Forgotten Federal Success
Despite the censure heaped upon Colonel George A. Porterfield for his [conduct at the less-than-epic Battle of Philippi, the men who relieved him– including those who served on the court of inquiry–would do no better than he in wrenching western Virginia free of the tightening grasp of Major General George B. McClellan’s Union forces.
Taking charge of 4,500 Confederate troops in Beverly, Brig. Gen. Robert S. Garnett found himself unable to recruit more from the predominantly pro-Union population, and so resorted to hit-and-run guerrilla raids against Federal supply lines. McClellan responded by moving on Beverly, only to find that Garnett had dispatched two regiments under Lt. Col. John Pegram to Rich Mountain in Randolph County, to block the Union approach west of the town, while another force held Laurel Mountain to the north.
On July 11, 1861, McClellan sent a brigade under Brig. Gen. William S. Rosecrans to attack Pegram’s position Scrambling up the steep sides of Rich Mountain in pouring rain, Rosecrans’ men managed to surprise and overrun the 1,300 Rebels charged with holding it. At the same time, another strong detachment of Rosecrans’ force circled south, cutting off Pegrams’ retreat. Seeing his position to be hopeless, Pegram surrendered 553 officers and men on the following evening. Federal casualties totaled 46. Both Pegram and his chief of artillery, Julius de Lagnel–who was severly wounded while singlehandedly manning his long cannon during the fight and then captured as he tried to slip through Union lines–were later freed in an exchange of prisoners. Pegram would fight on for the Southern cause until his death in 1865.
Upon learning of the fiasco at Rich Mountain, Garnett withdrew from beverly in an attempt to slip between McClellan’s and Rosecrans’ forces, but McClellan’s men caught him at Carrick’s Ford, routed the Confederate army and killed Garnett..
As a result of McClellan’s campaign, western Virginia was securely in Federal hands by September 1861, when General Robert E. Lee led six brigades west with the intention of ousting the Yankees from Cheat Mountain, which controlled several mountain passes in western Virginia, as well as the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike. Cheat Mountain itself was occupied by only one regiment, the 14th Indiana under Colonel Nathan Kimball, while five other Union regiments under the overall command of Brig. Gen. Joseph J. Reynolds lay seven miles to the west, at the village of Elkwater.
Taking command of 15,000 troops from Brig. Gen. William Wing Loring, Lee divided the Rebel force into five columns and devised a complicated plan that depended on coordination and initiative on the part of all his subordinates. Colonel Albert Rust, who had discovered a concealed route to Kimball’s position, was to surprise him on the right flank, opening the way for a second column under Brig. Gen. Henry R. Jackson to overrun and occupy the Federal position, while Brig. Gen. Samuel Anderson’s brigade cut off the wagon road to the rear of Cheat Mountain. At the same time, Lee and Loring would deploy their remaining three brigades against Reynolds.
After advancing through heavy rain on September 10, Lee’s force made first contact with Reynolds’ troops the next day at Conrad’s Mill and drove them back to Elkwater. September 12 saw Loring’s two brigades pressing Elkwater, and Anderson severing the road behind Kimball, but the key to Lee’s plan–the occupation of Cheat Mountain–never came off. Rust, convinced by some Union prisoners that he was outnumbered 2-to-1 (when, in fact, his 2,000 men were opposed by only 300 Indianans) and that he faced a Yankee trap, faltered at the crucial moment.
Over the next two days, Lee probed desperately for an opening against Reynolds, on one occasion narrowly missing a run-in with a Union cavalry patrol. On September 13, his eldest son, Major William Henry Fitzhugh Lee, and his aide-de-camp, Colonel John A. Washington, did run into Union pickets. Washington was killed in the volley. “Rooney” Lee’s horse was wounded, but he managed to escape capture on Washington’s mount.
On September 15, with the rain continuing unabated and the element of surprise hopelessly lost, Lee canceled his operation against Cheat Mountain.
On October 24, western \Virginia’s 40 counties voted to form the Union state of West Virginia. In consequence, Lee judged his position untenable and withdrew six days later, leaving the region to its fate, with nothing to show for his efforts but a newly acquired gray beard.
The successful Federal campaign in western Virginia was soon eclipsed by the double disasters at Manassas and Ball’s Bluff, a Confederate one-two punch that assured a much longer and more difficult war than either side had expected. But it ultimately provided the Union with a new state and enhanced McClellan’s reputation to such a degree that he would be placed in command of the Union armies in the East.
Robert E. Lee, on the other hand, went on to do much better than he had at Cheat Mountain. Ably assisted by an improved cadre of subordinate commanders, he would become a master of the art of overcoming an opponent by the relentless application of constant pressure, a technique that would win his Army of Northern Virginia a succession of remarkable victories and bring down a succession of Northern counterparts–including McClellan.