Thursday, September 5, 1861
General John C. Fremont, Union commander of the Western Department, was out of control and out of his depths. President Lincoln knew he had to be replaced, but was unsure who would be up to the incredibly difficult task of keeping Missouri in the Union. Lincoln met with General-in-Chief Winfield Scott on this rainy Thursday morning. They talked of Fremont’s August 30 proclamation, where he promised a death sentence to any armed secessionist and freed the slaves of any disloyal slave owners. Lately, the President had been hearing an increasing number of reports about Fremont’s ineptitude. The General rarely left his headquarters, got along with basically nobody and was fast losing the respect of his subordinates.
General Scott agreed. A change needed to be made. Replacing Fremont, however, was not what they had in mind. They decided to send an Adjutant and Inspector General to assist Fremont. Scott’s first choice was Major-General David Hunter, a West Point graduate, veteran of the Mexican War and borderline abolitionist. Hunter accompanied Lincoln from Springfield to Washington prior to the inauguration, suffering a broken collar bone while attempting to control the crowds clamoring to see the President-elect. General Scott, however, noted that, according to military tradition, Hunter was one rank too high to perform this duty.
Another option was Brigadier-General George Stoneman, also a West Point graduate (where he roomed with “Stonewall” Jackson). Stoneman spent most of his military career in the cavalry battling Indians in the West. Though he was Scott’s second choice, he was the only choice with the proper rank and was thus Scott’s official recommendation.
Stoneman, wrote Scott to Lincoln, “may prove to be a God-send in this emergency.” He had “youth, vigor, intelligence discretion, firmness, conciliatory manners.” He was, “perhaps the only one of high rank in the entire army who is on tolerable terms with Fremont.” Among Stoneman’s “rare merits,” gushed Scott, was “this crowning one: to do his country proportionate service, he is always willing to go from the most agreeable to the most disagreeable, post & duty.”
Scott concluded: “We may send Stoneman to Fremont as Chief of his Staff & act as Adjutant & Inspector General. If Fremont will listen to him he will soon win his confidence & effect every thing.”1
“I Am Now Ready for Paducah”
This decision whether or not to enter Kentucky had to be made quickly. Events were quickly spiraling out of Fremont’s control. Fremont wired Lincoln that the Rebels had invaded Kentucky at Hickman and Columbus, and that Paducah was poised to fall to disloyal Tennessee troops the next day.
In light of this, Fremont ordered General Grant at Cairo, Illinois, to establish a fort on the Kentucky side of the confluence the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. If Grant felt that he was “strong enough,” he was to take Paducah. Either way, the Union army would be in Kentucky in short order.
Fremont also ordered Grant to continue his operations in Missouri. The Rebels were retreating to New Madrid. He was to follow them, “taking Charleston and Sikeston, as well as holding Belmont.”2
Though Fremont’s order to capture Paducah had arrived, nobody could read it. Fremont surrounded himself with foreign military observers and sometimes used their unfamiliar languages as a sort of code. The order for Grant to move on Paducah was written in Hungarian, a language nobody at Cairo could understand.3
Grant had already been thinking the same thing, as he had sent to the Kentucky shores a landing party to make “preliminary arrangements” for an invasion. Though much digging and clearing would need to be speedily accomplished, Grant reported: “I am now ready for Paducah.”4
Stalemate and Surprise in Western Virginia
The armies in the hills of Western Virginia had managed to grind themselves into a stalemate. Though both sides could easily defend their positions, neither General Rosecrans’ Union troops, nor General Lee’s Confederates could succeed in carrying an assault.
There were two theaters of war in the region. Union forces, 9,000 strong, under General Reynolds occupied Cheat Mountain, along the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike. Half of the 11,000 Rebels, under General Loring, were encamped near Traveler’s Repose, east of the Union position. The other half were at Valley Mountain, ten miles to the south of the Union troops on Cheat Mountain. With sickness running rampant through the Confederate camps, their numbers were nearly equal. General Lee, commanding all Confederate forces in Western Virginia, was determined to strike.
Daily, he pored over maps, trying to find the best routes over which to take his army. The Union right flank on Cheat Mountain was exposed and Lee was determined to exploit it.5
His mind, however, would continue to drift 110 miles to the southwest, to Gauley Bridge where a divided Confederate Army of the Kanawha under feuding Generals Wise and Floyd faced off against Union General Cox’s brigade. This was the home of the true stalemate.
While Floyd was digging in at Carnifex Ferry, Wise was holding the Hawks Nest [“Mountain Cove” on the map] and Miller’s Ferry, keeping a regular communication with Rebel militia troops on the other side of New River. Though in a fine defensive position, Cox was feeling the pressure on all sides.
The pressure was about to be relieved. General Rosecrans, with three brigades, about 5,000 strong, was marching south from Clarksburg. On this date, he had made it as far as Sutton, a distance of sixty miles. Cox, not knowing that Rosecrans was on his way, continued to write him at Clarksburg. Both Generals were out of communication with each other for several days.6
Neither Lee, nor Wise and Floyd, not even General Cox, seemed to know of Rosecrans’ push to the south. The surprise, however, would become clear soon enough.