Lee Doesn’t Quite Admit Defeat; Fremont Almost Responds

Saturday, September 14, 1861

For two days, General Lee’s troops from the Army of the Northwest were poised around Cheat Mountain and Elkwater in Western Virginia. His complex plan of a surprise attack had failed the first day and his plan to get around the Union flank on the second day met with not much more than the death of his aide-de-camp, John A. Washington, the great-grand nephew of George Washington. On this date, his body was still behind Union lines.

Lee sent a few messengers under a flag of truce towards where Washington was killed in order to retrieve the body. Coming from the Union lines, also under a flag of truce, were a few Union soldiers bearing the remains on a stretcher. They exchanged the body and the Confederates brought it back to camp.

With two days of hard campaigning, planning, and skirmishing behind him, Lee had nothing to show. With six weeks of command in Western Virginia, the situation appeared no better than it did when he first arrived.

On Cheat Mountain, Col. Rust, who was to signal the start of the attack by all five Confederate brigades, had determined that “the expedition against Cheat Mountain failed.” He believed that there was nothing to gain in attacking the mountain.1

General Lee seemed to be of a similar mind as he issued an order for a general withdraw to the original camps of the Army at Valley Mountain (south of Elkwater) and Traveler’s Repose (east of Cheat Mountain). In his orders, Lee put a bit of a spin on the entire operation, writing that they had “completed” a “forced reconnaissance of the enemy’s positions” rather than a plan of attack that was botched from the start.2

Meanwhile, farther south, General Floyd, commanding the Confederate Army of the Kanawha, had pulled back to Big Sewell Mountain. Union Generals Rosecrans and Cox were each within a day’s march and Floyd was worried of an attack. He sent a dispatch to General Wise for his cavalry to watch the Turnpike leading to General Cox’s men at Gauley Bridge, in order that he “may be reliably and speedily informed of the advance of the enemy.” Floyd’s own cavalry were keeping a watch out for General Rosecrans advancing from Carnifex Ferry.3

After the battle at Carnifex, Rosecrans took a few days to fix the ferry boats and get his men across. By this date, he had one brigade on the east side of the Gauley River. They spent most of their day marching to General Wise’s old camp at Dogwood Gap, now occupied by General Cox.4

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Fremont Tries to Keep it Going

In Missouri, Union General John C. Fremont was trying to figure out how best to reinforce the city of Lexington, which was being surrounded by 10,000 Missouri State Guards under the command of General Sterling Price. After a few telegrams back and forth with Col. Davis in Jefferson City, 100 miles east of Lexington, he ordered Davis to send two regiments to the besieged city, promising to send two from St. Louis in return.

Fremont, the day before, had ordered General Sturgis, who was much closer to Lexington than Davis, to Booneville, which was closer to Davis than Sturgis, where the Rebels were suspected to attack. After receiving word from Davis that Booneville was secure, he ordered Sturgis to Jefferson City, giving him command over Davis. A few hours later, however, Fremont finally ordered Sturgis to Lexington.5

Then came, in quick secession, two telegrams from Washington. One was from Secretary of War Simon Cameron, the other, from General-in-Chief Winfield Scott. Both contained the same order:

Detach 5,000 infantry from your department to come here without delay, and report the number of the troops that will be left with you. The President dictates.

Cameron noted that the missing troops would be made up by new recruits from Illinois, Iowa and Kansas.6

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President Davis Replies to Johnston

General Joseph E. Johnston, commander of the Confederate Army of the Potomac was furious over being ranked as the fourth highest General in the Confederate States Army. He felt, giving his victory at Bull Run, that he should be first. This and more was conveyed to President Davis in an irate letter. At first, the General thought better and did not send it. After two more days of brooding, however, he made sure that it was read by the President.

Of the long, emotional and rambling letter, Davis had little to say: “I have just received and read your letter of the 12th instant. Its language is, as you say, unusual; its arguments and statements utterly one sided, and its insinuations as unfounded as they are unbecoming.”

The rankings deeply hurt Johnston, who couldn’t even bring himself to reply to Davis’s letter. The two never spoke of it to each other again, but their relationship was permanently damaged.7



  1. Combined accounts from Rebels at the Gates by Lesser and Lee Vs. McClellan by Newell. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p192-193. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p851-852. []
  4. Lee Vs. McClellan by Newell. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 170, 174-175. []
  6. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, p491. []
  7. Joseph E. Johnston; A Civil War Biography by Craig L. Symonds. []
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Lee Doesn’t Quite Admit Defeat; Fremont Almost Responds by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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