For much of 1861, Union and Confederate forces struggled for control of western Virginia. The area was of considerable importance because gaps in the Appalachian Mountains connected the East to the Midwest. In early May, General Robert E. Lee, in Richmond, ordered Colonel George A. Porterfield to go to Grafton. Porterfield was instructed to organize an army of volunteers and to seize control of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and turnpikes through the mountains.
Union officials countered by sending 20,000 troops into the area under the command of Major General George McClellan. On June 3, the two forces engaged, and the Yankees routed the Rebels at the Battle of Philippi.
On June 8, 1861, five days after the Union victory at Philippi, the Confederate War Department issued Special Orders, No. 67 announcing that “Brig. Gen. R. S. Garnett, Provisional Army, will proceed to Staunton, and assume command of the troops to operate in Northwestern Virginia.” By as early as June 24, Confederate officials were referring to Robert S. Garnett’s force as the Army of the Northwest.
Battles of Rich Mountain and Corrick’s Ford
Upon reaching Staunton, Garnett divided his forces between Rich Mountain and his headquarters at Laurel Hill. On July 11, 1861, at the Battle of Rich Mountain, Brigadier General William S. Rosecrans’ Union soldiers forced Garnett’s troops to pull back. Upon learning of the retreat, Garnett abandoned his headquarters at Laurel Hill. During the Confederate withdrawal, Union troops overcame Garnett and his rearguard at the Battle of Corrick’s Ford on July 13. As Garnett tried to stall the Federal advance, a gunshot to the back mortally wounded him, thus making him the first general officer to perish during the Civil War.
Following Garnett’s death, Brigadier General Henry R. Jackson assumed temporary command of the Army of the Northwest. On July 20, 1861, the Confederate War Department issued Special Orders, No. 227 announcing that “Brigadier General W. W. Loring, Provisional Army, C. S., is assigned to the command of the Army of the Northwest, and will proceed as soon as possible to Monterey.” William Loring arrived at Monterey the next day and took command. Throughout the rest of the summer, Loring struggled to prevent Union forces from taking control of that area.
Battle of Cheat Mountain
In early September, Robert E. Lee joined Loring’s 11,000-man Army of the Northwest at Valley Mountain in Pocahontas County. The two Confederate generals planned an offensive against the Federal forces at Cheat Mountain. The plan called for three Rebel brigades of approximately 1,500 soldiers each to attack Cheat Summit Fort on September 12. Bad weather and rugged terrain created poor communication between the three brigades, resulting in an uncoordinated and ineffective assault. After probing the Federal positions at Elkwater and on Cheat Mountain for the next three days during the Battle of Cheat Moutain, Lee ended the offensive and withdrew to Valley Mountain, leaving the area in Union control.
Dispute Between Jackson and Loring
On October 22, 1861, the Confederate Secretary of War, Judah P. Benjamin, issued General Orders, No. 15, which put Major General Thomas J. Jackson in command of the Valley District of the newly created Department of Northern Virginia. Jackson quickly devised plans for a winter campaign against Union forces in the lower Shenandoah Valley. On November 20, 1861, Jackson wrote to Benjamin “requesting that at once all the troops under General Loring be ordered to this point.” The next day, General Joseph E. Johnston, Jackson’s and Loring’s superior, endorsed the request. On November 24, 1861, Benjamin counseled Loring “If upon full consideration, you think the proposed movement objectionable and too hazardous, you will decline to make it and so inform the Department. If, on the contrary, you approve it, then proceed to execute it as promptly and secretly as possible . . .”
Loring joined Jackson, but their subsequent relationship proved to be strained. Loring chafed at the prospect of losing his independent command and having his army reduced to divisional status under Jackson’s command. He got off on the wrong foot with Jackson by taking a month to move the Army of the Northwest to Jackson’s headquarters at Winchester.
Jackson’s expedition finally got underway on January 1, 1862. Meeting little resistance, the Rebels captured Romney on January 14, but Jackson decided that the severity of the January weather prevented any further advances. Instead, he ordered Loring and the Army of the Northwest to remain in Romney while he returned to Winchester with the bulk of his forces.
Loring’s Maneuvering and Jackson’s Resignation
As the weather continued to worsen, disgruntled officers in Loring’s under-provisioned army petitioned the Secretary of War on January 25 to have their exposed forces recalled. Loring endorsed the petition the next day and sent it up the chain-of-command to Jackson’s headquarters. Surreptitiously, however, he also forwarded a copy to one of his brigade commanders, General William B. Taliaferro, who was on furlough at Richmond. Taliaferro met with President Jefferson Davis and personally delivered the petition to the sympathetic Confederate President. Davis then ignored military protocol and instructed Secretary Benjamin to break the chain-of-command and countermand Jackson’s directives. On January 30, 1862, Benjamin wired Jackson that “our news indicates that a move is being made to cut off General Loring’s command. Order him back to Winchester immediately.” Jackson promptly complied with the order and then submitted his resignation on January 31, stating, “With such interference in my command I cannot expect to be of much service in the field.”
Following the intervention of Virginia Governor John Letcher, Jackson reconsidered and withdrew his resignation on February 6, 1862. Jackson’s enmity toward Loring, however, did not diminish. The next day he filed charges against Loring for “neglect of duty” and for “conduct subversive of good order and military discipline.” Confederate officials never brought Loring before a court-martial. Instead, President Davis and his war department acted quickly to diffuse the situation. On February 9, 1862, Secretary Benjamin ordered General Johnston to “make such disposal of General Loring’s forces as will render them more immediately effective than if retained in the Valley District.” He detailed the reassignment of the soldiers of the Army of the Northwest to other departments. Finally, he instructed Johnston to “order General Loring to report to the Adjutant-General here for orders. He is assigned to duty with General Lee, in Georgia.” Benjamin’s order officially ended the existence of the Army of the Northwest.
Following the dissolution of Loring’s army, Brigadier General Edward Johnson’s Army of the Allegheny was sometimes informally referred to as the Army of the Northwest.