Monday, February 19, 2007

Western Virginia

Dates: 3 June to 13 September, 1861


Union: Major General George McClellan, Commander of the military Department of the Ohio. Succeeded by Brigadier William Rosecrans.

Confederate: Brigadier General Robert E. Lee, commanding Confederate forces in Western Virginia.

Prelude: When Virginia seceded on 17 April, 1861, not everyone was on board with the idea. The people who lived in the northwestern corner of the state had nothing in common with those who lined in the Tidewater region. The mountainous region of Western Virginia could not support the plantation system that was the preferred method of farming in the flatter eastern regions. As that was the case, slavery practically did not exist in the west. There was another perception in the west that they were not being considered when the rest of the state voted to secede. Western Virginians had more in common with Ohioans than Eastern Virginians.

The solution: countersecession.

In Wheeling, representatives of the western counties met not only to propose secession from Virginia, but aim to petition the US Government to admit those counties as a state. Another proposal was for the raising of regiments for the defense of those counties and to eventually fight for the Union.

Predictably, the Virginia government, embroiled with negotiations over admittance to the Confederate States of America, was not pleased with the prospect of losing access to the mineral wealth and a major rail line to the North, as well as the lack of unity they wanted to present. It was decided to send troops to the region in order to enforce that unity. They chose a commander that was becoming popular in the state, Lee. He had just resigned from the US Army after being offered command of the entire Union war effort. Pledging to never raise his sword except in defense of the state, he accepted command of the Virginia Armed Forces, such as they were.

The North saw this as an opportunity to drive a wedge into increasingly hostile territory. It was decided to send troops into the region in order to support the Western Virginians.
The Administration of US President Abraham Lincoln chose McClellan to lead an expeditionary force into Western Virginia. McClellan was a Major General of Ohio Volunteers who had left his job at the Illinois Central Railroad to reenter the military. He was promoted to Major General of US Volunteers and named Commander of the newly created Department of the Ohio. It would be his job to secure Western Virginia for the Union.

23 May, 1861: The Virginia Legislature votes to accept the offer to join the Confederacy in exchange for Richmond being named the capital of the new country. With that, the western counties affirm their pro-Union leanings and called in the Federals for help. They weren’t without resources of their own; the 1st Virginia (US) was formed with Colonel Benjamin Franklin Kelly as its commander.

With the admission of Virginia into the CSA, all Virginia troops were placed in Confederate service.

27 May, 1861: McClellan crosses the Ohio River into Virginia with his Army of the Ohio.

30 May, 1861: Federal troops occupy Grafton, allowing McClellan to both protect Union interests in Western Virginia, as well as the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad line running through the region.

As part of the Confederate response, a small force led by Colonel George Porterfield conducts a raid in which two B&O bridges are destroyed. Afterwards, they move to the town of Philippi.

3 June, 1861: The Philippi Races: McClellan sees this development as an opportunity to strike the first blow. He deploys three formations, including Colonel Kelly’s 1st VA (US) to Philippi by a forced march at night. Arriving in the area very tired, an assault was immediately launched. The attack did not go off too well, but it spooked the Confederates in a full blown rout. It was said that the confederates ran so fast, it was like they were in a foot race, so the retreat became known as “The Philippi Races.”

McClellan had his first victory. This also gave the Federals the idea that the Confederates would not have the stomach for a stiff fight, an idea that would be disproven at Manassas in a few weeks. Still, he expressed caution in his movements, actions that would color his entire career as a Union general. It would be July before there was more action.

The Confederates sent reinforcements, commanded by Brigadier General Robert Garnett, to block McClellan. Another force, led by Lieutenant Colonel John Pegram, occupied Rich Mountain which overlooked a major turnpike.

10 July, 1861: McClellan’s forces encounter Garnett’s troops at Laurel Hill. He learns of the Confederate positions and decides to act against the defenses at Rich Mountain.

11 July, 1861: McClellan sends troops under Brigadier general William Rosecrans to hit the Confederates at Rich Mountain, forcing Pegram to withdraw.

12 July, 1861: Word of Pegram’s withdrawal reaches Garnett, who decides to withdraw himself. On the same day, the town of Beverly was occupied by Federal troops.

Meanwhile, more Confederate formations were being formed for operations in Western Virginia, one of these under command of former Virginia Governor Henry Wise. Another group was the Army of Kanawha, commander by Brigadier General John Floyd, a former US Secretary of War. He will soon meet Union Brigadier General Jacob Cox as he is heading down the Great Kanawha Valley towards Charleston, the future capital of West Virginia. By 25 July, Charleston is occupied and Cox continues south towards Cross Lanes.


13 July, 1861: McClellan launches an attack on Garnett at Carrick’s Ford, driving the Confederates back and killing Garnett in the process. Garnett becomes the first general officer to be killed in the Civil War.

The Federals now have control over the Western Virginia counties. This prompts the US command to launch an offensive into the heart of Virginia itself, that being the campaign that ends with the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas).

The action in Western Virginia becomes a series of skirmishes, with the exception of a major assault by Confederates that drives back Cox at Cross Lanes, the Union has Western Virginia in their grasp.

With the Federal defeat at Manassas, McClellan is called to Washington DC to reorganize the army, leaving Rosecrans in command. His first order is to get reinforcements to Cross Lanes.

28 July, 1861: Lee is given command of Confederate troops in Western Virginia and immediately departs Richmond for the region. This is his first command since turning over all of his troops to the Confederacy.

9 September, 1861: Lee sends three columns against Federal forces on Cheat Mountain, south of Rich Mountain. The plan is to sweep the Union troops off the summit. These Federal troops are under the command of Brigadier General John Reynolds. He was left there while Rosecrans marched the rest of his command to Cross Lanes.

10 September, 1861: Battle of Carnifax Ferry: Floyd advances to the ferry crossing, only to find no Federals. Cox had pulled his men back, destroying the ferry boats on the process. Floyd’s infantry ended up on one side of the river while the artillery was stuck on the other. Rosecrans, with his reinforcements, attacks and forces Floyd to get his infantry back and withdraw. That night, Floyd pulls back to Meadow Ridge, but the river level stops any Union pursuit.

11 September, 1861: Battle of Cheat Mountain: Lee has marched his troops to Cheat Mountain in a pouring rain. That, added with the terrain and the fact that several of his commanders were quarreling, added to the difficulty. The Confederates were split into three formations and the plan was to have each column attack the summit from a different direction. The terrain was rocky, it was still raining, most of the soldiers were sick, and the whole plan fell apart when one of Lee’s colonels, Albert Rust, lost his nerve. Lee had no choice but to pull back, leaving another column, under Colonel Thomas Jackson, to watch Reynolds.

12 September, 1861: In another blow to the Confederates, Rosecrans arrives with the bulk of his troops and drives Jackson from Cheat Mountain.

13 September, 1861: Reports of the action reach Richmond, causing the recall of Lee and Wise. Floyd is left in command and immediately orders his troops into winter quarters, ending the campaign.

Lee was ripped apart in the press for being “outgeneraled.” He would become Military Advisor to CS President Jefferson Davis, but it would be the next year before he would have another command, the Army of Northern Virginia. Jackson would become one of his corps commanders.

McClellan would command the Army of the Potomac, but his caution in the field and his constant criticism of Lincoln would see him removed from command. He would be the Democratic Party nominee for President in 1864, losing to Lincoln.

Floyd would become one of the two generals who fled Fort Donelson in 1862, prompting President Davis to remove him from further command. He dies in 1863.

Wise would stay in Confederate military service throughout the war, serving in various posts within and without the Army of Northern Virginia. He was with Lee at Appomattox and died in 1876, still faithful to the Southern Cause.

Rosecrans would become an army commander in the West, until losing the Battle of Chickamauga. He was then assigned to the Department of the Missouri, where his lack of actions in dealing with Sterling Price’s invasion led to his removal and being sent home to “await orders.”

The region at the center of it all, the counties of Western Virginia, became the State of West Virginia in 1863.

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