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Chapter 5:

  • The First Kanawha Valley campaign
  • -- April to July, 1861.

We now turn to a consideration of the Kanawha valley campaign of the early part of 1861, as that was a portion of Scott's plan of invasion of Virginia that was intrusted to McClellan; deferring until later the consideration of military operations along the Potomac, which, in sequence of time, would at this point demand attention. McClellan's original intention was to begin the invasion of Virginia from Ohio by way of the Kanawha valley along the great stage road to Staunton, having the same objective as Patterson from Pennsylvania up the Shenandoah valley; but events treated of in the preceding chapter diverted him to the lines of the Baltimore & Ohio railroad, and led to the Rich Mountain campaign and the handing over of operations on the Kanawha line to a subordinate with whom he was in constant telegraphic communication.

Previous to the building of the Baltimore & Ohio railroad, the most important way of travel across Virginia to the west was, as it had been from time immemorial, by the valleys of the James across the Appalachians, and down the Great Kanawha to the Ohio. Vast herds of buffaloes, from the rich open pasture lands of the Great Valley, first engineered and opened trails which the Mound Builders and the Indians followed, and which in turn became the bridle paths for the white men into the great Trans-Appalachian basin of the Ohio. Along these trails took place, for many years, numerous. combats between the white man in his westward progress and the Indian who sought to stay that progress, until the decisive battle at Point Pleasant at the mouth of the Big Kanawha in the River Ohio, on October 9, 1774, broke the power of the great Indian confederacy of the northwest, and established the supremacy of the Virginia white man in that direction. The bridle paths were gradually widened into rude wagon ways, along which a steady [58] stream of emigration poured, especially after the Revolution, robbing Virginia of many of her best citizens, to the enrichment of the great central west. The State and allied companies then began the construction of well-graded turnpikes along these natural highways, until good roads from nearly every county town in the basin of the Big Kanawha led into the James river and Kanawha turnpike, the main stage road from Staunton through Lewisburg, Charleston, and thence to the mouth of the Kanawha, and also to that of the Guyandotte near the Kentucky boundary. From the days of Washington Virginia spent lavishly of her means in the opening of a great waterway, from the head of tide at Richmond, up the James and across to and down the waters of the Kanawha to its head of steamboat navigation; and when the civil war began, the James River & Kanawha canal was in operation for 198 miles, from Richmond to Buchanan, in the heart of the Great Valley. In the same general direction, at an early date, the State co-operated in the construction of a railway, 195 miles of which, from Richmond to Jackson's river, well within the Appalachians, were in operation as the Virginia Central at the beginning of the war, and large numbers of men were then at work constructing the continuation of that line to the Ohio at the mouth of the Guyandotte. That work is now known as the Chesapeake & Ohio railway.

The basin of the Big Kanawha as a whole was one of the most important portions of Virginia, rich in agricultural, forest and mineral wealth, especially coal and salt. The coals which underlie the larger portion of its area were then in demand down the Ohio. In the year of grace 1898, they were. one of the most important factors in the magnificent victories won by the sea power of the United States at Manila and Santiago. The loyal Virginians of that region promptly prepared for home defense by the organization of military companies, and demanded arms and aid from the more thickly settled portions of the State, as their territory was peculiarly vulnerable by way of the Ohio and the navigable waters of the Big Sandy, the Guyandotte and the Big Kanawha. These waterways gave easy access for the troops and supplies of the enemy for more than 100 miles toward the interior of the State, and made the problem of its defense one difficult to solve. [59]

On the 29th of April, six days after he took command of the forces of Virginia, General Lee sent Lieut.-Col. John McCausland, a native of the Kanawha valley and a graduate of the Virginia military institute, to muster into the service of the State ten companies of volunteers from the Kanawha region, take command of these, and direct military operations for strictly defensive purposes. On May 3d, Col. C. Q. Tompkins, a West Point graduate and former officer in the United States army, having his home in the Kanawha valley, was appointed colonel of volunteers in the Virginia service and directed to take command of the forces in the Kanawha region and carry out the orders already given to McCausland.

Colonel Tompkins reported from Charleston, May 23d, that he found some 350 men, in five companies, at Buffalo; that within two or three weeks he could probably raise fifteen or sixteen companies, but that the country was destitute of fabric suitable for uniforms.

McCausland, covering the front on the Ohio river, reported Federal troops concentrating at and about Gallipolis, Ohio, on the 26th, and Tompkins, hastening to Charleston from his post at Kanawha Falls, sent McCausland as a special messenger to Governor Letcher to inform him of the disaffection of the population of the Kanawha region, of the difficulty of procuring reliable troops, and the imminent danger of invasion. After sending this dispatch on the 28th, Tompkins issued a spirited appeal, calling the ‘men of Virginia—men of Kanawha, to arms.’

On the 23d of April, ex-Gov. Henry A. Wise tendered his services to Virginia. Subsequently he was appointed brigadier-general and given authority to raise a force to be called ‘Wise's legion.’ While engaged in organizing this body, he was, on the 6th of June, ordered to take the force he had in hand and proceed, as speedily as possible, to the valley of the Kanawha and rally the people to resist the invading army reported to be already on the march. He was informed that he must rely upon the people for a supply of arms from those in their own hands, and upon their valor and knowledge of the country as a substitute for organization and discipline. Wise's popularity in western Virginia was very great, and it was supposed that his appearance in command on the Kanawha line would stem the tide of opposition to State [60] authority that was so strongly rising in that region. Before leaving Richmond, Wise was informed that John B. Floyd, recently United States secretary of war, had also been appointed brigadier-general, and specially charged with organizing a large body of troops in the southwestern part of the Great Valley and adjacent regions, the locality of his home where he was extremely popular, and with the protection of the Virginia & Tennessee railroad, the great route of travel to the Confederate capital from all the southwest; and that it would doubtless occur that there would be a junction of his force with that of Wise, in which event Floyd, as the ranking officer by commission, would command their united forces.

Nothing more fully illustrates the poverty of preparation that Virginia had made for a most gigantic warfare than General Floyd's appeal of July 1st, by special messenger, to the governors of South Carolina and Georgia, for the loan of arms, saying that he had three regiments and a fourth rapidly forming, but needed 1,600 guns to arm them, and giving as his excuse for thus applying that neither the Confederate government nor the State of Virginia could furnish arms for his troops, and he was fretting under the delay caused by this want.

On June 23d, Wise, with his legion, reached Gauley bridge, 100 miles beyond the terminus of the Virginia Central railroad, and reported from Charleston, on the 6th of July, that he had 2,705 men in his command, all infantry .but 81.

Gen. J. D. Cox began his invasion of the Great Kanawha valley on the 11th of July, in accordance with instructions from McClellan, crossing the Ohio from Gallipolis to Point Pleasant, and moving up the Kanawha. Cox's movements were greatly facilitated by the use of Ohio river steamboats, which, thrown out of trade by the war, were plentiful, and accompanying his columns, made the problem of supplies and transportation for the larger portion of his troops an easy one to solve. In moving up the Kanawha detached columns of troops marched along the roads on each side of the river, while his main body followed in a fleet of steamboats, keeping in rear of his marching columns, but near enough to reinforce either bank in case of attack.

The first day, July 11th, his command made 13 [61] miles, Cox himself directing operations from the top of the pilot house of the leading steamboat, while military bands on board enlivened this novel mode of campaigning. The movement was without opposition until the third day, when, at the mouth of the Pocotalico, some resistance was met from Wise's advance pickets, and Cox learned that the Confederates were in force some 12 miles further on, at Tyler mountain. Cox decided to await at Pocotalico the coming in of his flanking columns.

On the 16th the forward movement of the Second Kentucky (Federal) began at Guyandotte, a few miles beyond which, at Barboursville, a lively skirmish took place with 0. J. Wise's advance cavalry pickets, which fell back, pursued by the Federals, to the force encamped near Scary creek, some 24 miles from Charleston, which, on the afternoon of the 17th, met and repulsed this pursuit.

After the engagement at Scary, the Federals crossed the river and encamped on the north side. The next day Wise attacked Cox's advance post with some 800 men of all arms under McCausland, forcing them to retreat to their intrenched camp near the mouth of the Pocotalico.

The retreat of Garnett's forces from Rich mountain and Laurel hill, and the advance of McClellan to Cheat mountain, thus threatening a movement on Staunton, or to the Virginia Central railroad, or to the Kanawha line at Lewisburg, induced the Confederate authorities to promptly reinforce the Northwestern army in McClellan's front, and to concentrate forces on the Kanawha line by withdrawing Wise toward Lewisburg and advancing Floyd from the valley in the southwest to the same line. Col. A. W. McDonald, in command of a large cavalry force at Romney, was ordered to march with his command to Staunton, and unite with the forces there concentrating. Gen. W. W. Loring was assigned to the command of the army of the Northwest.

Acting under discretionary orders, Wise abandoned Charleston July 24th, marching up the Kanawha; left Gauley bridge, which he burned behind him, on the 27th, and after a march of over 100 miles arrived at Lewisburg on the last day of the month, and located his camp at Bunger's mill, 4 miles west of that town.

These brief Northwestern Virginia campaigns, the first of the war and of barely two months duration, ending [62] with July, were very far-reaching in their results. Mc-Clellan, by the force of numbers many times increased in efficiency by the aid of steam power on navigable rivers and railways, by the use of field telegraphs following his movements, and by superior strategy, made possible by these agencies, compelled the Confederates to retreat from the banks of the Ohio to near the Alleghany range of the Appalachians, and abandon to Federal control—which thenceforward during the war was well nigh continuous—most of Trans-Alleghany Virginia, nearly one-third of the State. These results were not only of present but of great future importance to the Federal government in the conduct of the war. They not only gave it control of the navigable waters of the Ohio along and within the borders of Virginia for transportation purposes, but also gave it access to and control of the important coal mines and salt works on the Big Kanawha, and the newly-discovered petroleum wells in the Little Kanawha basin, to the great advantage of Ohio and other Western States, and enabled it to establish camps of observation, accessible by rail and river, far within the borders of Virginia, from which raiding parties were constantly threatening Virginia's interior lines of cummunication through the Great Valley and the lead mines, salt works, coal mines, blast furnaces, foundries, and other important industrial establishments in and near that grand source of military supplies, thus requiring the detaching of large numbers of troops to watch these Federal movements, and to guard these important and indispensable sinews of war. They deprived Virginia of a large portion of her annual revenues, of a most impor-tant recruiting ground for troops, and enabled the bogus government of Virginia to establish and maintain itself at Wheeling, and under the protection of Federal armies strengthen the disloyal element in that part of the State, and organize numerous regiments of infantry and companies of cavalry and artillery to swell the numbers of the Federal army. McClellan had good reason to exult at his success, no matter if it had been easily won. [63]

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