Saturday, September 21, 1861
Since taking command of all Confederate troops in the Trans-Mississippi, General Albert Sidney Johnston had decided upon making a full scale invasion of Kentucky. Thus far, three small armies held three strategic positions in the state, creating a thinly stretched line from Cumberland Gap in the east to the Mississippi River in the west. His numbers were probably not efficient enough to even hold his positions, let alone advance forward. It was plain, he would need more troops.
After receiving approval to do so from President Davis, General Johnston called upon the state of Tennessee for volunteers. He informed Governor Isham Harris that the troops would be used in the defense of the Mississippi River and the states within his Department (the Mississippi River Valley, along with parts of Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee).
Harris was called upon to furnish 30,000 troops for the Southern cause. Though Johnston wished for the men to volunteer for the duration of the war, he realized that many might not be so willing to offer a sacrifice. In that light, he informed Harris that he would accept soldiers pledging a twelve-month term of enlistment.
There was, however, another matter. Johnston had been attempting to secure more guns and ammunition, but was so far luckless. He begged Harris’s “influence with the volunteers,” to induce them to bring along their own guns. Most men in Tennessee owned and knew how to deftly handle a firearm. “Rifles and shot-guns, double-barreled guns in particular, can be made effective weapons in the hands of our skilled horsemen,” reasoned Johnston. This hodge podge of weaponry, he assured, would soon be made uniform, making the task of supplying proper ammunition much simpler.
In his letter to Governor Harris, Johnston specified several cities of recruitment and training. The new volunteers could find their ways to either Knoxville, Nashville, Jackson, Trenton or Memphis. There, they would be outfitted, taught a quick school of soldiery and send on their way to the front.
Tennessee was, so far, the only state that Johnston had contacted, but two others were on his mind.1
Lee Arrives to Sort out Wise and Floyd
General Robert E. Lee arrived at Meadow Bluff, the headquarters of General John Floyd, after a journey of over 100 miles. The Army of the Northwest, back in their original positions around Cheat Mountain, was left in the hands of General Loring. Lee, having command of all Confederate troops in Western Virginia, decided to shift his focus to the divided Army of the Kanawha.
While Floyd’s Brigade of the Army was encamped at Meadow Bluff, General Wise’s Legion still clung to Big Sewell Mountain, twelve miles to the west. Each claimed that his position was superior to the other’s and both wished for the other to help defend it.
The Army of the Kanawha wasn’t just physically divided. The political rift between Floyd and Wise that existed long before the War had carried itself amplified into the hills of Western Virginia. Neither could get along with the other and both wished for the other to be gone.
General Lee, well aware of the quarrel, arrived to put an end to it. First, as he had written both Generals previously, he wished to unite the Army. Neither Brigade was large enough to be of any use, but combined, they might just stand a chance.
As soon as he arrived at Meadow Bluff, he wrote a distressed note to General Wise, admonishing him for keeping the Army divided. Though he had not yet examined either Floyd or Wise’s positions, he reasoned that Floyd’s at Meadow Bluff was the better of the two as it covered the Wilderness Road and the Union approach to Lewisburg. Lee urged Wise, if not already too late, to fall back to Meadow Bluff.2
After sending the dispatch by messenger, Lee took a good look at Floyd’s position on Meadow Bluff. Its main asset was that it controlled the intersection of the road to Summersville and the James River and Kanawha Turkpike to Gauley Bridge. Floyd reasoned that both roads could easily be used by the attacking Union forces. If, argued Floyd, they remained at Big Sewell Mountain, as Wise demanded, the Union forces might come down the Wilderness Road and attack them from behind.
Towards evening, Lee received Wise’s reply, which began by accusing someone (presumably Floyd) of lying to Lee about the position on Big Sewell. He then began a lawyerly defense of his defenses, explaining that while it might seem that the Army was divided, it was actually united and acting in concert. Giving figures of the Union forces that could be brought to bear upon each position, he attempted to convince Lee that it was most prudent to cover both Big Sewell and Meadow Bluff.
It was the enemy that would need to be divided to attack both Big Sewell and Meadow Bluff. If he (Wise) pulled back to Floyd’s position, the enemy would combine their force and crush the entire Army of the Kanawha. 3
Through all its pomp and gusto, Wise’s argument must have, at least, perked Lee’s interest. He prepared to visit Big Sewell the next morning.