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West Virginia operations under Fremont.1

by Jacob D. Cox, Major-General, U. S. V.
The campaign of the spring of 1862 was an interesting one in its details, but as it became subordinate to that against Jackson in the Shenandoah and was never completed as Fremont had planned, a very brief sketch of it must suffice. On the 29th of March Fremont assumed command of the “Mountain Department,” including West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and East Tennessee as far as Knoxville. There was a little too much sentiment and too little practical war in the construction of a department out of five hundred miles of mountain ranges, and the appointment of the “path-finder” to command it was consistent with the romantic character of the whole. The mountains formed an admirable barrier at which comparatively small bodies of troops could cover and protect the Ohio Valley behind them, but extensive military operations across and beyond the Alleghanies from west or east were impracticable, because a wilderness a hundred miles wide, crossed by few and most difficult roads, rendered it impossible to supply troops from depots on either side. The country was so wild that not even forage for mules could be found in it, and the teams could hardly haul their own provender for the double trip. Quick “raids” were therefore all that ever proved feasible.

Fremont had formed a plan of campaign which consisted in starting with Blenker's division (which had been taken from the Army of the Potomac and given to him) from Romney in the valley of the south branch of the Potomac, ascending this valley toward the south, picking up Schenck's and Milroy's brigades in turn, the latter joining the column at Monterey, on the great watershed, by way of the Cheat Mountain Pass. From Monterey Fremont intended to move upon Staunton and thence, following the south-western trend of the valleys, to the New River near Christiansburg. Here he would come into communication with me, whose task it would have been to advance from Gauley Bridge on two lines, the principal one by Fayette and Raleigh Court House over Flat-top Mountain to Princeton and the Narrows of New River, and a subordinate one on the turnpike to Lewisburg. The plan looked to continuing the march to the south-west with the whole column till Knoxville should be reached, the last additions to the force to be from the troops in the Big Sandy Valley of eastern Kentucky.

The plan would probably have failed, first, from the impossibility of supplying the army on the route, as it would have been without any reliable or safe base; and second, because the railroads east of the mountains ran on routes specially well adapted to enable the enemy quickly to concentrate any needed force at Staunton, at Lynchburg, at Christiansburg, or at Wytheville to over-power the column. The Union army would be committed to a whole season of marching in the mountains, while the Confederates could concentrate the needed force and quickly return it to Richmond when its work was done, making but a brief episode in a larger campaign. But the plan was not [279] destined to be thoroughly tried. Stonewall Jackson, after his defeat by Kimball at Kernstown, March 23d, had retired to the Upper Shenandoah Valley with his division, numbering about 10,000 men; Ewell was waiting to cooperate with him, with his division, at the gaps of the Blue Ridge on the east, and General Edward Johnson was near Staunton with a similar force facing Milroy. In April General Banks, commanding the National forces in the Shenandoah Valley, had ascended it as far as Harrisonburg, and Jackson observed him from Swift Run Gap in the Blue Ridge, on the road from Harrisonburg to Gordonsville. Milroy also pushed eastward from Cheat Mountain summit, in which high regions winter still lingered, and had made his way through snows and rains to McDowell, ten miles east of Monterey, at the crossing of Bull Pasture River, where he threatened Staunton. But Banks was thought to be in too exposed a position, and was directed by the War Department to fall back to Strasburg, and on the 5th of May had gone as far as New Market. Blenker's division had not yet reached Fremont, who was waiting for it at Petersburg. Jackson saw his opportunity and determined to join General Johnson by a rapid march to Staunton, to overwhelm Milroy first and then return to his own operations in the Shenandoah.2 Moving with great celerity, he attacked Milroy at McDowell

West Virginia.

[280] on the 8th, and the latter calling upon Fremont for help, Schenck was sent forward to support him, who reached McDowell, having marched 34 miles in 24 hours. Jackson had not fully concentrated his forces, and the Union generals held their ground and delivered a sharp combat,3 in which their casualties of all kinds numbered 256, while the Confederate loss was 498, General Johnson being among the wounded. Schenck as senior assumed the command, and on the 9th began his retreat to Franklin, abandoning the Cheat Mountain road. Franklin was reached on the 11th, but Jackson approached cautiously and did not reach there till the 12th, when, finding that Fremont had concentrated his forces, he did not attack, but returned to McDowell, whence he took the direct road to Harrisonburg, and marched to attack Banks at Strasburg, Ewell meeting and joining him in this movement.

Fremont resumed preparations for his original campaign, but Banks's defeat deranged all plans, and those of the Mountain Department were abandoned. A month passed in efforts to destroy Jackson by concentration of McDowell's, Banks's, and Fremont's troops; but it was too late to remedy the ill effects of the division of commands at the beginning of the campaign. On the 26th of June Pope was assigned to command all the troops in northern Virginia, Fremont was relieved by his own request, and the Mountain Department ceased to exist.

The operations on the Kanawha line had kept pace with those in the north during the month of April. Leaving a brigade to garrison the Lower Kanawha Valley, I sent forward another under Colonel Crook on the Lewisburg Turnpike, whilst I moved in person with the two remaining (Scammon's and Moor's) on the Princeton route. The brigades numbered about two thousand men each. Wagons were so few that tents were discarded, and the men bivouacked without shelter. On the 7th of May my advanced guard occupied Giles Court House (Parisburg) and the Narrows of New River, and on the 16th the rest of the two brigades on this line were at the East liver, Crook's brigade occupying Lewisburg. We were thus prepared to join Fremont's column when it should approach Christiansburg. Instead of this we got news of Jackson's movements and of Schenck's and Milroy's retreat, and Fremont was obliged to telegraph that his plans were suspended, and that I must look out for myself.

The enemy had made strong efforts to concentrate a sufficient force to protect the railway, and the brigades of Generals Humphrey Marshall, Heth, and Williams were assigned to this duty, under the command of Marshall as senior. My own orders required me to converge toward Crook's line of movement as I advanced, and from Flat-top Mountain my line of supplies was exposed to a hostile movement on the right flank. On the 16th of May Marshall, leaving Heth to hold the passes of New River, marched by the Wytheville road on [281] Princeton, driving out my small detachment there after a stubborn resistance. In the night I marched Moor's brigade back from East River and drove Marshall out in turn. I recalled Scammon's brigade also on the 17th, and offered battle in front of the town. Marshall took strong position on the hills south of the place, but did not attack, nor did Heth, who followed Scammon part of the way from the Narrows. Princeton could easily have been turned by roads on the west, and I determined while awaiting the resumption of the general plan of campaign to retire to Flat-top Mountain, a very strong position, directing Crook on the other side of New River to halt at Lewisburg, where we could support each other. On May 23d Heth with his brigade tried to dislodge Crook, but was beaten, with the loss of 38 killed and many wounded, of whom 66 fell into our hands. Crook also captured 4 cannon and 300 stand of small-arms. Crook's loss was 13 killed, 53 wounded, and 7 missing.

When General Pope assumed command he directed a defensive policy to be pursued in West Virginia, and made arrangements to transfer part of my command to his army in the field. About the middle of August I took two brigades by way of the Kanawha and Ohio Rivers to Parkersburg, and thence by rail to Washington. Gauley Bridge was made the advanced post in the Kanawha Valley, and no important movement was again made on that line.

It is an interesting fact, that, so confident was General Halleck that Pope would be joined by McClellan's army in time to keep Lee in the neighborhood of Richmond, my original orders were to march through the mountains by way of Staunton, and join Pope at Charlottesville. I had several detachments out pursuing guerrillas and scattered bands of Confederate troops operating in my rear toward the Kentucky line, and this necessarily caused a few days' delay in beginning the directed movement. I took advantage of the interval to lay before General Pope, by telegraph, the proof that the march ordered meant fifteen days of uninterrupted mountain travel, most of it through a wilderness destitute of supplies, and with the enemy upon the flank. Besides this, there was the very serious question whether the Army of Virginia would be at Charlottesville when I should approach that place. On the other hand, my calculation was that we could reach Washington in ten days or less by the way we came. On this evidence Pope, with Halleck's assent, gave permission to move as suggested. The march from Flat-top Mountain to the head of navigation on the Kanawha, ninety miles, was made in three days, and the Kanawha Division reached Washington within the time appointed. One train-load of two regiments joined Pope at Warrenton Junction when the railroad was cut at Manassas Junction by Stonewall Jackson. Two other regiments got as far as Bull Run bridge and had a lively affair with the enemy. Afterward I was ordered into the forts on Upton's and Munson's hills to cover the front of Washington toward Centreville. Here, with McClellan in person, we listened to the cannonade of the Second Bull Run, and through our lines Pope and McDowell retired within the defenses of Washington. It has often been a subject of interested speculation to inquire what would have been the fate of the Kanawha Division, had it been approaching Charlottesville at this time, in accordance with Halleck's original order .

1 a continuation of “McClellan in West Virginia.” see Vol. I., p. 126.--Editors.

2 The object of Jackson in this movement is stated in his report of this campaign:

“At this time, Brigadier-General Edward Johnson, with his troops, was near Buffalo Gap, west of Staunton, so that, if the enemy was allowed to effect a junction, it would probably be followed not only by the seizure of a point so important as Staunton, but must compel General Johnson to abandon his position, and he might succeed in getting between us. To avoid these results, I determined, if practicable, after strengthening my own division by a union with Johnson's, first to strike at Milroy and then to concentrate the forces of Ewell and Johnson with my own against Banks.” Editors.

3 General Schenck in his report says:

“A little observation served to show at once that McDowell, as a defensive position, was entirely untenable, and especially against the largely outnumbering force that was ascertained to be advancing; and if it had been otherwise, there was no choice left on account of an entire destitution of forage. I determined, therefore, to obey, with as little delay as possible, your orders to fall back with the force of our two brigades to this place [Franklin]. Such a movement, however, could not with any safety or propriety be commenced before night, nor did it seem advisable to undertake it without first ascertaining or feeling the actual strength of the rebel force before us, and also, perhaps, taking some step that would serve to check or disable him from his full power or disposition to pursue. This was effectually done by our attack of his position on the mountain in the afternoon, and in the night following I was enabled to withdraw our whole little army along the road through the narrow gorge, which afforded the only egress from the valley in which McDowell is situated, in the direction of Franklin.” Editors.

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