McClellan Worried about Western Virginia; Tenn. & NC for the CSA

Friday, May 17, 1861

Union General George McClellan, commander of the Department of the Ohio, was worried about western Virginia, which, as McClellan learned from the newspapers, had just recently fallen under his command. “The Union men,” wrote McClellan to Washington, “lack courage.” He also had information about Harpers Ferry that he thought might be of service. He estimated (based upon an informant) that the Confederates had only 2,500 men in the whole command. In reality, there were over 7,000. He claimed that there were none Shepherdstown, where Jackson actually had men stationed around the clock.

He also stressed the importance of holding Hancock and Cumberland, Maryland (50 and 100 miles from Harpers Ferry, respectively). Both were on the B&O line that fed into Grafton and west to Wheeling and Parkersburg in western Virginia.

While McClellan greatly underestimated the Rebel troops at Harpers Ferry, he wished to have 40,000 men so he could crush the rebellion in Kentucky, keeping it loyal to the United States.1

McClellan was still gathering troops on his own. Most of these were stationed at Camp Dennison, near Cincinnati. The General felt that the situation in Kentucky was much more volatile than that in western Virginia. Virginia’s vote on secession would not take place until May 23rd and Lincoln did not wish to invade Virginia until the vote to leave the Union was official.

Nevertheless, McClellan, though suspecting Kentucky to be the focal point, did station Union troops near the border, across the Ohio River from Wheeling and Parkersburg.2

Though Lincoln did not wish to invade Virginia (even western Virginia), that did not mean that loyal Unionists were not organizing. Wheeling especially saw the raising of Union troops. As early as April 26, the “Rough and Ready Guards” were officially mustered in as Company A of the First Virginia Volunteer Infantry, United States Army. By this date, nearly 600 men, all from western Virginia, had been officially accepted into the service.3


The CSA Jumps the Gun

The State of Tennessee had seceded from the Union on May 6th. It would be finalized by a public vote on June 6th, but for all purposes, it counted itself out of the Union. The day after, Governor Isham Harris announced that a military pact had been formed between his state and the Confederacy.

On this date, the Confederate Government officially accepted Tennessee into its fold, allowing “the laws of this Confederacy shall be thereby extended over said State as fully and completely as over the other States now composing the same.”

North Carolina, on the other hand, was still very officially in the Union. Pro-secessionist Governor Ellis had called an extra session of the legislature, which had called for a secession convention to meet in Raleigh on May 20th.

Even though North Carolina had not seceded, and even though the convention had not yet begun, the Confederate government extended the same welcome that it had to Tennessee. As soon as North Carolina left the Union, she would be a part of the Confederacy.

The Southern Congress also passed a bill making imports from the states of Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia and Arkansas exempt from the payment of duties.4


Postmaster General Montgomery Blair had helped his brother oust General William Harney from the command of the Department of the West. This was accomplished the day before, with a bit of friction from the President and Secretary of War Simon Cameron.

Blair wrote to a friend in St. Louis (the Head Quarters of the Department of the West) explaining that “if Harney had about him some resolute, sensible men, he would be alright all the time. It is only because he falls into the hands of our opponents that he is dangerous; his intention being good, but his judgement being weak.”

Montgomery Blair’s brother, Frank, and Captain Lyon (who would take command if Harney were gone) had formulated that Harney was a secessionist at heart. While this wasn’t true, he was probably not as anti-secessionist as Lyon wished him to be. However, few were.

The Postmaster General felt that it was “better to mortify him [Harney] than to endanger the lives of many men, and the position of Missouri in the present conflict.”5

Meanwhile, in St. Louis, Harney wired Washington asking for 10,000 stands of arms because “loyal men are now being driven from the State by the secessionists.” He also suggested that “Iowa be called upon to furnish at least 6,000 men for the war and Minnesota 3,000, and that this force be placed at my disposal for operations in Missouri, should it be required for the purpose.”6

Back in Washington, Captain Nathaniel Lyon was commissioned a Brigadier-General of Volunteers in the United States Army.7

  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 51 (Part 1), p380-381. []
  2. Campaign in Western Virginia by George B. McClellan. []
  3. “A Day at the Races; The First Virginia (U.S.) Infantry at the Battle of Philippi” by Mark E. Bell from the collection:Civil War; The Early Battles, Savas Publishing Company, 1997. []
  4. Official Records, Series 4, Vol. 1, p330-331. []
  5. The Life and Military Services of Gen. William Selby Harney by L. U. Reavis. []
  6. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, p374. []
  7. Life of General Nathaniel Lyon by Ashbel Woodward – would you believe that I can’t find this commission in the Official Records. This book, however, has the order reprinted in its entirety. []
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13 thoughts on “McClellan Worried about Western Virginia; Tenn. & NC for the CSA

  1. “As early as April 26, the “Rough and Ready Guards” were officially mustered in as Company A of the First Virginia Volunteer Infantry, United States Army. By this date, nearly 600 men, all from western Virginia, had been officially accepted into the service.”

    This is not true, actually. The 1st Virginia Infantry (Union, 3 mos. service), according to McClellan himself—“comparatively few of the Virginia troops thus far raised” were really Virginians but “mostly from Penna and Ohio.” (Rafuse, McClellan’s War, pg 194) The later 1st Virginia Infantry (3 year service) while having more West Virginians in it, only had 39% West Virginia, the majority was Ohio, Pennsylvania (41%), 11% foreign born and the remainder from other parts of the US.

    According to Mark Snell of the George Tyler Moore Center in Shepherdstown, which is doing a soldier count, about one-third of the total troops credited to West Virginia (Union) were not West Virginian.

    1. Thank you. It should say that “many” were from WV. Early on, the 1st VA was made up of men from the western counties. There were two companies from Brooke County, two from Wheeling. They made up companies A-D, roughly 400 men, most from WV. Companies E-H were from various states: Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, Kentucky and New York. Also Britain, German and Jamaica were represented.

      The first four companies were reactions to Virginia’s secession. The rest were reactions to the war in general.

      I have a question on Snell’s research, however. When he claims that the 1st (either incarnation) was made up of men from other states, what does he mean? Does he mean that the Pennsylvanians, Ohioans and foreign born were still residents of Pennsylvania, Ohio, etc when the war broke out and merely crossed the border (or ocean) to join the 1st VA? You seem to indicate this.

      Or is it that these men moved from Pennsylvania, Ohio and foreign countries to western Virginia before the war broke out? Meaning, were these men residents of western Virginia when they joined the 1st? It’s an important point.

  2. I think the information you have refers to the 3 year regiment. The Moore Center in Shepherdstown is doing a count of all the WV soldiers, Union and Confederate, using the available records, so it’s not going to be a perfect or exact count, but better than any that’s been available before. You can see what they have posted here, though I wish they would put more of what they’ve done onling. I believe they’ve done 9 Union regiments and 4 Confederate so far.

    1. Thank you for the link, it’s quite a bit of work and yeah, it would be great if they put more of the info online. Hopefully they will.

      The regiment I’m referring to was the first 1st Va that fought under Kelley at the battle of Phillipi. The paper I used for the figures, etc was specifically about the first 1st V by Mark E. Bell. It appeared in the scholarly journal Civil War Regiments (Vol. 5, No. 4), edited by Mark Snell (interestingly enough).

      His source for the information is the George Tyler Moore Center (again, interestingly enough).

      It seems it all comes down to what we consider a western Virginian (native born vs. recent arrival).

      My opinion is that if someone was living in WV at the start of the war, they were a western Virginia. Especially if they chose to stay and fight with their adopted home.

      1. I could only glance at the paper you posted, but after a closer look, its figures concern the three-year regiment, not the first 1st VA (US). Also, the figures are “place of birth,” not place of residence, as I suspected. What I would like to know is where were the men of the first 1st Va (US) living just prior to enlistment.

        I still stand by the idea that most of the men from the first 1st were living in western Virginia prior to enlistment. Especially when you consider that we’re talking about the middle of May 1861, which was before Col. Kelley had anything to do with them. These were, so far, just four or five companies hanging out in and around Wheeling.

  3. No, there was considerable resistance of west Virginians to Union service. Charles Ambler in his biography of Francis Pierpont said “Admitted apathy toward the Union in its militant capacity was great.”

    Most of the Ohioans in the early regiments crossed the river to join, or were recruited in their towns by Wheeling officers. The 1st, 2nd and 4th Regiments of Infantry were mostly Ohio and/or Pennsylvania, with some West Virginians thrown in for leavening.
    The 4th Inf. and the 2nd Cavalry are indeed considered Ohio regiments by many.

    Only 4 of the 10 companies of the 2nd Infantry were organized in WV, and you can bet that a number of them were Ohio/Pa men who crossed to join.

    This is from McGregor’s Disruption of Virgina, pg. 246 footnote-

    1 Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, Sept. 2nd. Letter from Ironton, Ohio, Nov. 2, 1861, to Adjutant General Samuels: “The provisional government of Virginia seems to be more popular with a majority of our people than our own state government, for we have only about two hundred men from this county enlisted in Ohio regiments.” The writer stated that there were eleven full companies from his county enlisted “as Virginians.”

    I know this information surprises a lot of people, but the fact is that an accurate history of West Virginia in the Civil War has never been written.

    1. This may or may not all be true, but you’re getting ahead of things here. We’re talking about the first 1st Va, not the three years troops raised later. The Confederate recruiters, at this time (and a bit later) complained that it was nearly impossible to raise troops in the western counties (excluding the Kanawha Valley, where they raised some). There was much Unionist thought and action on the part of the citizens along the B&O line and the line into Parkersburg. Just reading their letters to Lee and Richmond in the OR can tell you that.

      This may be due to them more recently moving there from northern states, but nevertheless, they were citizens of Virginia.

      To me, there wasn’t uniformity within the western counties. Areas within the Kanawha Valley were more pro-Southern than pro-Northern, but not enough to make much of a difference.

  4. No, I was not getting ahead of things, I was showing you that the idea that these OH/PA soldiers were residents was not valid. Whitelaw Reid in “Ohio in the War”, Vol. 2, pg. 3,-“At the close of the War against the Rebellion, the State of Ohio had in the National service two hundred regiments of all arms. In the course of the war she furnished… large parts of five regiments credited to the West Virginia contingent…”
    These were clearly not residents, but you can believe what you wish.

    1. I’m sorry, I didn’t realize we were arguing about this.

      I don’t really wish to believe one thing or another. I just want the facts. I’m not some neo-Confederate or Lincolnite wishing to twist history to shape my view of things. I don’t really care about that.

      If Ohio residents furnished troops in the name of WV throughout the war, fine by me, it doesn’t really change anything.

      All I’m saying is that in the first four companies of the first 1st VA (US), that didn’t happen. After that, of course, I know it did and never denied it (or even addressed it).

  5. Hi Guys,

    Since I am the author of the article brought to question here, which was a snippet from my master’s thesis, let me try and clarify some things.

    Admittedly it was 12 years ago when I did this research, so I had to go back a re-read my stuff. Anyway, as far as I can tell at least 9 of the 10 companies in the 1st Va U.S. (three months) hailed from the four panhandle counties. Now, with that said I could not at the time, or could I now verify where exactly everyone came from. The compiled service records for this regiment only have two muster cards for each man showing basically what company they belonged two and their status at the time the muster cards were taken (present or absent). The adjutant general’s report for the provisional government of Virginia (State of West Virginia) was equally incomplete. I could only find records for Company E, which was raised in Wheeling. Of the 74 men in the company listed, 19 were naive Virginians, 55 non-native. Most probably moved to Wheeling sometime before the war, but it would not surprise me to find that many came from the neighboring Ohio and PA communities to enlist (the next two highest states after Virginia in Company E were Ohio and PA with 15 and 12 recruits respectively). Also, my research seemed to suggest that some of the companies formed from the mills and other industries in Wheeling and the surrounding area. It would certainly be possible for those mills to employ men from across the river who journeyed into Wheeling to work.

    Anyway, so that is my 2 cents worth in this debate. Frankly, I was tickled that my name even appeared, and even more so that the little blurb based on my research sparked such a vigorous debate. And if there may be flaws in my research, I will humbly apologize ahead of time.

  6. Upon considering this issue further, here is the complication that arises when trying to sort these numbers out: the numbers are based on the Compiled Service Records of the soldiers. These are the official government records for each soldier that are now stored at the National Archives, and are available for some states on microfilm (the GTM Center in Shepherdstown has the records for the West Virginia units on microfilm). The main source of demographic information in these records comes from the official enlistment paper for each soldier. However, this paper only shows where they were born, and where they enlisted for service. It does not ask where they were residing at the time of enlistment. In the case of the 1st VA U.S. (3 months), as I noted in my previous post, there are no enlistment papers, only a couple of muster cards. Generally the muster cards were a bi-monthly accounting of who was present and absent for duty. So you can see the problem here of identifying exactly who came from where. With a lot, and I mean a lot, of work with cross referencing those who re-enlisted for 3 years service (roughly half of the 3 month regiment re-enlisted), veterans files, and census data you might be able to pin down more accurately where the men were born, but you would still face considerable obstacles in trying to figure out where they were residing at the time of enlistment. Did some of the men in the 1st VA U.S. come from Virginia? Yes. Did some come from Pennsylvania and Ohio? Yes. Did some move from Pennsylvania, Ohio, other states, and foreign countries to the northern panhandle and settle there before the war? Undoubtedly yes as well. Just trying to pin down the exact numbers is very difficult.

    As for my sources: To say my source is the George Tyler Moore Center is incorrect. Rather the Center housed many of the sources that I used – mostly on microfilmed records that come from the National Archives. A lot of the material for my narrative also came from the pages of the Wheeling Intelligencer, which again, is part of the microfilm collection at Shepherd University.

    1. Hi Mark,

      Thanks a bunch for adding your comments here. It’s all amazingly fascinating and I’m glad I came across your paper on the 1st Va. I’ve had a fascination with WV and the Civil War for years now, and the writing and research of it (including quite a bit from your paper), kept me going through the summer of 1861. Thank you.

      I really appreciate you taking the time to drop by and sort things out as best as can be sorted out.

      You said that this was a snippet of your Masters Thesis. What ground did the entire thesis cover?



  7. Eric,

    Fun to dig back into this stuff a bit. My thesis was a full history of the 1st VA U.S. (three months). It set the stage by talking about the northern panhandle political scene on the eve of war, the efforts to organize troops in the weeks following Lincoln’s call for volunteers, and then of course the formation and military service of the regiment itself. I tried to construct as good of a socio-economic and demographic portrait of the regiment as possible with the sources available.

    Also, I should point out that the article in Civil War Regiments came pryor to the thesis. I had originally planned to focus my thesis on the 1st West Virginia Infantry, using the CWR article as the first chapter. However, when I started to dig deeper to find information on the three month men, I found so much interesting stuff that I felt like I needed to stick with them a little longer.


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