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Chapter
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
R. E. Lee: A Biography

by Douglas Southall Freeman

published by Charles Scribner's Sons,
New York and London, 1934

The text, and illustrations except as noted, are in the public domain.


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This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

Vol. I
p579
Chapter XXXIV

Politics in WAR:Sorry Story

Henry A. Wise, Governor of Virginia at the time of John Brown raid, had dreamed in 1861 of organizing "an independent partizan command, subject only to the general laws and orders of the service,"1 but when the disaffection of western Virginia became apparent, just before Garnett was sent to the Alleghenies, Wise was summoned to Richmond by Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.President Davis, was given a commission as a brigadier general, and was hurried off to the valley of the Kanawha. He had been the champion of the interests of that section in the great battle over representation in the Virginia convention of 1850‑51, and it was believed that his presence in that quarter, as the spokesman of Southern rights, would rally the wavering.2 With only a few untrained staff officers and a handful of troops from eastern Virginia, he went into the disputed territory early in June. By eloquence and personal appeals, he contrived to raise his force during the next seven weeks to some 2850 men, infantry, cavalry, and artillery, whom he organized as a "Legion" and mustered into the Confederate service. Simultaneously, 1800 state volunteers were enlisted or brought from nearby counties to co-operate with him. Most of these men were wretchedly equipped and many of the state volunteers considered that they had entered the ranks solely to protect their own homes against invaders. Undependable as was this force, and inexperienced as were the commander and most of his officers, Wise advanced boldly down the valley of the Kanawha to Charleston. "Every step," he subsequently reported, "was amid the rattlesnakes of treason to the South or petty serpents of jealousy in the disaffection of my own camp." He went so far that first Adjutant General Cooper and then General Lee had to warn him of the danger of being cut off.3 On July 17 p580 Wise had a successful brush with a Federal force at Scarey Creek, near Charleston, but a week later he began to fall back in the face of what he believed to be great odds. As some of the state volunteers passed the homes they had enlisted to defend, they began to drop out of ranks, until nearly 500 of them had disappeared. The rest of the command held together until it halted, about August 3, ragged and exhausted, to refit at White Sulphur Springs, beyond the reach of the enemy.4 It had been an unhappy venture, far less the fault of Wise, who had done his best, than of the administration, which had entirely misjudged conditions in the Kanawha Valley. Wise lost none of his confidence or ambition because of this campaign. Regarding his Legion as essentially an independent command, he cherished hopes of faring forth again, as soon as his men were rested and freshly equipped, to fight new battles and win new laurels. His lack of technical knowledge of war did not deter him in the slightest.

While Wise was in the Kanawha Valley, Brigadier General John B. Floyd was completing the enlistment of the "brigade of riflemen" that President Davis had imprudently authorized him to raise, to the great impairment of regular recruiting in southwest Virginia, where Floyd resided.5 Floyd was as ambitious as Wise. He had been a lawyer, a politician, a member of the Virginia legislature, and, like Wise, Governor of Virginia. Serving as Secretary of War during most of Buchanan's administration, he had been accused of favoring the South by scattering the regular army and by piling up arms of late models in Federal arsenals located in the disaffected states. A darker charge, inspired by politics, of abstracting government bonds, he had, in January, 1861, successfully met. Floyd was not altogether devoid of native military talent. He possessed no little energy and a world of self-reliance, but he was rash and was to disclose a temperament readily confused in action. While Wise hoped to fire the imagination of the country by leading a partizan corps, Floyd believed his immediate destiny was to carry the war triumphantly down the Kanawha Valley and into Ohio. His troops, on the whole, were p581 much better equipped than those of General Wise, but they lacked good muskets, artillery, and cavalry.6

Just at the time Wise was retreating from the Kanawha Valley, Floyd was sending the last of his troops to the western terminus of the Virginia Central Railroad.7 Floyd himself soon followed his men, prepared for glory and well equipped for publicity, with not less than three newspaper editors on his staff.8 He was satisfied that Wise's forces had made a failure of their campaign, though, he wrote, "they will not allow it to be a retreat,"9 and he was equally sure that he could redeem the evil hour.10 "We will," said he, "have stirring work in the West before a great while, I think."11

On August 6, at White Sulphur Springs, the two ex-governors met for their first council of war. Each came in the memory of ancient political differences, each in a determination to yield nothing to the other. Floyd was the senior and was intent on asserting his authority over his rival. Wise was resolved, at any cost, to retain the independence of his command, with which he claimed the President had vested him. The two clashed as soon as they began consultation. Floyd was anxious for Wise to move forward in co-operation with the advance he was about to make in the direction of the Kanawha Valley;12 Wise immediately protested that his tired soldiers would require at least a fortnight in which to refit. The two parted without a final decision. Foreseeing what was certain to follow, Wise appealed to General Lee to separate his command from Floyd's, but Lee was apprehensive of a Federal advance against the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad, and as he could not afford to divide the few regiments covering that line, he rejected Wise's appeal and directed Floyd to assume command of all the troops in that territory unless he had orders to the contrary from Richmond.13 Floyd had already renewed his call on Wise to advance, without budging him from White p582 Sulphur,14 and he promptly availed himself of his new authority from Lee to issue an order assuming command of all the forces intended to operate in the Kanawha Valley.15

About that time, word came that the Federals were advancing and were threatening one of the Confederate outposts. Floyd was a bit confused and somewhat self-contradictory in his interpretation of reports of the strength and position of the enemy,16 but he determined to push forward and directed Wise to send one of his regiments to move with his column. Once more Wise protested, explaining that his men were unready and arguing that his superior's advance was ill-timed. Immediately there was hot contention — new orders from Floyd for Wise to put all his troops in the road, a fresh appeal from Wise to Lee for the separation of his command from Floyd, a vain effort on Lee's part to smooth out the differences, then peremptory orders from Floyd to Wise and grumbling obedience by Wise, who started at length with all except two of his regiments. Lee sided with Wise as to the policy of a general advance, but he could not sustain him, of course, in his defiant insubordination.17

The quarrel was already past mending. Wise was satisfied, as he subsequently wrote President Davis, that "General Floyd's design . . . was to destroy my command, and not only transfer to himself the state troops and militia, but by constant detachments of my Legion, to merge it also in his brigade, to be commanded by his field-officers, and be torn to pieces by maladministration, and to sink me, the second in command, even below his majors and captains."18 Floyd proceeded to take the state troops entirely from under Wise's control, regardless of the General's wrathful protests. In apprising the President of what he deemed to be Wise's failure to co-operate, he showed no disposition to compromise or to conciliate. "I know perfectly well how to enforce obedience," he wrote, "and will, without the least hesitation, do it."19 Again there was an appeal by Wise to Lee for a transfer; p583 again Lee had to sustain Floyd and had to explain to Wise that the army of the Kanawha was too small to be divided.20

In much contention and excitement, Floyd moved forward after the middle of August to the vicinity of Carnifix Ferry, on the Gauley River.21 Wise unwillingly followed, his men as dissatisfied as he. Two of his regiments lost half their personnel on the road, through desertion and measles.22 On August 25, when the cavalry who were covering his advance broke and fled, Wise was forced to halt temporarily. The next day, by a vigorous move, Floyd surprised the 7th Ohio at Cross Lanes and, without any assistance from Wise, routed it and captured many of its men. This initial victory of his career greatly increased Floyd's self-confidence and indirectly led to new friction between him and Wise,23 who once again renewed his request to be detached. Floyd countered by offering to trade Wise's Legion to any takers in return for three regiments of infantry.24 There followed a brief season of alarms and rumors, when Floyd had to put aside his dream of an advance to the Ohio, and had, instead, to call up reinforcements in great haste. Disgusted by what he termed Floyd's "vacillating and harassing orders," Wise made a successful demonstration on his own account though his command was still at half its strength because of sickness. This brush salved Wise's pride and served momentarily to offset Floyd's victory at Cross Lanes.25

Floyd wrote little about all this to Lee, electing to correspond directly with President Davis. His rival regarded Lee as his defender and rarely indited one of his wrathful notes to Floyd without justifying himself in a letter to Lee. These missives and the condition they disclosed in the upper valley of the Kanawha had added no little to Lee's troubles in the gloom of his mountain camp, but until the second week in September the situation on the scene of the Wise-Floyd war was not alarming. In fact, p584 Floyd's success at Cross Lanes had suggested to Lee a plan by which Floyd might exploit his advantage and perhaps cut communications between the Federals on the northern and southern sectors.26

On September 8, however, a new danger developed. Floyd's principal adversary until that time had been Brigadier General Jacob D. Cox, who had been based on the Kanawha River. Now Lee learned that General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Rosecrans was preparing to reinforce Cox heavily with troops sent southward from the Huntersville-Elkwater sector. Floyd at that time was on the northern bank of Gauley River, at Carnifix Ferry, with Wise at Hawk's Nest, twelve miles southwest of the ferry, guarding Floyd's flank and rear from a drive up the Kanawha Valley. Lee at once saw that Floyd might be caught between two attacks or overwhelmed from the north. He accordingly warned him to be on the alert against a thrust southward by Rosecrans and advised him to withdraw across the Gauley in case he did not feel strong enough to fight with his back to the river.27 Floyd did not see fit to take this advice, but remained where he was, writing alternately of being cut to pieces by superior forces and of advancing to the Ohio and laying waste the Federal shore.28

On the night of September 8‑9, Floyd received positive news of an advance by a force moving down from the north, and he forthwith called on Wise for one regiment of the state volunteers and one from Wise's Legion. Wise sent the state troops but protested hotly against the dispatch of any part of his own small command, on the ground that he was in danger of being attacked by General Cox. A sulphureous exchange was precipitated, in which Wise argued the unwisdom of the course Floyd proposed to follow in meeting the enemy north of the Gauley River. In the midst of this correspondence Wise found space to carry on a quarrel that had been started the previous day by an allegation on Floyd's part that one of Wise's officers had taken a field gun intended for Floyd.29

The conclusion of the cross-fire over the dispatch of part of Wise's Legion was a flat announcement by Wise that he would p585 exercise his military discretion and decline to send the troops. Before Floyd could answer with a new order, he was attacked, on the afternoon of September 10, by Rosecrans at Carnifix Ferry. He beat off several assaults, but considered the force in his front overwhelming and fell back during the night to the south bank of the river, whence he again ordered Wise to reinforce him. This time Wise obeyed, but ere his men reached Floyd they were told to return, as Floyd was retreating farther to the eastward.30 Floyd was quick to explain to headquarters that he had less than 2000 men in action and that he would certainly have been victorious if Wise had sent up the regiment he had required, and if fresh troops on the road to him had arrived in time. His retreat across the river, he told the Secretary of War, was in accordance with Lee's orders. He apparently did not think it necessary to add that Lee's recommendation — it was not an order — had been for a withdrawal in case he was threatened, without risking a fight where he might be driven into the stream.31 Wise, for his part, anticipated all criticism of his course by saying, "I solemnly protest that my force is not safe under his [Floyd's] command."32

Floyd had been slightly wounded at Carnifix Ferry and for a time was almost bewildered. On the 11th, when Wise met him, he was so little the master of himself that he admitted in the presence of his rival he did not know what orders to give.33 The next day he had somewhat recovered his composure, and as the country to the southeast of them was a rugged wilderness that would not sustain his little army, he decided to continue his retreat to Big Sewell Mountain, a distance of something over twenty miles. Wise preceded him, under orders, and halted, at length, on an eminence close to Sewell Creek, near the present post office of Maywood, within a mile of the boundary between Fayette and Greenbrier Counties. Floyd drew up his column a mile and a half west of Wise on the crest of Sewell Mountain. On the late afternoon of the 16th he held a council of war, to which he invited Wise and such of his officers as Wise saw fit to bring.

Up to this point on the retreat he and Wise had staged three p586 distinct controversies — one over Wise's inability to supply Floyd with a cavalry scout, the second over five wagons that Floyd had borrowed from Wise, and the third over fifty-four of Wise's sabres that Floyd's officers were alleged to have taken.34 At the council, however, nothing was said of this unpleasantness. Everything began amicably. And as Floyd seemed to have no definite plan, Wise proceeded to tell his superior what should be done. Neither he nor Floyd had any definite information as to the strength or position of the enemy, who was supposed to be approaching in two columns, Cox from the west and Rosecrans from the northwest. Wise was satisfied that he had chosen the stronger position and that Floyd held the weaker, and he argued vigorously for a concentration on the high ground his troops then occupied. When Floyd apparently acquiesced, Wise pushed his advantage and asked that certain new troops be incorporated in his command.

The council ended with Wise seemingly in control of the situation. But as Wise left Floyd's camp one of his officers called his attention to activity among the troops, and he had hardly reached his own post before Floyd's column began to pass through, bound across Sewell Creek, on the road toward Lewisburg. Soon there came a dispatch from Floyd, announcing that he had decided to fall back beyond Sewell Mountain to the vicinity of Meadow Bluff, twelve miles away.35 Wise was instructed to hold himself in readiness to cover the rear.

This was too much for Wise. Outraged at Floyd's change of mind and incensed that his own plan had been rejected, he calmly remained where he was and in answer to repeated inquiries and orders from Floyd contended that he could better co-operate with Floyd and could more readily repulse the enemy where he was than at Meadow Bluff, which was only sixteen miles west of Lewisburg. Privately he intimated to his officers that he would stay where he was and fight, orders or no orders.36 Very soon the enemy appeared in strength and took the position Floyd had evacuated. Wise had not more than 2200 men and faced at least twice that number.37 The road between him and p587 Floyd was steep and difficult, crossing many small streams in its twelve miles and liable to be rendered impassable by rains. Friction, rival ambitions, and military insubordination had reached their climax. Wise seemed in danger of being cut to pieces before Floyd could reinforce him.

Thus matters stood on September 21 when General Lee, accompanied only by Taylor and a small cavalry escort, drew rein in Floyd's camp at Meadow Bluff.38


The Author's Notes:

1 O. R., 5, 150‑51.

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2 O. R., 2, 908‑9; IV O. R., 1, 367; De Leon, 107.

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3 O. R., 2, 996.

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4 Wise's reports will be found in O. R., 2, 290‑92, 1011, and O. R., 5, 150 ff., 768‑70, 771.

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5 See supra, p502.

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6 For the conditions of the two commands, see O. R., 5, 775, 776, 778, 780, 786, 788; O. R., 51, part 2, pp221, 223‑24, 225.

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7 O. R., 51, part 2, pp190, 191, 206, 208; cf. ibid., 210.

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8 Lee to Mrs. Lee, Oct. 7, 1861; White, 124.

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9 O. R., 51, part 2, p210.

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10 O. R., 5, 766; O. R., 51, part 2, pp213‑14.

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11 O. R., 5, 766.

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12 O. R., 5, 773.

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13 O. R., 5, 773, 774; O. R., 51, part 2, p220.

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14 O. R., 5, 774, 776.

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15 O. R., 5, 781; O. R., 51, part 2, pp223, 224.

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16 Cf. Reports of Colonel Lucius Davis, O. R., 51, part 2, pp228‑29, and Floyd's dispatches, ibid.221, 223, 225, 226.

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17 O. R., 5, 778, 779, 781, 782, 783, 785. The measles that had temporarily crippled the other commands in western Virginia had reached Wise's troops by this time (O. R., 5, 787).

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18 O. R., 5, 155.

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19 O. R., 51, part 2, p237.

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20 O. R., 5, 799‑800, 804‑5, 810.

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21 O. R., 5, 785, 790, 791, 792, 793, 794, 796, 797, 798, 802, 803, 804, 805, 812 ff.; O. R., 51, part 2, pp232, 235, 239, 243, 244, 248. For the Federal view of these operations, see 1 B. and L., 137 ff.

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22 O. R., 5, 803‑4.

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23 O. R., 5, 118, 809; O. R., 51, part 2, pp254, 257, 257‑58.

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24 O. R., 5, 122‑23, 803, 812, 819‑20, 822, 823, 826, 842; O. R., 51, part 2, pp254, 262‑63.

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25 O. R., 5, 122, 822, 829, 831, 832.

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26 O. R., 51, part 2, pp254, 264.

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27 O. R., 51, part 2, pp281‑82.

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28 O. R., 51, part 2, pp286‑87.

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29 O. R., 5, 160, 836‑37.

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30 O. R., 5, 146 ff., 160‑61, 837‑38, 838‑39, 839‑40, 841, 841‑42, 843‑44. For Rosecrans's report on the action at Carnifix Ferry, see ibid., 129 ff.

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31 O. R., 5, 146 ff.

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32 O. R., 5, 149.

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33 O. R., 5, 161.

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34 O. R., 5, 851‑52, 856, 859‑60, 861, 863.

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35 O. R., 5, 854‑55.

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36 O. R., 5, 853, 855, 859‑60, 861, 862, 862‑63; Taylor's General Lee, 33.

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37 O. R., 5, 868.

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38 He had come via Frankfort and had camped on the night of Sept. 20 east of Lewisburg. O. R., 51, part 2, p304; Taylor's Four Years, 35. Taylor in his General Lee, 31, would seem to be in error in saying Lee came via White Sulphur, as that was far out of his way.


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