As winter approached, action wound down in the bitter climate of northwestern Virginia. Brigadier General William W. Loring had taken three brigades of his Confederate Army of the Northwest to reinforce Brigadier General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley. He left behind about 1,200 men under Colonel Edward Johnson at Camp Allegheny atop Allegheny Mountain. They defended the Parkersburg-Staunton Turnpike, which led out of mountainous western Virginia into the Shenandoah. The camp was riddled with sickness and low morale.
A Federal brigade of some 2,000 men led by Brigadier General Robert H. Milroy was stationed 20 miles west of Camp Allegheny. The Federals had secured much of northwestern Virginia by this time, and now Milroy saw a prime opportunity to capitalize on this success by seizing the vital turnpike.
Advance elements of Milroy’s brigade skirmished with Confederate scouts on December 12 and captured some outposts on the Greenbrier River. The Confederates fell back to their main fort at Camp Allegheny. Milroy developed a plan in which he would lead three regiments directly against the enemy camp while another two regiments under Colonel Gideon C. Moody moved 12 miles around the Confederate left flank.
The Federals advanced the next day, but by that time Johnson had been warned of the approach and stationed pickets atop the mountain. Milroy’s force advanced up the Parkersburg-Staunton Turnpike and came under fire as they started scaling the heavily wooded western face of Allegheny Mountain. Milroy hoped to move his Federals around the Confederate right near the turnpike. They finally reached the summit, where a strong line of Confederate defenses awaited them.
For several hours, both sides exchanged fire but held their ground, despite portions of both lines wavering at times. Then Federal ammunition began running low, and Milroy realized that Moody’s force had not yet come up to attack the Confederate left. Milroy finally decided to fall back, but before doing so, the Federals made one last charge that drove the Confederates back and gave Milroy enough room to disengage, collect his dead and wounded, and withdraw from the mountain.
As Milroy’s men withdrew, Moody’s men finally came up and attacked the Confederate left. The Confederate commander, thinking that the advancing Federals were his returning pickets, ordered his men to hold their fire until the Federals fired into them. The commander was killed. Heavy fighting ensued, and when the Confederate line grew thin, Johnson pulled men from his disengaged right flank to reinforce his left. This line proved too strong to break. Milroy arrived with some cavalry around 5 p.m., but it was too late. The Federals moved back down the mountain and ultimately returned to their camp at Cheat Mountain.
A Confederate soldier later wrote:
“I had a splendid position in this battle and could see the whole fight without having to take any part in it, and I remember how I thought Colonel Johnson must be the most wonderful hero in the world, as I saw him at one point, where his men were hard pressed, snatch a musket in one hand and, swinging a big club in the other, he led his line right up among the enemy, driving them headlong down the mountain, killing and wounding many with the bayonet and capturing a large number of prisoners.”
This sharp engagement cost the Federals 137 casualties (20 killed, 107 wounded, and 10 missing) out of about 1,800, while Confederates lost 146 (20 killed, 98 wounded, and 28 missing) out of 1,200. Loring, with the main army at Staunton, ordered Johnson to hold Camp Allegheny. Johnson reported to the Confederate War Department: “I cannot speak in terms too exaggerated of the unflinching courage and dashing gallantry of those 500 men, who contended from a quarter past 7 a.m., until a quarter to 2 p.m., against an immensely superior force of the enemy, and finally drove them from their position and pursued them a mile or more down the mountain.” Johnson was promoted to brigadier general and nicknamed “Allegheny” Johnson.
Later this month, Federal forces tightened their hold on the region by occupying Beckley and Suttonville. Besides that, active operations in western Virginia were effectively ended for the winter.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (facsimile of the 1866 edition). New York: Fairfax Press, 1990.