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
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 51 (Part 1), p380-381. [↩]
- Campaign in Western Virginia by George B. McClellan. [↩]
- “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. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 4, Vol. 1, p330-331. [↩]
- The Life and Military Services of Gen. William Selby Harney by L. U. Reavis. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, p374. [↩]
- 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. [↩]