp at Gauley Bridge.” Wise’s Legion returned to Dogwood Gap on the night of September 1, where Wise began planning to attack Brigadier General Jacob D. Cox’s Federal advance guard.
Meanwhile, Cox observed Wise’s activity about 15 miles east. Cox also observed two Confederate militia units nearby, one southwest of him in Boone County and one about 15 miles southeast of him at Fayette Court House. Cox issued orders for a detachment to confront the Boone County militia because they threatened his communication lines to Ohio.
On the 2nd, Cox’s detachment clashed with the militia at Boone County Court House, where the Federals drove the enemy off after the militia burned the town. Federals suffered six casualties; Cox estimated Confederate losses at 50 but they were probably fewer.
Meanwhile, Wise led his Legion westward to attack Cox. Federal pickets sporadically fired at them before withdrawing toward Gauley Bridge. Wise arrived at Hawks Nest and seized the bridge spanning Turkey Creek by the night of the 2nd. Wise hoped to join forces with the militia at Fayette Court House, but Floyd ordered that unit to move west toward Charleston.
Wise’s 900 Confederates advanced on about 1,250 Federals in defensive positions near Big Creek on the 3rd. Wise drove the Federal advance guard over a steep mountain as he deployed 300 troops to move around the Federal flank. Atop the mountain, Wise prepared to fire into the Federal camps below when he learned that his flanking force had gotten lost. This compelled him to pull his Legion back to Hawks Nest.
While Wise pushed the Federals from the east, the Confederate militia harassed the Federals from the other side of the New River. This convinced Cox that Wise and the militia were acting in concert, even though the dual attack was merely coincidental. Cox also believed that Floyd was leaving Carnifex Ferry to reinforce Wise, when Floyd was actually gathering reinforcements to hold his position.
A standoff ensued, both between the Confederates and Cox at Gauley Bridge, and between Wise and Floyd. Floyd remained at Carnifex Ferry, while Wise’s troops remained at Hawks Nest and Miller’s Ferry. Confederate militia operated on the other side of the New River from Wise, giving Cox three forces to guard against. However, Major General William S. Rosecrans, commanding all Federals in western Virginia, was moving from Clarksburg with 5,000 men to reinforce Cox.
On the 6th, Wise planned to use the reinforcements that Floyd sent him to attack Cox, even though Floyd warned Wise that the reinforcements could be recalled at any time. Wise countered by informing Floyd that the troops “will not be removed at all from this road.” Meanwhile, Rosecrans issued orders for his Federals to move out from Sutton “in the direction of Summersville” and Floyd’s supposedly secure position at Carnifex Ferry, 45 miles south. With the other forces in motion, Cox reported to Rosecrans on the 7th: “Everything remains as it was. No news as yet.”
When Floyd learned that Rosecrans’s Federals were within about 15 miles of Carnifex Ferry, he sent a message to Wise at 8:30 a.m. on the 9th recalling the reinforcements. Floyd had just 1,600 Confederates to stand against Rosecrans’s 5,000. Wise sent just one regiment, refusing to give back all the men that Floyd had given him. Wise then wrote to General Robert E. Lee, the Confederate military advisor in western Virginia, complaining about Floyd.
Wise had written many similar letters, and Lee had given similar responses in each instance. Once again, he reminded Wise “how necessary it is to act upon reports touching the safety of troops, and that even rumors must not be neglected.” Lee expressed concern about Floyd’s position, but then he urged Wise to stop asking to be separated from Floyd. Lee wrote, “There must be a union of strength to drive back the invaders. I beg you will act in concert.”
That evening, Floyd again requested that Wise send him reinforcements upon learning from scouts that the Federals were advancing near Summersville, or “this side of Powell’s Mountain.” Rosecrans would arrive opposite Carnifex Ferry the next day.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 116