Ambushing in Western Virginia

Saturday, July 6, 1861

General George McClellan liked to think that he had an intimate knowledge of everything under his command. At this time, he was micromanaging the planned assault on Confederate General Garnett’s men near Beverly, western Virginia. Without McClellan’s knowledge or orders, Captain Lawson led fifty men of the Third Ohio out of Buckhannon, towards the Rebel fortifications on Rich Mountain.

Starting the previous evening, they took small mountain paths to the Beverly Pike, where they camped for the night. In the morning, keeping north of the main road, Lawson and his men climbed over a mountain into the valley created by Middle Creek. There were rumors of “rebel marauders” who were pillaging houses of good, upstanding Unionists, causing their women and children to flee into the woods.

His small band found the creek, with brush and briers thick along its banks, and slowly edged south back towards the Pike. Nearing the covered bridge that crossed the creek, he discovered that it was held by the Rebels, perhaps 300 in number (but also perhaps a lot less). Though this would have been a great spot for an ambush, the Confederates also saw him and sent out five skirmishers to flush them out.

Since Lawson’s men had fairly good hiding spots, the five Rebels stumbled upon them as the Union troops stood up to fire. Both Rebels and Yankees fired upon each other at the same time. Two of the Rebels dropped while the other three ran back to the bridge, as the main body of Confederates opened fire from the bridge, the embankment and and the hill above.

To get a better shot, Lawson moved his men nearer to the Pike and poured a vicious fire upon the Rebels, which they returned, hitting a few men and killing another. The Confederates hiding in the embankment had the best shots. They could pop their heads up, take aim and fire off shots as they pleased. A Union Corporal was hit in the foot and fell to the ground. “Captain, I’m hit,” he cried out, “but I must have another shot!” Standing on one foot, he fired two more times and then fainted from loss of blood.

Another was hit in the head by buckshot. One of the balls cracked his skull, lodging itself in the bone. He too fell, but was able to stand to fire another shot at the Rebels. Less than five minutes later, Captian Lawson ordered a retreat.

They made it back to camp by midmorning, carrying their wounded, but not their dead.1

As is to be expected, accounts on both sides vary. A Confederate account numbers the Union attackers at 100, though with the underbrush and surprise, it’s easy to understand how that might happen. The account also claims that even though the Union troops had “superior numbers,” they were repulsed, “leaving one dead on the field.”

The Union report claims that “some [Confederates] were killed on the bridge” and that “seven were killed outside the bridge.” The Confederates reported only three wounded.

Strangely, both the Union and Confederates claim to have retreated from the bridge. The Rebels noted that the “pickets were compelled to retire” after the Union troops appeared in large force. In McClellan’s mention of the skirmish, he complains that he had to send most of the rest of the Third Ohio Regiment to cover Lawson’s retreat from the Skirmish of Middle Creek.2


Down by the Kanawha Valley

Confederate Generals Wise and Floyd were both operating in and around the Kanawha Valley of western Virginia, over 100 miles southwest of McClellan. General Wise, former Governor of Virginia, moved his Legion of Confederates into Charleston on this date while General Floyd, former US Secretary of War, remained at Wytheville, 125 miles farther south.

To counter the Rebels, McClellan dispatched Brig-General Jacob Cox and whatever regiments remained at Camp Dennison near Cincinnati. By the end of day, he had two regiments moving up the Ohio River towards Point Pleasant. The next day, he would leave with a third. Two more regiments would soon follow.3

Opposite McClellan, Confederate General Garnett wrote to General Lee that, since the Kanawha Valley was fairly pro-Southern, it could be easily held with General Floyd’s force. General Wise, thought Garnett, could move north towards Rich Mountain (he suggested the village of Bulltown), so McClellan would have to detach some of his men to meet the new threat. Meanwhile, though Garnett had received some reinforcements and he believed the number of McClellan’s troops to be exaggerated, he was very uncertain how he was to hold back the Union troops gathering around him.4


With Rebels to His Front, Patterson Needs More Troops

In Martinsburg, Union General Patterson was receiving the reinforcements he requested in order to follow the Confederate Army of the Shenandoah, which, until this morning, had been at Darkesville, seven miles south of his camp. Col. Thomas Jackson’s Brigade had moved back to that line after the Battle of Falling Waters. There, they were joined by General Joseph Johnston, army commander. Fearing that Patterson might actually make a move, however, Johnston decided to fall back to Winchester, taking Jackson’s Brigade with him.

En route to Patterson were regiments from New York and Wisconsin, as well as Col. Lew Wallace’s Indiana Zouaves from Cumberland, Maryland (formerly under General McClellan’s command) and Col. Stone’s Brigade from the Rockville Expedition. He also asked for another regiment, stating that Johnston’s army was now 26,000 strong. Patterson over-estimated by roughly 15,000.5

  1. The Rebellion Record, Vol. 2 by Edward Everett – Originally appeared as an article in the Cincinnati Commercial. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p200, 255. []
  3. Lee Vs. McClellan by Newell. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p241-242. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p159. []

Confederates Invade Missouri! Lincoln’s Message to Congress

Thursday, July 4, 1861

After Arkansas seceded from the Union, General Benjamin McCulloch was given command of all state forces. McCulloch was already a Confederate Colonel busy piecing together what would eventually become the Confederate Army of the West. He was a hard fighter in the Texas Revolution and Mexican War, even befriending Davy Crockett on the way to the Alamo (which he missed due to a case of the measles).

Over the past few months, he was in charge of defending Indian Territory [Oklahoma], but was based out of Fort Smith, Arkansas. Events in Missouri had weighed on his mind, and, hoping to save it for the South, he wrote Confederate Secretary of War LeRoy Walker for permission to move into Missouri at the request of Governor Jackson. He had originally wished to move into neutral Kansas, but though he was given leave to move into either based upon need, he decided Missouri was where the action would take place.

On June 26, he began concentrating his troops at Maysville, Arkansas, on the Indian Territory border, seven miles south of the Missouri line and only a few miles farther to the camp of Missouri State Guard under General Sterling Price.

Price met with McCulloch, asking for help in repelling the Union troops under Col. Sigel, reported to be near Neosho, 35 miles north. If Price and McCulloch would combine their forces, they could field nearly 5,000 troops. With Governor Jackson’s 6,000 north of Sigel, if they’d move in concert, the Union troops could easily be destroyed and the Confederate troops concentrated.

McCulloch agreed and, on this date, his two Confederate brigades crossed into Missouri to join forces with Price’s Missouri State Guard.

To the north, Union General Lyon’s brigade of 2,400, two weeks after their skirmish at Boonville, were finally on the road, hoping to meet up with Major Sturgis’s band of 2,200 US Regulars and Kansas volunteers already in Clinton, Missouri. Together, they hoped to march 90 miles south to Springfield, join with Sigel and fight a decisive battle against Governor Jackson and General Price.1

Events, however, were moving faster than either Lyon or Sturgis. Col. Sigel had occupied a few towns between Carthage and Price’s men, but on this date consolidated his force, leaving scouts and outposts in several locations. By evening, Sigel had nearly 1,000 troops in his command (as the 3rd and 5th Missouri) encamped southeast of town.2

Nine miles to the north, the men of Governor Jackson’s army were waiting for word on the location of the Union troops to the south (Sigel) and watching their backs for Lyon and Sturgis. That evening, word came that Sigel was in Carthage and Jackson’s officers urged him to attack them the next morning. Hoping that they would instead attack him, Jackson decided to wait for Sigel, choosing to defend the high ground opposite Coon Creek, north of Macon.3



Skirmish at Harpers Ferry

Though Union General Patterson had crossed the Potomac and engaged the Rebels at Falling Waters on the 2nd, Harpers Ferry, 20 miles to the southeast of Patterson’s headquarters at Martinsburg, was still unoccupied.

The previous day, Union Col. Stone’s men of the Rockville Expedition entered Sandy Hook, Maryland, across the Potomac from Harpers Ferry, noting its complete abandonment. This day, however, they awoke to the Confederate Stars and Bars flying above the armory building.

Before vacating the town, the Rebels burned and destroyed as many buildings as they could. Somehow or another, the armory, famously captured by the abolitionist John Brown, still stood, now waving the flag of secession.

Twelve daring men from Company C of the 9th New York commandeered two skiffs, paddled their way across the Potomac and entered the town. Private Edwin Butler climbed up the flagpole, grabbed onto the Confederate banner and tore it from its rigging. Back on the ground, he ripped it to pieces and shared the bits with his companions.

With their business in town taken care of, they began to row back to the Maryland side. Halfway across, a band of Rebel cavalry rode up to the shore and fired upon the New Yorkers. A steady fire from one shore to the other was kept up for half an hour leaving one Union man dead and three wounded. Caught in the crossfire was a local shoemaker.4


Lincoln’s Message to Congress

Under President Lincoln’s proclamation on April 15th, Congress was called to meet in special session on July 4. Lincoln had spent the past week or so working on a message to be delivered on the opening day (though it was actually read on the 5th).

His message was clear and direct. In a very lawyerly way, Lincoln detailed the history of the secession movement as well as the founders’ understanding of states’ sovereignty, noting that it wasn’t mentioned at all in the Constitution.

He asked for “four hundred thousand men” to rally for the Union, as well as four hundred million dollars for the war effort.

Touching on what would become a common theme for him, he asserted that “this issue embraces more than the fate of these United States. It presents to the whole family of man, the question, whether a constitutional republic, or a democracy – a government of the people, by the same people – can, or cannot, maintain its territorial integrity, against its own domestic foes.”5

  1. Wilson’s Creek by Piston & Hatcher. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, p16-17. []
  3. Wilson’s Creek by Piston & Hatcher. []
  4. Six Years of Hell by Chester G. Hearn, LSU Press, 1996. []
  5. Abraham Lincoln a history, Volume 4 by John G. Nicolay and John M. Hay. []

Patterson and McClellan Exaggerate the Rebs

Wednesday, July 3, 1861

Union Col. Charles Stone made his northward-moving headquarters at Point of Rocks, Maryland, a small town along the banks of the Potomac, named for the rock formation on nearby Catoctin Mountain. He had successfully moved his Rockville Expedition troops from Poolesville, 15 miles south. His small command was to be absorbed by General Patterson. His northern-most regiments were opposite Harpers Ferry, at Sandy Hook.

While visiting Sandy Hook, he received a messenger from Sharpsburg who told him of the fight at Falling Waters the day before. Patterson had supposedly captured 500 Confederates and sustained only three battlefield deaths. This was, of course, wildly exaggerated. Patterson’s men didn’t even face 500 Rebels, let alone capture that many. The battle, said the messenger, was continuing on this day.1

Patterson, however, was not fighting today. In his report to Washington, he wrote that he occupied and passed through Martinsburg in “hot pursuit of the enemy,” which he put at 3,500 strong (ten times as many as he faced the day before and 1,500 more than Jackson’s entire command). Jackson’s force had camped two and a half miles south of Martinsburg and, on this day, moved farther south to Darkesville (near Inwood).2

The way Patterson made it sound was that Martinsburg was a thing of the past. He was in “hot pursuit” of an enemy retreating towards Winchester. This could lead the reader to believe that Patterson was also moving towards Winchester. That, like his exaggerated numbers and the wild rumors of capturing 500 Rebels, wasn’t exactly true.


McClellan’s Had About Enough

Union General George McClellan was in charge of all Federal troops in western Virginia. He was in the process of moving his troops to the two passes defended by Confederate General Garnett when he received a dispatch from General Morris, commanding a large brigade in nearby Philippi.

The general plan was for McClellan to attack Rich Mountain (near Beverly) from Buckhannon, 25 miles west, while Morris feigned an attack on Laurel Hill (near Leedsville – modern day Elkins), 25 miles south. McClellan was very leery about his adversary’s strength, figuring Garnett to have 10,000 Confederates. McClellan supposed that there were 2,000 at Rich Mountain and 7,000 at Laurel Hill. Garnett had but 1,300 Rebels at Rich Mountain and a little over 3,000 at Laurel Hill. McClellan had gathered roughly 6,000 men at Buckhannon, opposite Rich Mountain, while Morris’s brigade numbered nearly 4,000.3

General Morris, who had several hundred more men than the foe before him, wrote to McClellan asking for reinforcements. Though his attack was only a feign, he was worried about the defense of Philippi prior to any attack. McClellan, who had several thousand more men than the foe before him, balked.

Despite his better judgement, McClellan order the Sixth Ohio “on temporary duty with you until the crisis has passed.” He thought that they could “be employed to more advantage at other points,” meaning his own. He made it clear that this was it: “this is all the re-enforcement I can now spare.”

McClellan also chastised Morris, explaining to him that “if four thousand (nearly) of our men, in a position selected and fortified in advance, with ample time to examine the ground carefully and provide against any possible plan of attack, are not enough to hold the place against any force these people can bring against it, I think we had better all go home at once.”

Of course, going home was out of the question, at least for McClellan. For Morris, however, it was looking like a good possibility.

He closed his letter with a warning, telling Morris that if he “cannot undertake the defense of Philippi with the force now under your control, I must find some one who will…. Do not ask for further re-enforcements. If you do, I shall take it as a request to be relieved from your command and to return to Indiana. I have spoken plainly. I speak officially.” 4

Later that night, McClellan wrote to his wife that Morris “was a timid old woman.” He had nothing nice to say about the other two Generals under him, either. Rosencrans was a “silly fussy goose” and Schleich “knows nothing.”5


John C. Frémont and the Western Department

In Washington, the Western Department was created. It included Illinois and all the states and territories west of the Mississippi River and east of the Rockies. It would be under the command of Major-General John Charles Frémont. This also included Missouri, like Illinois, formerly under the Department of the Ohio.6

This took some control away from McClellan, but centralized the Western Theater of the early war into one department.

General Frémont was a celebrity. As a Mexican War hero and an explorer, he made quite a name for himself. In the 1840s, pennypress novels (the era’s equivalent to pulp fiction) fashioned him the “great pathfinder.” He was one of the first California Senators and, in 1856, he was the Republican Party’s first Presidential candidate, coming in second to Buchanan, while still beating Millard Fillmore.

Frémont, like General Lyon, commander of the Missouri forces (soon to be known as the Union Army of the West), was an abolitionist. With things heating up in Missouri, this Great Pathfinder may have been just what was needed to fully wrestle the state from the secessionists.

  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, 120. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, 157. []
  3. Rebels at the Gate by Lesser. He provides troop numbers here and there. These may not be perfect or exact, but they’re as close as we’ll get at this point. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p207-208. []
  5. Lee Vs. McClellan; The First Campaign by Clayton R. Newell. []
  6. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, p390. []

Jackson’s Brigade at the Battle of Falling Waters

Tuesday, July 2, 1861

A Confederate scout galloped up to Col. Thomas Jackson’s headquarters near Martinsburg, Virginia with word that the Yankees had crossed the Potomac and were now less than five miles away. Jackson seemed unfazed as he calmly gave orders to his four regiments. It was clear to Jackson that the coming Union force greatly outnumbered his own. In all, the Union troops under General Patterson numbered over 14,000. Jackson had merely a brigade of around 2,000 men. One regiment (5th Virginia) and the artillery would move towards the coming Federal troops. Another regiment (the 27th Virginia) would strike the tents, load the wagons and prepare to withdraw to the main bulk of the Army of the Shenandoah near Bunker Hill. The other two regiments (2nd and 4th Virginia) stood in reserves.

Jackson rode to the front of the 5th Virginia, 380 strong, and they advanced north together towards the town of Falling Waters and the coming enemy.1

Union General Patterson’s men crossed the Potomac at dawn and proceeded south on the road to Martinsburg. The 1st Wisconsin regiment (dressed in gray) led the advance with the 11th Pennsylvania behind them. They marched five miles to the small town of Falling Waters when, just past it, they were opened upon by a company or two of Rebels posted in the woods to their front.

The 1st Wisconsin regiment deployed skirmishers on both sides of the road, with cavalry in the middle, and advanced through the fields leading up to the woodlot. A heavier volley burst from the woods and forced the leading skirmishers to fall back towards their main body. The effort was redoubled with more skirmishers from the 1st Wisconsin as well as the 11th Pennsylvania. Union artillery was also added to the fray.

The 11th Pennsylvania, on the right of the Wisconsin boys, divided itself into two parts. The first moved toward the Confederate artillery posted along side the woods, while the other approached the Rebel cavalry who were protecting the Rebel’s left flank near a farmhouse. They hoped to turn the flank and dislodge the Confederates from the woods.

The 11th advanced nearly a mile towards the guns but, knowing that they could easily be overrun, the Rebel artillerymen limbered up and moved out.

While the 11th Pennsylvania attempted to drive in the left flank of the 5th Virginia, the 1st Wisconsin aimed for the right. Overwhelming it with numbers, they were able to push them back enough to convince them that their position could not be held.2

Confederate Col. Jackson knew from the start that the position was untenable. As the 5th Virginia began to fall back, he feared that Col. Stuart’s cavalry might be cut off. Jackson decided to rally his men near his camp a mile north of Martinsburg. He wanted to delay the Federal troops long enough to get his wagons on the road. The Confederates slowly withdrew three miles under fire. They did not break and run and showed no signs of panic.

To stem the advance, Jeb Stuart’s Cavalry rode hard around the Yankee’s right flank, guarded by the 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry, and managed to capture fifty of them.3

By the afternoon, while the Union artillery kept up a sporadic fire, Confederate General Johnston caught wind of the battle and offered to send a brigade under General Barnard Bee to assist Jackson. To pen a quick reply, Jackson seated himself on a rock near an oak tree alongside the road. While in the concentration of writing, a shell from a Federal artillery piece slammed into the large oak tree, raining “a mass of bark, splinters and trash all over him and the paper on which he was writing.” Jackson casually brushed the debris away from the paper and continued writing as if nothing had happened. Finished, he folded the dispatch and ordered a courier to take his reply to General Johnston.

Jackson then deployed his entire brigade on the north side of Martinsburg and prepared to fight the advancing Union brigade of 3,000 (and potentially the 8,000 stacked up behind them). Once both brigades were facing each other, however, Jackson’s flanks were overlapped and he withdrew from the town, camping two and a half miles south.

Stuart’s Cavalry were posted just north of town while the Union troops occupied the old Confederate camp barely a mile away.

Casualties were relatively light on both sides. The Confederates killed ten, wounded eighteen and captured fifty Federal troops, while Patterson’s men wounded eleven Rebels (with eight or nine listed as “missing”).4

  1. Stonewall Jackson by Robertson. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p181-184. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p185-186 with a peppering of Stonewall Jackson by Robertson. []
  4. Stonewall Jackson by Robertson. []

Catching Up With Missouri; Patterson Stays Put

Monday, July 1, 1861

After his relatively simple victory in Boonville, Missouri, Union General Nathaniel Lyon spent the next two weeks preparing to march. His opponents, Missouri Governor Claiborne Jackson and General Sterling Price, had fled the area. Price had separated from the Missouri State Guard and Jackson in order to recruit more men.

By this date, he had collected nearly 800, encamped at Poole’s Prairie (six miles south of Neosho), thirty-five miles south of Carthage. Jackson and the Missouri State Guard were licking their wounds in Lamar, twenty miles north of Carthage. By this time, however, he had collected several thousand men and was able to arm most of them.

Lyon had begun to consolidate the Union forces under his command (soon to be known as the Army of the West). His column of 2,400 men had fought and won the skirmish at Boonville, but left the remainder of his force in St. Louis. Since the skirmish, troops had been moving from St. Louis to Rolla by train. This column under Col. Franz Sigel was 3,500 strong, but spread out through the towns of Neosho, Mt. Vernon and Sarcoxie. These towns, however, were between Poole’s Prairie and Lamar, held by the Rebels.1

Sigel wished to dispose of Price, who he outnumbered, and then turn on Jackson, who he knew he didn’t outnumber. On the 29th, he began marching towards Poole’s Prairie, but soon got word that Price had fled to Elk Mills in the southwest corner of the state. With Price out of the immediate picture, he turned to focus upon Jackson.

Additionally, a force of 2,200 United States Regulars and Kansas volunteers under Major Samuel Sturgis had just crossed the boarder into Missouri. Lyon wished for both of their columns to meet in Osceloa, 90 miles northwest of Carthage. On this date, after leaving Kansas City, they were near Harrisonville.

General Lyon, however, was still in Boonville. The Missouri rains had forced his men to stay put, even after they had procured a train to take them south.2


When Will Patterson Cross?

North of Washington, Union Col. Stone was readying his Rockville Expedition for a march from Poolesville, Maryland to join with General Patterson’s army near Hagerstown and Williamsport. Stone thought that by the next evening, he should be able to occupy Maryland Heights opposite Harpers Ferry. These were the same heights that Patterson’s scouts claimed were retaken by 2,000 Rebels two days before. Stone did not believe these claims and made no mention of them. He regretted leaving Poolesville and hoped that his troops “may be replaced before any evil results.” As he was leaving, he placed a guard of 100 District of Columbia militiamen at Edwards Ferry with two days rations.3

General Patterson had wired Washington that his force would cross the Potomac on this day. However, it did not. No explanation was ever given (even in his memoirs), but on July 1st, his entire command was still in Maryland. General-in-Chief Winfield Scott wired Patterson to inform him “in confidence” that he hoped to “move a column of about 35,000 men [under General Irvin McDowell] early next week” towards General Beauregard’s Confederate Army of the Potomac near Manassas. No questions or orders accompanied this information.

Patterson’s role in this movement was already known. He was to keep Johnston’s Confederate Army of the Shenandoah from reinforcing Beauregard. To do this, he would actually need to cross the Potomac.4


The Confederate Situation in Western Virginia

Confederate troops under General Robert Garnett were holed up in the mountains in two passes near Beverly and Leedsville. He had told General Lee of his situation and on this date, Lee replied, praising Garnett for his defenses. He also promised that a few companies of infantry and two companies of cavalry would be sent right away. Lee again brought up the Cheat River Bridge near Rowlesburg, telling Garnett that “the rupture of the railroad at Cheat River would be worth to us an army.”

Lee’s letter would take a few days to reach the front, in the mountains of western Virginia. In the meantime, Garnett wrote again to Richmond. His outlook was grim. While Lee praised the General’s defensive position, Garnett saw the situation first-hand. He was indeed on the defensive “with the railroad running across my entire front, I have become satisfied that I cannot operate beyond my present position with any reasonable expectation of substantial success, with the present force under mycommand, and deem it my duty to state the fact.”

He had hoped to gather recruits from the area, but only eight had joined him because “these people are thoroughly imbued with an ignorant and bigoted Union sentiment.”

He knew that Lee wanted him to attack the Cheat River Bridge, but moving enough men in that direction would leave only 2,000 to cover his present position. Besides, twenty-two carloads of Union infantry were reported to have reinforced the area around the bridge. If that turned out to be true, the Union forces could easily descend upon his rear, forcing him to divide his forces a third time.

All in all, Garnett wished to have 3000 – 4000 more men. He doubted that they could be spared for his command, but feared if they were not.5

  1. Wilson’s Creek by Piston & Hatcher []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, p15-17, 389. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p119. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p158. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p239-240. []