On the Eve of General Lee’s Surprise

Wednesday, September 11, 1861

By this cold and rainy morning, General Lee’s brigades of the Army of the Northwest were reaching their positions. The complex plan of attack, issued on September 8th, was made more complex by the cliffs, rocky valleys, impenetrable forests and mountain spurs.

Of the five brigades, four had already left their camps. Rust’s Brigade of 1,600, to attack the Union right flank on Cheat Mountain, had started out from Traveler’s Repose on the 9th. They left the comfort of the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike for the tangled wilderness without a road nor a path to guide them. They marched miles through the freezing cold waters of Shavers Fork. As the rain fell, on this date, they reached a ridge about a mile from the Union right. Here they slept in the wet mud without so much as a fire to warm them.

Donelson’s brigade left Valley Mountain on the 10th. They were to attack the Union left at Elkwater [near Salt Lick on the map]. Donelson’s march was little easier than Rust’s. For twenty miles, the Confederates cut their way across cliffs and spurs, joining hands to pull their comrades over the defiles. On the rainy morning of this date, Donelson’s troops killed or captured several unsuspecting Yankee scouts and attacked a stronghold, capturing an entire company of fifty soldiers without firing a shot. As night fell upon them, they too were in position, overlooking the unsuspecting Union camp at Elkwater.

Also leaving Valley Mountain that day was the brigade of Anderson. His twenty mile march proved no simple task, the men being forced to march single file, strung out over four miles of twisted western Virginia mountainside. The rain fell in torrents as Anderson’s men bivouacked on the western slope of Cheat Mountain.

The remaining two brigades, those of Jackson and Loring, were to stick to their respective turnpikes for an easy march on the morning of this date. Loring, from Valley Mountain, marched his men north along the Huntersville Turnpike, capturing a few Union pickets along the way to Elkwater. Jackson, following the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike from Traveler’s Repose, headed west towards Cheat Mountain.

By nightfall, all five brigades were exactly where they were supposed to be. Five thousand Rebels nearly surrounded 3,000 Union troops. The next morning, Rust’s Brigade was to attack at dawn. The sound of the fighting would be the signal for the rest of the Army of the Northwest to begin their attacks. General Lee’s plan was set. Everything relied upon Colonel Rust, whose only military experience was a strange, aborted reconnaissance of Cheat Mountain two weeks prior where he wandered around in “reckless folly” before returning to his camp. Nevertheless, General Lee took a liking to him and placed everything in his questionably capable hands.1

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Lincoln’s Open Order to Fremont

After thinking about General Fremont’s letter, hand-delivered by Mrs. Fremont the day before, President Lincoln spent the morning composing a reply. Lincoln asked Fremont to revise his proclamation freeing the slaves of disloyal Missourians. Fremont refused to do so unless directly and specifically ordered in the fear of appearing like he supported Lincoln in this matter.

Lincoln reiterated his “wish that that clause should be modified” to come into the standard of the Confiscation Act, which placed freed slaves under the jurisdiction of the Federal government.

Lincoln continued:

Your answer, just received, expresses the preference on your part, that I should make an open order for the modification, which I very cheerfully do. It is therefore ordered that the said clause of said proclamation be so modified, held, and construed, as to conform to, and not to transcend, the provisions on the same subject contained in the act of Congress entitled “An Act to confiscate property used for insurrectionary purposes” Approved, August 6. 1861; and that said act be published at length with this order.

Not only did Lincoln hand the reply to Mrs. Fremont, he had it published in the press. After all, it was, as requested by General Fremont, an “open order.”2

While Mrs. Fremont waited for President Lincoln, she was called upon by an old friend, Frances Blair, Sr, father of both Montgomery and Frank Blair. During their conversation, Mr. Blair brought up the letter that Frank wrote to Montgomery about General Fremont.

Mrs. Fremont was livid and threatened that her husband would best Frank in a duel. Mr. Blair defended his son, but the damage was done. Montgomery Blair was en route to St. Louis, by order of Lincoln, to assess Fremont in person.3

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Wise’s Third Pointless Trek to Carnifex

Though the Union forces under General Rosecrans failed to carry the Rebel position at Carnifex Ferry in Western Virginia, General Floyd began to move his Confederate Army of the Kanawha across the Gauley River, down Sunday Road to the James River & Kanawha Turnpike. Floyd was convinced that if General Wise, commanding the other wing of his Army, would have sent reinforcements as ordered, he could have beaten Rosecrans.

By the dawn, General Wise at Hawks Nest received Floyd’s dispatch that he had driven the Yankees from the field and, to hold them off, Wise should come immediately. Finally, Wise complied. He packed up his Legion and started out upon a third trip to Carnifex, hoping that he wouldn’t be turned back once he got there.

Halfway to Carnifex, a messenger found Wise, leading his Legion on Sunday Road. The messenger had verbal orders from General Floyd to turn back to Dogwood Gap. Wise also learned that Floyd had driven back the Yankees and then retreated from the battle without the loss of a single man. Furious, for a third time, Wise turned his command around and marched away from Carnifex.

Later, Wise found Floyd near Dogwood Gap, bringing both wings of the Army of the Kanawha in close proximity to each other. Floyd was completely rattled by the whole affair. Carnifex Ferry was his first time in battle and he had received a wound in his arm. He was lying prostrate upon the ground when Wise approached him, asking if he had any orders to give. Floyd responded that he did not know what orders could be given.4

Union General Rosecrans discovered that Floyd had retreated when a runaway slave brought the word through his line. Finding that the Rebels had destroyed the ferry boats and the footbridge, there was nothing he could do except occupy the old enemy camp. He had expected to hear word from General Cox at Gauley Bridge (opposite Wise’s previous position at Hawks Next), but all throughout the day, nothing came.5



  1. Rebels at the Gate by Lesser. []
  2. Letter from President Lincoln to General Fremont, September 11, 1861. []
  3. Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p161-162. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p131-132. []
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On the Eve of General Lee’s Surprise by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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