In late October, Brigadier-General Benjamin F. Kelley, commanding the Federal Department of West Virginia, received orders to clear Confederates out of Lewisburg and destroy the East Tennessee & Virginia Railroad. The railroad was being used by the Confederates to transport troops and supplies between Virginia and the Western Theater. Kelley gave this assignment to Brigadier-General William W. Averell, whose command was stationed around Beverly.
On November 1, Averell led some 3,800 men (two mounted infantry regiments, four cavalry regiments, and an artillery battery) southward toward the Greenbrier River Valley. Two days later, Brigadier-General Alfred N.A. Duffie led about 1,000 Federals out of Charleston, West Virginia, and moved southeast to link with Averell at Lewisburg. Once united, they were to continue forward and destroy the railroad bridge over the New River. This would seriously disrupt communications between Confederates in Virginia and Lieutenant-General James Longstreet’s detached corps currently advancing on Knoxville in eastern Tennessee.
Averell’s Federals advanced on the Staunton Pike to Greenbrier Bridge, and then moved through Camp Bartow and Green Bank. Under continuous harassment from Confederate partisans, the Federals reached Huntersville around noon on the 4th. Averell dispatched two cavalry regiments to destroy a 600-man Confederate force guarding Marling Bottom.
The Confederates were led by Colonel William J. Jackson. He was a cousin of the late Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, but he did not have his troops’ respect as “Stonewall” had, and was thus nicknamed “Mudwall.” Jackson fell back to Mill Point and requested reinforcements from Brigadier-General John Echols, who commanded an infantry brigade at Lewisburg.
Averell tried cutting Jackson off the next day but failed, and the Confederates withdrew to the crest of Droop Mountain, about 24 miles north of Lewisburg. Echols led his 1,700 troops and six cannon out to reinforce Jackson; they arrived on the 6th and Echols assumed overall command. This combined Confederate force ascended the western summit of Droop Mountain and formed a line of battle at 9 a.m., with infantry on the right (eastern) flank, artillery in the center, and Jackson’s cavalry on the left. According to Averell’s report:
“On the morning of the 6th, we approached the enemy’s position. The main road to Lewisburg runs over Droop Mountain, the northern slope of which is partially cultivated nearly to the summit, a distance of 2 1/2 miles from the foot. The highway is partially hidden in the views from the summit and base in strips of woodland. It is necessary to pass over low rolling hills and across bewildering ravines to reach the mountain in any direction.”
Averell opted not to attack directly. He instead sent his infantry and a cavalry company around the Confederates’ left to attack their flank and rear. Meanwhile, the artillery would demonstrate against the rest of Echols’s force. The guns opened around 11 a.m., beginning the engagement. A guide failed to lead the flanking troops around Jackson’s horsemen, and they began trading fire around 1:45 p.m.
Averell determined from the sounds of fighting and the “disturbed appearance” in the Confederate front to bring up his dismounted cavalry to link with the infantry and assault the enemy center. He also brought up the rest of his artillery as Echols moved his Confederates behind breastworks. The Confederates at the far left began falling back toward the center, which formed a vulnerable angle in the defense line. Echols shifted troops to strengthen that sector, but Confederates in the center and on the right were being hard pressed as well.
A Federal signalman notified Averell of the wavering in the Confederate line around 3 p.m. Averell responded by bringing up the rest of his guns and his cavalry reserves. The Federals penetrated both Confederate flanks, and when Echols learned that Duffie’s Federals were heading his way, he ordered a withdrawal down the south side of the mountain. The movement began in orderly fashion, but when the road to Lewisburg became clogged, many Confederates fled into the woods.
Averell directed a pursuit, but it was halted by darkness. The Federals captured a cannon and a battle flag in their victory. Echols raced to get through Lewisburg before Duffie’s Federals could get there; Echols had to cover 28 miles before Duffie could move 10. Echols won the race nonetheless, with his rear guard moving through town around 7 a.m. on the 7th, two hours before Duffie’s vanguard arrived. Averell reached the town at 4:30 p.m. and learned from Duffie, who had just arrived, that Echols was gone.
This was one of the largest engagements to take place in West Virginia. The Federals sustained 140 casualties (45 killed, 93 wounded, and two captured), while the Confederates lost 255 (33 killed, 100 wounded, and 122 missing). The Federals destroyed vast amounts of Confederate supplies and, on Sunday the 8th, they advanced toward Dublin based on intelligence that Echols’s men were regrouping there.
The Federals soon stopped, as Averell reported of a “formidable blockade” of the roads by felled trees and other obstructions. He also alleged that Duffie’s infantry was “unfit for further operations.” Duffie’s report contradicted this; he stated that he would have continued the pursuit had he not “received an order from General Averell to return.” This ended the expedition.
Averell announced that he had won a decisive victory at Droop Mountain, “and the enemy’s retreat became a total rout.” But Duffie had a different viewpoint: “Had General Averell, instead of attacking the enemy in force and making a general engagement, engaged him lightly, detaining him until my command reached Lewisburg, it is my opinion that we might have captured the entire rebel force.” Some criticized Averell for lacking the drive to continue his pursuit of Echols.
The Federal victory at Droop Mountain raised troop morale, but the main goal of destroying the East Tennessee & Virginia Railroad was not accomplished. Moreover, Echols’s Confederate force was allowed to retreat intact, and when the Federals returned to their bases, Echols reclaimed Lewisburg, thereby returning the military situation in West Virginia to exactly what it was before the battle. Thus, the victory was not as decisive as Averell claimed.
- 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.
- Wert, Jeffry D. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.