December 13, 1861 (Friday)
The two wings of General Milroy’s small Union force in Western Virginia had split the previous day, after pushing back the Confederate pickets in a sharp skirmish along the Greenbrier River. While the Rebels retreated to Camp Allegheny (their main fort) Milroy enacted a plan to simultaneously attack the right and rear of the Confederate base.
Camp Allegheny, commanded by Col. Edward Johnson, sat atop Allegheny Mountain, along the Parkersburg-Staunton Turnpike, in Pocahontas County. Most of the camp was south of the Turnpike. The Rebels had thrown up crude entrenchments on all sides of the camp, but the right, nearest the Turnpike.1
Three of Milroy’s Union regiments had taken the Turnpike directly to the Rebel camp, while the remaining two, under Col. Moody, took a route twice as long to place his men in the rear. The regiments advancing east along the Turnpike were to leave the road for the summit of Allegheny Mountain and wait for the attack on the Confederate left to begin. Once the Rebels drew reinforcements from their right, the larger Union force would assail the camp.
All did not, however, go according to plan. After the previous day’s tussle, Johnson’s Rebels were well aware of the impending Union attack and had placed pickets atop the mountain. As the advance Union guard scraped and climbed their way up the mountain, edging closer to the Confederate right and rear, they were spotted by Johnson’s pickets, who immediately fired, killing at least one Yankee.2
One Indiana company, about seventy men, gave chase up and over the summit to a clearing where they saw before them the entire Rebel camp. They also paid close attention to the 300 of Confederates forming for defense and fell back into the woods.3
Milroy, who was, according to his own plan, to wait for the fighting on the Confederate left to erupt, gathered his men and formed a line of battle to advance on the already advancing Rebels. When they came within musket range of one another, they exchanged volleys again and again, but the Rebels, who were more exposed, got the worst of it and retreated towards their camp.
The Union forces, numbering just over 1,000, came so quick and strong that Johnson believed them to be twice as large as they were. The 300 retreating Rebels were rallied by additional reinforcements and established their new line closer to the Turnpike. Here, unable to advance under heavy enemy fire, they held their ground. The line wavered and even broke in several places, but the Union troops on the Confederate right could go no farther.4
As Johnson’s men fell back, they regrouped and hit the Union right flank, and then the left, slowly chipping away the will of the Federals. After keeping this up for hours, the Union line began to waver. Ammunition was running low. The men were worn out and began to fall away, first one-by-one, and then in small groups. Their officers tried to keep them in line, but soon it was no use.
General Milroy was determined to make one last charge to drive the Rebels from his front so he could effect a retreat. There was no way he could stay there, especially with Col. Moody’s failure to make an appearance on the Confederate left. The charge came easy enough and had the desired result. The Rebels backed off and the Union troops collected their dead and wounded before slipping down the western face of Allegheny Mountain.
Finally, when they stopped retreating, they heard the guns of Col. Moody’s two regiments making their late attack. 5
Moody’s men, who had been detained by unforeseen circumstances, believed that the battle would be started by them. They had no idea that it was all but over. Hearing the picket fire, General Johnson moved most of the troops from his right flank to the left, to join in the defense of the new Union threat.6
Col. Moody called for his two regiments to charge the breastworks and they were repulsed into the woods. The nearly 1,000 Federals kept up a steady fire upon the entrenched Rebels, but it was clear that they could not carry the position. They could also expect no help from General Milroy, though he would make a gallant effort. Milroy, along with some cavalry, arrived by Moody’s side at 5pm, long after the fighting had ceased and Moody’s men had slunk back down their side of the mountain. Together, they made the long march back to their camp on Cheat Mountain, twenty miles west.7
For such a small battle – there were barely more than 3,000 men arrayed against each other – the casualties were heavy. On the Union side, there were twenty killed, 107 wounded and ten missing. The Confederates fared much the same, with twenty killed, ninety-eight wounded and twenty-eight missing (most of those returned the next day).8
Meanwhile, in Staunton, Virginia, General Loring received word of Johnson’s victory. Loring, Johnston’s commander, was marching towards the Shenandoah Valley to add to General Stonewall Jackson’s numbers for his winter campaign. While Loring halted his own command, unsure of what the Union troops were doing, he ordered Johnson to remain at Camp Allegheny. Loring figured that the Federals would head back to Cheat Mountain, and if they did, Jackson’s plan could still be enacted.9
For his role in the battle, Col. Johnson was promoted to Brigadier-General and would be forever known as “Allegheny Johnson.”10
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p460. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 51 (Part 1), p51. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p457; 462. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p463. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 51 (Part 1), p52-53. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p463. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 51 (Part 1), p53. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p457;468. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p459. [↩]
- Encyclopedia of the American Civil War edited by David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler. [↩]