Washington and Lee University

Four Years With General Lee

CHAPTER III.
Strength and Positions of the Opposing Armies in Northwest Virginia.—General Lee determines to take the Offensive.—Ineffectual Attempt to carry the Positions held by the Federal Troops.—Responsibility for the Failure.

BUT, to return to our narrative, despite the embarrassments heretofore alluded to, the command was finally brought to a sufficiently efficient condition to induce the general to take the offensive. On the 8th of September, and after full conference with Brigadier-General Loring, the order of attack was prepared; it was issued, however, in the name of the latter, and prescribed a line of operations which I will now attempt to describe. In order to a correct understanding of what is to follow, it is proper to make some remarks upon the character and prominent features of the immediate locality which was to be the scene of operations, and of the strength and positions of the two armies.

The advance force of the enemy held the Cheat Mountain Pass, where the Staunton and Parkersburg turnpike crossed the centre-top of Cheat Mountain range, about twelve miles east of Huttonsville. Just where the road crossed the mountain-top heavy defensive works had been constructed. Nature assisted in no small degree to render the position impregnable: the descent on both sides was very precipitous, and the surface of the earth was covered with a most remarkable undergrowth of laurel, so dense and interlocked as to be almost impenetrable. The Federals had cleared a considerable space around their intrenched position, constructed abatis and fosses around their entire work, and, having a garrison of three thousand men,1 might well have deemed themselves impregnable.

They also held a strongly-fortified position at Elk Water, on the road running from Valley Mountain through Tygart's Valley to Huttonsville, at which latter place it intersected the Staunton and Parkersburg turnpike. The force in Tygart's Valley was estimated to be five thousand strong. The reserve force was stationed at Huttonsville, and here also was their depot for supplies.

The two roads, mentioned as uniting at Huttonsville, were the only practicable routes by which that point could be reached from the east; both, as before explained, were protected by works of formidable aspect and difficult approach. General Reynolds was in command of the troops defending the passes of Cheat Mountain, and had an army estimated at from eight to ten thousand men. General Rosecrans commanded the entire Federal force operating in Western Virginia, embracing that under General Reynolds, and that operating in the Kanawha Valley, under General Cox.

One portion of the Confederate army was encamped at “Camp Bartow,” on the Parkersburg pike, near its crossing of the Greenbrier River. The force upon this line was under the immediate command of Brigadier-General H. R. Jackson, and consisted of the following organizations: First Georgia Regiment (Colonel Ramsay), Twelfth Georgia (Colonel Edward Johnson), Twenty-third Virginia (Colonel William B. Taliaferro), Thirty-first Virginia (Colonel Jackson), Thirty-seventh Virginia (Colonel Fulkerson), Forty-fourth Virginia (Colonel Scott), Third Arkansas (Colonel Rust), Hansbrough's and Roger's battalions of Virginia Volunteers, two batteries of artillery, and a few companies of cavalry—in all about twenty-five hundred effective men.

The other wing of the army, under General Loring, was camped at Valley Mountain, and consisted of a brigade (under General D.'s. Donelson) of one North Carolina and two Tennessee regiments; a brigade of Tennessee troops (under General Anderson); a brigade (under Colonel William Gilham) consisting of the Twenty-first and Forty-second Virginia Regiments, and the Irish Battalion (Provisional Army of Virginia); a small command under Colonel Burk; and a battalion of cavalry, under Major W. H. F. Lee.

These commands had been greatly reduced by sickness, and the total effective of this wing of the army did not exceed thirty-five hundred men.

Being without accurate maps of the country, and having no regular engineer-officer available, General Loring had to rely upon his scouts and a few citizens of that country, who acted in a volunteer capacity as guides, for all information as to the roads, and the movements and positions of the enemy. One of these citizen volunteers, a professional surveyor, having been informed that General Lee was particularly anxious to obtain accurate information of the nature and extent of the works of the enemy on the centre-top of Cheat Mountain, undertook the task of reaching such a point on the mountain as would enable him to take a deliberate and careful survey of the fortified position. He was also to ascertain and report if it was practicable to lead a body of infantry to the vicinity of that point, by any route which would prevent the disclosure of the movement.

The only route other than the turnpike by which this point of the range of mountains could be reached was by pursuing a course along and up the precipitous and ragged sides of the mountain, through undergrowth and trees, over rocks and chasms, and with nothing save the compass or the stars to indicate the direction of the summit. The quasi engineer: officer made the ascent successfully, and obtained a complete view of the enemy's works. On a second reconnaissance he was accompanied by Colonel A. Rust, of the Third Arkansas Regiment, who was very enterprising, and appeared to be most anxious to make a personal observation. Together they made the ascent of the mountain, and again complete success crowned their efforts. A full, unobstructed view of the entire line of works occupied by the enemy was had without discovery. On their return they made their report to General Lee, and represented that the works were of such a character as to justify the hope of being carried, if attacked from the direction of the point reached by them, from which they could plainly see all that was going on within; and on which flank the enemy appeared to have be stowed but little attention. The only difficulty was, to reach this point with a body of troops without attracting the attention of the enemy, so that he might be surprised and the more readily captured. Of the successful accomplishment of this, however, Colonel Rust was sanguine, and enthusiastically asked to be permitted to lead a column in an assault upon this position. General Lee decided to give battle. A column of infantry twelve hundred strong, consisting of the Twenty-third, Thirty-first, and Thirty-seventh Virginia Regiments, the Third Arkansas Regiment, and Hansbrough's Virginia battalion, was selected to assail the works of the enemy on Centre-top. Colonels Taliaferro and Fulkerson, who were senior in rank to Colonel Rust, magnanimously waived the question of rank, and acquiesced in placing themselves at the head of their respective regiments and under Colonel Rust's command.

The order of battle directed General H. R. Jackson to advance, with the balance of his command, by the turnpike, and to threaten the enemy from this direction—this was especially designed to divert attention from Rust's flank-movement.

The third column, under Brigadier-General Anderson, was to advance to the third or west top of Cheat Mountain, secure possession of the turnpike at that point, and be in position both to take the enemy in rear and prevent any escape; as also to resist any effort that might be made to re-enforce Centre-top with any troops that might be in reserve.

The rest of the army was to move down the valley of Tygart's River upon the enemy there stationed; but, as will appear more fully hereafter, the movements of this column were made to depend upon the success which should attend the assault upon the fortified position on Cheat Mountain. The plan of attack was carefully and maturely considered, and was communicated to the commanders in the following order:

[CONFIDENTIAL.]

HEADQUARTERS, VALLEY MOUNTAIN, September 8, 1861.

[Special Order No. 28.]

1. General H. R. Jackson, commanding Monterey division, will detach a column of not more than two thousand men under Colonel Rust, to turn the enemy's position at Cheat Mountain Pass at daylight on the 12th instant (Thursday).

During the night preceding the morning of the 12th instant, General Jackson having left a suitable guard for his own position with the rest of his available force, will take post on the eastern ridge of Cheat Mountain, occupy the enemy in front, and cooperate in the assault of his attacking column should circumstances favor. The march of Colonel Rust will be so regulated as to attain his position during the same night, and at the dawn of the appointed day (Thursday, 12th) he will, if possible, surprise the enemy in his trenches and carry them.

2. The “Pass” having been carried, General Jackson, with his whole fighting force, will immediately move forward toward Huttonsville, prepared against an attack from the enemy, taking every precaution against firing upon the portion of the army operating west of Cheat Mountain, and ready to cooperate with it against the enemy in Tygart's Valley. The supply-wagons of the advancing columns will follow, and the reserve will occupy Cheat Mountain.

3. General Anderson's brigade will move down Tygart's Valley, following the west slope of Cheat Mountain range, concealing his movements from the enemy. On reaching Wyman's (or the vicinity) he will refresh his force unobserved, send forward intelligent officers to make sure of his further course, and during the night of the 11th (Wednesday) proceed to the Staunton turnpike where it intersects the west top of Cheat Mountain, so as to arrive there as soon after daylight on the 12th (Thursday) as possible. He will make dispositions to hold the turnpike, prevent reënforcements reaching Cheat Mountain Pass, cut the telegraph-wire, and be prepared, if necessary, to aid in the assault of the enemy's position on the middle top of Cheat Mountain by General Jackson's division, the result of which he must await. He must particularly keep in mind that the movement of General Jackson is to surprise the enemy in their defenses. He must, therefore, not discover his movement, nor advance—before Wednesday—night beyond a point where he can conceal his force. Cheat Mountain Pass being carried, he will turn down the mountain and press upon the left and rear of the enemy in Tygart's Valley, either by the old or new turnpike, or the Becky Run road, according to circumstances.

4. General Donelson's brigade will advance on the right of Tygart's Valley River, seizing the paths and avenues leading from that side to the river, and driving back the enemy that may endeavor to retard the advance of the centre along the turnpike, or turn his right.

5. Such of the artillery as may not be used on the flanks will proceed along the Huttonsville turnpike, supported by Major Munford's battalion, followed by the rest of Colonel Gilham's brigade in reserve.

6. Colonel Burk's brigade will advance on the left of Tygart's Valley River, in supporting distance of the centre, and clear that side of the valley of the forces of the enemy that might obstruct the advance of the artillery.

7. The cavalry under Major Lee will follow, according to the nature of the ground, in rear of the left, Colonel Burk's brigade. It will watch the movements of the enemy in that quarter; give notice of, and prevent, if possible, any attempt to turn the left of the line, and be prepared to strike when opportunity offers.

8. The wagons of each brigade, properly parked and guarded, under the charge of their respective quartermasters—who will personally superintend their movements—will pursue the main turnpike, under the general direction of the chief quartermaster, in rear of the army and out of cannon-range of the enemy.

9. Commanders on both lines of operations will particularly see that their corps wear the distinguishing badge, and that both officers and men take every precaution not to fire on our own troops. This is essentially necessary, as the forces on both sides of Cheat Mountain may unite. They will also use every exertion to prevent noise and straggling from the ranks, correct quietly any confusion that may occur, and cause their commands to rapidly execute their movements when in presence of the enemy.

By order of General W. W. LORING:

CAKTER L. STEVENSON,
Assistant Adjutant and Inspector General.

On the same day that General Loring issued the order of march and attack to his army, General Lee issued the following:

HEADQUARTERS, VALLEY MOUNTAIN, September 8, 1861.

[Special Order No. –.]

The forward movement announced to the Army of the North west in Special Order No. 28, from its headquarters, of this date, gives the general commanding the opportunity of exhorting the troops to keep steadily in view the great principles for which they contend, and to manifest to the world their determination to maintain them. The eyes of the country are upon you. The safety of your homes, and the lives of all you hold dear, depend upon your courage and exertions. Let each man resolve to be victorious, and that the right of self-government, liberty and peace, shall in him find a defender. The progress of this army must be forward.

R. E. LEE,
General commanding.

Inasmuch as Rust's column had the most difficult part to perform, and it was impossible to estimate accurately the time which would be consumed in reaching his point of attack, he was started in advance of the other columns, and it was determined and ordered that they should await the signal of his attack, before doing anything more than securing positions from which they could readily and quickly advance to the work to which they had been respectively assigned. All were ordered to take every precaution to prevent their movements from being discovered, as the success of the whole undertaking depended on taking the enemy on Centre-top by surprise. Although the several tops of the mountain were in a direct line, not very distant from each other, it was necessary to make a considerable circuit in riding from one to the other; and as Rust's musketry could be more readily and promptly observed than any other signal, the general attack was made to depend upon it.

The several commands, being in every respect prepared for the anticipated battle, moved forward at the time mentioned, and in the several directions indicated, in the order of march and attack.

All progressed satisfactorily. Anderson reached and occupied the turnpike at its crossing on the third or rear top of Cheat Mountain. So unsuspecting was the enemy, and so silently was Anderson's movement made, that his men captured an engineer-officer of Rosecrans's staff, and others, quietly and confidently pursuing the road toward their rear.

General Jackson had his command well in hand, prepared to engage the enemy in front.

General Donelson's brigade rested the latter portion of the night not far from the camps of his enemy on Tygart's Valley River.

Morning found everything just as the most confident could have hoped, with the exception that the night had been a very rainy, disagreeable one, and the men were consequently quite uncomfortable; this, however, would soon be forgotten in the excitement of battle and the promise of certain victory. All was ready, and Bust's attack was anxiously awaited. General Jackson worried the enemy considerably by attacking his advanced guard on the first top of the mountain, only awaiting the signal from Bust to press forward earnestly with his entire command. Hours passed, and no signal was heard! What could have happened? Enough time had elapsed to enable the troops to reach Centre-top, unless prevented by some unexpected impediment.

Would Bust never attack? Alas! he never did!

As was subsequently learned, upon an examination of the works of the enemy made after he had succeeded in reaching his proper position, he was surprised to find them far more formidable than he had supposed. Whether additional strength had been given them since his reconnaissance, or whether he was too easily satisfied and not sufficiently thorough in his observations when he made that reconnaissance, is not known. He decided that the works were too formidable to justify an assault, and no attack was made. Even had he discharged his guns and vigorously engaged the enemy, without attempting to carry the works by storm, it is not unreasonable to believe that the combined efforts of the other columns would have been attended with success.

All, however, depended on the enemy's being surprised, and simultaneously and swiftly attacked. Much precious time had been lost. Donelson's men, uneasy about their arms, fearful that their powder had been dampened by the rain, commenced a spirited fusillade in order to reload and avoid a “flash in the pan.” This and Jackson's activity aroused the enemy: hurried preparations to resist attack were made; scouting-parties of cavalry were sent out to scour the surrounding country. One of these detachments came very near capturing General Lee, who, accompanied by his aide and a few horsemen, on his way to join General Donelson, had scarcely emerged from a piece of woods, when quite a troop thundered along the road skirting the woods, too near to be comfortable, but galloping rapidly away on suddenly observing their proximity to Donelson's column of infantry. It was also in a brush between one of these detachments of the enemy and a portion of Major W. H. F. Lee's battalion of cavalry that the pious Christian and gallant gentleman, Colonel John A. Washington, who had been sent with Major Lee to reconnoitre the enemy, was shot dead from an ambuscade.

Detached, discovered, without knowledge of the cause of Rust's silence, the other commands were powerless for good. Occupied with the necessity of providing for their own safety, it only remained to have them recalled to their former positions. The enemy made no advance, and, beyond driving in their outposts, our troops were not seriously engaged.

On the next day Colonel Rust personally reported to General Lee. The only cause assigned by him for his non-action is that heretofore given. Possibly his regimental commanders may have agreed with him in esteeming the works of the enemy too formidable to be attacked; but surely the responsibility attached to him alone.[2]

Some may think that this was a proper matter for investigation by a court of inquiry, or for trial by court-martial. Neither the one nor the other was ever had, and possibly no public good would have resulted had either been convened.

Having failed to dislodge the enemy from his strong hold, the season having advanced too far to attempt any movement away from our base of supplies, and there being no probability of any serious advance by the enemy, the campaign in the northwest was regarded as ended for the winter.

The following letter from General Lee to Governor Letcher, but recently made public, serves to confirm what has been stated:

VALLEY MOUNTAIN, September 17, 1861.

MY DEAR GOVERNOR: I received your very kind note of the 5th instant just as I was about to accompany General Loring's command on an expedition to the enemy's works in front, or I would have before thanked you for the interest you take in my welfare, and your too flattering expressions of my ability. Indeed, you overrate me much, and I feel humbled when I weigh myself by your standard. I am, however, very grateful for your confidence, and I can answer for my sincerity in the earnest endeavor I make to advance the cause I have so much at heart, though conscious of the slow progress I make. I was very sanguine of taking the enemy's works on last Thursday morning. I had considered the subject well. With great effort the troops intended for the surprise had reached their destination, having traversed twenty miles of steep, rugged mountain-paths; and the last day through a terrible storm which lasted all night, and in which they had to stand drenched to the skin in cold rain. Still their spirits were good. When morning broke, I could see the enemy's tents on Valley River at the point on the Huttonsville road, just below me. It was a tempting sight. We waited for the attack on Cheat Mountain, which was to be the signal. Till 10 A.M. the men were cleaning their unserviceable arms. But the signal did not come. All chance for a surprise was gone. The provisions of the men had been destroyed the preceding day by the storm. They had had nothing to eat that morning, could not hold out another day, and were obliged to be withdrawn. The party sent to Cheat Mountain to take that in rear had also to be withdrawn. The attack to come off from the east side failed from the difficulties in the way; the opportunity was lost, and our plan discovered. It is a grievous disappointment to me, I assure you. But for the rain-storm, I have no doubt it would have succeeded. This, Governor, is for your own eye. Please do not speak of it; we must try again. Our greatest loss is the death of my dear friend Colonel Washington. He and my son were reconnoitring the front of the enemy. They came unawares upon a concealed party who fired upon them within twenty yards, and the colonel fell pierced by three balls. My son's horse received three shots, but he escaped on the colonel's horse. His zeal for the cause to which he had devoted himself carried him, I fear, too far.

We took some seventy prisoners, and killed some twenty-five or thirty of the enemy. Our loss was small besides what I have mentioned. Our greatest difficulty is the roads. It has been raining in these mountains about six weeks. It is impossible to get along. It is that which has paralyzed all our efforts. With sincere thanks for your good wishes,

I am, very truly yours,
R. E. LEE.

His Excellency Governor JOHN LETCHER.


[Notes]

1 A requisition for rations for three thousand men was found upon the person of a staff-officer captured while pursuing the road from Cheat Mountain Pass to Huttonsville.

[2] “By this time most of the command had come up, and a council of war was held as to what we should do, consisting of Colonels Rust, Taliaferro, and Fulkerson, and Lieutenant-Colonels Barton, Jackson, and Hansbrough. It should be here stated that none of the officers were fully apprised of the plan of combined attack, and of the fact that everything depended on the ball being set in motion by our command, except Colonel Rust.

“I shall never forget the appearance of the officers composing this council; Fulkerson looked pale and worn, but intrepid; Taliaferro stern but indifferent. The latter soon broke off the deliberations by saying, ‘Well, if we have to fight these people, let's do it at once.’ Immediately the rear of the column was deployed around to the right, while we who had led the file remained on the left; and there we stood anxiously awaiting the word to advance to the assault. This word never came.”—Extract from letter of Lieutenant-Colonel G. W. Hansbrough.


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