Chapter XV - General Lee's West Virginia Campaign

History of Hampshire County West Virginia From Its Earliest Settlement to the Present
By Hu Maxwell and H. L. Swisher
Morgantown, West Virginia; A. Brown Boughner Printer; 1897

PART 1 State History
Pages 182-188

After Garnett's retreat in July, 1861, there were few confederates in West Virginia, west of the Alleghanies, except in the Kanawha valley. But the government at Richmond, and the confederate government, were not inclined to give up so easily the part of Virginia west of the mountains; and, in a short time, preparations were made to send an army from the east to reconquer the territory beyond the Alleghanies. A large part of the army with which McClellan had defeated Garnett had been sent to other fields; the terms of enlistment of many of the soldiers had expired. When the confederates crossed the mountains late in the summer of 1861 they were opposed by less than ten thousand federals stationed in that mountainous part of West Virginia about the sources of the Greenbrier, the Tygart Valley river, Cheat, and near the source of the Potomac. In that elevated and rugged region a remarkable campaign was made. It was not remarkable because of hard fighting, for there was no pitched battle; but because in this campaign the confederates were checked in their purpose of reconquering the ground lost by Garnett and of extending their conquest at least as far north and west as Clarksburg and Grafton. This campaign has also an historical interest because it was General Lee's first work in the field after he had been assigned the command of Virginia's land and sea forces. The outcome of the campaign was not what might be expected of a great and calculating general as Lee undoubtedly was. Although he had a larger army than his opponents in the field, and had at least as good ground, and although he was able to hold his own at every skirmish, yet, as the campaign progressed he constantly fell back. In September he fought at Elkwater and Cheat Mountain, in Randolph county; in October he fought at Greenbrier river, having fallen back from his first position. In December he had fallen back to the summit of the Alleghanies, and fought a battle there. It may be stated, however, that General Lee, although in command of the army, took part in person only in the skirmishing in Randolph county. The importance of this campaign entitles it to mention somewhat more in detail.

General Reynolds succeeded General McClellan in command of this part of West Virginia. He advanced from Beverly to Huttonsville, a few miles above, and remained in peaceful possession of the country two months after Garnett's retreat, except that his scouting parties were constantly annoyed by confederate irregulars, or guerrillas, usually called bushwhackers. Their mode of attack was, to lie concealed on the summits of cliffs, over-hanging the roads, or in thickets on the hillsides, and fire upon the union soldiers passing below. They were justly dreaded by the union troops. These bushwhackers were usually citizens of that district who had taken to the woods after their well-known southern sympathies had rendered it unsafe or unpleasant to remain at home while the country was occupied by the union armies. They were excellent worksmen, minutely acquainted with all the ins and outs of the mountains and woods; and, from their manner of attack and flight, it was seldom that they were captured or killed. They hid about the outposts of the union armies; picked off sentinels; waylaid scouts; ambushed small detachments, and fled to their mountain fastnesses where pursuit was out of the question. A war is considered severe in loss of life in which each soldier, taken as an average, kills one soldier on the other side, «even though the war is prolonged for years. Yet, these bushwhackers often killed a dozen or more each, before being themselves killed; and, a case is recorded, in Pendleton county, in which a bushwhacker, named William Harper, was captured and shot after he had killed thirty-five union soldiers. It can be readily understood why small detachments dreaded bushwhackers more than confederate troops in pitched battle. Nor, did the bushwhackers confine their attacks to small parties. They often fired into the ranks of armies on the march with deadly effect. While in the mountains of West Virginia General AverelPs cavalry often suffered severely from these hidden guerrillas who fired and vanished.

General Reynolds, with headquarters at Beverly, spent the summer of 1861 in strengthening his position, and in attempting to clear the country of guerrillas. Early in September he received information that large numbers of confederates were crossing the Alleghanies. General Loring established himself at Huntersville, in Pocahontas county, with eight thousand five hundred men. He it was who had tried in vain to raise recruits in West Virginia for the confederacy, even attempting to gain a foothold in Wheeling before McClellan's army crossed the Ohio river. He had gone to Richmond, and early in September had returned with an army. General H. R. Jackson was in command of another confederate force, six thousand strong, at Greenbrier river where the pike from Beverly to Staunton crosses that stream, in Pocahontas county. General Robert E. Lee was sent by the government at Richmond to take command of both these armies, and he lost no time in doing so. He concentrated his force at Big Spring, on Valley mountain, and prepared to march north to the Baltimore and Ohio road at Grafton. His design was nothing less than to drive the union army out of northwestern Virginia. When the matter is viewed in the light of subsequent history, it is to be wondered at that General Lee. did not succeed in his purpose. He had nearly fifteen thousand men, and only nine thousand were opposed to him. Had he defeated General Reynolds; driven his army back; occupied Grafton, Clarksburg and other towns, it can be readily seen that the seat of war might have been changed to West Virginia. The United States government would have sent an army to oppose Lee; and the Confederate government would have pushed strong reinforcements across the mountains; and some of the great battles of the war might have been fought on the Monongahela river. The campaign in the fall of 1861, about the head-waters of the principal rivers of West Virginia, therefore, derives its chief interest, not from battles, but from the accomplishment of a great purpose — the driving back of the confederates — without a pitched battle. Virginia, as a state, made no determined effort after that to hold Western Virginia. By that time the campaign in the Kanawha valley was drawing to a close and the rebels were retiring. Consequently, Virginia's, and the Southern Confederacy's efforts west of the Alleghanies in this state were defeated in the fall of 1861.

On September 13, General Reynolds sent a regiment to Elkwater, and soon afterwards occupied Cheat Mountain. This point was the highest camp occupied by soldiers during the war. The celebrated "battle above the clouds," on Lookout Mountain, was not one-half so high. The whole region, including parts of Pocahontas, Pendleton and Randolph counties, has an elevation above three thousand feet, while the summits of the knobs and ridges rise to heights of more than four thousand, and some nearly five thousand feet. General Reynolds fortified his two advanced positions, Elkwater and Cheat Mountain. They were seven miles apart, connected by only a bridle path, but a circuitous wagon road, eighteen miles long, led from one to the other, passing around in the direction of Huttonsville. No sooner had the United States troops established themselves at Elkwater and Cheat Mountain than. General Lee advanced, and skirmishing began. The confederates threw a force between Elkwater and Cheat Mountain, and posted another force on the road in the direction of Huttonsville. They were attacked, and for three days there was skirmishing, but no general engagement. On September 13, Colonel John A. Washington, in the confederate service, was killed near Elkwater. He was a relative of President Washington, and also a relative of General R. E. Lee, whose family and the Washingtons were closely connected. General Lee sent a flag of truce and asked for the body. It was sent to the confederate lines on September 14. That day the confederates concentrated ten miles from Elkwater, and the next day again advanced, this time threatening Cheat Mountain; but their attack was unsuccessful. In this series of skirmishes the union forces had lost nine killed, fifteen wounded and about sixty prisoners. The result was a defeat for the confederates, who were thwarted in their design of penetrating northward and westward.

The confederates were not yet willing to give up West Virginia. They fell back to the Greenbrier river, thirteen miles from the union position on Cheat Mountain, and fortified their position. They were commanded by General H. A. Jackson, and their number was believed to be about nine thousand. On October 3, 1861, General Reynolds advanced at the head of five thousand troops. During the first part of the engagement the union forces were successful, driving the confederates nearly a mile; but here several batteries of artillery were encountered, and reinforcements arriving to the support of the confederates, the battle was renewed, and General Reynolds was forced to fall back, with a loss of nine killed and thirty-five wounded. On December 10, General Reynolds was transferred to other fields, and the command of the union forces in the Cheat Mountain district was given to General R. H. Milroy. Within three days after he assumed command he moved forward to attack the confederate camp on the summit of the Alleghanies. The confederates had gone into winter quarters there; and, as the weather was severe, and as the union forces appeared satisfied to hold what they had without attempting any additional conquests in midwinter, the rebels were not expecting an attack. However, on December 13, 1861, General Milroy moved forward and assaulted the confederates' position. The fighting was severe for several hours, and finally resulted in the retreat of the union forces. The confederates made no attempt to follow. General Milroy marched to Huntersville, in Pocahontas county, and went into winter quarters. The rebels remained on the summit of the Alleghanies till spring, and then went over the mountains, out of West Virginia, thus ending the attempt to reconquer northwestern Virginia.

It may not be amiss to speak here of Virginia's relation as a state to the Southern Confederacy. It is the more necessary to do so because the military undertakings of Virginia and those of the Southern Confederacy often appeared independent of each other, or in conflict with each other, during the operations in West Virginia. General Lee at that time was commander-in-chief of the Virginia land and sea forces — not of the confederate forces. But this was a distinction without a difference, for the Virginians under him were all confederates. The theory of State's Rights, the chief corner-stone of the Southern Confederacy, required each state in the confederacy to retain, maintain and insist upon its separate existence, even when all had banded together in a desperate struggle. Thus Virginia soldiers were impressed with the belief that their first and chief service was to the state, and after that to the confederacy. During the occupation of Western Virginia, before McClellan crossed the Ohio, General Lee's and Governor Letcher's orders to their officers in the northwest were to seize and hold railroads, custom houses and other property for the state of Virginia; Yet at that time Virginia, or rather the secession convention at Richmond, had placed all its military forces and property at the disposal of the Southern Confederacy. It is therefore seen that the painful efforts of the Richmond government, always to draw a hair-breadth distinction between the state and the confederacy, were far-fetched. When Virginia's soldiers were sent by the Richmond authorities across the Alleghanies, under the impression that their mission concerned the state alone, and that their duty consisted in holding the country beyond the mountains in its allegiance to the eastern part of the state, they must have been surprised to find soldiers from Georgia and other southern states already in West Virginia by thousands. It must have dawned upon them that they were not fighting for state rights, but that all state rights had been in fact, if not in name, swallowed up by the Southern Confederacy. There was no difference, so far as state's rights were concerned, between the soldiers from the north and from the south. Those from Georgia, Florida, Texas, Virginia, or any other seceding state, may have been told that they were fighting for their respective states, but they knew they were fighting for the Southern Confederacy, and that alone. The soldiers from the north, not matter what their states, knew that they were fighting for the preservation of the union. Even the state militias, called out to repel an invasion, and not mustered into the United States armies, knew that they were battling for the whole country.

Return to the History of Hampshire County WV Index