Monday, September 16, 1861
Events in Missouri had been careening wildly out of control for weeks. General John C. Fremont, commander of the Union Western Department, was almost trying his best to keep it together. While General Ulysses S. Grant commanded troops along the Mississippi River at Cairo, Illinios and Padukah, Kentucky and southeast Missouri, General John Pope was in command of the forces in northern Missouri.
Pope, however, had been out of the loop for a few days as he chased a band of Missouri secessionists through the northcentral counties. He missed the news that General Sterling Price and 10,000 Missouri State Guards had approached and were beginning to surround the Union troops at Lexington, on the Missouri River. General Fremont had spent the past few days ordering units here and there, mostly neglecting Lexington and completely neglecting General Pope. While Pope’s force, was spread out, it had been near Glasgow, only 60 miles from Lexington.
Having driven the Missouri secessionists to the Missouri River, General Pope, upon Fremont’s orders issued several days prior, boarded a train to Iowa to raise more regiments for his command. While waiting out a layover, Pope decided to
bide his time by reading the dispatches in the telegraph office. There, he found Fremont’s message of the 14th ordering to General Sturgis to Lexington.1
Angered at being left out of the loop, but not exactly sure how dire the situation at Lexington was, Pope first ordered two of his regiments to Lexington, under Col. Robert Smith “as soon as they completed the object of his expedition,” which, as Pope related, would be “very soon.” He then wired Fremont: “Presuming from General Sturgis’ dispatches that there is imminent want of troops in Lexington,” he had sent two regiments that would be nearby shortly.
Pope also mentioned that his trip to Iowa was “imperative” and that he “must be there as soon as possible.” His train took him to Palmyra, along the Mississippi, where he learned the full breadth of the troubles in Lexington. He again wired Fremont, this time telling him that, in addition to the two regiments he originally ordered out, two more were also en route and should be there in a day or two. In all, 4,000 of Pope’s troops, plus a battery of artillery were marching to break up the siege.
Even though his trip to Iowa was “imperative,” Pope understood that the situation in Lexington was even more so, asking Fremont if he wanted him “to come down to St. Louis.”2
Soon, Pope received his answer. Fremont ordered him to push on to Iowa. Greatly angered, he did so.
Look who’s retreating now!
While Pope and Fremont exchanged notes of a passive aggressive nature, two Confederate Generals, Floyd and Wise, in Western Virginia had been outwardly belligerent towards each other. In fact, a correspondent to President Davis wrote that each of them would be highly gratified to see the other annihilated.”3
After the retreat from Carnifex Ferry, the Confederate Army of the Kanawha took up camp at Big Sewell Mountain, forty miles west of Lewisburg. Unable to get along, General Floyd’s camp was a mile and a half west of General Wise’s.
Towards evening, Floyd, who commanded the Army, requested Wise come to his headquarters for a consultation. With him, Wise brought along several officers, all arriving around 5pm. General Floyd was rightly concerned that two columns of Union troops were converging before them. General Rosecrans, from Carnifex Ferry, and General Cox, from Gauley Bridge, had both crossed the Gauley River. It wouldn’t be long before they were arrayed for battle before them.4
Wise, who was familiar with Floyd’s line of defense, thought it “indefensible,” adding that his camp, a mile and a half to the rear, was “almost impregnable.” He detailed a plan of defense that would keep his Legion where it was, while having Floyd’s wing fall back to an adjacent position, its left flank anchored on the New River.
Floyd said that he would think about it, review the situation for himself and get back to Wise the next morning. The two hour long meeting adjourned and Wise, with his staff, left Floyd’s headquarters.
On their way out of camp, a Major commented to Wise that it appeared as if Floyd’s troops were preparing to move out. It wasn’t long after he got to his camp that Wise saw Floyd’s wagons rumbling to the rear, heading east. Soon after, Floyd’s troops marched through, following the wagons.5
As Floyd’s men passed Wise’s ranks, a courier delivered a message from the commanding General that “it has been determined to fall back to the most defensible point between Meadow Bluff [twenty five miles east] and Lewisburg [forty miles east].” While Floyd would “put his column in motion at once,” Wise was to hold his “command in readiness to bring up the rear.” 6
General Floyd had been very critical of Wise’s retreat from the Kanawha Valley. Now, it was Wise’s turn. Wise mounted his horse and rode before his men, standing up in the stirrups and with his face bright red, he called out, “men, look who is retreating now? John B. Floyd, Goddamn him, the bullet-hit son of a bitch, he is retreating now!”
Floyd could fall back all he wanted. Wise was staying put.7
- General John Pope; A Life for the Nation by Peter Cozzens, University of Illinois Press, 2000. [↩]
- Official Records , Series 1, Vol. 4, p176. [↩]
- Lee Vs. McClellan by Newell. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p853. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p854-855. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p853. [↩]
- Rebels at the Gate by Lesser. [↩]