Category Archives: West Virginia

The Droop Mountain Engagement

November 6, 1863 – An engagement occurred as part of Brigadier General William W. Averell’s Federal raid on Confederate supply lines in West Virginia.

Brig Gen W.W. Averell | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

On the 1st, Averell led 5,000 Federals (two mounted infantry regiments, four cavalry regiments, and an artillery battery) southward from Beverly toward Lewisburg in the Greenbrier River Valley. His goal was to destroy the East Tennessee & Virginia Railroad, which Major General Samuel Jones, commanding the Confederate Department of Southwestern Virginia, used to transport troops and supplies between Virginia and the west. Two days later, Brigadier General Alfred N.A. Duffie led 1,700 Federals out of Charleston, West Virginia, to link with Averell at Lewisburg.

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’s Bottom.

Colonel William J. Jackson led the Confederates. He was a cousin of the late Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, but he did not have his troops’ respect and was thus nicknamed “Mudwall.” Jackson’s men fell back to Mill Point, where Jackson 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. 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 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. A guide failed to lead the flanking troops around Jackson’s horsemen, and they began trading fire around 1:30 p.m.

Averell brought up his dismounted cavalry to link with the infantry’s left. He also brought up the rest of his artillery as Echols moved his Confederates behind breastworks. After holding about an hour, the Confederates, outnumbered two-to-one, broke around 3 p.m. and fled down the south side of the mountain.

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 back to Lewisburg before Duffie’s Federals could get there; Echols had to move 28 miles before Duffie moved 10. Echols won the race nonetheless, passing through Lewisburg on the 7th and escaping. Averell arrived at the town at 2 p.m. and learned from Duffie, who had just arrived, that Echols was gone.

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 pursuers soon found their path blocked by felled trees and other obstructions.

Averell and Duffie, their men exhausted even without having cleared the road, agreed to end their expedition. Although the Federals scored a victory at Droop Mountain, they did not accomplish their main goal of destroying the East Tennessee & Virginia Railroad. And as soon as they withdrew from Lewisburg, the Confederates returned.

—–

References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 339; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 366-67, 369; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 430-31; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 228, 707-08

Advertisements

Averell Raids into West Virginia

August 5, 1863 – Federal Brigadier General William W. Averell initiated another of the war’s many raids into West Virginia, which culminated in an engagement at White Sulphur Springs.

Brig Gen W.W. Averell | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Averell led a force of about 2,000 men that included four cavalry regiments, mounted infantry, and two artillery batteries. The Federals moved west from Winchester, in the Shenandoah Valley, toward the Alleghenies. Their mission was to destroy bridges on the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad, and to wreck saltpeter and gunpowder factories near Franklin. The Federals were also to confront the forces of Major General Samuel Jones, the Confederate department commander.

Averell’s men arrived at Moorefield late on the 6th, having covered 58 miles in two days. Jones’s Confederates fell back but tried harassing the enemy whenever they could. The Federals skirmished with enemy outposts and drove them off. Three days later, Averell’s men began moving south into the mountains. The advance was slowed by a lack of supplies for both the men and the horses, as well as an ammunition shortage.

On the 22nd, Averell’s Federals forced the Confederates out of Huntersville on a retreat to Warm Springs. Averell then pushed the enemy east, and the Federals occupied Warm Springs on the 24th. They next destroyed the saltpeter works at Callaghan’s Station before advancing on White Sulphur Springs. Jones resolved to make a stand before Averell passed White Sulphur Springs, otherwise the Federals would have easy access to the railroad.

Jones directed Colonel George S. Patton (grandfather of World War II General George S. Patton, Jr.) to lead four Virginia regiments and an artillery battery (about 1,900 men) to stop Averell’s advance. Patton led the Confederates to Rocky Gap, a defile in the Alleghenies.

On the 26th, the Confederates formed a battle line on the road and in the surrounding woods. Averell’s cavalry dismounted to join the infantry in an attack on the enemy line. Both sides traded intense fire, as Patton’s men repelled several Federal charges against their right. Averell finally pulled back; he resumed the attack the next morning.

The Federals focused on the Confederate left this time, but they could not break Patton’s veterans. Averell withdrew around 12 p.m. back toward Callaghan’s Station, and his rear guard fended off a Confederate bayonet charge. The Federals suffered 218 casualties (26 killed, 125 wounded, and 67 missing or captured) while the Confederates lost 162 men (20 killed, 129 wounded, and 13 missing). Jones submitted a report to Confederate Adjutant General Samuel Cooper:

“We met the enemy yesterday morning about a mile and a half from this place on road to the Warm Springs. Fought from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Every attack made by the enemy was repulsed. At night each side occupied the same position they had in the morning. This morning the enemy made two other attacks, which were handsomely repulsed, when he abandoned his position and retreated toward Warm Springs, pursued by cavalry and artillery.”

Averell returned to Beverly four days later. His raid was largely unsuccessful because he did not break Confederate resistance in the region; he only destroyed two saltpeter works, and he captured just a few enemy troops and some cattle.

—–

References

Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 344; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 639-40; WVGenWeb.org

The Camp Allegheny Engagement

December 12, 1861 – Brigadier General Robert H. Milroy’s Federal advance from Cheat Mountain led to defeat in the last significant clash of the year in northwestern Virginia.

Gen. Robert Milroy | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Gen. Robert Milroy | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

When General William W. Loring took most of his Confederate Army of the Northwest to reinforce 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, along the Parkersburg-Staunton Turnpike. Milroy directed a portion of his 2,000-man force, stationed 20 miles west, to move against Johnson’s positions.

The Federals skirmished with enemy troops and seized some outposts along the Greenbrier River as the Confederates fell back to their main fort at Camp Allegheny. Milroy developed a plan to simultaneously attack the Confederate front and left. Milroy would lead three regiments directly against the camp while another two regiments under Colonel Gideon C. Moody moved 12 miles around the enemy 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. The pickets fired on Milroy’s Federals as they began ascending the heavily wooded slope, hoping to get around the Confederate right near the turnpike. The Federals finally reached the summit, where they saw a strong line of defense in their front awaiting them.

Both sides exchanged fire but held their ground, despite portions of each line wavering at times. Federal ammunition began running low. Then Milroy, realizing that Moody’s Federals had never arrived to attack the Confederate left, finally decided to fall back. The Federals made one final charge, driving the Confederates back and giving Milroy enough room to disengage, collect their dead, and withdraw from the western face of Allegheny Mountain.

As Milroy’s men withdrew, Moody’s men finally advanced and attacked the Confederate left. The Federals could not break the strong Confederate defenses. Milroy arrived with some cavalry around 5 p.m. to assist, but by then it was too late. The collective Federal force moved back down the mountain and returned to their camp at Cheat Mountain. 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.

This engagement effectively ended active operations in western Virginia for the winter. Later this month, Federal forces tightened their hold on the region by occupying Beckley and Suttonville.

—–

References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 102; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 90, 94; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 148-49; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 180

Lee Returns to Richmond

October 31, 1861 – General Robert E. Lee returned to Richmond after this three-month campaign in western Virginia that many southerners considered a failure.

Confederate Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Confederate Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

As October opened, Lee continued supervising General John B. Floyd’s Confederate Army of the Kanawha on Sewell Mountain. He had pulled troops from the Army of the Northwest to reinforce Floyd, leaving a token force to fend off Federals on Cheat Mountain, about 100 miles north. Opposing Lee and Floyd was a Federal army led by General William S. Rosecrans, which was falling back to its base of operations at Gauley Bridge on the Kanawha River.

Following the engagement at the Greenbrier River, Lee transferred troops from Floyd back to northwestern Virginia. This diminished the strength of the Confederates on Sewell Mountain, but Rosecrans was in no hurry to exploit it. The miserably cold, wet autumn was adversely affecting both sides, and a general engagement seemed improbable.

With the armies stalemated, Lee wrote to his wife about press criticism of his performance:

“I am sorry, as you say, that the movements of the armies cannot keep pace with the expectations of the editors of the papers. I know they can regulate matters satisfactorily to themselves on paper. I wish they could do so in the field. No one wishes them more success than I do & would be happy to see them have full swing. Genl Floyd has the benefit of three editors on his staff. I hope something will be done to please them.”

Farther north, a third Federal force in western Virginia led by Brigadier General Benjamin F. Kelley seized the important town of Romney after skirmishing there and at South Branch Bridge. Kelley, victor of the war’s first land battle at Philippi, commanded the Federal Department of Harpers Ferry. This action expelled the last remaining Confederates from the area. The feeble Confederate hold on the region was rapidly slipping.

That hold became even more tenuous when the male voters of 39 northwestern Virginia counties voted overwhelmingly to ratify the Wheeling Convention resolutions to secede from the rest of the state and form the new State of Kanawha. The voters also elected delegates to attend a convention at Wheeling, 10 miles from the Pennsylvania border, to draft a constitution for the new state.

The extremely lopsided vote count made this election legally questionable. The final count was 18,408 for secession and 781 against; this was about 40 percent of the voter turnout in the same counties for the previous year’s presidential election. The vote was not anonymous; voters had to tell the registrar whether they favored or opposed the measure and the registrar recorded each voter’s name. Most opposition came in counties not under Federal occupation. In Kanawha County, which was known to have many residents with Confederate sympathies, the count was 1,039 in favor and just one against. Federal military control over the region enabled the election to take place.

With western Virginia seemingly lost, Lee returned to Richmond to resume duty as military advisor to President Jefferson Davis. Lee assumed full responsibility for failing to curtail Unionist influence in the region. Many southerners considered his talents overrated, and his reputation suffered among those who nicknamed him “Granny Lee.” But Davis maintained confidence in Lee’s abilities.

—–

References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 264; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 89; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 75; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 2968; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 130-31; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 303; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q461

Engagement at Greenbrier River

October 3, 1861 – In western Virginia, Brigadier General Joseph J. Reynolds’s 5,000 Federals abandoned their supply base at Cheat Mountain to attack about 1,800 Confederates under Brigadier General Henry R. Jackson on the southern fork of the Greenbrier River.

Brig Gen J.J. Reynolds | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Brig Gen J.J. Reynolds | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Reynolds began leading his troops down the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike in the pre-dawn morning of October 3. The Federals had been compelled to remain in their positions at Cheat Mountain after repulsing a Confederate expedition because torrential rain had turned roads to mud. But the rains had recently stopped, and now Reynolds resolved to conduct “an armed reconnaissance of the enemy’s position.”

General Jackson commanded a portion of the Confederate Army of the Northwest at Camp Bartow, 12 miles away. Jackson’s force totaled no more than 1,800 men in six regiments; the rest of the army had gone south with General William W. Loring to reinforce Confederates on Big Sewell Mountain. The Federal vanguard clashed with Confederate pickets around dawn; the pickets fell back and alarmed their comrades, who fell back across the river. Reynolds positioned his Federals for an attack as they approached the enemy camp around 7 a.m.

The forces skirmished as Federal artillery trained on Jackson’s center. Fighting intensified as Confederate artillery responded. An Indiana soldier called “the storm of shot and shell traversing mid air not more than 50 feet from our heads… at once terribly grand and terrific.”

Greenbrier River Map | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Greenbrier River Map | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Seeking to avoid a frontal assault on the camp, Reynolds directed a movement against the Confederate left. A Federal brigade forded the river around 9:30 and attacked, but the Confederates held firm and pushed the Federals back across the river. The artillery duel then resumed, during which a surgeon hoisted a white flag over a makeshift field hospital instead of the customary yellow flag. Reynolds sent a messenger to see if the Confederates were surrendering, but a colonel told the messenger, “Go back and shoot your damn guns!”

Federal officers urged Reynolds to commit all his men to the fight. Reynolds, certain that such an attack would fail, instead directed troops to attack the Confederate right. However, Jackson shifted his defenses to meet the threat. Four Federal regiments scaled a hill and were met by withering canister fire. As the Federal lines melted away, Reynolds decided that he could not capture Camp Bartow.

Unable to turn either flank, Reynolds ordered a withdrawal around 1 p.m., returning to Cheat Mountain by nightfall. The 13 Federal cannon had fired 11,000 rounds, virtually destroying the Confederate camp. Nevertheless, casualties were light, with Federals sustaining 44 (eight killed and 36 wounded) and Confederates losing 52 (six killed, 33 wounded, and 13 missing). With winter approaching, this effectively ended active operations for the year in western Virginia.

—–

References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 70; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 323-24

Western Virginia: Floyd and Wise Part Ways

September 30, 1861 – Confederates fell back in southwestern Virginia as the long dispute between Confederate Generals John B. Floyd and Henry A. Wise finally came to a bitter end.

Generals Wise (L) and Floyd (R), with General Lee in the middle | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Generals Wise (L) and Floyd (R), with General Lee in the middle | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

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 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 displayed a 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 September 21. 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 getting 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 ordinance 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:

“Sir: 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, assuming temporary command of Wise’s Legion, 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 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 separate, 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.”

Consequently, Lee had 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 to be 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.

—–

References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p.67-68; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 2849-72, 2896-919; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 121; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 302; Pritchard, Russ A., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 407

Attack on Cheat Mountain

September 15, 1861 – While Brigadier General William S. Rosecrans’s Federals operated against Confederates near Carnifex Ferry, another Confederate force to the north targeted Federals stationed on Cheat Mountain.

General Robert E. Lee, the unofficial commander of all Confederate forces in western Virginia, directed General William W. Loring’s 15,000-man Army of the Northwest to move against Federals stationed on Cheat Mountain. Lee considered this a key position because it overlooked several mountain passes as well as the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike. However, the Confederates had been hampered by drenching seasonal rains and rough terrain. Loring’s resentment of Lee’s presence (Loring had outranked Lee when they were both in the U.S. army) did not help matters either.

Brigadier General Joseph J. Reynolds’s 9,000 Federals atop Cheat Mountain were outnumbered, but the Confederate army was divided. One wing faced Reynolds from Traveler’s Repose to the east, and another faced Reynolds from 10 miles south at Valley Mountain, along the Huntersville Turnpike.

Resolving to attack the Federals’ right flank, Lee issued Special Orders No. 28 through Loring. This complex plan put all five army brigades in motion in various 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 Tygart’s 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.
  • Lee’s three remaining brigades (in two columns) would confront five Federal regiments under Brigadier General Joseph J. Reynolds guarding the turnpike west of Kimball’s men at Elkwater in the Tygart Valley.

The five Confederate columns began advancing early on September 11, struggling through the woods, hills, and mud in cold rain. Despite the harsh elements, all five brigades reached their designated positions by nightfall, with some skirmishing taking place at Conrad’s Mill. 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 troops to attack.

Cheat Mountain | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Cheat Mountain | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

When the Federals awoke on the 12th, they were unaware that they had been nearly surrounded. Confederates pressed them at Elkwater and seized the wagon road as planned, but they stopped to wait for Rust to open the general engagement. Before Rust attacked, his troops captured some Federal pickets who falsely boasted that 5,000 comrades were waiting for an attack within strong fortifications. Rust observed the defenses and concluded that it was “madness” to attack. When two Indiana companies fired at Rust’s troops, they broke and fled.

Near Elkwater, Lee waited for the signal until he realized that the element of surprise had been lost. As he ordered a withdrawal, his 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 awaited Rust’s signal. The day ended in confusion on both sides, with many Confederates heavily fatigued from exposure to the elements.

Lee and Loring met early on September 13 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 Lee’s aide-de-camp Lieutenant Colonel John A. Washington, great-grandnephew of George Washington. Indiana troops fired on the party, killing Washington while Rooney and the others escaped.

Learning Washington’s identity, the Federals brought the body back to camp, 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.” Federals returned Washington’s body to the Confederates under a flag of truce the next day.

Lee finally learned on the 14th that Rust did not launch his surprise attack because he had determined that “the expedition against Cheat Mountain failed.” In reality, Rust lost his nerve. Although he had 2,000 men against just 300, Rust allowed Federal prisoners to convince him that they badly outnumbered his force. 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 September 15. 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 execute 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 before.

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” for his seemingly feeble effort to take Cheat Mountain.

The Confederates returned to the original positions at Traveler’s Repose and Valley Mountain. Lee soon ordered Loring to lead his Army of the Northwest toward the Kanawha to help Floyd and Wise in confronting Rosecrans. This allowed Reynolds’s Federals to claim undisputed control of the Allegheny passes and enabled them to expand their foothold into all northwestern Virginia as well.

—–

References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 74-75; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 63-64; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 2756-803 , 2849; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 117; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 184; Time-Life Editors, Lee Takes Command: From Seven Days to Second Bull Run (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 22; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 135