Since the engagement at Carnifex Ferry, the Confederate Army of the Kanawha had fallen back about 20 miles to the Big Sewell Mountain. However, the army remained divided between hostile rivals John B. Floyd and Henry A. Wise. Floyd set up camp atop the mountain, while Wise’s Legion camped a mile and a half further east on a bluff that he believed was easier to defend.
Floyd, the overall commander, directed Wise to post cavalry so that Floyd “may be reliably and speedily informed of the advance of the enemy.” Floyd worried that the Federal forces under Generals William S. Rosecrans and Jacob D. Cox would link and attack him. When Wise showed reluctance to comply, Floyd registered another angry complaint about him with President Jefferson Davis.
Floyd told Davis that it was “impossible for me to conduct a campaign with General Wise attached to my command. His presence with my force is almost as injurious as if he were in the camp of the enemy with his whole command… (the) petty jealousy of General Wise; his utter ignorance of all military rule and discipline; the peculiar contrariness of his character and disposition, are beginning to produce rapidly a disorganization which will prove fatal to the interests of the army if not arrested at once.” But then Floyd acknowledged that arresting Wise “would not have cured the evil, for he has around him a set of men extremely like himself, and the demoralization of his corps I incline to think is complete.”
The enmity between Floyd and Wise had been steadily growing for nearly two months, and now Floyd clearly implied that Davis would have to replace one of them. While the letter was in transit, Floyd and Wise met at a council of war at 5 p.m. on September 16. When Floyd expressed concern that the Federals would attack his positions, Wise stated that Floyd’s positions were “indefensible” while Wise’s were “almost impregnable.”
Wise advised Floyd to fall back and link with the Legion in a line anchored on the New River. Floyd said that he would consider the proposal, but almost immediately after the conference ended, he sent a message to Wise stating that “it has been determined to fall back to the most defensible point between Meadow Bluff (25 miles east) and Lewisburg (40 miles east).”
Floyd announced that he would put “his column in motion at once,” and ordered Wise to keep his “command in readiness to bring up the rear.” Wise, recalling how Floyd had condemned him for retreating out of the Kanawha Valley, announced to his troops, “Men, look who is retreating now? John B. Floyd, God-damn him, the bullet-hit son of a bitch, he is retreating now!”
Wise ignored Floyd’s order, keeping his men at what became known as Camp Defiance. When Floyd questioned why Wise had not moved, Wise explained that Floyd had merely ordered him to “hold his command in readiness to bring up the rear,” which Wise was doing. Wise assured Floyd that he could easily hold off 4,000 Federals from his entrenchments on the Big Sewell Mountain and asked Floyd to send him reinforcements.
Floyd replied that he had “been aware for several days of the advance of the enemy,” and he had withdrawn to Meadow Bluff because he guessed that Rosecrans and Cox would link there. Floyd then admonished Wise: “I regret exceedingly that you did not think proper to bring up my rear, but on the contrary chose to advance in the direction from which I had come.” Since keeping the army separate could have “disastrous consequences,” Floyd again asked Wise “to join my force and make a stand against the enemy at this point.”
General Robert E. Lee, the unofficial commander of Confederates in western Virginia, traveled 100 miles to Floyd’s headquarters at Meadow Bluff on the 21st. Lee initially took Floyd’s side in the dispute, urging Wise to come join him. However, Lee personally inspected Wise’s positions and found them militarily sound and strong.
When Lee suggested that the Federals may attack Floyd at Meadow Bluff, Wise called it “simply absurd” and insisted that Rosecrans was moving against Wise’s Legion: “I tell you emphatically, sir, the enemy are advancing in strong force on this (the James River & Kanawha) turnpike.” Lee stated that Wise could make a stand if he wished, but if the Federals attacked at Meadow Bluff, “General Floyd cannot advance to your aid, but may have to retire.”
The strain of dealing with these bickering commanders while under Federal military pressure in the harsh western Virginia climate began to get to Lee. When a lieutenant in Wise’s Legion asked Lee where the ordnance chief was, the general snapped: “I think it very strange, Lieutenant, that an officer of this command, which has been there a week, should come to me, who am just arrived, to ask who his ordnance officer is and where to find his ammunition. This is in keeping with everything else I find here–no order, no organization; nobody knows where anything is, no one understands his duty; officers and men alike are equally ignorant. This will not do.”
Although Lee condemned the disorganization among Wise’s Legion, he acknowledged that the men held strong defenses. Lee notified Floyd that Wise’s line “was a strong point, if they fight us here… they can get no position for their artillery, and their men I think will not advance without it…” Lee asked Floyd to send reinforcements; he could not order Floyd to do so because Wise had disobeyed Floyd by staying at the Big Sewell Mountain in the first place.
This dilemma would finally be settled on September 25, by which time Floyd’s letter of complaint had reached Richmond. Confederate officials had already blamed Wise for failing to reinforce Floyd at Carnifex Ferry, and now they moved to settle the quarrel once and for all. Acting Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin issued two messages. The first went to Floyd, complimenting his handling of the Carnifex Ferry engagement in spite of Wise’s lack of support.
The second went to Wise: “You are instructed to turn over all the troops heretofore immediately under your command to General Floyd, and report yourself in person to the Adjutant-General in this city (Richmond) with the least delay. In making the transfer to General Floyd you will include everything under your command. By order of the President: J.P. BENJAMIN.”
The order reached Wise as he was directing fire against Federal skirmishers. Wise, who did not want to relinquish command “immediately” since his men were in combat, consulted Lee, who advised him to “obey the President’s order.” That evening, Wise wrote a farewell address to his men:
“It is not proper here to inquire into the reasons of this order. It is in legal form, from competent authority, and it could not have been foreseen by the President that it would reach me inopportunely whilst under the fire of the enemy… But the order is imperative, requiring the least delay, and prompt obedience is the first duty of military service, though it may call for the greatest personal sacrifice.”
Wise left his command on the morning of the 26th in torrential rain. Lee assumed temporary command of Wise’s Legion, and the overall Confederate command structure in western Virginia quickly became more harmonious. Lee continued holding the Big Sewell Mountain as Rosecrans and Cox joined forces against him. Lee and Rosecrans now held opposing spurs on the mountain, separated by a mile-wide valley.
Advance elements of Brigadier General William W. Loring’s Confederate Army of the Northwest, after participating in the failed Cheat Mountain operation, reinforced Lee on Big Sewell. However, the force still proved ineffective due to rain, illness, the harsh terrain, and Federal strength. Moreover, Floyd’s command remained separated, standing ready to defend Meadow Bluff.
Nevertheless, Lee wrote to Floyd on the 30th: “I begin to fear the enemy will not attack us. We shall therefore have to attack him.” Lee planned to move around Rosecrans’s flank and attack his rear, but only if he could first get a week’s rations. This would prove extremely difficult because rain had turned the James River & Kanawha Turnpike, which both Lee and Rosecrans used to collect supplies, into what Floyd called “the worst road in Virginia.”
Lee was forced to pull supplies from Lewisburg (25 miles east) and Staunton (100 miles east), while Rosecrans’s supplies had to be shipped up the Kanawha River from Charleston and then taken by wagon from Gauley Bridge to Big Sewell. Meanwhile, officers and men alike suffered grievously in the bitter cold and rain of mountainous western Virginia.
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