While Brigadier General William S. Rosecrans’s Federals operated near Carnifex Ferry, the Confederate Army of the Northwest operated against Federals stationed on Cheat Mountain to the north. General Robert E. Lee, the unofficial commander of all Confederates in western Virginia, considered Cheat Mountain a key position because it overlooked several mountain passes as well as the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike. However, Confederate movements had been hampered by drenching seasonal rains and rough terrain. Major General William W. Loring, commanding the Army of the Northwest, resented Lee’s presence because he had ranked Lee in the U.S. Army, and that did not help Confederate matters either.
Brigadier General Joseph J. Reynolds commanded the 9,000 Federals atop Cheat Mountain. Reynolds was outnumbered by Loring’s 15,000-man army, but he held strong defensive positions. Moreover, the Confederates were divided: one wing faced Reynolds from Traveler’s Repose to the east, while another faced Reynolds from 10 miles south at Valley Mountain, along the Huntersville Turnpike.
Lee resolved to attack Reynolds’s right flank, and on September 8 he issued Special Orders Number 28 through Loring. This complex plan involved moving all five Confederate brigades in different directions:
- Colonel Albert Rust of the 3rd Arkansas would secretly lead 2,000 men along a hidden route to attack Colonel Nathan Kimball’s 14th Indiana isolated on Cheat Summit.
- Brigadier General Samuel R. Anderson’s men would advance on the western crest of Cheat Mountain and seize the road from the Tygart Valley behind Cheat Summit.
- Brigadier General Henry R. Jackson’s men would advance on the mountain’s east side once Rust opened the path, then prepare to move up the turnpike.
- Loring’s three remaining brigades (in two columns) would confront five Federal regiments guarding the turnpike west of Kimball’s men at Elkwater in the Tygart Valley.
The five Confederate columns began advancing early on the 11th, struggling through rocky terrain, thick forests, and deep mud. Rust’s brigade endured freezing rain to reach a ridge about a mile from the Federal right. Another column skirmished at Conrad’s Mill until the Federals withdrew to Elkwater. Anderson’s men reached the slope of Cheat Mountain but did not attack, fearing they were outnumbered. Loring marched a column north on the Huntersville Turnpike, while Jackson moved west on the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike from Traveler’s Repose.
By nightfall, all five Confederate brigades were in position, with 5,000 men almost encircling 3,000 Federals. Lee entrusted Rust, who had very little military experience, to open the assault at dawn the next day. The sound of his men firing would signal the remaining Confederates to attack.
When the Federals woke on the 12th, they were unaware that they had been nearly surrounded. Confederates pressed them at Elkwater and seized the road from the Tygart Valley as planned, but they stopped and waited for Rust’s signal to open the general assault by attacking the Federal right. Rust hesitated because captured Federal pickets had falsely boasted that he would be facing 5,000 men behind strong fortifications (in reality, only 300 Federals faced Rust’s 2,000). Rust observed the positions from a clearing, seeing a blockhouse along with trenches and wooden spikes defending the fort. Rust declared it was “madness” to attack. When two Indiana companies fired at Rust’s troops, they broke and fled.
Lee awaited Rust’s signal from just above Elkwater until he realized that the element of surprise had been lost. Also, increasing rain and hunger were ruining Confederate morale. As Lee ordered a withdrawal, the Confederates clashed with Federal troops in a heavy exchange before running into Anderson’s rear and then taking up defensive positions. Meanwhile, the remaining two Confederate brigades still waited for Rust’s signal. The day ended in confusion on both sides, with many Confederates exhausted from exposure to the elements.
Lee and Loring met early on the 13th to discuss their next move. Unwilling to concede defeat, Lee ordered a reconnaissance in force to see if it was still feasible to attack the Federal right flank. One of the scouting parties sent to reconnoiter was led by Lee’s son Rooney and Lieutenant Colonel John A. Washington, Lee’s aide-de-camp and great-grandnephew of George Washington. Indiana troops fired on the party, killing Washington while Rooney and the others escaped.
The Federals identified Washington and brought his body back to their camp. They distributed his belongings as souvenirs and carved out a plaque where he was killed: “Under this tree, on the 13th of Sept., 1861, fell Col. John A. Washington, the degenerate descendant of the Father of his Country.” Washington’s body was returned to the Confederates under a flag of truce the next day.
Lee finally heard from Rust on the 14th, who explained that he did not attack as ordered because he was badly outnumbered, and he had determined that “the expedition against Cheat Mountain failed.” In reality, Rust just lost his nerve, and this destroyed not only the element of surprise, but Confederate morale. Federals sustained 81 casualties (21 killed and 60) in the action. Confederates lost about 100.
Lee considered launching another attack, but the relentless rain, along with damaged morale and the growing presence of Federals in the region prompted him to begin withdrawing on the 15th. Lee’s orders announced that his men had “completed” a “forced reconnaissance of the enemy’s positions” without mentioning the original plan of attack that had failed.
The complex plan, the poor weather, and the failure of commanders to properly follow orders made Lee’s Cheat Mountain expedition a failure. Even worse, Lee had made no substantial gains for the Confederacy in western Virginia since arriving in the region six weeks prior. The Cheat Mountain disappointment and the Carnifex Ferry setback eventually deprived the Confederacy of the vast resources (salt and lead works, coal mines, water power, etc.) of western Virginia. Lee received harsh criticism from both the Confederate press and his own men, who nicknamed him “Granny Lee” for his seemingly feeble effort to take Cheat Mountain.
The Confederates returned to their original camps at Valley Mountain, south of Elkwater, and Traveler’s Repose, east of Cheat Mountain. Lee soon ordered Loring to lead his Army of the Northwest toward the Kanawha to help the Confederates facing Rosecrans. This allowed Reynolds’s Federals to claim undisputed control of the Allegheny passes and enabled them to expand their foothold into all of northwestern Virginia as well.
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