Meanwhile in the Kanawha; Johnston Argues with Lee

Thursday, June 6, 1861

The last time former Virginia Govern Henry Wise made headlines, he was seeing to the destruction of Norfolk Navy Yard and the capture of Harpers Ferry. With those two items out of the way, Wise was looking towards his next move.

After the capture of Harpers Ferry, both Union General McClellan and Confederate General Lee saw western Virginia’s Kanawha Valley as a possible theater of war. The Valley and its surrounding areas (mostly Kanawha and Putnam Counties, including the city of Charleston) were farther south than Grafton and Philippi and could also boast a more intensely pro-secessionist population.

While McClellan made mention of the valley in a letter to General Scott, General Lee had decided to act upon his views.

In early May, around the time that McClellan was pondering the possibilities of the Kanawha Valley, Lee sent two Colonels, John McCausland and Christopher Tompkins, to the valley to command the militia troops being raised. Each raised their own camp and collected the troops as they were formed up.

All through May, both had a relatively easy time raising Rebel companies. They were far more successful than Col. Porterfield near Grafton (now in Beverly, after his defeat at Philippi). McCausland and Tompkins enjoyed the luxury of long-established militia units, outfitted and drilled, such as the Kanawha Riflemen, commanded by Captain George S. Patton (grandfather to General Patton of WWII fame). For the time being, these troops became the 1st and 2nd Kanawha Regiments.

In late May, fearing that all those who wished to kill for secession were already enlisted, McCausland traveled to Richmond to confer with President Davis.1

On this date, President Davis commissioned former Virginia Governer Henry Wise a Brigadier-General in the Confederate Army. His assignment was to “proceed, with the force placed at your disposal, by the most speedy route of communication, to the valley of the Kanawha.” Once there, he was to “rally the people of that valley and the adjoining counties to resist and repel the invading army.” This command would become the Army of the Kanawha

Richmond could provide him with no arms for his newly-raised troops, rather, he was to “rely upon the arms among the people to supply the requisite armament.” Also, transportation was an issue. His men would have to march, as there was no railroad in this part of western Virginia. While marching, his men would have to live off the land, Richmond could send no supplies.

Richmond could also not tell him where the enemy was. It was suspected that they were headed from Ohio towards Lewisburg, but nobody knew for sure.

For even a seasoned officer, raising and drilling troops, seeing to their armament and sustenance in a land he hardly knew, would be a daunting task. Add to the mix that General Wise had no military experience whatsoever and this was a risky move, at best.2

Nevertheless, Wise set out to do just that. First, he would attempt to raise troops near Staunton, about 30 miles north of Lexington in the Shenandoah Valley.

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News of Philippi Reaches East

Also in Staunton, word was reaching Col. Porterfield’s superiors about his defeat at Philippi and need for supplies. This word, however, did not come in a report from Porterfield, but from citizens traveling from Beverly to Staunton. Major Harmon wrote to General Lee and Governor Letcher, informing them of his opinion that “Colonel Porterfield is entirely unequal to the position which he occupies.”

Harmon explained that Porterfield’s men were sleeping when attacked and that no pickets alerted them of the coming Union troops. Though he mentioned no names for a replacement, a replacement was necessary. The safety of the inexperienced troops, said Harmon, depended “upon an immediate change of commanders, and giving the command to a bold and experienced leader.”

He was also sending to Porterfield, artillery, cavalry and infantry, along with supplies, including nearly all of the ammunition at his disposal. He wrote to Porterfield about the reinforcements, but not of the suggestion to fire him.3

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Should He Stay or Should He Go?

Meanwhile, in Harpers Ferry, Confederate General Johnston replied to General Lee’s letter which told Johnston to hold Harpers Ferry.

Johnston’s first complaints were that Lee’s letter was too vague. Lee was already showing how he could give a broad order and entrust his subordinates to carry it out.

Some in Richmond were convinced that the Ohio troops would stream into Virginia through the Kanawha Valley, while Johnston and others figured that they would just hop on the train to Harpers Ferry. There, they could be joined by the Pennsylvania troops near Chambersburg.

Johnston countered Lee’s statement that “the abandonment of Harpers Ferry would be depressing to the cause of the South” by asking “wouldn’t the loss of five or six thousand men be more so?” Withdrawing in the face of the enemy was nearly impossible for green troops, wrote Johnston, “it would soon become a flight.”

If McClellan invaded through Harpers Ferry, his men would surely “be captured or destroyed.” Johnston asked if it wouldn’t be better “to transfer them to some point where they may still be useful?”

Though Johnston wished to move his men, he admitted that they were not “equipped for a campaign.” Some lacked percussion caps, while other had no cartridge boxes. Most had arrived by train and rather than having knapsacks, had “trucks and valises” for their too-numerous personal effects.4

It was quickly becoming clear that Johnston could neither afford to stay or go.



  1. Background and “catch up” information from Lee vs. McClellan; The First Campaign by Newell. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p908-909. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p69-70. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p908. []
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