November 6, 1863 (Friday)
Lost in the hustle of Grant’s campaign against Bragg in the west, and Meade’s stuttering movements against Lee in the east was the continuing struggle in West Virginia. Since the Gettysburg Campaign, most of the fighting was scattered and small, punctuated by several larger skirmishes.
Union forces in the area were commanded by General William Averell, who had been a young staff officer during the First Battle of Manassas. Two years later, he was in command of an entire division of cavalry in the Army of the Potomac, but was dismissed by General Joe Hooker during the great purging after Chancellorsville. Soon, he was in command of the 4th Separate Brigade (technically of the VIII Corps) in West Virginia. His 5,000 troops were brave and courageous, but lacked discipline.
Averell’s Confederate counterpart, John Echols, was also at the Battle of First Manassas, leading a regiment under Stonewall Jackson. Following Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign, Echols was transfered to West Virginia, taking over for William Wing Loring as department commander. For a time, he resigned his command for a desk job in Richmond, but by October, he had been called upon to quell whatever it was that Averell was up to in West Virginia. All told, he had only 1,700 men.
What Averell was up to was the planned destruction of the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad. These tracks served as a way for Confederate General Sam Jones, commander in East Tennessee, to shift troops to and from West Virginia. Its importance increased with the build up at Knoxville, and the siege of Chattanooga. Cutting it would effectively destroy any organized Confederate resistance in West Virginia. First, however, he would have to clear Echols out of the Greenbrier River Valley.
The 5,000 men in Averell’s 4th Separate Brigade marched on November 1st from Beverly in Randolph County. South they trod between Rich and Cheat Mountains. Two days later, another Federal column, commanded by Alfred Duffié, started east from Charleston, 1,700-strong. They were to unite at Lewisburg, where Echols’ Rebels were based.
The next day (the 4th) found Averell’s column in Huntersville, nearly seventy miles from where they started. There, they discovered Rebel Cavalry under William “Mudwall” Jackson, a less steadfast cousin of the great Stonewall. Over the course of the following day, a running twenty-mile fight backed Mudwall to Droop Mountain, southeast of Hillsboro.
He contemplated an attack, but when word reached him that Duffié’s column would not reach Lewisburg until the 7th, he decided to wait until the next morning (the 6th – this date).
While Mudwall was retreating on the 4th, he got a message to Echols at Lewisburg. He started out the next morning, gathering quickly his forces, consisting mostly of Rebels from West Virgina. In command of the brigade was Col. George S. Patton, a veteran of the fighting in West Virginia from the start of the war. By the night of the 5th, Mudwall Jackson had taken up a fortified position atop Droop Mountain. Echols made a forced night march to arrive in the morning before Averell could attack. Echols found the ground good to the defensive, but had little time to entrench.
From the report given by General William Averell:
On the morning of the 6th, we approached the enemy’s position. The main road to Lewisburg runs over Droop Mountain, the northern slope of which is partially cultivated nearly to the summit, a distance of 2 1/2 miles from the foot. The highway is partially hidden in the views from the summit and base in strips of woodland. It is necessary to pass over low rolling hills and across bewildering ravines to reach the mountain in any direction.
The position of the enemy was defined by a skirmishing attack of three companies of infantry. It was thought that a direct attack would be difficult. The infantry and one company of cavalry were therefore sent to the right to ascend a range of hills which ran westward from Droop Mountain, with orders to attack the enemy’s left and rear. To divert the enemy’s attention from this, the Fourteenth Pennsylvania and Keepers battery made a successful demonstration upon his right. The remainder of the command prepared for action. While these movements were progressing, the arrival of re-enforcements to the enemy was announced by the music of a band, the display of battle-flags, and loud cheers of the rebels on the top of the mountain.
The attack of our infantry, 1,175 strong, was conducted skillfully and resolutely by Col. A. Moor. The guide who had been sent with him proving worthless, he directed his column 9 miles over the mountains and through the wilderness to the enemy’s left, led by the flying pickets and the sound of his cannon. The intermittent reports of musketry heralded the approach of Colonel Moor to his destination, and at 1.45 p. m. it was evident from the sound of the battle on the enemy’s left and his disturbed appearance in front, that the time for the direct attack had arrived.
The Second, Third, and Eighth [West] Virginia Dismounted were moved in line obliquely to the right, up the face of the mountain, until their right was joined to Moor’s left. The fire of Ewing’s battery was added to that of Keeper’s. At 3 p. m. the enemy were driven from the summit of the mountain, upon which they had been somewhat protected by rude breast-works of logs, stones, and earth. Gibson’s battalion and one section of Ewing’s battery were at once ordered to pursue the routed rebels. Fragments of each regiment were already eagerly in pursuit. The horses of the Second, Third, Eighth, and Fourteenth were brought up the mountain as soon as possible. The infantry pushed forward, and as soon as details had been made for succoring the wounded and burying the dead, the entire command followed the enemy until dark.
When he began his retreat, General Echols was twenty-eight miles north of Lewisburg. It was dark, and he learned that the second Federal column, under Duffié, was ten miles west of Lewisburg. It was only by quick marching that Echols was able to clear the town before Duffié marched into its streets and Averell descended from the north.
The next morning (the 7th) found Duffié in Lewisburg, and Echols’ Rebels on the other side of the Greenbrier River. Averell’s troops arrived in Lewisburg that afternoon.
The Confederate forces lost 33 killed, 100 wounded, and 122 missing, while Federals suffered 45 killed, 93 wounded, and two captured. Both sides largely consisted of troops from West Virginia. Many who fought against each other were from the same counties, even the same families. Both believed they were defending their countries.
Though victorious, Averell was unable to immediately continue toward the railroad. On the road long to Dublin, the retreating Rebels placed countless obstacles in his path. A day or so later, he called off the raid and was soon back in Beverly, with other bits of his force scattered again over several counties. Echols and his men would reoccupy Lewisburg in the following weeks, but could give little more of themselves in the defense of their country.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 29, Part 1, p499, 505-506, 523, 528-530; West Virginia and the Civil War by Mark Snell; The civil War in West Virginia by Stan Cohen. [↩]