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Four days Lee waited on Loring; four days Loring waited on his wagon train. Growing desperate then, Lee set out on August 6 for Valley Mountain, where he arrived the same day. He now found himself in the wilds, surrounded by peaks. Eastward was a mountain of •4775 feet; southeastward was one still higher; southwestward were the twin crests of Middle Mountain. West of the long ridge of Valley Mountain a ravine ran down to Elk River, beyond which loomed the grim barrier of Gauley Mountain. Only to the northward, where the heights dropped away to the valley of Tygart's River, was there an open road. The pass itself was directly on the line between Randolph and Pocahontas Counties, at an elevation of •3464 feet. Human habitations were few and rude. The troops found such shelter as they could under the scanty canvas allotted them. Lee had his solitary tent pitched like the others, and in it he, Colonel Washington, and Captain Taylor made their quarters. Primitive as was the life on which they now entered they did not forget the amenities. Every morning and every evening Lee and Washington had their separate private devotions, and they sat down to hard fare, crudely served from Lee's mess-kit of tin, with as much dignity as if they had been dining at Mount Vernon or at Arlington.1
THE MESS-KIT AND THE FIELD-GLASSES USED THROUGHOUT THE WAR BY GENERAL LEE
From photographs belonging to the Confederate Museum, Richmond, which is custodian of the originals.º
A single reconnaissance sufficed to show that the opportunity for a surprise attack on the western side of Cheat Mountain was fading fast. The Federals had their outposts where any advance would be reported promptly, and down Tygart's Valley they were supposed to be throwing up batteries that commanded the approaches. Perhaps at that time, and certainly a few days thereafter, to make a direct, daylight advance down the mountainside into Tygart's Valley would have been to invite destruction even p555 if the Confederate force on Valley Mountain had been much larger than the few shivering regiments that Lee found there.
If the best plan of campaign had to be cancelled because of the delay in massing troops on Valley Mountain, what could be substituted for it? This was the first time during the war that Lee had to ask himself that question, but ere the struggle was over he had to put it in many a doubtful hour. To some extent his strategical methods and to a much larger degree his tactics, throughout the war, had to be adjusted to the second-best way of doing things, because an inexperienced subordinate had blundered or a disgruntled commander had sulked.
Here in the fastnesses, hemmed in by mountains that a fox could hardly cross, the solitary alternative to a march down Tygart's Valley, straight into the mouth of the Federal guns, was the discovery of some obscure, unguarded trail to the rear of Cheat Mountain. The only way of finding such a route, if one existed, was to reconnoitre with the greatest care. As Lee had about him scarcely any officers experienced in this difficult work he felt that he should do a part of it. Over night he turned back the wheels of fortune a full fourteen years and once again was a captain of engineers reconnoitring a country not altogether unlike Mexico. The native population was divided in sentiment and as apt to mislead as to aid.2 Every track had to be followed to the last impassable ravine; every description of the land had to be verified to the last pretended turn of a non-existent road. Early in the morning Lee went out; often wet and weary, it was late before he returned with Washington and Taylor. One day the trio were •half a mile in advance of the Confederate pickets, very busily studying the ground ahead of them, when suddenly a Confederate captain and two privates, armed cap‑a‑pied, broke suddenly out of a nearby thicket, stood doubtful for a moment, and then made their embarrassed explanations: from the picket lines they had seen the three figures on the mountain and, mistaking them for Federal scouts, had started out to capture them.3
Hourly, as if it were the ally of the North, the rain continued to pour down. By August 10, when twenty successive days of rain had passed, the roads were bottomless in mud. "It was very p556 seriously debated whether the army could be fed where it was, and it was feared," Colonel Walter Taylor has recorded, "that it would have to retire to some point nearer the railroad. Time and time again could be seen double teams of horse struggling with six or eight barrels of flour, and the axle of the wagon scraping and leveling the road-bed. . . . The wagons . . . could be moved only step by step, and then with the greatest difficulty."4 The epidemic of measles that had first appeared among the survivors of Garnett's ill-starred column spread through the other commands, bringing men down by hundreds and provoking fever and a multitude of intestinal ills. One fine, full regiment of 1000 North Carolinians was reduced by sickness to one-third its strength before its men ever heard a hostile gun. Half the army was sick and the other wretched half was ignorant of even the rudiments of personal hygiene in the field. The distress of the soldiers aroused Lee's sympathy, but their negligence provoked his indignation. "Our poor sick, I know, suffer much," he wrote Mrs. Lee a month later. "They bring it on themselves by not doing what they are told. They are worse than children, for the latter can be forced."5
While Lee continued his reconnoitring in this unhappy atmosphere, Loring slowly brought the rest of his troops forward from his newly established advance base at Huntersville. By August 12 all of them were at Valley Mountain, but until Lee could find a new line of advance they could do nothing against an adversary now fully alive to the danger on his flank, and aware that Lee was facing him.6 General McClellan had been recalled to Washington to take charge of the troops on the Potomac.7 General W. S. Rosecrans, named as his successor, had placed in direct command on the Cheat Mountain sector an able soldier, whom Lee mentioned as "our old friend, J. J. Reynolds of West Point memory," in writing to Mrs. Lee. "He is a brigadier general," Lee continued. "You may recollect him as the Assistant Professor of Philosophy, and lived in the cottage beyond the West gate, with his little, pale-faced wife. . . . He resigned p557 on being relieved from West Point, and was made professor of some college in the West. Fitzhugh was the bearer of a flag the other day, and he recognized him. He was very polite and made inquiries of us all I am told they feel very safe and are very confident of success."8
In these circumstances, while the days dragged on as slowly as the wagons in the mud, Lee tried to be cheerful and gave no outward sign of his inward distress. He drew such comfort as he could from the fact that though the Confederates could not advance, they had at least closed to the Federals the roads leading to Staunton and to Millborough.9 The wretchedness of the green troops grew deeper daily. "In the subsequent campaigns of the Army of Northern Virginia," Walter Taylor attested, "the troops were subjected to great privations and to many very severe trials — in hunger often; their nakedness scarcely concealed; strength at times almost exhausted — but never did I experience the same heart-sinking emotions as when contemplating the wan faces and the emaciated forms of those hungry, sickly, shivering men of the army at Valley Mountain."10 The weather gave no promise of change. Ice formed on the night of August 14‑15; the soldiers had to huddle around large fires. "A Tennessee hog pen would scarcely be more uncomfortable," one weary officer wrote.11 "It rains here all the time, literally," Lee told his wife. "There has not been sunshine enough since my arrival to dry my clothes. . . . It is raining now. Has been all day, last night, day before, and day before that, etc., etc. But we must be patient."12 Supplies were brought forward with increasing difficulty. No more than two or three days' food was ever at hand, never enough to make possible even a short advance had the weather permitted.13 The horses grew thin and pitiful. While reconnoitring daily in the p558 rain and striving to disarm with his diplomacy the jealousy of General Loring, Lee had to guard at long range against a Federal advance up the valley of the Kanawha and had to deal with a continuous controversy between General Floyd and General Wise in that district. He never knew what news of fatal contention the next courier from the south might bring. Nor did he know what the enemy was doing or what Reynolds's numbers were, though every move of the Confederates was quickly reported to the enemy.14 Disaffection among the militia was as widespread as sickness in the ranks of the volunteers.15 Still he held tenaciously to the hope of an offensive against the Federals, who had been scattered, as he thought, for the effect their presence might have on the election in western Virginia for the establishment of a "loyal" state government.16 The press, all the while, was carrying reports of Lee's movements that would have been amusing in their very naïveté if there had not been the painful consciousness of doing so little when the newspapers proclaimed so much. Scarcely had Lee arrived at Valley Mountain before he was reported victorious in a skirmish at Rich Spring.17 A little later there had been exaggerated accounts, quickly corrected, of heavy losses by General Wise in a withdrawal up the valley of the Kanawha, coupled with predictions that Lee would soon drive the enemy back or force his capitulation.18 Ere long Rosecrans was alleged to be surrounded, with every prospect of being compelled to surrender.19 A little more and Lee was said to have 37,000 men at Gauley Bridge, which he had not then visited.20 The next yarn was that "flags of truce" had passed between Lee and Rosecrans. "The first flag," according to this story, "was from Genl. R., requiring an evacuation by Lee, within thirty days. Lee replied, giving Rosecranzº ten days in which to leave his encampment. From this evidence, we are inclined to think we will soon receive intelligence of a bloody fight at Big Springs."21 Not to be outdone p559 by the action of the Southern press in reducing Rosecrans's fictitious ultimatum by that days, The Wheeling Intelligencer soon had "perfectly surrounded by our Federal troops, 10,000 men with four batteries of 28 cannon in all." More than that, "he sent in a flag of truce the other day to Gen. Reynolds . . . and offered to surrender all his arms if we would only let him through our lines, so that he could go South. He said if we did not accede to his proposition that he would cut his way through. General Reynolds sent back word to cut his way through, as he would never let him out alive"22 — which sounded exceedingly sanguinary for a man who had been assistant professor of philosophy! It was not until September, when furloughed officers began to arrive in Richmond from the Army of the Northwest, that the press abandoned its rhodomontade for sober and none-too‑cheerful reports of bad weather and worse roads.23
Ironically enough, the newspapers grew pessimistic at the very time four things were happening that brought a measure of hope and encouragement to Lee even though the torrential rains still held all operations at a standstill.24 On August 31 Lee was confirmed as a full general in the regular army of the Confederate States. This had been authorized by Congress on May 16, and Lee had been signing as "General," but now the rank was officially conferred. On the same day Samuel Cooper, the adjutant general, Albert Sidney Johnston, Joseph E. Johnston, and P. G. T. Beauregard received like rank. Their commissions were so dated that Cooper and Albert Sidney Johnston were his seniors. Joseph E. Johnston, his former classmate, and Beauregard were rated his juniors25 — an arrangement that aroused in Johnston a resentment that colored his views throughout the war. Having outranked all the others in the service of the United States, he took it very hard that three of them were his seniors in the army of the new republic.
p560 Along with the news of his confirmation at the highest grade in Southern service, Lee received a kind letter from General Cooper, assuring him of the President's approval of his conduct of operations and telling him that Davis wished him to return to his former duties as soon as he felt he could leave western Virginia.26 It was something, at least, to know that the President understood his difficulties and retained undiminished confidence in him.
As a result of Lee's definite promotion, and as a reward of his patient diplomacy, Loring began to show himself more amenable. His jealousy probably remained, but he interposed no objection as Lee gradually took over the strategy of operations. This was a triumph in itself, unrecorded though it was in the damp annals of the little army in the mountains. "Things are better organized," Lee wrote in a brief period of sunshine. "I feel stronger, we are stronger. . . . Now to drive [the enemy] farther a battle must come off, and I am anxious to begin it. Circumstances beyond human control delay it, I know for good, but I hope the Great Ruler of the Universe will continue to aid and prosper us, and crown at last our feeble efforts with success."27
The prospect of a successful offensive was the fourth development of early September. Step by step, literally, a route had been found by which a courageous column could make its way from Valley Mountain along the western ridges of Cheat Mountain to a point •two miles west of its crest and directly on the road by which the enemy's force on the top of the mountain was being supplied. Before Lee could ascertain precisely how he might fit this discovery into a plan of attack, General Loring sent to him a civilian engineer, whose name unfortunately does not appear in the records, along with Colonel Albert Rust of the Third Arkansas Regiment. They had ridden over the mountains to Loring's headquarters from General H. R. Jackson's command and they had information that set every ear tingling: hearing that General Lee was most anxious to find a way of turning the Federal position on the top of Cheat Mountain, the engineer had set out from Greenbrier River and, after days of scrambling through thickets p561 and across ravines, had reached a point south of the summit, where the enemy had some trenches and a blockhouse. From this lofty ground, the Federal position on the mountain top could be taken. To prove it, the engineer had taken Colonel Rust with him on a second journey to the position he had discovered, and the two, having made what they said was a careful examination, had returned to Jackson without having aroused the enemy's suspicion.
Rust explained all this to Lee, and was emphatic in his assertion that a column could reach the point he had visited. The enemy's flank was exposed, he insisted. He had seen it for himself. A surprise attack from the height would give Lee Cheat Mountain and would open the way to a general advance against the enemy, who could not hope to find close at hand another such stronghold. All he asked, Rust confidently went on, was that if General Lee decided to attack, he would give him the privilege of leading the assault on the crest. With his usual amiability, and probably without stopping to weigh the matter, Lee assented to this request.28 It was to prove a most expensive "Yes."
Many considerations had to be weighed before determining to base a plan of attack on Rust's proposal. The ground was very difficult. Besides the steep abysses, the commanding heights and the absence of roads, there was on the face of Cheat Mountain a dense growth of almost impenetrable laurel that was certain to retard, if not to halt, the surprise attack Rust was so anxious to deliver.29 The strength of the enemy was unknown. Reynolds was assumed to have about 2000 men on Cheat Mountain, and his total force there and at Elkwater, which had now been found to be his principal position down Tygart's River,30 was believed to be at least equal to that of Loring and Jackson. The Confederates had 15,000 or more, but nearly half of these were sick.31 Reynolds's men were concentrated; those that Lee would have to employ were separated by the Cheat Mountain, and while they would have p562 to attack simultaneously, there was no means of establishing liaison between Jackson and Loring. The store of provisions was so scant that a long offensive could not be sustained. Still, there was the possibility of surprise both on the crest of Cheat Mountain and on the western side of the crest. An offensive seemed practicable if pains were taken to meet every contingency and to deliver the attack on the peak and from both sides of the mountain simultaneously. And as an alternative to the attempt, what was there except to remain helpless in the wet, wind-shaken tents on Valley Mountain?
Lee decided to fight the battle, his first battle, and he went about his preparations with an eye to every precaution that his judgment could suggest. By September 8 he had worked out the plan to the point where the order could be issued — tactfully in the name of General Loring.32 It was a good order, detailed, well-drafted, and very simple in form. Rust was secretly to take a column of about 2000 men to the position he had selected. At the same time, General S. R. Anderson was to move, unobserved by the enemy, along the route Lee had reconnoitred down the western ridge of Cheat Mountain until he reached the road that led to the summit from Tygart's Valley. He was then to occupy the western crest and was to block the road. Jackson, on the eastern side of the mountain, was to take position for a march up the Staunton-Parkersburg turnpike, when Rust had cleared it. General Daniel S. Donelson and Colonel Jesse S. Burks were to be ready to advance down either side of Tygart'sº River toward Elkwater, with Gilham in reserve. Rust was to give the signal by opening fire. When he did so, Jackson was to advance, Anderson was to prevent the dispatch of reinforcements to the stronghold on Cheat Mountain and, if need be, was to support Jackson's attack. Then Anderson was to move down Tygart's Valley. Donelson and Burks were to pursue; the cavalry was to cover the extreme left. Special instructions were given to keep one column from firing into another. Graphically, the plan of advance was to be approximately as indicated on the opposite page, which, however, does not attempt to give the exact routes of advance:
Preparatory to the offensive, Lee issued a supplementary order, p563 over his own signature. He had not yet learned the art of writing papers of this sort in the appealing form he later developed, and he was not disposed to emulate his old friend McClellan, whose bombastic imitations of Napoleon's addresses to his army had been ridiculed on every key of Southern derision. So Lee followed the traditional style, a style that had not changed greatly p564 since Thucydides had endorsed it as customary more than 2000 years before.
Headquarters of the Forces,
The forward movement announced to the Army of the Northwest in Special Orders, No. 28, from its headquarters, of this date, gives the general commanding the opportunity of exhorting the troops to keep steadily in view the great principles for which they contend and to manifest to the world their determination to maintain them. The eyes of the country are upon you. The safety of your homes and the lives of all you hold dear depend upon your courage and exertions. Let every man resolve to be victorious, and that the right of self-government, liberty, and peace shall find in him a defender. The progress of this army must be forward.
R. E. Lee,
The date set for the advance was September 12. Troop movements were to begin on the 9th. As the time approached the weather was quite cold,34 and the roads, though somewhat better, were still so muddy that wagons sank up to the axles.35 Gilham and Burks were brought up to the front36 and seven days' rations were issued the troops that were to operate on the mountains. At 9 o'clock the next morning, September 10, Anderson's brigade started, as it had the longest and most difficult journey to make. The men had no road. In single file they went through the fields and over steep ridges.37 "It was no uncommon thing," a surgeon wrote, "for a mule to slide •twenty feet down a slope, and I could see strong men sink exhausted trying to get up the mountain side."38 The march continued until 10 P.M., when the p565 column was halted and received the usual inhospitable reception of those grim mountains in the form of a hard rain.39 Meantime, Donelson had started during the afternoon, as his route was almost as long as Anderson's, though not so uniformly difficult. He was to go down the right bank of the river, then across successive ridges and was at length to descend down Becky Run to the Huntersville-Huttonsville road, in rear of the Federals, who were believed to be concentrated near Elkwater, •about six miles up the river from Huttonsville.40 Donelson soon was compelled to leave his artillery behind, and on some stages of this advance his men had to let themselves down steep declivities by holding to the branches of the trees.41 Back on Valley Mountain that day there came the disquieting news that the supplies of food at Staunton and Millborough were almost exhausted.42 This was a very serious matter, for it had been a giant's task to accumulate enough bread, meat, and forage for a few days' advance;43 but Lee was now confident that his plans would bring success,44 and he did not hesitate because he might encounter a shortage of provisions after the attack was launched.
Lee himself went forward on the 11th with Burks's and Gilham's troops, who were under the personal direction of Loring. At Conrad's Mill they had a skirmish with a retiring Federal outpost45 — the first action of any sort that Lee saw during the war. This firing was heard up Cheat Mountain by Anderson. His regiments had started early, but the terrain was so difficult that they had to scramble along until 9 P.M., part of the time at the double-quick, in order to be within striking distance the next morning.46
Donelson had an exciting day for green troops. During the forenoon his advance found fresh tracks along the ridges, showing plainly that a Federal column had recently passed down p566 the mountain. Soon Donelson approached the enemy's pickets, but he easily took the men at the first post, four in number, at the Matthews house, and then he bagged the main picket post, some fifty-six in number, at the Simmons house.47 Up Becky Run, after nightfall, he came upon another picket post, from which the Federals had fled. His approach, evidently, had been observed and reported, but so far as was known, the Federals were not aware of Anderson's movements. When his men bivouacked, Donelson reconnoitred and found himself close to still another outpost.48 The night was cold, but no fires were allowed, and none of the men was permitted to talk above a whisper.49 His camp was in timber, but on a heavy grade. "Here we tried to sleep," Doctor Buist later wrote, "but the rain poured so, and the torrents ran down the mountain such a flood of water that we would have drowned had we lain on the ground."
As Loring had advanced on the 11th, dawn of September 12 found Lee where he had every reason to hope for success. The men were hungry, for their rations had been spoiled by the rain. Their muskets were dripping. All were weary. But Anderson was where he could reach the Staunton-Parkersburg pike in a rush; Donelson occupied a position whence he could reinforce either Loring or Anderson. The troops that had marched down the valley under General Loring were close to the enemy. If Rust and Jackson were doing their part of the grim work on the eastern side of Cheat Mountain, that barrier might easily be seized and the enemy driven down Tygart's Valley.
The rain of the night had given place to a fog, and now this lifted, as if in augury. From the eminence where he had taken his stand, Lee could look down the valley and could glimpse the tents of the nearest Federal encampment, "a tempting sight," he termed it.50 The soldiers, all expectant, withdrew the charges from their wet muskets, and began to clean their arms and to reload with what dry powder could be found. It was a slow task, and it might be interrupted at any minute by the rolling echoes of Rust's triumphant fire.
The attack was to open when a volley from the crest of Cheat p567 Mountain announced that Rust was storming the block house and the trenches there. What was delaying the confident colonel? It was long past light, 8 o'clock in fact, and not a sound had come from the summit. Had Rust lost his way? Lee began to ask himself the question, and the minutes passed without an answer. Now a courier reported that Anderson's men were across the Cheat Mountain road and had cut communication between the summit and the Huntersville-Huttonsville road. The Federal pickets had been driven in, with the loss of a few men in Anderson's command. The movement would soon be known to every regiment in the valley: was Rust never going to give the signal?
Presently the expectant silence was shattered by the sound of guns. But it was not a volley. It was more like random firing. And it came from the wrong direction — not from Cheat Mountain, but from up Becky Run. What was afoot there? Lee spurred down the ridge to find out, and made for the main road, which lay on the other side of a wood in the valley. Just as he was about to emerge there was a clanging of sabres, the sharp staccato of horses' hoofs in full career, and a strong Federal cavalry outpost dashed by in the direction of the firing. Lee was within the enemy's position. Before he could decide what to do, there were shouts, bugle-calls, more firing, and the Federals came back the way they had come. They had run into Donelson's pickets and were carrying back the news of his advance. Not one man in the roaring column observed the little group of gray-clad horsemen in the woods. When the Federals had vanished down the muddy road, Lee went into Donelson's lines and learned, to his chagrin, that the firing had been done by impatient soldiers who hoped in this way to clean their guns more quickly.
It did not matter greatly, perhaps. The alarm had been given and the enemy was on the alert by now, for 10 o'clock had come and passed. Something manifestly had gone wrong with Rust. He had to be counted out of the action he was to open. What could be done to reshape the plan to this disheartening development? Nothing, manifestly, except to give battle with the troops west of the mountain, regardless of Rust and of Jackson. Quickly Lee undertook to put the brigades into position to do this. He p568 rode in person to Donelson and directed him to descend into the valley.51 Anderson he ordered to retire from his exposed position.52 There was much galloping about and vast confusion. Lee went from regiment to regiment, urging the colonels to get their men in hand. Donelson succeeded to the extent of forcing a small picket across a swollen run, where he captured a few more prisoners. Elsewhere, Lee encountered a curious and invincible passive resistance among the officers. The men were wet and too hungry, he was told, to undertake a battle. Loring could not get into position without crossing the river, and it was too high for fording. Morale was gone. Everywhere there was an excuse, nowhere any zeal for the conflict. By noon it was apparent that nothing could be accomplished. All the high expectations of the morning had evaporated. Lee's elaborate plan could not be executed in any essential. His first battle had ended in utter fiasco.53
Not one word did Lee receive from Rust or from Jackson the whole day to explain why the attack on the crest of Cheat Mountain had not been delivered. The morning of September 13 brought no report. As the men had now rested somewhat, Lee determined to see if he could not hold his position in Tygart's Valley and on the ridges and find a new way of reaching the rear of the Federals. It was futile, of course, to attempt anything further on Cheat Mountain, but west of the river, in the direction of Rich Mountain, a turning movement might be possible. Reconnoitring parties were sent out, and Gilham's brigade was put to work cutting a road along the ridge.54 As a part of the reconnaissance, Colonel Washington and Rooney Lee, with a few men, decided to explore the right branch of Elkwater Fork and duly set out. Late in the afternoon Rooney returned with the sad p569 news that they had suddenly encountered a Federal picket and had been fired upon. Colonel Washington had fallen at the first fusillade and his body had not been recovered.55 Lee's grief was instant and apparent, for he esteemed Washington both as a friend and as a gentleman.56 This was the only incident of consequence during the day, though it is possible that the Confederates in the valley heard some sounds of firing as the Federal garrison on the summit of Cheat Mountain made a demonstration against Jackson's outposts on the other side of the ridge.57 On the 14th Lee sent a flag of truce to the Federals, with a message requesting the body of Colonel Washington, if dead, or news of him, if captured. On the way the bearers of the flag were met by a party of Federals bringing the remains of the unfortunate officer.58 In deep personal grief Lee wrote the first of many letters he was doomed to address to those who lost friends known intimately to him in the army:
Camp on Valley River,
September 16, 1861.
My dear Miss Louisa,
With a heart filled with grief, I have to communicate the saddest tidings you have ever heard.
May "Our Father, Who is in Heaven" enable you to bear it, for in His inscrutable Providence, abounding in mercy and omnipotent in power, He has made you fatherless on earth. Your dear father, in reconnoitring the enemy's position, came into the range of fire of his pickets and was instantly killed. He fell in the cause to which he had devoted all his energies, and in which his noble heart was warmly enlisted. My intimate association with him for some months has more fully disclosed to me his great worth, than double so many years of ordinary intercourse would p570 have been sufficient to reveal. We have shared the same tent, and morning and evening has his earnest devotion to Almighty God elicited my grateful admiration. He is now safely in Heaven, I trust with her he so loved on earth. We ought not to wish him back.
May God, in His mercy, my dear child, sustain you, your sisters and brothers under this heavy affliction. My own grief is so great, I will not afflict you further with it.
Faithfully your friend,
R. E. Lee
Miss Louisa Washington.59
Before this letter was penned, Lee learned, through Loring, what had happened east of Cheat Mountain. The information came in the form of a curious and confused report from Rust. His column, it developed, had safely reached the designated position on the morning of September 12, unobserved by the enemy. At the head of his men, Rust in person had captured the first of several pickets who were silently disarmed. These prisoners were costly, however, and served their cause far better with their tongues than with their muskets. They imposed upon the gullible Rust most amazingly. They told him that there were 4000 to 5000 men on Cheat Mountain; that they were strongly fortified; that they knew of his approach; and that they had already telegraphed for reinforcements. After questioning the men, Rust concluded that their capture was nothing short of a providential warning against making the assault, and he looked out on the enemy's position with very different eyes from those he had hopefully turned on it when he had made his reconnaissance. He saw a "fort or blockhouse on the point or elbow of the road," he reported, "intrenchments on the south, and outside the intrenchments and all around up the road heavy and impassable abatis, if the enemy were behind them. . . . We got near enough to see the enemy in the trenches beyond the abatis. . . . I knew the enemy had four times my force; but for the abatis we would have made the assault. We could not get to them to make it."60 p571 That was all. Rust simply waited, without firing a gun, and then withdrew as he had come, after he had incautiously let the enemy become aware of his presence.61 Rust did not know, and it is likely he never learned that instead of "4000 to 5000 men," a force "four times [his] strength," as he reported, the troops on the crest had numbered only 300.62 Not only so, but their attention had been diverted, at the time Rust was watching them, by the news that the road leading from Elkwater had been cut by Anderson.63
At the very time this disheartening news reached him, it became apparent to Lee that nothing could be accomplished on the west side of Tygart's Valley. The enemy was too much on the alert; the terrain was too tangled. Supplies were exhausted, and the line of communications via Huntersville, Valley Mountain, and the Huttonsville road was too long and difficult. There was nothing for Lee to do except to order the columns back to Valley Mountain, with absolutely no positive result for all his planning.64 "Well," said one indignant Tennessean, "at the end of seven days' marching and starvation, we got back to Valley Mountain, the whole affair having proved a failure — in the opinion of our brigade, chiefly from the old fogyism and want of pluck among the Virginians. Never were men more sick of Virginia and Virginians than we are."65
Lee's disappointment was profound. Despite a determination not to be influenced one way or another, by an uninformed press, his chagrin must have been sharpened by the comments of the p572 newspapers. When news had first come that Rosecrans had detached troops from in front of Lee and was marching on Floyd, there had been some mild murmurings and some complaints, not directed against Lee, over what the editors regarded as a poor disposition of the Confederate troops on the two possible lines of advance.66 These misgivings were expressed along with hopes of a great victory.67 Then, after the first disconcerting news had been received, and the difficulties that had been encountered by Lee had been explained,68 there came absurd rumors of a great triumph, culminating in the capture of General Reynolds.69 The Richmond Enquirer, the most powerful paper in the Confederate capital, was so confident of the outcome that it indited a laudatory editorial which concluded with the assertion that if Lee should force the enemy "to surrender without a blow, it will stand a monument to his fame of which any professor of the military art, however gifted or fortunate, might well be proud."70 Meantime, in the gossip over a successor to L. Pope Walker, who had resigned as Secretary of War, Lee's name was put forward by admirers.71 It was bad enough to have failed; it was worse to have failure presented as victory and to be lauded for it.
Lee attributed the outcome to the rain and to the will of God. He had long believed in a daily Providence directing the acts of man for man's own good, and now that he saw great designs balanced on a beam that a featherweight of unforeseen circumstances might tip, he recognized the hand of the Almighty in every happening and found solace in the belief that God had ordered best. His fullest statement regarding the abortive action was given in a letter to Governor Letcher, who had addressed him in terms of high confidence not long before the movement against Cheat Mountain began. Lee's reply explained his hopes and, at the same time, exhibited the temper in which he was to accept throughout the war the reverses that came to him. It is p573 the first of a score of singular letters that Lee was to write, in varying conditions, during and after the war, to a number of individuals who made inquiries he felt constrained to answer. All these letters are penned in the same spirit, characteristic of Lee the soldier. They are candid and yet reserved; they explain but they do not clarify. Sometimes they are so difficult to interpret that one gets the impression that Lee was deliberately reticent to the point of leaving the essential facts obscured. More than once, where he makes it plain that he is not himself responsible for failure, he consistently refuses to put the blame on those who acted under his orders. For these reasons his letter to Governor Letcher deserves to be quoted in full:
Valley Mountain, September 17, 1861.
My dear Governor: I received your very kind note of the 5th instant, just as I was about to accompany General Loring's command on an expedition to the enemy's works in front, or I would have before thanked you for the interest you take in my welfare, and your flattering expressions of my ability. Indeed, you overrate me much, and I feel humbled when I weigh myself by your standard. I am, however, very grateful for your confidence, and I can answer for my sincerity in the earnest endeavour I make to advance the cause I have so much at heart, though conscious of the slow progress I make. I was very sanguine of taking the enemy's works on last Thursday morning. I had considered the subject well. With great effort the troops intended for the surprise had reached their destination, having traversed •twenty miles of steep, rugged mountain paths; and the last day through a terrible storm, which lasted all night, and in which they had to stand drenched to the skin in cold rain. Still, their spirits were good. When morning broke, I could see the enemy's tents on Valley River, at the point on the Huttonsville road just below me. It was a tempting sight. We waited for the attack on Cheat Mountain, which was to be the signal. Till 10 A.M., the men were cleaning their unserviceable arms. But the signal did not come. All chance for a surprise was gone. The provisions of the men had been destroyed the previous day by the storm. They had nothing to eat that morning, could not hold out another day, p574 and were obliged to be withdrawn. The party sent to Cheat Mountain to take that in rear had also to be withdrawn. The attack to come off from the east side failed from the difficulties in the way; the opportunity was lost, and our plan discovered. It is a grievous disappointment to me, I assure you. But for the rain-storm, I have no doubt it would have succeeded. This, Governor, is for your own eye. Please do not speak of it; we must try again. Our greatest loss is the death of my dear friend, Colonel Washington. . . . Out loss was small besides what I have mentioned. Our greatest difficulty is the roads. It has been raining in these mountains for about six weeks. It is impossible to get along. It is that which has paralyzed all our efforts. With sincere thanks for your good wishes, I am very truly yours,
R. E. Lee
His Excellency, Governor John Letcher.72
"We must try again," he said, but what was left to try? The enemy could not advance. From that fact Lee took such comfort as he might, philosophically affirming that the offensive had left affairs much as they had been, with the routes to the railroad closed.73 But if the enemy could not advance, neither could Lee. There were no more byways to be followed to the enemy's rear. Every trail was guarded. It was useless to continue to keep on that front more troops than were required to hold the passes. Especially was it wasteful to camp a large force there when Rosecrans was advancing up the valley of the Kanawha against Generals Wise and Floyd, with troops withdrawn from the northern sector. So, three days after he wrote Governor Letcher, Lee struck his tent on Valley Mountain of unhappy memory, ordered Loring to follow him with most of his forces, and started for the headwaters of the Kanawha.
His first campaign had ended ingloriously. He had not been able to hold a foot of ground in advance of the positions occupied by the troops when he arrived. Everything had been against him, to be sure — weather, sickness, and circumstance. It is very doubtful whether any soldier could have succeeded in such weather.74 p575 The larger opportunities had been lost before he came. Cheat Mountain had been occupied. The Federals in front of Valley Mountain were being strengthened by the time he reached that position. Loring had been a most difficult person with whom to deal. Rust's conduct on the 12th had been inexcusable.
When all these considerations are given their full weight, Lee's own performance in at least four respects must be adjudged disappointing. The first, already discussed in sufficient detail, was his failure to push Loring forward from Huntersville when, on August 3, he reached that village. The weakness that led Lee to wait on Loring was more than a temporary obstacle to success. It was a threat to his future as a soldier.
Lee's conduct of his first campaign is to be criticised, in the second place, because he consented to let Rust lead the attack against a position that no trained soldier had reconnoitred. Rust had superb troops — they were to prove that in a desperate hour at Sharpsburg — and Rust himself was no coward. He was a thoroughly devoted man, filled with state pride and Southern zeal, but he was a politician, a former member of Congress, with no military experience whatever before 1861. Unacquainted with the whole art of reconnaissance, his report of the situation on Cheat summit should not have gone unchecked. He deserved commendation for having followed the nameless engineer to the crest, but it was a most serious mistake to reward him by entrusting to him the most delicately difficult part of the whole operation. The task called for a trained soldier, not for an unskilled volunteer who, until that day, had never been in action. Yet because Rust was confident the redoubt could be carried, and because he asked the honor of leading the attack, Lee had consented. If he did not weigh the personal factor, he was blamable; if his amiability overrode his judgment, he was no less censurable.
The third question that must be asked regarding Lee's conduct p576 of his first campaign is whether he should have overridden the objections of the officers who told him during the forenoon of the 12th that their men were in no condition to deliver an attack after Rust failed to surprise the garrison on the mountain top. This may or may not be a valid ground of criticism. Certain it is that in 1863 or in 1864 Lee's officers would not have dared to raise such an objection, and he would not have heeded them if they had. In 1861 it may have been different. The evidence concerning what actually happened is so scanty that no final judgment can be based on it.
Lee's plan for the unfought battle was very elaborate. Five columns were to operate separately and were to attack in specified order on a given signal. Thanks to the extraordinary efforts Lee made with the four small brigades west of the mountains, they were in position to attack on time. So was H. R. Jackson, who had a very short distance to go. Only Rust's change of mind prevented the execution of the plan as Lee had drawn it up. But if the plan had not called for Rust to give the signal, it might have involved some other move equally apt to be upset by unforeseen happenings. In short, the plan of action suggested that Lee was disposed to be overelaborate in his strategy — to attempt too much with the tools he had. Despite hourly warnings and daily disillusionment, he had not yet learned the difference between 1847 and 1861, the difference between the standard of performance of a skilled and of an unskilled staff.
The contemporary criticism of the campaign was more general. It was that Lee was too much of a theorist and that he had been overcautious. The press that had praised him now turned upon him. The Richmond Examiner, which was the harshest critic of the Davis administration, reported that Lee had forwarded to the War Department a plan for the action of September 12, adorned with drawings and "said by military men to have been one of the most perfect pieces of strategy in the entire campaign. But," the paper added with a shade of satire, "as [the plan] has been disappointed, it will be useless to canvass its merits."75 The Richmond Dispatch dwelt on Lee's "too great circumspection" and p577 warned him that 'in mountain warfare, the learning of the books and of the strategists is of little value." It went on: "In a country where it is impossible to find enough level land to muster a company of militia, there is very little scope for ingeniously studied military evolutions or consummately arranged plans of campaign on paper."76
But Lee had learned much. His excessive consideration for the feelings of others he was not speedily to overcome. Until after the battle of Frayser's Farm he was to employ a strategy much too magnificent. Some of his other mistakes he was never again to repeat. On the positive side, this campaign and the one that was to follow in the valley of the Kanawha disclosed in his dealings with the man in the ranks the aptitude and the understanding that later made it possible for him to build the superb morale of the Army of Northern Virginia.
Numerous instances of this occurred on the rain-wrapped mountains. Dressed simply in an improvised uniform, with a fatigue cap and jacket,77 he was constantly among the men. Soon he grew a beard, after the military fashion of the time, and as this was gray, it gave him a paternal not to say a patriarchal look in the eyes of his youthful troops.78 His manner comported with his appearance. Once when a soldier was charged with sleeping on sentry post and pleaded that he had merely sat down and had not heard the approach of the officer because the softness of the ground had deadened the sound of his footsteps, it was Lee who urged leniency.79 When he saw men drinking from a spring where the horses were watered, he insisted that they use another spring near his quarters.80 As he was making a reconnaissance near a picket post, and found the soldiers crowding about him curiously, he turned mildly on the most inquisitive of them.
"What regiment do you belong to?" he asked the man.
p578 "First Tennessee, Maury Grays," said the soldier, Walter Akin by name.
"Are you well-drilled?"
"Yes, indeed," the proud private answered.
"Take the position of a soldier."
Akin did so. "Forward, march," said Lee. . . . "By the right flank, march." When Akin's solitary movements headed him for his camp, Lee added: "Double-quick, march." Akin understood; so did his comrades. Lee was troubled no more that day.81
Perhaps the most amusing episode of all came on a later reconnaissance. Lee was busy with his field glasses, studying a distant position, when a soldier of the 16h North Carolina Infantry came up to him. Lee made it a rule from the first, at all times and in any circumstances, to hear the requests and complaints of soldiers who sought him out, and he obligingly dropped his glasses and spoke to the man: what did he desire?
Unabashed, the soldier asked if the General could let him have a chew of tobacco, as his supply was out. Lee treated the request as if were one properly to be made by a lover of the quid, and as he never used or carried tobacco, he referred the Carolinian to a staff officer, who promptly obliged him.82
These were small incidents, but they created in the minds of the men a feeling that General Lee understood them, sympathized with them, and was mindful of their wants. Lee was prompted, of course, by his simple interest in his fellow-men, and as he rode unhappily away from Valley Mountain, where some of his officers so signally had failed him, he did not realize that he was creating among the men in the ranks a spirit that in many a bitter hour was to redeem the mistakes of other officers.
1 Taylor's General Lee, 30; Lee to Mrs. Lee, Aug. 9, 1861; R. E. Lee, Jr., 39.
2 Taylor's Four Years, 17‑18; E. R. Montfort: From Grafton to McDowell, 8.
3 Long, 121.
4 Taylor's Four Years, 17.
5 Lee to Mrs. Lee, Sept. 17, 1861; R. E. Lee, Jr., 46.
8 Lee to Mrs. Lee, Aug. 9, 1861; R. E. Lee, Jr., 40. The enemy was not so confident as Lee was led to believe. McClellan had been exhorting Rosecrans not to wait for the Confederates to concentrate against him (O. R., 5, 563, 564); John S. Carlisle, a leading Unionist politician of western Virginia, was predicting that the Federals would be whipped within ten days unless they were reinforced (O. R., 5, 561); The Cincinnati Commercial credited Lee with 40,000 to 50,000 men (quoted in Richmond Dispatch, Aug. 20, 1861, p3, col. 1).
10 Taylor's Four Years, 17.
11 Drake's Hatton, 373, 375.
12 Lee to Mrs. Lee, Aug. 29, 1861; R. E. Lee, Jr., 42.
17 Richmond Dispatch, Aug. 10, 1861, p3, col. 1.
18 Richmond Examiner, Aug. 19, 1861, p3, cols. 2‑3; ibid., Aug. 20, 1861, p3, col. 3.
19 Memphis Appeal, Aug. 25, 1861.
20 Richmond Dispatch, Aug. 26, 1861, p3, col. 3.
21 Nashville Banner, quoted in Richmond Examiner, Aug. 30, 1861, p2, col. 5.
22 Quoted in Richmond Examiner, Sept. 4, 1861, p2, col. 5.
23 Richmond Dispatch, Sept. 4, 1861, p3, col. 1; ibid., Sept. 10, p3, col. 1; ibid., Sept. 12, p3, col. 1; Richmond Examiner, Sept. 6, 1861, p2, col. 6; ibid., Sept. 10, p2, col. 2.
24 Lee to Mrs. Lee, Sept. 1, 1861; R. E. Lee, Jr., 43.
25 M. J. Wright: General Officers of the Confederate Army, 9‑10; 20 S. H. S. P., 95. For the rediscovery of the original of Lee's commission as a general, see 32 Confederate Veteran, 296‑97.
27 Letter of Sept. 3, 1861; Jones, L. and L., 147.
28 Long, 122; Taylor's Four Years, 23; Fitz Lee, 119.
29 Taylor's Four Years, 20.
30 Reynolds's headquarters were on the farm of Alexander Stalnaker, now owned by A. Z. Hamilton, to whom the writer is much indebted for clearing up the confusion on the maps as to the exact location of Elkwater.
31 The reports for these early months of the war contain no full returns of the troops in western Virginia. Loring had nineteen regiments, large and small, besides his cavalry and artillery. Cf. O. R., 51, part 2, pp283‑84.
34 As early as Aug. 29, 1861, Lee had written his wife, "I have on all my winter clothes and am writing in my overcoat" (R. E. Lee, Jr., 42).
36 John H. Worsham: One of Jackson's Foot Cavalry (cited hereafter as Worsham), 44; Charles E. Taylor to his brother, Sept. 14, 1861; Wake Forest Student, March, 1916 (cited hereafter as C. E. Taylor), 390.
37 Dr. Quintard, 24.
38 Doctor J. R. Buist to his uncle, National Intelligencer, Nov. 22, 1861, p2, col. 3. This, the fullest account of Anderson's march, is cited hereafter as Buist and has a sombre (p565)interest in that it was given in a letter found on the dead body of the addressee when the Federals occupied Fort Walker, at the entrance to Port Royal Sound, S. C.
39 Dr. Quintard, 24.
41 T. A. Head: Campaigns and Battles of the Sixteenth Regiment, Tennessee Volunteers (cited hereafter as Head), 32.
44 Lee to Mrs. Lee, Sept. 17, 1861; R. E. Lee, Jr., 45.
45 Worsham, 44.
46 Dr. Quintard, 24 ff.
47 Head, 32 ff.; Nashville Union and American, Dec. 5, 1861.
48 Head, 23 ff.
49 Dr. Quintard, 24 ff.
51 Head, loc. cit.
52 Buist, loc. cit.
53 No official reports of this action west of the mountain were written by Confederates. The only accounts of eye-witnesses are those already cited; Long, 123‑24; Taylor's Four Years, 28‑29; Lee's own in his letter of Sept. 17, to his wife, R. E. Lee, Jr., 45; and M. B. Toney's in his Privations of a Private, 22‑24. Jefferson Davis (17 S. H. S. P., 367 and 1 Davis, 435‑436) recorded his memories of Lee's explanation, but his account is manifestly incorrect in several particulars. Davis to W. H. Taylor, Jan. 31, 1878, Taylor MSS., shows that Mr. Davis was hazy concerning the details. For Lee's account of the action, in his letter to Governor Letcher, see infra, p573. Some items of interest will be found in Reynolds's report, O. R., 5, 185, but this is, on the whole, a singularly vague document.
54 C. E. Taylor, loc. cit.
55 National Intelligencer, Oct. 1, 1861, p2, col. 4, citing The Cincinnati Commercial, which quoted a letter from Elkwater, dated Sept. 16.
56 Dr. Quintard, 30.
58 National Intelligencer, Oct. 1, 1861, p2, col. 4. The text of the correspondence is in 34 Confederate Veteran, 169. This definitely fixes Sept. 13 as the date of Colonel Washington's death. Most of the accounts give Sept. 12. For Lee's comments on Washington, see his letter of Sept. 17, 1861, to Mrs. Lee; R. E. Lee, Jr., 45. In the Taylor MSS. is a letter from Joseph Bryan of Richmond, April 27, 1903, giving an account of the killing of Colonel Washington as related to him by Adam Bell, one of Washington's escort on the reconnaissance. No papers of Colonel Washington, relating to this campaign, are in the hands of his descendants.
59 Southern Churchman, March 14, 1925.
60 O. R., 5, 191; James H. Wood: The War, 36‑38. The Richmond Dispatch of Sept. 18, 1861, p3, cols. 1‑2, printed the appended description of the Federal works. As there is no account containing approximately so much detail, it is impossible to say how (p571)authentic this may be. It reads as follows: "[The defense] is built on the summit of Cheat Mountain . . . just where the road crosses upon a hill which has no level ground on its top, but suddenly descends on both sides. The forest along the road at this point . . . consists of the white pine, which are tall and stand close together, while the undergrowth is almost wholly mountain laurel, so dense and interlocked as to be almost impenetrable. Here the enemy cleared •several acres on each side of the road. On the outer boundary they placed the tall pines they had cut down, partially trimmed and skinned, with their tops outward; presenting to any one approaching a mass of sharp points raised to a considerable height, and strongly interlocked. Inside this they built a wall of logs and cut a deep ditch. In the road they built up, in line with the fortifications, breastworks of great strength and mounted them with pivot guns, while in the centre they erected a blockhouse pierced and armed also with cannon. On the east side from the fort to the Cheat River, •one mile and a half distant, they cleared the road for some distance on both sides, and this can be all the way swept by the cannon. The same is the case on the road westwardly for some distance."
65 Buist, loc. cit.
66 Richmond Examiner, Sept. 14, 1861, p2, col. 2; Richmond Dispatch, Sept. 17, 1861, p2, col. 1.
67 Richmond Examiner, Sept. 14, 1861, p2, col. 6; Richmond Dispatch, Sept. 16, 1861, p3, col. 1.
68 Richmond Dispatch, Sept. 17, 1861, p3, col. 1; ibid., Sept. 18, p3, cols. 1‑2.
69 Richmond Dispatch, Sept. 19, 1861, p3, col. 1; Richmond Examiner, Sept. 19, 1861, p2, col. 5.
70 Quoted in Richmond Dispatch, Sept. 20, 1861, p2, col. 4.
71 Richmond Dispatch, Sept. 17, 1861, p2, col. 2.
72 R. E. Lee, Jr., 46‑47.
73 Lee to Mrs. Lee, Sept. 17, 1861; R. E. Lee, Jr., 45.
74 Cf. Worsham, 44‑45. "The failure here was owing more to mud than anything else. In all my experience of the war I never saw as much mud. It seemed to rain every (p575)day and it got to be a saying in our company that you must not halloo loud, for if you should, we would immediately have a hard shower, and when some of the men on their return from picket had to shoot their guns off to get the load out, it brought on a regular flood. Granville Gray always said it rained thirty-two days in August. I was told by wagoners that it was hard for them to haul from Millboro, a distance of •sixty miles, any more than it took to feed their teams back and forth. I saw dead mules lying in the road, with nothing but their ears showing above the mud."
75 Richmond Examiner, Sept. 24, 1861, p2, col. 3. The records show no such paper-plan as The Examiner describes.
76 Richmond Dispatch, Sept. 26, 1861, p2, col. 1.
77 M. B. Toney: Privations of a Private, 20.
78 It is impossible to say precisely when he stopped shaving, but he had a beard by October 20, for he quoted some remarks Robert made about it when he saw his son as he passed through Charlottesville that day (letter to Mildred Lee, Nov. 15, 1861; R. E. Lee, Jr., 54‑55). After his return to Richmond, when Miss Mary Pegram complained of his changed appearance, Lee laughingly protested: "Why, you would not have a soldier in the field not to look rough, would you? There is little time there for shaving and personal adornment" (Mrs. Mary Pegram Anderson in Richmond Times-Dispatch, Jan. 20, 1907).
79 Worsham, 43.
80 Toney, op. cit., 21.
81 14 Confederate Veteran, 521.
82 Walter Clark, editor: History of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina in the Great War, 1861‑65, cited hereafter as N. C. Regts., 1, 753.
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