The Wet Stare-Down in Western Virginia; Arkansas Has a Point

Monday, September 30, 1861

The armies in Western Virginia had sat upon opposing spurs of Big Sewell Mountain for nearly a week. General Robert E. Lee’s Army of the Kanawha occupied an incredibly strong defensive position and hoped that General Rosecrans’ 8,500 Union troops would attack. Rosecrans, whose entrenchments were nearly as strong as Lee’s, wished much the same: for his enemy to attack.

Neither budged as the late September rains deluged incessantly. Formerly muddy roads, like the James River & Kanawha Turnpike, which ran across the two mountain spurs, bisecting each army, was turned into, what Confederate General Floyd called, “the worst road in Virginia.”

The Turnpike not only connected the spurs, and thus the armies, it connected both to their supply depots. The Rebel provisions had to be carted by wagons from Lewisburg, twenty-five miles east, and from Staunton, another 100 miles east. Union provisions, however, could be shipped up the Kanawha River from Charleston, sixty miles west. From there, they had to be hauled by wagon to Gauley Bridge and then to Big Sewell. The muddy banks of the river, along with the rain and lack of cover, spoiled many of the rations.

This was no place for an army, let alone two armies, each bent on destroying the other and each completely stymied by the other’s defenses and the weather.1

The previous day, General Floyd had ordered the Rebel militia that had been disbanded and recruited into the Confederate Army forward to Lee’s position at Big Sewell. They were ordered to have three-day’s rations and to carry their own tents and blankets as no wagons could be spared. The addition of the militia, as well as General Loring’s troops from the Army of the Northwest, swelled Lee’s force at Big Sewell to 9,000.

Still, Lee wished for Rosecrans to attack him, but sincerely doubted that he would. “I begin to fear the enemy will not attack us,” wrote Lee to Floyd. “We shall therefore have to attack him.” Lee reasoned that if a week’s worth of provisions could somehow be procured, they could move around Rosecrans’ flank and attack his rear.2

“We had now reached the fall of the year, and the nights were already very cold,” recalled Lee’s aide, Walter Taylor. “As before stated, our camp equipage was exceedingly limited, as were our supplies of all kinds. One very cold night, as we drew close to our camp fire, General Lee suggested that it was advisable to make one bed, put our blankets together in order to have sufficient covering to make us comfortable, and so it happened that it was vouchsafed to me to occupy very close relations with my old commander, and to be able to testify to his self-denial and his simplicity of life in those days of trial for all.”3

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Less States Rights in the Confederacy?

The Governor of Arkansas, Henry Massie Rector, needed some clarification. He was under the impression that, upon seceding from the Union and joining the Confederate States, which bleated “states rights” from on high, the individual states would retain all the rights they had under the Federal Government. It was looking to him, however, that they now had less.

His main beef was with General Benjamin McCulloch, who had, in July, issued a proclamation calling forward the entire military force of Arkansas. This was, thought Rector, a breech of power, but probably a necessary one in light of the troubles in Missouri. He believed it was “an isolated act that would not ripen into settled practice.”

But a settled practice is exactly what Rector was seeing. On September 10th, McCulloch again asked for troops from Arkansas (as well as Texas and Louisiana). Rector complained to the Confederate Secretary of War that nobody in the Arkansas Government was even consulted over the importance of such a request.

While this might all seem trifling, Rector had a serious point. Looking back to the days when every state was governed under the Stars and Stripes, he could think of no precedent in the history of America “for the raising of men by proclamation emanating from generals commanding nor from the President.”

Rector was fighting with two swords. One, pointed at over-reaching Generals in the field, the other, pointed at the National Government. “If such had been law or precedent,” continued Rector, “the intervention of State authority would doubtless have been dispensed with by Mr. Lincoln in his demand for troops from Arkansas. Such, fortunately, was not the practice or the law; and with all deference I submit that no example by authority ought to mar the text sheet of Confederate history.”

Basically, he was saying that if Lincoln couldn’t do it, Davis certainly couldn’t do it, either. Rector was aware of the Act authorizing the Confederate President to receive into service the forces raised by individual states, “but I am unadvised if legislation has trenched so far upon State prerogative as to authorize the calling of troops by any but state authority, and shall, if such is the law, reluctantly yield my assent to so serious an innovation upon State rights.”

In closing, he requested that all calls for troops from the Government in Richmond be made through the proper channels, and that the officers in the field understand their proper place.4



  1. Rebels at the Gate by Lesser. Also, mostly for the information on the Union condition, Military Reminiscences of the Civil War, Volume 1 by Jacob Dolson Cox. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 51 (Part 2), p325-326. []
  3. General Lee: His Campaigns in Virginia, 1861-1865 by Walter Herron Taylor, Press of Braunworth & co., 1906. Also, “vouchsafed” is a great word, no? []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, p710-711. []
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The Wet Stare-Down in Western Virginia; Arkansas Has a Point by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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