Tag Archives: Army of the Kanawha

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.

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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

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.

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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

The Battle of Carnifex Ferry

September 10, 1861 – Federals led by Brigadier General William S. Rosecrans won a minor victory that strengthened their foothold in western Virginia.

By this time, several different commands operated in western Virginia, coveted for its extensive salt and lead works, coal mines, and niter deposits. Brigadier General Jacob D. Cox’s Federal brigade held Gauley Bridge, which effectively controlled the important Kanawha River Valley. Cox faced two main Confederate threats:

  • Brigadier General Henry A. Wise, former Virginia governor, commanded his “Legion” at Hawks Nest, east of Gauley Bridge.
  • Brigadier General John B. Floyd, former Virginia governor and U.S. secretary of war, commanded his 2,000-man Army of the Kanawha at Carnifex Ferry, a strategic crossing on the northern bank of the Gauley River, northeast of Cox.

Cox feared that Floyd would attack from the north while Wise attacked from the east. Luckily for Cox, Floyd and Wise detested one another, which made coordinating their efforts nearly impossible.

Meanwhile Rosecrans, commanding all Federal forces in western Virginia, led three Ohio brigades totaling about 6,000 men southward from Clarksburg to reinforce Cox at Gauley Bridge. To get there, Rosecrans had to push through Floyd at Carnifex Ferry. Floyd called on Wise to reinforce him upon learning of Rosecrans’s approach, but Wise resisted breaking up his Legion and sent him just a token force. Wise also warned Floyd against camping with his back to the river, but Floyd ignored him.

Rosecrans’s Federals occupied Summersville, about 10 miles north of Carnifex Ferry, on the morning of the 10th. Local Unionists informed Rosecrans where Floyd had stationed his troops, and Rosecrans resolved to either “whip or pass” Floyd to reach Cox. The Federals advanced to Cross Lanes by 1 p.m., scouted the area, then continued forward around 2:30.

Floyd had his troops positioned on a bend in the Gauley River. The right flank was anchored at the river, the center (which included the road to Carnifex Ferry) was protected by artillery, while the left flank was open. Cliffs and the river were in the Confederate rear. Floyd thought the positon impregnable and did not order his men to build a bridge in case of emergency. Colonel Henry Heth, one of Floyd’s subordinates, built a rope bridge anyway.

As the Federals advanced into the woods, their visibility was obstructed until the Confederates fired into them. The Federals wavered, but one bullet from their modest return fire hit Floyd in the arm. Rosecrans ordered all his men forward, determined to take the Confederate breastworks by frontal assault.

The Battle of Carnifex Ferry | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

The Battle of Carnifex Ferry | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

The mass Federal attack occurred just before nightfall and dislodged the Confederates’ right flank from the river. The Federals captured many supplies, but darkness prevented them from breaking the enemy line. Rosecrans fell back, planning to renew the assault the next day.

Floyd regrouped his men into a strong defensive line at the ferry and awaited another attack. However, Heth advised him that the Confederate left flank, being open, would be vulnerable to a renewed assault. Floyd, who seemed bewildered by combat and his wound, sent orders for Wise to reinforce him, but then opted to retreat without informing Wise. The Confederates used the ferry and Heth’s rope bridge to cross the river, destroying both after crossing to prevent a Federal pursuit. They marched south to link with Wise’s Legion.

On the morning of the 11th, Wise received Floyd’s order to reinforce him. When his Legion was halfway to Carnifex Ferry, Wise received another message ordering him to return to his original position and await the arrival of Floyd’s army. Floyd and Wise met at Dogwood Gap, where Floyd still seemed perplexed by the previous day’s events and issued no further orders for the time being.

Meanwhile, Rosecrans learned of Floyd’s retreat and settled his troops in Floyd’s old camp until they were able to cross the river in pursuit. The engagement at Carnifex Ferry cost the Federals 17 killed and 141 wounded, while the Confederates lost 20 men. The Confederates held against the Federal assaults, but Floyd’s retreat made this a minor Federal victory.

Wise actually received more blame for this setback than Floyd because of his persistent reluctance to join forces with Floyd’s army. This engagement tightened the Federal grip on western Virginia, and responsibility for breaking that grip devolved to the other Confederate force in the region, led by General Robert E. Lee to the north.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Clark, Champ, Decoying the Yanks: Jackson’s Valley Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 72; 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; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 2849; Guelzo, Allen C, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 113-14; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 116-17; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 171; Pritchard, Russ A., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 407