Lee Advances to Big Sewell in Western Virginia

Tuesday, September 24, 1861

General Lee was up by 4am, worried that Wise’s Legion, twelve miles in front of him, would be overrun, or have its flank turned. If that happened, the divided Confederate Army of the Kanawha would be whipped in detail, destroyed before it could make a united stand.

Due to some misunderstanding, Lee was unsure whether there were only 3,000 or as many as 10,000 Union soldiers facing off with General Wise on and around Big Sewell Mountain. Realizing that, Wise, who told Lee that he couldn’t even move his wagons to the rear, wasn’t about to unite with General Floyd, twelve miles to his rear at Meadow Bluff.

Wise quickly replied to Lee, explaining that there were only 3,000 enemy troops before him. Again, he reiterated that the Wilderness Road that both Lee and Floyd feared would carry Rosecrans’ army at Carnifex Ferry wasn’t a factor. In previous dispatches, Wise had said the road was too small to carry artillery. Now, he was denying its existence. “I tell you emphatically, sir,” asserted Wise to Lee, “the enemy are advancing in strong force on this turnpike [The James River and Kanawha Turn Pike].”

Wise ended his note by explaining that if he was compelled to retire, that General Floyd cover his retreat. He also wanted to bring back all of his ammunition. Lee had asked Wise how much ammunition he had, but Wise ignored the question. Clearly, he had some, but Lee could not know how much.1

Lee decided that the only way to resolve the issue was to join Wise at Big Sewell with the brigade of Col. Henry Heth (leaving Floyd with only three regiments). While this would greatly reduce Floyd’s force at Meadow Bluff, Lee knew that General Loring was on his way from Valley Mountain with three regiments from the Confederate Army of the Northwest.

Lee arrived at Big Sewell in a bad mood. The rain, combined with the abhorrent condition of Wise’s men, did it no favors. Though the ground Wise had chosen was a spectacular defensive position, his men lacked order, discipline and organization.

That night, as more cold rain fell, Lee silently stood by the fire, his hands clasped behind his back. He was probably deep in thought, taking in his precarious situation. Because Wise had disobeyed orders to join Floyd, how could he order Floyd to join Wise? What of the roads to the Wilderness Road to the north that could bring thousands of Union soldiers to the rear of Big Sewell? And what of the ammunition? Could Wise hold out?

Just then, a boyish lieutenant from Wise’s command broke Lee’s meditation by asking the General who the ordinance was and where he could find ammunition for his men.

“I think it very strange, Lieutenant,” Lee shot back with an icy glare, “that an officer of this command, which has been there a week, should come to me, who am just arrived, to ask who his ordinance officer is and where to find his ammunition. This is in keeping with everything else I find here – no order, no organization; nobody knows where anything is, no one understands his duty; officers and men alike are equally ignorant. This will not do.”

Because his baggage wagon had not yet arrived at Big Sewell, Lee wrapped himself in an overcoat and slept against a tree.2

__________________

Fremont Forms His Army to Move on Lexington, Frees Frank Blair

The defeat at Lexington spurred General John C. Fremont into action. The previous day, Fremont reported to Washington that his troops were “gathering around the enemy.” While this wasn’t quite true, it was enough to garner some much-needed praise from Lincoln.

“The President is glad that you are hastening to the scene of action,” wrote General-in-Chief Scott in reply to Fremont, adding, “His words are, ‘He expects you to repair the disaster at Lexington without loss of time.'”3

On this date, General Fremont organized his army into five divisions, giving each one a fairly specific role and order. General John Pope, still in Iowa raising more troops, was to command the Second Division, headquartered at Booneville. Generals McKinstry, Hunter, Sigel, and Asboth were ordered to command the remaining divisions. Fremont’s Army of the West was 38,000 strong.4

Also, without fanfare or ceremony, General Fremont freed his old friend Frank Blair, who had been imprisoned for “insubordination in communicating … with the authorities at Washington; making complaints against and using disrespectful language towards Gen. Fremont, with a view of effecting his removal.”5



  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p878. []
  2. Rebels at the Gate by Lesser. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, p185. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, p504. []
  5. Frank Blair: Lincoln’s Conservative by William Earl Parrish. []
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