Robert E. Lee’s First Offensive During the Civil War was a Failure

Robert E. Lee. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Robert E. Lee is one of the most polarizing figures of the American Civil War. For some, he was a traitor to his country, but to others, he was protecting his family, friends, and neighbors from a government that was attacking its own people. When the Civil War started in April 1861, Lee was a respected officer in the United States Army. So respected that he was asked to lead the volunteers called up by President Abraham Lincoln to help force the Southern States to lay down their arms and rejoin the Union. Lee declined the command and resigned from the United States Army. Instead, he chose to lead Virginia’s military forces. However, Lee struggled as a field commander early in the war, including his first offensive at the Battle of Cheat Mountain in 1861 during the Operations in Western Virginia.

Western Virginia Secedes from Virginia

As the possibility of civil war in the United States increased during the early months of 1861, Virginians were divided. Led by residents of the eastern part of the state, Virginians voted to secede from the Union rather than comply with the request of President Abraham Lincoln for each state to provide volunteer soldiers to force the Southern States to end the Secession Crisis. Soon after, residents of the mountainous area of Western Virginia started a movement to secede from Virginia and remain in the Union.

Abraham Lincoln, Portrait, Gardner
Abraham Lincoln. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Struggle for Control of Western Virginia in 1861

During the summer of 1861, Union and Confederate forces struggled for control of western Virginia. The area was important because gaps in the Appalachian Mountains connected the East to the Midwest. The Virginia Militia acted quickly, disrupting traffic on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and taking control of turnpikes through the mountains. The federal government countered by sending 20,000 troops into the area under the command of Major General George McClellan. McClellan’s forces pressed the Confederate troops in the area throughout the summer and fall, gradually driving the Confederates out of the region. McClellan’s success paved the way for the creation of the State of West Virginia.

Garnett Takes Command of Confederate Forces

Following the Battle of Philippi (June 3, 1861), Brigadier General Robert S. Garnett was placed in command of the Confederate forces opposing McClellan in Western Virginia. Garnett deployed his troops at two key passes through the mountains at Laurel Hill and Rich Mountain. In early July, McClellan feigned an attack against the Confederates at Laurel Mountain, while sending the bulk of his force against the Confederates at Camp Garnett at Rich Mountain.

On the night of July 10, McClellan sent 2,000 men commanded by Brigadier General William Rosecrans on a flanking march over the mountain. The next day, Rosecrans defeated a small Confederate force in the Battle of Rich Mountain and then prepared to attack the Confederate rear on July 12.

Battle of Rich Mountain, Civil War, Illustration
The Battle of Rich Mountain. Image Source: Wikimedia.

Confederate Retreat and the Death of Garnett at Corrick’s Ford

With Rosecrans at his rear, the commander at Camp Garnett, Lieutenant Colonel John Pegram, ordered an evacuation during the night. About one-half of the retreating Confederates made it to nearby Beverly, but pursuing Federals captured Pegram and the others on July 13. Upon learning about Pegram’s retreat, Garnett abandoned his position at Laurel Hill. As he retreated south, he was engaged by Union forces at Corrick’s Ford, where Confederates mistakenly fired on and mortally wounded Garnett as he directed his rear guard. Garnett’s death made him the first general officer to die in the Civil War.

Lee, Rosecrans, and Reynolds Take Command

Following Garnett’s death, Confederate officials sent General Robert E. Lee to western Virginia to command Confederate forces. Lee would later emerge as one of the South’s greatest generals, but even he could not salvage the Confederate situation in western Virginia.

On the Union side, Lincoln recalled McClellan to the White House and offered him command of the Military Division of the Potomac, which McClellan accepted. His departure left Brigadier General William S. Rosecrans in command of McClellan’s forces operating in Western Virginia. Brigadier General Joseph J. Reynolds assumed command of the Union forces in the Tygart Valley.

William Rosecrans, Portrait, Civil War General
William Rosecrans. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Union Forces Move East

After the Union victory at the Battle of Rich Mountain, approximately 9,000 Union troops, under the command of Brigadier General Joseph Reynolds, marched east into Pocahontas County. When he arrived, Reynolds erected fortifications at his headquarters at Elkwater and on the summit of Cheat Mountain to secure the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike, which moved through a pass along the base of the mountain. Reynolds assumed command of the soldiers at Elkwater and placed Colonel Nathan Kimball in command of the 1,800 Union troops on Cheat Mountain.

Lee and Loring Plan to Assault Union Forces on Cheat Mountain

In early September, Lee left Sewell Mountain and joined Brigadier General William W. Loring’s 11,000-man Army of the Northwest at Valley Mountain in Pocahontas County. Together, they planned an offensive against the Union forces on Cheat Mountain. The plan called for three Confederate 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.

September 12–15, 1861 — The Battle of Cheat Mountain

Lee appointed Colonel Albert Rust to lead the initial attack. On September 12, Rust’s force embarked on a march over an obscure wilderness path up the mountain toward Cheat Summit Fort. After hacking their way through dense brush during a pouring rain throughout the day, Rust’s men were in no condition to fight.

As the Confederates closed in on the fort, Kimball led 300 Union soldiers out to engage them. Convinced he was outnumbered, Rust ordered his exhausted soldiers to retreat. Having lost the element of surprise, Lee’s initial plan failed.

Battle of Cheat Mountain, Path to Cheat Summit Fort
A trail at the site of the Cheat Summit Fort. Image Source: Library of Congress.

The Failure of the Cheat Mountain Offensive

For the next three days, Confederate forces probed the Union positions at Elkwater and on Cheat Mountain with no success, forcing Lee to end the offensive and withdraw to Valley Mountain. The inability to capture Cheat Summit Fort is considered to be the primary reason for the overall failure of the Confederate forces in the Western Virginia Campaign. Union forces were able to command the area from the high ground, which allowed them to control and protect the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.

Robert E. Lee’s Account of the Failure at Cheat Mountain

Lee wrote a letter to his wife from Valley Mountain on September 17 and described his disappointment at the failure of his men to capture the fort, despite his meticulous planning.

“All the attacking parties with great labour had reached their destination, over mountains considered impassable to bodies of troops, notwithstanding a heavy storm that set in the day before and raged all night, in which they had to stand up till daylight. Their arms were then unserviceable, and they in poor condition for a fierce assault against artillery and superior numbers.

After waiting till l1 o’clock for the assault on Cheat Mountain, which did not take place, and which was to have been the signal for the rest, they were withdrawn, and, after waiting three days in front of the enemy, hoping he would come out of his trenches, we returned to our position at this place.

I can not tell you my regret and mortification at the untoward events that caused the failure of the plan. I had taken every precaution to ensure success and counted on it. But the Ruler of the Universe willed otherwise and sent a storm to disconcert a well-laid plan, and to destroy my hopes. We are no worse off now than before, except the disclosure of our plan, against which they will guard.”

Lt William Henry Fitzhugh Lee, Civil War
William Henry Fitzhugh Lee. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Robert E. Lee’s Son, William Henry Fitzhugh Lee, at Cheat Mountain

“We met with one heavy loss which grieves me deeply: Colonel Washington accompanied Fitzhugh on a reconnoitering expedition, and I fear they were carried away by their zeal and approached within the enemy’s pickets. The first they knew was a volley from a concealed party within a few yards of them. Their balls passed through the Colonel’s body, then struck Fitzhugh’s horse, and the horse of one of the men was killed.

Fitzhugh mounted the Colonel’s horse and brought him off. I am much grieved. He was always anxious to go on these expeditions. This was the day I assented. Since I had been thrown into such intimate relations with him, I had learned to appreciate him very highly. Morning and evening have I seen him on his knees praying to his Maker.”

NOTE: Colonel Washington is John A. Washington, the great-grandnephew of George Washington.

Lee is Removed from Command after Cheat Mountain

A week after the Battle of Cheat Mountain, Confederate officials recalled Lee to Richmond. Afterward, critics in the Southern press derisively referred to him as “Granny Lee” because of his command’s reluctance to engage the enemy.