Lincoln Doesn’t Quite Free the Slaves; Lee in WV

Tuesday, August 6, 1861

Abraham Lincoln was in the Senate chambers to sign the bills voted on and approved. Before him were bills raising the pay of soldiers, promoting generals and, most importantly, Senator Lyman Trumbull’s Confiscation Act. Lincoln hesitated as he was about to sign it. Some would certainly see this as the first step in freeing the slaves.1

There had been some confusion in the upper ranks of the Union army concerning what to do with escaped slaves. Were they free? Were they United States Army property? Since they were legal property in the slave states and being used for the Confederate war effort, it seemed reasonable that they could be confiscated as contraband of war. General Butler at Fortress Monroe saw them as such. General McDowell, near Washington, however, held the opposite opinion and returned escaped slaves to their former masters.

The Confiscation Act was written to finally lay out exactly what to do with such persons. It concluded that any slaves (though it did not use the term) working for the forces in insurrection against the United States were no longer the property of their former masters. The bill failed to mention who, if anyone, they belonged to.

It was [and still is, to a large degree] seen as an act to free the slaves working for the Confederate government. While the Act certainly freed them from the service of the Confederacy, it made no mention whatsoever of them being actually free. The wording seems to indicate that they were still under the jurisdiction of the United States government.2

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General Lee’s New HQ; Generals Wise and Floyd Fight

In western Virginia, General Robert E. Lee, accompanied by two staff officers and two slaves, who would now be somewhat freer if they ventured through Union lines, established his own headquarters at Valley Mountain [near modern Linwood, WV]. His new camp would place him on the Union right flank at Cheat Mountain, twenty-eight miles north of General Loring’s headquarters at Huntersville. Welcoming Lee to his new home were two regiments of infantry from General H.L. Jackson’s command, now leaving Monterey, forty-five miles east.

General Loring wished to use Valley Mountain to launch an attack on the Union flank. The Union position at Cheat Mountain consisted of four green regiments on the Parkersburg-Staunton Turnpike and a line of fortifications near Elkwater [near Salt Lick on the map provided]. Lee was determined to defeat both positions separately.3

This wasn’t exactly news. Union General-in-Chief Winfield Scott suspected General Lee would attempt such a move. On this day, Scott wrote to General Rosecrans, commanding at Clarksburg, that he should “push forward rapidly the fortifications ordered by General McClellan.” Rosecrans, of course, was already doing that near Elkwater.

Rosecrans answered the request by ordering regiments to Buckhannon and Beverly. He also ordered General Cox at Gauley Bridge to meet up with Col. Erastus Tyler at Summerville, who was running a telegraph line south from Clarksburg. This created open communication with all the forces under Rosecrans.4

While General Rosecrans had the great fortune to be in clear command of all his troops, General Lee had no such luck. General Loring, commander of the Army of the Northwest, the bulk of which was in direct command of General H.L. Jackson, resented Lee looking over his shoulder. Farther south, near Lewisburg and White Sulphur Springs, former Virginia governors-turned-Generals Wise and Floyd, long political rivals, were now battlefield rivals.

The Confederate Army of the Kanawha was officially under General Wise, but his legion of roughly 2,500 and Floyd’s force of 3,000 had not yet been combined. On this date, at White Sulphur Springs, both generals finally sat down to a council of war.

General Wise rose and pitched into a two-hour speech which delved into American history, the Revolutionary and Mexican Wars, the current strife, his campaign in the Kanawha Valley and finally his “retrograde movement” from Charleston to his present location, sixty miles east of General Cox at Gauley Bridge.

General Floyd somehow sat patiently through the oration. When finished, Wise asked Floyd where he intended to go. Floyd pointed west and said, “Down the road.”

When asked what he planned to do, Floyd replied with one word: “Fight.”

Clearly, the rivalry would not soon be broken, even though they both had orders to work “cordially” together.5

Meanwhile, back at Valley Mountain, General Robert E. Lee was joined by Major William Henry Fitzhugh Lee, the general’s 24 year old son, affectionately known as “Rooney.” The younger Lee was ordered by his father to carry a message under flag of truce to Union General Rosecrans.

General Lee proposed an exchange of prisoners; the Confederate prisoners from Rich Mountain for the Union prisoners from Bull Run. It was the first time such an exchange was suggested in the War.

With a view of alleviating individual distress I have the honor to propose an exchange of prisoners. If you will cause to be forwarded a list of those in your hands including those placed on parole an equal number of U. S. troops, man for man or similar grade, will be sent to the point most convenient to their present abode. An exchange in this manner can be conveniently effected.
Very respectfully,
R. E LEE, General, Commanding.6

Rooney would set off the following day.

Farther north, the Second Session of the Second Wheeling Convention was just getting under way. The delegates resolved that the vast majority of western Virginians were in favor of forming a new state. The past Wheeling Conventions more or less wrestled with the idea of taking over the Virginia state government by declaring it null and void. While the Second Session continued to declare it such, their purpose was now clear.

The Committee on the Division of the State was formed, consisting of thirty-three members, one from each western Virginia county represented at the Convention.7



  1. New York Times, August 7, 1861. []
  2. The Confiscation Act of 1861, The United States Statutes at Large, Vol. XII, p319. []
  3. Lee Vs. McClellan by Newell. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p554, 555. []
  5. Rebels at the Gate by Lesser. []
  6. Official Records, Series 2, Vol. 3, p25. []
  7. Proceedings of the Second Session of the Second Wheeling Convention, August 6, 1861. []
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Lincoln Doesn’t Quite Free the Slaves; Lee in WV by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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