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A Narrative of the service of Colonel Geo. A. Porterfield in Northwestern Virginia in 1861-1861,

At your request I submit the following statement: I was living upon my farm, in Jefferson county, when our civil war began. In May, 1861, I was appointed Colonel of Volunteers, and [83] ordered to Grafton, Virginia, to receive into the service of the State, from the northwestern counties, such volunteers as might offer their services for the defence of that section.

By reference to Volume II, Series 1, Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, it will be seen that Alonzo Loring, of Wheeling, David Goff, of Beverley, and F. M. Boykin, of Weston, had been commissioned as field-officers by the Governor of Virginia and assigned to duty in the northwestern part of this State, with written instructions from General R, E. Lee prior to my assignment thereto. I would call attention to the instructions given these gentlemen, especially those to Major Boykin, in regard to the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. Major Loring had served in the Mexican war, been sheriff of Ohio county, and was a gentleman of influence in the city of Wheeling. Major Goff was a leading citizen of Beverley and the county of Randolph. Major Boykin was a native of eastern Virginia, a graduate of the military institute, and at that time a citizen of Weston. These officers were all paralyzed in their action, and completely silenced by the predominance of the Union sentiment in that part of the State of which they were residents. I neither saw nor had a line from either of them after my arrival at Grafton. Major Loring remained a quiet citizen in Wheeling. Major Goff the same in Beverley. Major Boykin left western Virginia and went to the east before my arrival. I had been informed that they would cooperate with me, and had expected to find them at their posts with some force already organized. On the contrary, upon my arrival I found myself alone in a county hostile to the South, without an officer of any experience to help me, then or afterwards; without money or supplies of any kind, or the means of getting anything to aid in organizing a military force. My letters to Colonel R. S. Garnett of May 14th and 16th, will show what progress had been made at those dates.

The extent of the Union feeling may be ascertained by reference to the letters of General R. Latham to Hon. Simon Cameron, Secretary of War, dated May 8th, and Major Boykin to General Lee, May 10, 1861. Whilst one of my first companies was rendezvoused at Fetterman, about a mile north of Grafton, on the night of May 22d it was attacked by a Union party from Grafton, and in an affair of the pickets Bailey Brown of the Union party was killed. This was on the 22d of May. He was, perhaps, the first victim of the war in Virginia. And yet the Richmond authorities would not believe the fact that from two-thirds to three-fourths of the population of the [84] counties along the line of the railroad from Grafton to Parkersburg, and north of that road to Wheeling, were loyal to the government of the United States. They would believe that a large number of volunteers for the Southern cause could be raised in that section—northwest Virginia—a force perhaps sufficient for its defence at that time. At all events, it was not a part of their programme then to send troops from the eastern part of the State. This is proven by the following correspondence between Hon. G. W. Summers, member of the Virginia Convention, and Governor Letcher. (Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume I, page 457.)


Kanawha Courthouse, May 3, 1861.
John Letcher, Governor of Virginia:
My dear Sir—

I doubt very much the expediency of sending any troops to the western border, at least for the present. The appearance of troops at Wheeling, Parkersburg, Point Pleasant, or other places on the Ohio river, would serve to irritate and invite aggression. You could not send enough to do much good, if they choose to invade from the other side. They can concentrate on Wheeling fifty thousand men from the other side in twenty-four hours, by the various railroads leading to that point; so at Parkersburg, but in less numbers. The Ohio river is fordable in the summer and fall at many points, and the whole river, from Sandy to the end of Hancock, is easily crossed.

Your obedient servant,

Executive Department, May 10, 1861.
My Dear Sir,—Your favor of the 3d has been received. * * * Arms have been sent to the volunteer companies, but no troops have been, or will be, sent from this part of the State. * * * * * *

I remain, respectfully yours,


I had been in Grafton and vicinity but a few days before I ascertained the real condition of the country, and informed General Lee of the same by letter and by verbal messages. The authorities were as fully informed as I could inform them of my situation and the condition of the country around me. I had then at Grafton about seven hundred and fifty men. I knew that I could get but little if any additional force. I was informed that no aid could be expected from Harpers Ferry. My command was deficiently supplied in every respect. There had been sent me a few boxes of flint-lock rifles and some old muskets from the arsenal at Lexington, two kegs of powder and some lead; that was all. A considerable United States force had already collected at Wheeling, and several thousand at other points on the other side of the Ohio river, which could be thrown on my position at Grafton in a few hours at any time. Grafton was untenable by the force I had, or any I could expect. To remain there was to await the certain capture of my command. I, therefore, determined to leave Grafton. I ordered the destruction of the wooden bridges on the railroads leading from my position to Wheeling and Parkersburg, and withdrew my command to Philippi, in Barbour county.

On the evening before I left Grafton, I received an order from Governor Letcher to seize a train of cars and go to Wheeling and capture the arms, which the United States Secretary of War had sent to that city. Just before the receipt of this order, the officer directed to destroy the bridges between Grafton and Wheeling (three), Colonel Willey, had gone on a train to execute my order, and was then in the act of doing so. We were thus cut off from Wheeling, and it was too late to comply with the Governor's order. I never explained to the Governor why his order was not attempted to be carried into effect.

Up to this time I had not been ordered to break the railroad. General Lee says (page 802, Official Records): ‘It is not intended to interfere with the peaceful use of the road,’ etc., etc. General Johnston states (Johnston's Narrative), page 28), in regard to seizing some of the rolling-stock of this road for use of the South: ‘It would have been criminal as well as impolitic on our part to commit such an act of war against citizens of Maryland, when we were receiving aid from the State then and hoping for its accession to the Confederacy.’ General Lee writes to General J. E. Johnston, June 7, 1861: ‘The evacuation of the latter (Harpers Ferry) would interrupt our communication with Maryland and injure our cause in that State.’ [86]

These extracts prove that the Confederacy hoped to hold the Baltimore & Ohio road at that early period, hence the delay in ordering and preparing for its destruction in time to effect it thoroughly.

It was now charged that I had surrendered the road, and with it that part of the State to the United States troops. If my first orders had directed the destruction of the road, something might have been done, although I would not have had more than time to prepare for extensive damage to it. At the last moment, when I was about to leave Grafton, it was too late to effect much in the way of destruction. The Richmond government had delayed and evidently hesitated to order it to be done. The destruction of this road as a line of communication between the west and the east could have been effected only by the destruction of its tunnels in the mountains east of Grafton, and this would have required force, time, machinery for boring, and an ample supply of blasting material. It would have been necessary to have prepared for this work long before the propriety of it was decided upon at Richmond As it was, I was not ordered to destroy it until it was too late, and it was not until I had left Grafton and the road was occupied by United States troops, that I received the order specially to destroy the Cheat bridge. (See order of Council accompanying, dated June 1st, received June 5th.) Immediately upon my arrival at Philippi, May 28th, I sent a company, in command of one of my best officers, Lieutenant Chenowith, to destroy this bridge, the Cheat, a strong iron bridge, but they failed to accomplish it. This was several days before I received the order to do so from Richmond. It seemed to be thought that I had only to apply the match to bridges and tunnels already mined and blow them up. The labor and material for such work were left out of view. The destruction of this road, however, west of Grafton, between that town and the Ohio river, whether done by myself or my successor, General Garnett, would have been labor thrown away. It could and would have been replaced in as little time as it took to destroy it. The war taught that later on. And even if the road through this part of the State could have been thoroughly destroyed, it would not have prevented the occupation of this part of the country by Federal troops. Without any railroad, its proximity to Ohio would have insured its invasion by any United States force required to hold it. Just across the Ohio river was a vast extent of densely populated territory, all loyal to the Union and connected by a network of railroads, from which an army could be moved into that section at any time. [87]

I had left Grafton but a day or so before that place was occupied by several thousand United States troops, and in about a week after my arrival at Philippi my command there was surprised at 4 A. M., June 3d.

General Morris reported to General McClellan, June 7th, the capture at this place of a large amount of ‘camp equipage, provisions, arms, wagons, horses and medical stores.’ I had no provisions, wagons, horses (except the cavalry not captured), nor medical stores. If these were captured they were taken from citizens and not from my command. One cavalry company had tents, and there were a few boxes of rusty flint-lock guns and two kegs of powder, that was all, General Morris also reports that we were pursued. This also is an error. He was not there. An officious report to General Lee appears in the ‘Records,’ signed M. G. Harman, Major, J. M. Heck, Colonel, and R. E. Cowan, Major. These parties, no doubt, felt that by finding fault with me they elevated themselves. Harman was a Quartermaster, knowing nothing of military movements. Heck was appointed Lieutenant-Colonel, and when he reported to me at Grafton asked to be sent to Richmond, in which I gratified him, and where he remained until General Garnett's army was sent out. Cowan was nothing of a soldier. They all chimed in with the clamor against me, and gave it as wide circulation as they could. For all the reverses in this section heavy censure was cast upon me. If the authorities did not place it upon me, it seems they were willing that I should bear it. The more intelligent citizens, who knew the difficulties in my way, were not those to find fault. (See letter of Hon. Samuel Woods, then member of the Virginia Convention and now one of the judges of our court of appeals.) Under these circumstances I asked for a court of inquiry.

I retreated to Beverly, and the next day withdrew the infantry to Huttonsville, south of Beverly, leaving the cavalry to scout the roads across Rich Mountain and Laurel Hill. This was my position when relieved by General Garnett. I had no objection to being relieved. I filled the position I had because I had been ordered to do so. I would at the first have preferred it had been given to some one else.

The Confederate authorities had at last become aware of the real condition of affairs in northwestern Virginia, and now sent General Garnett, with about five thousand of the best troops about Richmond; infantry, artillery and cavalry, equipped in every respect, and a number of experienced officers to assist him. Among them were Corley, [88] DeLagnel, Pegram, Williams and Jackson, all of whom had lately resigned from the United States army.

He stationed the First Georgia, Colonel Ramsay, at Laurel Hill; Twenty-third Virginia, Colonel Taliaferro, at Laurel Hill; Twenty-seventh Virginia, Colonel Fulkerson, at Laurel Hill; Thirty-first Virginia, Lieutenant-Colonel Jackson, at Laurel Hill; Lieutenant-Colonel Hansborough's battalion at Laurel Hill; six pieces of artillery at Laurel Hill; Twentieth Virginia regiment, Colonel Pegram, at Rich Mountain; Twenty-fifth Virginia regiment. Lieutenant-Colonel Heck, Rich Mountain; four pieces of artillery, Rich Mountain; Forty-fourth Virginia regiment on east side of Rich Mountain.

He had also the following cavalry companies: Captain Richard's Bath cavalry; Captain Sterritt's, Churchville; Captain Moorman's, Greenbrier; Captain McChesney's, Rockbridge; Captain Flournoy's, Ashland; Captain Smith's, Ashland.

Colonel Edward Johnson's Twelfth Georgia and Colonel Stephen Lee's North Carolina were on the march to join him. Garnett had been, as I believe, influenced by the clamor against me, and instead of assigning me to the command of my regiment gave me the unimportant post of Beverley.

June 25th, he wrote: ‘I regard these two passes (Rich Mountain and Laurel Hill, at the western bases of which he had placed his force) as the gates to the northwestern territory.’ Laurel Hill was not a strong position. The hill could be crossed anywhere by infantry, and any position on the road across it could be turned with the greatest ease. Rich Mountain was a strong position, more difficult to turn; yet it was possible to turn it, and it was turned. The strongest point on each of these mountains was the top. General Garnett also writes: ‘This force I consider more than sufficient to hold these two passes, but not enough to hold the railroad.’

He writes, July 6th: ‘I do not think the enemy, notwithstanding his superiority of numbers, will attempt to attack my position * * for the simple reason that he holds as much of the northwestern territory as he wants, * * * * * * he could have possessed himself of more of the country after Colonel Porterfield's retreat, if he had desired it.’

These extracts show how utterly in the dark General Garnett was, and the extent to which he was deceived. I wrote, June 11th: ‘It is their intention to occupy the western part of this State to the Alleghanies, and if possible to the Blue Ridge.’

General Lee, to put him, Garnett, on his guard, at once replied, [89] July 11th: ‘I do not think it probable that the enemy will confine himself to that portion of the northwestern country which he now holds,’ and adds in substance, ‘but will drive you back if he can.’ The positions which General Garnett had selected and thought so strong were the main cause of his defeat. From the time he occupied these passes until the day of his defeat, July 11th, his constant belief was that the enemy could not gain his rear by way of Rich Mountain; that Pegram could at least hold his position in case of attack until he (Garnett) could reinforce him. At last, July 11th, Rosecrans struck at the vital point, and Garnett's whole army was defeated. By defeating three hundred and fifty men on the Rich Mountain, McClellan defeated Garnett's entire army of five thousand, and that so badly that his retreat became a rout. (I understand now that Rosecrans is entitled to this success) McClellan's army could have gone to Staunton if he had at once followed on, and the enemy could now, after Garnett's retreat, have possessed himself of the whole northwestern country. General Garnett was so stunned by this unexpected result, that instead of retreating through Beverley to the top of Cheat Mountain, which he could easily have done, for he did not reach Beverley until 2 P. M. next day, he took a narrow and circuitous by-road through the mountains, which brought disaster to his army and death to himself. The Cheat Mountain pass, the strongest in that country, was thus lost to the Confederates.

The statement, page 254 (No. 20), signed J. M. Heck, Lieutenant-Colonel, etc., is a misstatement from beginning to end. The reports of Pegram and Tyler are true in all respects, so far as my knowledge goes.

The greater part of my regiment proper, the Twenty-fifth, was surrendered by Pegram at Rich Mountain.

I afterwards served upon the staff of General Loring,1 accompanied [90] him in Lee's movement against Cheat Mountain, also against Rosecrans on the Big Sewell Mountain.

As heretofore stated, my regiment having the greater part of it been surrendered by Colonel Pegram, General Loring now recommended to the Secretary of War the formation of a regiment out of certain fragments and odd companies, then under General Edward Johnson on Alleghany Mountain, for my command. This, it seems, required the sanction of the State authority (the Governor), which was not given. This refusal, of course, was mortifying to me, as I wanted the command of a regiment.

I now accompanied Loring's army to Winchester, in the latter part of December, 1861, where his (Loring's) force was united with that of Jackson. On the 1st of January, 1862, this united force moved towards Hancock, Maryland, on what Jackson intended to be the beginning of a winter campaign. When near Bath, in Morgan county, Maryland, we came upon the enemy's pickets, and there was a halt. During this delay Jackson and Loring met, and some unpleasant words passed between them. Loring complained that if Jackson should be killed he (Loring) would find himself in command of an army of the object of whose movements he knew nothing. Jackson asked me to move forward a regiment which had halted on the side of a mountain near us. When I returned, Jackson asked me to join his staff, which I declined to do, because I liked Loring and did not wish to leave him.

The weather becoming intensely cold, the army fell back, Jackson returning to Winchester and Loring being sent to Romney, in Hampshire county. Here Loring protested to the War Department against being kept. The Secretary sent him an order direct (not through Jackson) to fall back to Winchester. This offended Jackson, who sent on his resignation, which was not accepted. Loring's command was then sent elsewhere, he himself to Mississippi. I then reported to General Edward Johnson, whose command was about fifteen miles west of Staunton. General Johnson assigned me to the command of a brigade, composed of the remnant of the Twenty-fifth Virginia, Thirty first Virginia, Twelfth Georgia, Hansboro's battalion, and a battery of artillery. I remained in this position until the reorganization of the regiments by elections about the 1st of May, 1862. Not being elected by what remained of my regiment, on account of the schemes of others for my position, and feeling that it was not the proper way to deprive me of my command and commission, and that I had not been fairly treated from the beginning, I concluded to abide [91] by this result and remain out of the service, which I did. General Edward Johnson, without solicitation from me, gave me a letter to the Secretary of War, recommending my promotion to the rank of brigadier-general. This letter has, unfortunately, been lost.

1 The following extract from a letter from General Loring may be given as a memorial of the last days of this gallant officer, if for naught else:

Dear Colonel—I am pleased at the receipt of your letter, and have read it with a great deal of pleasure. No one knew better than I did how much wrong they did you. I am so very young that I look to the future with the same bright anticipations I did at sixteen. Time at last puts all things right.

Truly your friend,

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Grafton, W. Va. (West Virginia, United States) (14)
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Rich Mountain (West Virginia, United States) (9)
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