Four Years With General Lee, by Walter H. Taylor, Chapter 4

Four Years With General Lee

Affairs in Southwestern Virginia.—Want of Harmony between Generals Floyd and Wise.—General Lee proceeds to that Section.—Preparations to resist General Rosecrans.—Retreat of the Federals.

MEANWHILE the Federal commander had been active in the Kanawha Valley, and, owing to matters of discord between Generals Floyd and Wise, it became imperatively necessary for General Lee to repair to that quarter, in order to restore harmony among our own people, and to resist the further advance of the enemy. Simultaneously General Rosecrans moved with a large portion of his army to reënforce General Cox; and General Lee ordered General Loring to leave a sufficient force to watch the enemy at Cheat Mountain, and move with the rest of his army to the Kanawha Valley.

General Lee proceeded without delay across the country in that direction.

On the 14th of September General Floyd encamped on Big Sewell Mountain, and ordered General Wise to go into camp a short distance east of him. On the night of the 16th he retreated to Meadow Bluff, directing General Wise to cover the movement and follow with his command to that point. This order General Wise positively refused to obey; and, selecting a favorable position on Little Sewell Mountain, he proceeded to make it good by a line of defensive works.

Such was the condition of affairs as reported to General Lee, who, upon his arrival, found General Floyd with his command at Meadow Bluff, and General Wise some ten or more miles in advance, at Little Sewell, with his legion of seventeen hundred men, now confronted by Rosecrans’s entire army.

Without entering into the merits of the controversy between Generals Floyd and Wise, General Lee perceived at a glance that Little Sewell was the most favorable point at which to make a stand; that being naturally a strong position, and much more easily defended than Meadow Bluff. General Floyd was therefore at once ordered to move forward to Little Sewell. The bitter feeling which had been engendered between the two commanders had imparted itself, in some degree, to the troops, and seriously threatened to impair their efficiency. No little diplomacy was required, therefore, to produce harmony and hearty cooperation, where previously had prevailed discord and contention. It will be readily understood that the partisans of Floyd at first viewed in no pleasant frame of mind the apparent indorsement of Wise’s judgment, if not, by a forced construction (to which a prejudiced mind is always liable), the approval of his disobedience and insubordination, implied in General Lee’s order that Floyd should forsake his chosen position and return to that persistently held by Wise.

A junction of the commands of Floyd and Wise having been effected, a line of defense was established, and as well fortified as circumstances would admit in that broken country.

The reinforcements from Loring’s army soon arrived, and the aggregate strength of the troops under General Lee was, in round numbers, about eight or nine thousand men.

Soon after the arrival of General Lee a messenger came with an order from the President, relieving General Wise of his command, and directing him to repair to Richmond for assignment to another field of duty of equal importance and dignity.

I express no opinion in regard to the matters of difference between Generals Floyd and Wise, and no conclusion prejudicial to the latter should be drawn from the action of the War Department, relieving him of his command. General Lee, so far as is known to me, never undertook to ascertain or decide the merits of the controversy between those officers; but, as the good of the service required that one or the other should be relieved from duty with that army, an order to that effect was issued by direction of the President, and with General Lee’s concurrence.

The combined forces of the enemy, under Generals Rosecrans and Cox, were estimated to be from twelve to fifteen thousand strong.1

With such an army, elated by its previous encounters with the small force heretofore opposed to it, it was reasonably presumed that the Federal commander would continue on the aggressive. General Lee caused every preparation to be made to give battle. He was but too recently on the field to adopt any other than a defensive policy: he had already demonstrated his unwillingness to recede, by the advance from Meadow Bluff to Little Sewell Mountain. The enemy held a strong position on Big Sewell Mountain, from which, as a base, he had already advanced to engage the troops of General Wise. There was no reasonable cause to doubt that General Rosecrans, who was now in command, would continue this advance, and assail the Confederate position. It was a matter of great surprise, therefore, when, on the morning of the 6th of October, it was discovered that the enemy was no longer in our front; and this surprise was increased when, on pursuing the road over which Rosecrans’s army had retreated, it was evident, from the manner in which provisions and accoutrements had been tumbled out or left upon the route, that the flight had been somewhat precipitate and disorderly.

We had now reached the latter days of October: the lateness of the season and the condition of the roads precluded the idea of earnest aggressive operations, and the campaign in Western Virginia was virtually concluded.

Judged from its results, it must be confessed that this series of operations was a failure. At its conclusion a large portion of the State was in possession of the Federals, including the rich valleys of the Ohio and Kanawha Rivers, and so remained until the close of the war. For this, however, General Lee cannot be reasonably held accountable. Disaster had befallen the Confederate arms, and the worst had been accomplished, before he reached the theatre of operations; the Alleghanies then constituted the dividing line between the hostile forces, and in this network of mountains, sterile and rendered absolutely impracticable by a prolonged season of rain, Nature had provided an in surmountable barrier to operations in the transmontane country.

It was doubtless because of similar embarrassments that the Federal general retired, in the face of inferior numbers, to a point nearer his base of supplies.

During the time that General Lee was in this department (his first service in the field under Confederate auspices), he manifested that complete self-abnegation and dislike for parade and ceremony which later in the war became characteristic of him. Accompanied originally by a staff of but two persons, and, after the death of Colonel Washington, with but one aide-de-camp, with no escort nor body-guard, no couriers nor guides, he made the campaign under altogether unostentatious and really uncomfortable circumstances. One solitary tent constituted his headquarters-camp; this served for the general and his aide; and when visitors were entertained, as actually occurred, the general shared his blankets with his aide, turning over those of the latter to his guest. His dinner-service was of tin—tin plates, tin cups, tin bowls, everything of tin and consequently indestructible; and to the annoyance and disgust of the subordinates, who sighed for porcelain, could not or would not be lost; indeed, with the help of occasional additions, this tin furniture continued to do service for several campaigns; and it was only in the last year of the war, while the army was around Petersburg, that a set of china was surreptitiously introduced into the baggage of the headquarters of the army. This displaced for a time the chaste and elaborate plate; but on resuming “light marching order” at the time of the evacuation of Richmond and Petersburg, the china, which had been borrowed by the staff, was returned; the tins were again produced and did service until the surrender of the army, when they passed into the hands of individuals who now preserve them as mementos of the greatest commander in the great war.


1 This was a great exaggeration on the part of the Confederates. General Rosecrans puts his effective strength at this time at but eight thousand five hundred.—“Report on the Conduct of the War,” Second Series, vol. iii., p. 10.

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