The Bungled Affair at Cheat Mountain

Thursday, September 12, 1861

The Confederate plan of attack at Cheat Mountain in Western Virginia was, by dawn, ready. Each of the five brigades were in position and the Union forces on Cheat and at Elkwater, seven miles to the west, were completely unaware that General Lee was about to attack them.

General Lee had put his faith in an untried brigade commander, Col. Rust, to give the signal when to attack. It was on the sound of Rust’s assault upon the Union right flank on Cheat Mountain that the other four brigades were to begin their own movements forward.

Rust, determined to prove himself, roused his men and lead them towards the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike, behind the Union right flank, capturing two Union pickets and some wagons. The prisoners, lying, told him that there were 5,000 Federal troops in the fort (there were only about 3,000).

Now sure of what to do, Rust rode to a clearing to see the Union fortifications for himself. Before him was a formidable bastion with a blockhouse, trenches and wooden spikes sticking out of the earthen walls of the fort. He concluded that it was “madness” to attack.

Thinking that Rust’s force was only a scouting party, two companies from Indiana (probably no more than 100 men) were sent forward from the fort to investigate how many Rebels were in the woods. The Indiana boys advanced into the wilderness and fired a volley into the woods at the unknown number of Confederates. With that, Rust’s brigade of 1,600 broke and ran. The ground was littered with their accouterments as the greatly-outnumbered Indiana troops gave chase.

Just above Elkwater [near Salt Lick on the map], General Lee waited for Rust’s signal, which did not come. Lee, who was with Donelson’s brigade to the left flank of the Union troops at Elkwater, realized that the element of surprise was gone and so Lee ordered the brigade to retire back to camp.

On their way down the valley, they stumbled upon a company of Federal troops who immediately put up a heavy resistance. Each side hammered away at the other until more Confederate troops scrambled towards the action. The Union troops, wildly outnumbered, retreated towards another Union detachment, a couple of miles west of Cheat Fort.

The other Union detachment was exchanging shots with Confederate troops in Anderson’s brigade, who were also waiting for Col. Rust’s signal. The retreating Union company had run into the rear of Anderson’s troops and began firing volleys into them, scattered cooks, slaves and staff. Both Union detachments, still greatly outnumbered, made quick time back to the confines of the fort.

The two other Confederate brigades under Loring (facing Elkwater) and Jackson (facing Cheat Fort) were still waiting for Rust’s signal. It never came and they remained in their positions.

The strange day was hardly a battle. A few sharp skirmishes, loosely tied together and lots of waiting and wondering occupied both sides even after dark.1

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Missouri’s Price Nears Lexington

In western Missouri, Sterling Price, commander of the Missouri State Guards, had received word that Union troops were massing in Lexington (Missouri). Price led his men north towards the Union forces. Upon coming within a few miles of town, he realized that it could not so easily be taken. There, on the outskirts of town, Price and his Missouri State Guards set up camp.2

Price’s presence was known to the 3,500 Union troops at Lexington, commanded by Col. James A. Mulligan, who took command on the 10th. Lexington’s defenses were mostly based on the north end of town around the Masonic College. Work had barely commenced on the fortifications, but Mulligan had his men digging day and night.

The earthworks would soon be twelve feet high and twelve feet thick. It was true, the 3,500 men and seven cannons could hold off a great number of troops, but could they withstand nearly three times their number?

Though Mulligan and his men could have escaped via the steamboats on the Missouri River, he decided to put up a fight and defend the $900,000 he took from the banks in Lexington. Also, both he and Price were certain that Union General Fremont would send reinforcements.3

These, thought Mulligan, could come from the ironically-named Col. Jefferson C. Davis, commanding a few Union regiments at Jefferson City, around 100 miles west of Lexington. Davis had received word that Price was in Warrensburg. Though Davis informed Fremont of this, he seemed more concerned about Rebels in Booneville, fifty miles to his northwest. Lexington was far away and General Pope, at Glosgow, was much closer. Fremont, however, seemed to be indicating that it was Davis and not Pope who would be aiding Mulligan at Lexington. 4

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General Johnston’s Incredibly Bad Decision

In the six weeks since the battle of Manassas, the Confederate Army of the Potomac, under General Joseph E. Johnston, had hardly moved from the battlefield. Much of the time had been spent by Johnston trying to refit his command, now situated at Fairfax Court House. Dispatch after dispatch sent from Fairfax to Richmond detailed the need for supplies.

Johnston’s worst fears became realized on August 31, when President Jefferson Davis and the Confederate Senate officially commissioned five officers as full Generals. Johnston’s name was, of course, among them, but what rankled his bosom was that Davis ranked the Generals according to when they graduated from West Point.

General Cooper was first, having graduated in 1815, followed by Albert Sidney Johnston (from 1826). Joseph Johnston and Robert E. Lee were both in the class of 1829. Lee, however, graduated second, while Johnston was thirteenth. The rear was brought up by P.G.T. Beauregard from the class of 1838.

General Joseph Johnston, who figured that since he won the only major battle in the eastern theater, he should be ranked first, was ranked fourth. Needless to say, he took it poorly.

Two days prior, Johnston had written a long, angry, rambling letter to President Davis, but decided it was too volatile to send.

In it, he told the President that he was “mortified” by Davis’ ranking of Generals, that his “rights of an officer” had been violated, and that even the Confederate Constitution had been ignored. Johnston boldly declared that it was he who still rightfully held “the rank of first general in the Armies of the Southern Confederacy.”

He then finely detailed the act of the Confederate Congress that, if followed, should have given him top ranking and retold the history of his part in the War thus far. Thinking that he should be ranked first, he understood that being placed fourth was, in fact, a demotion. If Davis would have followed Congress’s laws, figured Johnston, the other four Generals would retain the same ranking. It was then clear, wrote the beleaguered General, “that it was a blow aimed at only me.”

This was, thought Johnston, enacted “as a punishment and a disgrace for some military offense. It seeks to tarnish my fair fame as a soldier and a man, earned by more than thirty years of laborious and perilous service.”

After he wrote the letter, he put it away. But then, having stewed in his own juices for a couple of days, he took it back out, reread it and sent it to President Davis.5



  1. Rebels at the Gate by Lesser. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, p185-186. []
  3. Civil War on the Western Border, 1854-1865 by Jay Monaghan, Bison Books, 1955. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, p171-173. []
  5. The letter itself can be found in the Official Records, Series 4, Vol. 1, p605-608. Also used Joseph E. Johnston; A Civil War Biography by Craig L. Symonds, Norton, 1992. []
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4 thoughts on “The Bungled Affair at Cheat Mountain

  1. The Battle of Lexington was in many ways the “high tide of the Confederacy” in Missouri. Price’s army would only get to Lexington once more, during his 1864 invasion, but by the time they made it there his army was on the run.

    The proper spelling of the town is “Boonville” despite it being named after Daniel Boone. they lost the “e” somewhere along the line. It’s misspelled frequently in primary and secondary sources.

    1. That is quite true about Lexington. Though, being from Pennsylvania, the Civil War in Missouri basically never happened. The west was just the place where they sent crappy generals. 🙂

      What I mean is that I knew very literally nothing about the CW in the west until starting this blog. I’m really enjoying learning it though. It’s like a whole other war in some other parallel dimension.

      I’ve seen towns with several different names and then several different spellings on the names. I try to use the same spelling as the maps that I have (to make it seem like I have some thread of logic running through this thing). And I’m sure that, as I write, some of the spellings will change with the maps and the source material. Hopefully, it’s not the biggest issue out there.

      1. Yes, the Trans-Miss is an understudied subject. It’s beginning to get its due, but knowledge of this theater still lags far behind even among avid students of the Civil War. This is the main reason I focus my writing on it!

        1. I’m definitely enjoying researching/writing on the west more so than on the east (excluding WV). In my writings, I’m about four months ahead and just wrote about Beauregard being transferred to Tennessee (Johnston hopping!). I was happy for him. 🙂

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