With northwestern Virginia north of the Tygart River Valley firmly under the control of the Union army, the Confederate theater of operations shifted south to the Kanawha River Valley.
By July of 1861, two Confederate columns had arrived in the region, four thousand men under the command of General Henry A. Wise and twelve hundred led by Brigadier General John B. Floyd. Both Wise and Floyd were former governors of Virginia and longstanding political enemies. The question for the Confederacy was whether their mutual animosity would end at the statehouse; would they be able to cooperate on the battlefield.
McClellan, learning of the Confederate presence, dispatched an expedition of three thousand men under the command of General Jacob Cox to the confluence of the Ohio and Kanawha Rivers. His orders were to proceed east along the river and occupy the lower end of the Kanawha Valley. In the meantime, Wise had encamped on Tyler mountain, west of Charleston. On July 11, Cox began moving west toward Wise's position.
Several miles west of Wise's main encampment, his left flank was protected by a detachment under Captain George S. Patton who established defensive lines behind Scary Creek in Putnam County. When advanced federal units under Colonel John W. Lowe arrived at the location, they engaged the enemy and attempted to cross a bridge near the mouth of the Creek. Concentrated Confederate fire drove them back, and Lowe retreated west. Patton was wounded during the fight, and Captain Albert G. Jenkins assumed command. Amidst the confusion of the battle, Jenkins mistakenly concluded that Lowe was being reinforced and began his own withdrawal east toward Wise's encampment on Tyler Mountain.
Cox continued advancing along the Kanawha River and by July 24 had managed to infiltrate behind Wise's position. Before he could be encircled, Wise retreated east to Charleston.
By this time, McClellan had left Virginia for Washington, and his replacement General William S. Rosecrans began marching south toward the Kanawha Valley. To avoid being caught between two pincer movements, Wise abandoned Charleston the next day and headed east into the mountains where he hoped to be resupplied at Confederate bases in Fayette and Greenbrier Counties. After Wise's departure, the Kanawha Valley was uncontested; it fell completely under Union control.
Cox entered Charleston on July 25 and continued pursuing Wise slowly; he had been given orders by Rosecrans to avoid a direct assault if possible. With Wise gone from the field, Cox proceeded east along the Kanawha to Gauley Bridge where he established his main camp on the south bank and fortified the position.
Toward the end of August, Wise returned to the Kanawha Valley and prepared to advance on Cox at the Gauley Bridge. He had been reinforced by two thousand militia and now led an army of sixty-six hundred men. If Wise and John Floyd, positioned nearby on the northeast, had been able to cooperate, their combined forces would have totaled nearly eight thousand men, but the two arch enemies resumed their venomous bickering and refused to work together; indeed, they even declined to share a common camp.
Rosecrans had by now entered Clarksburg determined to sweep the Kanawha Valley free of Confederate forces. To the south, John Floyd was equally determined to reconquer the region for the Confederacy. Rosecrans sent an advanced detachment, the Seventh Ohio Regiment under Colonel Erastus Tyler, toward the Gauley River where they encamped at Kessler's Cross Lanes, a small town just beyond the northern bank.
On August, 26, Floyd approached from the south and stormed across the River to fall upon the unsuspecting Union position. It was a complete route. Tyler and his beaten soldiers hastily retreated north towards Clarksburg. After the engagement, Floyd moved south a short distance back to the river and prepared a defensive position at Carnifex Ferry in Nicolas County .
With Floyd encamped at Carnifex Ferry to his east and unwilling to join forces, Wise decided to proceed against Cox at the Gauley Bridge with the resources available, his own original column and the militia reinforcements. He was convinced that his numerically superior force would overwhelm the undermanned Cox who had less than half as many men.
Wise divided his command. The militia would cross the Gauley River and attack along the northern bank. He would approach from the south along the James River Turnpike, turn west at the river and attack the southern end of the bridge. On September 3, he began his assault. Everything went according to plan, but the plan itself was faulty. Cox launched an aggressive attack from the east and drove Wise back toward the Turnpike. The militia, in position on the wrong side of the river, were unable to cross or deliver effective fire on the Union camp. When Wise retreated east, they followed.
Wise was beaten, but Floyd was still active in the field. At Carnifex Ferry, he built fortifications on Henry Patterson's farm on the rim of the Gauley River Canyon; it was apparently a strong position, but the Union army was coming.
Rosecrans marched south from Clarksburg with three brigades and joined forces with Tyler who was retreating north from Kessler's Cross Lanes. On the afternoon of September 10, the Union army arrived before the Confederate positions at Carnifex Ferry and launched an attack on Floyd's camp. The two opposing forces fought all day, but Rosecrans's superior artillery determined the outcome. Under cover of darkness, the Confederates withdrew across the Ferry to the south bank of the Gauley River. They retreated along the Meadow River to Meadow Bluff near Lewisburg. The South desperately needed a savior.
The men were starting to leave. That was expected. Of the six hundred workers employed at Montague Mine No. 2, at least two thirds of the men came from southern states that had seceded or northwestern counties sympathetic to the Confederate cause. They were the ones who heard the urgent calls to return home and defend their families and native land. It was their states and counties that would bear the blunt of a Union invasion. Frank expected to lose most of them before the year was out.
The other men, miners from northern states or unionist counties, would probably do their utmost to avoid military service; it was their reluctance to take part in a war not of their making or presenting any threat to their homes that would allow Frank to keep the mine open.
Gene Platt, the current Director of Summit Operations, was the first to leave. He came from Tennessee, near Knoxville.
"You know, Henry, if only Lincoln hadn't issued that damn call for volunteers to forcibly bring the south under heel, the northern tier of southern states, Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee never would have joined the others. And without Virginia, there wouldn't be any war."
"Not much of a war anyway, Frank, but Lincoln had no choice once Beauregard opened fire on Sumter"
"And so men like Gene Platt have even less choice."
Two weeks after Platt left, Frank was woken by Rebecca. It was Saturday morning, and a rare opportunity for Frank to sleep a little later than usual.
"Frank, honey. Wake up. There's someone downstairs."
"Can't Hopkins take care of it?"
"Hopkins isn't working this weekend."
Frank stumbled out of bed, struggled into his clothes, and poured water into a wash basin. He reached for his razor, still groggy from deep sleep. Shaving would have to wait until he finished with their visitors.
"I think it's men from the mine," Rebecca said, as Frank left the room.
They were waiting with their horses just beyond the front picket fence: Maurice and Isador Cheek, Steve Reynolds, and Hershel Wade.
"Morning, Mr. Montague," Reynolds said. The others nodded and murmured.
"Hello, Steve. Where are you boys bound to this early on a weekend morning."
"We're heading home, Mr. Montague," Isador said. "We wanted to wait until we wrapped up a few loose ends out at the mine. But that's all taken care of now."
"We do wish you would stay."
Frank looked back toward the house. Rebecca was standing on the front porch, a thick shawl wrapped around her shoulders.
"We wish we could stay, too, Ma'am," Maurice said, "but we have a little business to tend to, and then we'll be back. All of us. Best job we ever had."
"Isador, how am I going to run the mine without you here?" Frank asked.
"Oh, you'll do fine, Mr. Montague. Just like you did before the five of us showed up. Besides, Mr. Healey and Mr. Bevens are here. And Mr. Wiggins, he won't be going anywhere, I suspect. The new man, Jack Homestead, will make a fine foreman."
The five of us, Frank thought, Dick Saunders the brother who died in the cave-in a few years back.
Frank turned to Wade. "Hershel, did you manage to say goodbye to Henry Bevens. I know how highly he thinks of you. Well, we all do, really."
"Yes, sir, Mr. Montague. We stopped by his house in Montague and Mr. Healey's place as well before heading over here. They tried to talk us out of leaving, too. You're our last stop."
Frank did not know what else to say. He looked at each of their faces, the three brothers and their cousin Steven. He thought about the years they had spent together, digging coal, watching a brother die, the birth of his children. He was afraid that if he spoke again, his voice would break.
"I guess we should say goodbye and good luck, then," he said, stepping forward to shake their extended hands.
He turned to look at Rebecca. She stood quietly, resting her fingers against her lips, wiping away a tear. When he turned back, the four of them had mounted and were riding abreast down the river road. He stood until they disappeared from sight and wondered if he would see any of them again.
As the first year of war drew to a close, the Confederate army had triumphed in northern Virginia but courted disaster in the northwest. Wise and Floyd had been driven back into Greenbrier County, and still they argued, even though the region had been lost, partly as a result of their quarrels on the field. Floyd, in fact, blamed Wise for everything, including his defeat at Carnifex Ferry. The mountainous region was occupied and controlled by the Union army from the panhandle to the Kentucky border. Times were desperate, and desperate times, as they say, call for desperate measures.
Following the battle at First Manassas on July 7, 1861, a new Confederate commander was sent to northwestern Virginia to rally the scattered, dispirited troops and try to salvage some advantage from the debacle that had occurred. That commander was General Robert E. Lee, and if anyone could repair the irreparable damage that had been inflicted on Southern prospects, it was he.
Lee left Richmond on horseback and arrived in Staunton in the Shenandoah Valley to assume overall command of Confederate forces in the northwest. The town was the eastern terminus of the vital Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike, the uninterrupted avenue that led from the Ohio River through the Alleghenies into the Shenandoah. It was the gateway into middle Virginia, and the Union army under Rosecrans was expected to advance in that direction from Charleston and threaten the rest of the state.
The turnpike passed through the Alleghenies below Cheat Mountain, a rugged peak that dominated Randolph County. In July, while McClellan was still in command in the northwest, he ordered that a stronghold, Fort Milroy, be erected on its summit to protect the road from Confederate incursions from eastern Virginia. If Lee could seize the fort, he could launch an offensive into the northwest and defend the great middle of the state at the same time.
Colonel Nathan Kimball was in command of Fort Milroy with a garrison of eighteen hundred men. General Joseph J. Reynolds held a fortified position in nearby Elk Water on the Tygart Valley River. That was the federal order of battle, and Lee devised an ambitious plan to attack both of them simultaneously before they could prepare a coordinated defense.
He divided his forces into two columns, each containing three brigades. Brigadier General William W. Loring would lead three brigades up Cheat Mountain while he moved against Reynolds in Elk Water with the other three. A simultaneous surprise attack on both positions would catch the Union troops off guard and carry the day. Confederate fortunes in the northwest would be revived.
It was a sound plan, perhaps a brilliant plan, but it had one glaring weakness. It would require close coordination between the various commanders, and Lee's command structure was in shambles. Wise and Floyd were still squabbling, and Loring could be depended upon to disagree with everything that Lee proposed. But there were no alternatives, Lee would have to make the best of a bad situation, although in truth, he was hardly blameless for the outcome.
On September 12, Lee began his attack. Loring led forty-five hundred men divided evenly into three brigades along the rugged trials leading to the summit of Cheat Mountain while Lee led an equal number, also divided into three brigades, against the federal positions at Elk Water. As the three brigades wound their way up the steep, forested mountainside, they encountered rain, fog, and dense foliage. The going was slow and difficult, and vision was severely hampered by the inclement weather. It soon became abundantly clear that communication between the brigades was difficult and coordination virtually impossible.
Federal prisoners captured high on the mountain gave the Confederates misleading information about the strength of the units defending the summit. About three hundred Union soldiers were stationed outside the fort ramparts in a picket line to launch probing attacks against approaching enemy forces. When the Confederates arrived, the Union troops opened fire and began such a fierce, determined assault that two of the brigade commanders, Colonel Albert Rust and Brigadier General Samuel R. Anderson, became convinced that the prisoners had been truthful; they were facing a numerically superior force on the summit. In fact, they had not yet reached the fortress walls nor made contact with any of its defenders. Rust and Anderson concluded that continuing an attack against such formidable odds was futile, and the three Confederate brigades began withdrawing down the mountain.
While Loring was descending from the fiasco on Cheat Mountain, Lee was advancing on Reynolds at Elk Water and experiencing the same lack of success. Though the Confederates were superior in numbers, the Union troops could not be dislodged. When a member of his staff, Colonel John A. Washington, was killed while on reconnaissance of the Union right flank, Lee decided to abort both attacks.
Reynolds was astonished that the Confederates would launch such a cautious attack against such inferior forces. He immediately sent two regiments to relieve the defenders on Cheat Mountain, an unnecessary mission since they had never been engaged.
Lee maneuvered around the area for another two days, then withdrew to Valley Mountain on September 17. Reynolds, in response to the abortive operation, planned his own attack on Confederate positions along the Greenbrier River. Lee was not done yet; he would get one more chance in northwestern Virginia.
In October, Lee led forces under William Loring and John Floyd against the federal positions on Sewell Mountain. It was another listless operation that was brought to a halt because of poor communications between the commanders and a general lack of supplies. Lee was humiliated and recalled to Richmond on October 30, 1861.
Unquestionably, the campaign around Cheat Mountain in September and October of 1861 marked a low point in Robert E. Lee's military reputation. At that point, it would have been difficult to predict the future success he soon enjoyed. He was thrust into an unfortunate predicament when he assumed command in northwestern Virginia. He inherited a command staff of incompetent leaders who were so divisive to one another that they would not even share the same tent. On the other hand, if Lee had been bolder, the outcome might have been different. Who can say?
Northwest Virginia would know war for the next four years. There would be wide spread guerilla warfare, raids, and small invasions; substantial damages to property would be inflicted on sympathizers of one side or another across the region. But Lee's campaign against Cheat Mountain was the last large scale Confederate effort to regain control of the region.
One evening toward the end of September, Frank had an unexpected visitor.
Hopkins escorted Henry Bevens into his library. He was wearing his great coat and his favorite hat. Frank rose from his reading and extended his greeting. He noticed a heavy valise standing in the front foyer.
"Good evening, Henry. Is that your bag? Thinking about taking a little trip?"
"Hello, Frank. Yes, I am, actually. I came to say goodbye. I should have told you before, but I hate long farewells. Quick and easy is best, I say."
"Where the hell are you going at this time of night? You sound as though you were leaving for good. What's going on, Henry?"
"I'm going to Ohio, Columbus, in fact. I want to say goodbye to my mother. Then I'm leaving for the army, you see. And no, it's not for good. You can't get rid of me that easily. I expect to be back just as soon as this mess is over."
"I can't believe that you're serious. Why would you do this? I know how you feel about this insane war. Please, Henry, tell me this is just a joke."
"I'm afraid, old fellow, that I can't do that. No, it's not a joke. The Union army needs engineers right now. Jackson has started blowing up half the bridges I helped build."
"Henry, I can't run the mine without you. Not with everyone else gone. How can I convince you not to do this? I know it's not just a case of rebuilding bridges. Why are you really going?"
"Why am I really going? Well, you're right. It's not just the bridges. If I said that it was my duty, I would only make myself laugh. No, to tell you the truth, I don't really know why I've decided to get involved in this filthy war. Let's just say that I know I would feel worse if I didn't. That's not a very good reason, I know, but it's the best I can do for now. I don't want to think about it; I'll only despise myself more for doing something so moronic.
"Now you'll be fine, Frank. I had a long talk with Herb Wiggins and Jack Homestead. They can handle the technical details. I've left a thick sheaf of papers on my desk for you. Everything you need to know and do for awhile is there. I hope to be back before you need more help. I gave Cameron a list of engineers between here and Pittsburgh that I can recommend in an emergency.
"Now, wish me luck, old friend. I promise to write. I have a carriage waiting," he said, extending his hand.
"Wait, Henry. What about Rebecca and the children. Didn't you want to say goodbye?"
"I already have, Frank. I stopped by this afternoon. I know she retires early, and I prefer that you not wake her."
Frank, shook his hand, stunned. "At least, let me take you to the station."
"No. I'm catching a late train from Fairmont to Wheeling. I'll transfer there. Goodbye, Frank. Take care of yourself. And Rebecca and the kids. And our mine."
And with those words, Bevens turned around, lifted his valise, smiled at Hopkins, and left the house.
Nanowrimo, San Francisco, November, 2009