Lee Makes Moves into Western Virginia

Saturday, May 4, 1861

It was looking as if western Virginia was going to be the hotbed of the coming war. Geographically, Virginia (in 1861) stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the Ohio River and included all of what is now known as West Virginia. The B&O Railroad ran west from Harpers Ferry to Grafton, an important rail hub, and then to Wheeling in the “panhandle” and Parkersburg, two large ports on the Ohio River.

Protecting these ports, which bordered Ohio and Union General George McClellan’s troops, meant protecting the B&O Line as it skirted the border of Maryland. This was no easy task. Maryland’s decision to remain in the Union seemed temporary. After all, even Virginia held true to the Federal government for months after the first calls for secession rang out. Both sides found maintaining this rail line to be essential to victory.1

General Lee, however, recognized this first. On April 29, he had ordered troops to be raised in Wheeling and Grafton (with more to be raised, if necessary, in Parkersburg). On this date, he wrote to Col. George A. Porterfield in Harpers Ferry.

Porterfield was ordered to take command of the troops being raised near Grafton by Major Boykin. Once in Grafton, he was to place a force on the Parkersburg branch of the B&O. Lee supposed that at least a regiment of infantry and a battery could be raised for that purpose. Another regiment was ordered to be sent to protect the rails near Moundsville (ten miles south of Wheeling – near Benwood on the map). Whatever troops could be raised in Wheeling by Major Loring were to protect the rail terminus in that city. Three more regiments were ordered to remain at Grafton to protect the rails.

Lee also encouraged Porterfield to raise more troops while promising to ship more firearms for his command.2

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Wheeling, however, might not be so easily held. Union General McClellan had moved two companies of troops to Wheeling Island, between Ohio and Virginia, and was drilling them regularly.

The evening of this date saw an “immense” pro-Union meeting taking place in that same city. Each who spoke strongly urged all to hold true to the Union and resist secession. It was here that they called for Virginia to become two separate states. A Convention of the Western Counties of Virginia was called for the 13th and delegates were elected.3



  1. The History of Upshur County, West Virginia by William Bernard Cutright, 1907. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p802-803. []
  3. The Richmond Daily Dispatch, May 8, 1861. []
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