WEST VIRGINIA IN THE CIVIL WAR

LEE FAILS IN MOUNTAIN CAMPAIGN

By
Boyd B. Stutler

When General Robert E. Lee arrived at Huntersville, Pocahontas County, on August 3, 1861, to assume field command of all the Confederate troops operating in western Virginia, he met a cold reception from General W. W. Loring, who commanded the Cheat Mountain and Tygarts Valley area. Loring, though Lee's junior in the old U. S. Army, was a seasoned veteran of many campaigns, and had seen far more of field service than his superior, and felt that he did not need Lee's supervision.

Loring was jealous of his position. Thus, Lee's first task was to smooth his ruffled feathers. Douglas S. Freeman, Lee's foremost biographer, says that "he chose the role of a diplomatist instead of that of an army commander and sought to abate Loring's jealousy by magnifying that officer's authority." The situation was too critical to indulge in petty quarrels over rank and prerogatives.

General Loring had fixed upon Huntersville as his central supply base, but wagon trains from Monterey were slow in arriving. Lee waited at Huntersville for three days, then on August 6, he moved eighteen miles forward to a point on the Huntersville-Huttonsville road. His Valley Mountain camp, sitting near the Pocahontas-Randolph county line near what is now known as Mace, was adjoining that of Colonel William Gilham, who commanded a brigade of Virginians. The camp was within twelve miles of the strong concentration of Union troops at Elkwater under command of General Joseph J. Reynolds.

In happier times General Lee would have reveled in the prospect from his camp at Valley Mountain. He wrote his wife an almost poetic letter, describing the beauties of the mountains and the location of his headquarters. "We are on the dividing ridge looking down the Tygarts River Valley, whose waters flow into the Monongahela, and South towards the Elk River and Greenbrier, flowing into the Kanawha. In the valley north of us lie Beverly and Huttonsville, occupied by our invaders, and the Rich Mountains west, scene of our former disaster, and Cheat Mountains east, their present stronghold, are in full view."

The Confederate army under Loring was superior in numbers, but not as well armed or equipped as the Union forces under Reynolds. In all, Loring's command numbered about 11,000 effectives, while Reynolds could muster about 9,000. But Reynolds had a decided advantage in that his troops were concentrated at points--Huttonsville, Elkwater, Cheat Mountain Pass, three miles east of Huttonsville, and at Cheat Mountain Summit, nine miles east of Reynolds' headquarters at the Pass--all within easy striking distance of each other. Loring's forces were divided by Cheat Mountain; four brigades under Burks, Gilham, Anderson, and Donelson were posted at or near the Valley Mountain Camp, while two brigades under General Henry R. Jackson and Colonel Albert Rust were sitting astride the Parkersburg-Staunton Turnpike (now Route 250), at present Bartow, Pocahontas County.

Bad luck plagued the Confederate movement from the first. After the establishment of the headquarters camp, heavy rains fell almost incessantly for more than twenty days. The poor roads and mountain trails were churned to a bottomless sea of mud, so that troop movement on foot was difficult and almost impossible for wagon traffic. Measles broke out in the camp; one regiment was reduced to one-third its strength by sickness. The defending Federal troops were likewise at the same disadvantage--supplies and replacement troops had to struggle over the deep, muddy roads from the railhead at Grafton, or from the nearer depots at Philippi and Beverly.

The Confederate troops moved into the region so deliberately and over such a long period that all opportunity for a surprise attack was lost. More days were spent in reconnoitering before a plan of attack was formulated every mountain path was followed out, but until they could find a road not securely defended, Lee and his whole army were at a stalemate. Finally, a rough trail was found that led along the western crest of Cheat Mountain and directly to the road that supplied the Federal fortified and entrenched position located at the crest where the pike dipped over into the Tygarts Valley. Reynolds was believed to have had 2,000 men in the fort at Cheat Summit, when in fact it was garrisoned by only a small force of 300. Its position, however, was such as to render the place almost impregnable.

After making reconnaissance, Lee was convinced of the futility of bringing on a general engagement, but decided to turn or dislodge Reynolds by piecemeal, with simultaneous attacks on his strongest positions. By September 8, an elaborate plan of action had been devised, calling for a concerted movement to be started on the 10th with a two-pronged attack to be made at dawn on the 12th. The plan was well thought out, but General Lee had not reckoned on the elements, the enemy he could not contain or control, or the green troops commanded by inexperienced, inept officers.

Colonel Rust, who made a personal reconnaissance of the route assigned him, was to take his brigade over a side road, or trail, to a point where he could command the Cheat Summit fort. At the same time General H. R. Jackson was to lead his brigade over the Parkersburg-Staunton pike to support Rust after he had cleared the crest for an advance into the valley. Simultaneously, General S. R. Anderson was to move on the Elkwater position, following generally the Huttonsville-Huntersville road. General Daniel S. Donelson and Colonel Jesse S. Burks, with their brigades, were to pass down either side of the Tygarts River to support Anderson's attack on Elkwater. Colonel William Gilham's brigade was go moved forward, but held in reserve.

On the night of the 11th long columns struggled through brushy, mountainous terrain, on paths so narrow that in many places they marched single file. To add to their discomfort, heavy rain fell all night, soaking the men to their skins and, for the most part, rendering their supply of cooked rations and ammunition unusable. Because of the rough terrain, neither Rust nor Donelson could take cavalry or artillery. It was a march for foot soldiers only. Lee went forward with a body of troops on the 11th; at Conrad's Mill this wing came upon a retiring Federal outpost and a slight skirmish ensued. This was General Lee's baptism of fire in the Civil War; it was the first time he was with troops in the field when engaged with the enemy.

The morning of the 12th found Loring's wing in position for assault on the Federal force at Elkwater; General Anderson had reached his appointed place within reach of the Parkersburg-Staunton pike, and General Donelson had muddled through to a point where he could rush to the support of either Loring or Anderson. General Lee felt confident of success; it all depended upon the attack on the Cheat Summit stronghold. Rust failed his commander.

The assault on Elkwater was to open with the first volley fired on Cheat Summit, some seven miles distant by mountain trail, but the signal did not come. Instead, Rust's brigade had come to grief when, after by-passing the Summit fort, it attacked a wagon train about a mile from the fort. Rust was in turn attacked by a small force made up of several companies from the 24th and 25th Ohio infantry, and two companies of the 14th Indiana, under Colonel Nathan Kimball, 14th Indiana. In a sharp skirmish the green Confederate troops, though greatly outnumbering the Federal troops, retreated from their position on the road and took cover in the dense forest. The official report says they were so greatly demoralized that they threw away ''guns, clothing, and everything that impeded their progress." Colonel Rust, in his official report, accused the men of cowardice, though he was careful to except the men of his own regiment, 3rd Arkansas Infantry.

The Lee-Loring force facing Elkwater was stopped cold, after a brief exchange. But notwithstanding Rust's fiasco had upset the timetable, Lee resumed the offensive on the morning of the 13th--some Confederate troops had penetrated the valley and had cut communication between the two wings of the Federal defenders. Another abortive attack was made on the Cheat Summit works on the morning of the 13th, which was easily repulsed by the 300 Ohio-Indiana defenders. At about the same time the Lee-Loring forces advanced on Elkwater, but were turned back when a rifled 10-pounder Parrott gun from Loomis' battery was run forward and opened fire on the gray clad ranks, supporting the riflemen who were blazing away without doing much damage. Small skirmishes were fought at various points in the valley during the 13th, 14th and 15th, but nothing like a general engagement was fought during the whole campaign. Unwilling to admit defeat, the Confederates made demonstrations on the Elkwater position on the l4th and 15th, bringing about a series of "shoot and run" affairs; and on the 15th again attacked the redoubt on the summit. All attacks failed.

The campaign may be said to have come to a close on the evening of the 15th when General Lee ordered a retirement to the rear. In fact on the 14th he issued an order indicating that the purpose of the campaign had been fulfilled and ordered the Army of the Northwest "to resume its former position at such time and in such manner as General Loring shall direct."

In the twelve or fifteen separate clashes or skirmishes that marked the operation extending over four days, the casualties were very light, though each side issued exaggerated claims of the number of enemy killed and wounded. No consolidated casualty list has been found, but General Reynolds admitted to a Federal loss of nine killed, two missing, and about sixty prisoners. No casualty report is had from the Confederate side, but from several sources it is indicated that their loss in killed, wounded and captured exceeded that of the Federals. The heaviest loss sustained by General Lee was in the death of his aide-de-camp, Colonel John Augustine Washington, who was shot while reconnoitering near Elkwater on September 13.

The repulse of General Lee's Army of the Northwest and failure of the Cheat Mountain campaign, though discouraging, was by no means disastrous to the Confederacy. The brigades encamped at Valley Mountain fell back to their old camp, while Rust and Jackson led their men back to Camp Bartow, where they were joined later by the four Valley Mountain brigades.

Lee suffered greatly in military reputation, and for several months was entrusted only with minor military duties. William P. Trent, in his Robert E. Lee, reviewed the failure and the retreat, and sums it all up: "There was, then, nothing to do but acknowledge the campaign a failure. . . Lee, whom the press abused, and even former friends began to regard as overrated, was assigned to duties in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida; and her western counties were lost to the Old Dominion forever."

Lee did not tarry long with Loring's command after the withdrawal, but hurried away to a camp on Sewell Mountain to settle the feud between Generals Wise and Floyd, who were operating in the Gauley and New River area against Generals Cox and Rosecrans.


Stutler, Boyd B., West Virginia in the Civil War (Charleston, West Virginia; Educational Foundation, Inc., 1963), 94-99.

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