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Chapter 10:

In June, 1861, Brigadier General Henry A. Wise, who was well and favorably known to the people of the Kanawha valley, in his enthusiasm for their defense and confidence in his ability to rally them to resist the threatened invasion of that region, offered his services for that purpose. With a small command, which was to serve as a nucleus to the force he hoped to raise, he was sent thither. His success was as great as could have been reasonably expected, and after the small but brilliant affair on Scary Creek, he prepared to give battle to the enemy then advancing up the Kanawha Valley under General Cox; the defeat of our forces at Laurel Hill, which has been already noticed, uncovered his right flank and endangered his rear, which was open to approach by several roads; he therefore fell back to Lewisburg.

Brigadier General John B. Floyd had in the meantime raised a brigade in southwestern Virginia, and advanced to the support of General Wise. Unfortunately, there was a want of concert between these two officers, which prevented their entire cooperation. General Floyd engaged the enemy in several brilliant skirmishes, when he found that his right was threatened by a force which was approaching on that flank, with the apparent purpose of crossing the Gauley River at the Carnifex Ferry so as to strike his line of communication with Lewisburg. He crossed the river with his brigade and a part of Wise's cavalry, leaving that general to check any advance which Cox might make. General Floyd's movement was as successful as it was daring; he met the enemy's forces, defeated and dispersed them, but the want of cooperation between Generals Wise and Floyd prevented a movement against General Cox.

Floyd entrenched himself on the Gauley, in a position of great natural strength, but the small force under his command and the fact that he was separated from that of General Wise probably induced General Rosecrans, commanding the enemy's forces in the Cheat Mountain, to advance and assail the position. Though his numbers were vastly superior, the attack was a failure; after a heavy loss on the part of the enemy, he [373]

General Robert E. Lee

[374] fell back after nightfall. During the night Floyd crossed the river and withdrew to the camp of General Wise, to form a junction of the two forces, and together they fell back toward Sewell's Mountain. The unfortunate controversy between these officers, which had prevented cooperation in the past, grew more bitter, and each complained of the other in terms that left little hope of future harmony; this want of cooperation led to confusion, and threatened further reverses.

General Loring had succeeded General Garnett, and was in command of the remnant of the force defeated at Laurel Hill. His headquarters were at Valley Mountain. General R. E. Lee, on duty at Richmond, aiding the President in the general direction of military affairs, was now ordered to proceed to western Virginia. It was hoped that, by his military skill and deserved influence over men, he would be able to retrieve the disaster we had suffered at Laurel Hill, and by combining all our forces in western Virginia on one plan of operations, give protection to that portion of our country. Such reenforcement as could be furnished had been sent to Valley Mountain, the headquarters of General Loring. Thither General Lee promptly proceeded. The duty to which he was assigned was certainly not attractive by the glory to be gained or the ease to be enjoyed, but Lee made no question as to personal preference, and, whatever were his wishes, they were subordinate to what was believed to be the public interest.

The season had been one of extraordinary rains, rendering the mountain roads, ordinarily difficult, almost impassable. With unfaltering purpose and energy, he crossed the Alleghany Mountains, and, learning that the main encampment of the enemy was in the valley of Tygart River and Elk Run, Randolph County, he directed his march toward that position. The troops under the immediate command of Brigadier General H. R. Jackson, together with those under Brigadier General Loring, were about thirty-five hundred men. The force of the enemy, as far as it could be ascertained, was very much greater. In the detached work at Cheat Mountain Pass, we learned by a provision return found upon the person of a captured staff officer that there were three thousand men, being but a fraction less than our whole force. After a careful reconnaissance, and a full conference with General Loring, Lee decided to attack the main encampment of the enemy by a movement of his troops converging upon the valley from three directions. The colonel of one of his regiments, who had reconnoitered the position of the works at Cheat Mountain Pass, reported that it was feasible to turn it and carry it by assault, and he was assigned to that duty. General Lee ordered other [375] portions of his force to take position on the spurs overlooking the enemy's main encampment, while he led three regiments to the height below and nearest to the position of the enemy. The instructions were that the officer sent to turn the position at Cheat Mountain Pass should approach it at early dawn, and immediately open fire, which was to be the signal for the concerted attack by the rest of the force. It rained heavily during the day, and after a toilsome night march, the force led by General Lee, wet, weary, hungry, and cold, gained their position close to and overlooking the enemy's encampment. In their march they had surprised and captured the picket, without a gun being fired, so that no notice had been given of their approach.

The officer who had been sent to attack the work at Cheat Mountain Pass found on closer examination that he had been mistaken as to the practicability of taking it by assault, and that the heavy abatis which covered it was advanced beyond the range of his rifles. Not having understood that his firing was to be the signal for the general attack, and should therefore be opened, whether it would be effective or not, he withdrew without firing a musket.

The height occupied by General Lee was shrouded in fog, and as morning had dawned without the expected signal, he concluded that some mishap had befallen the force which was to make it. By a tortuous path he went down the side of the mountain low enough to have a distinct view of the camp. He saw the men, unconscious of the near presence of an enemy, engaged in cleaning their arms, cooking, and other morning occupations; then returning to his command, he explained to his senior officers what he had seen, and expressed his belief that, though the plan of attack had failed, the troops there with him could surprise and capture the camp. The officers withdrew, conferred with their men, and reported to the general that the troops were not in condition for the enterprise. As the fog was then lifting, and they would soon be revealed to the enemy below, whose numbers were vastly superior to his own, he withdrew his command by the route they had come, and without observation returned to his camp. Beyond some skirmishes with outposts and reconnoitering parties, our troops had not been engaged, and in these affairs our reported loss was comparatively small.

Colonel John A. Washington, aide-de-camp of General Lee, was killed while making a reconnaissance, by a party in ambuscade. The loss of this valuable and accomplished officer was much regretted by his general and all others who knew him.

The report that Rosecrans and Cox had united their commands and [376] were advancing upon Wise and Floyd caused General Lee to move at once to their support. He found General Floyd at Meadow Bluff and General Wise at Sewell Mountain. The latter position being very favorable for defense, the troops were concentrated there to await the threatened attack by Rosecrans, who advanced and took position in sight of General Lee's entrenched camp, and, having remained there for more than a week, withdrew in the night without attempting the expected attack.

The weak condition of his artillery horses and the bad state of the roads, made worse by the retiring army, prevented General Lee from attempting to pursue; the approach of winter, always rigorous in that mountain region, closed the campaign with a small but brilliant action in which General H. R. Jackson repelled an attack of a greatly superior force, inflicting severe loss on the assailants and losing but six of his own command.

With the close of active operations General Lee returned to Richmond, and though subjected to depreciatory criticism by the carpet knights who make campaigns on assumed hypotheses, he with characteristic self-abnegation made no defense of himself, not even presenting an official report of his night march in the Cheat Mountain, but orally he stated to me the facts which have formed the basis of this sketch. My estimate of General Lee, my confidence in his ability, zeal, and fidelity, rested on a foundation not to be shaken by such criticism as I have noticed. I had no more doubt then, than after his fame had been securely established, that whenever he had the opportunity to prove his worth, he would secure public appreciation. Therefore, as affairs on the coast of South Carolina and Georgia were in an unsatisfactory condition, he was directed to go there and take such measures for the defense, particularly of Savannah and Charleston, as he should find needful. Lest the newspaper attack should have created unjust and unfavorable impressions in regard to him, I thought it desirable to write to Governor Pickens and tell him what manner of man he was who had been sent to South Carolina.

After the withdrawal of the Confederate army from Fairfax Court House and the positions which had been occupied in front of that place, a movement was made by the enemy to cross the Potomac near Leesburg, where we had, under the command of Brigadier General N. S. Evans of South Carolina, four regiments of infantry (i. e., the Thirteenth, Seventeenth, and Eighteenth Mississippi, and the Eighth Virginia), commanded respectively by Colonels Barksdale, Featherston, Burt, and [377] Hunton, a small detachment of cavalry under Lieutenant Colonel Jenifer, and some pieces of artillery.

On October 21st the enemy commenced crossing the river at Edwards's Ferry. A brigade was thrown over and met by the Thirteenth Mississippi, which held them in check at the point of crossing. In the meantime another brigade was thrown over at Ball's Bluff, and as troops continued to cross at that point, where the Eighth Virginia had engaged them, General Evans ordered up the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Mississippi, and the three regiments made such an impetuous attack as to drive back the enemy to the bluff, and their leader, Colonel Baker, having fallen, a panic seemed to seize the command, so that they rushed headlong down the bluff, and crowded into the flat boats, which were their means of transportation, in such numbers that they were sunk and many of the foe were drowned in their attempt to swim the river. The loss of the enemy, prisoners included, exceeded the number of our troops in action. The Confederate loss was reported to be thirty-six killed, one hundred seventeen wounded, and two captured; total, one hundred and fifty-five. Among the killed was the gallant Colonel Burt, a much-respected citizen of Mississippi, where he had held high civil station, and where his death was long deplored.

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R. E. Lee (13)
Henry A. Wise (10)
John B. Floyd (9)
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Cox (4)
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