Saturday, September 10, 2011

Civil War 150 years ago today: Battle of Cheat Mountain, 10-15 September 1861

Battle of Cheat Mountain, 10-15 September 1861, West Virginia

The Battle of Cheat Mountain was the start to Robert E. Lee’s career as a battlefield commander. He had been sent to West Virginia to attempt to restore the Confederate position which had been badly damaged by the Confederate defeat at Rich Mountain (12 July 1861).

Lee’s first targets were the Union positions at Cheat Mountain and Elkwater, guarding the Staunton Turnpike, one of the best roads through the mountains between the Shenandoah Valley and West Virginia. He had 9,000 men with which to carry out this operation. Unfortunately they were not in the best of condition. The weather was also poor (which generally favors the defenders). The situation was made worse by Lee’s over ambitious plan. He split his force into five columns, and sent them by different routes towards the two main Union positions.

The result of this was that Lee’s men launched a series of uncoordinated, piecemeal attacks on the Federal position. The Union commander on the spot, General John Reynolds, reported attacks on both positions on 12 September, Elkwater on 13 September, both positions again on 14 September and the strongest attack on Cheat Mountain on 15 September. Each of these attacks was repulsed, and after the attack on 15 September Lee called off his attacks.
Reynolds' forces lost a total of 88 casualties (10 killed, 14 wounded, and 64 captured); Confederate casualties were unreported but Reynolds and Kimball claimed 100 Confederates were killed and twenty were captured. The battle had little effect on either the campaign or the war (both forces after the battle were in positions similar to their positions before the battle). In October, Lee left Cheat Mountain for Sewell Mountain (West Virginia) in the Kanawha River valley but he was forced to cancel the offensive operations he had planned due to low supplies and bad weather. Lee was recalled to Richmond on October 30 after achieving little in western Virginia.

Here is an interesting transcript of a letter written shortly after the battle:

Valley Mountain Camp
September 20th 1861
To Capt. Jones
Dear Friend Your favor of the 1st was received this morning, and it was with very great pleasure that I read of home and home friends. Letters received here in the mountains are "God send" nothing does more to lessen the solitude that the soldiers mind and heart too often falls into. I suppose that you have already heard some account of the late movements of our troops in this part of the state. You home folks cannot be more disappointed at the defeat of Gen Lees plans than we soldiers are. I will show you on the inclosed piece of yellow paper (which you will excuse me for using) how our troops as well as the enemy are posted. By referring to my rough sketch you see the road running north and south intersects what is called the Staunton and Parkersburg pike 20 miles from Valey mountain. Where the two roads intersect the enemy are strongly entrenched with a force of ten thousand men. 8 miles east on the Staunton road they have another much stronger entrenchment defended by 2 or 3 thousand men following the road on to the east some 20 or 30 miles. Monterrey a small town is defended by 7 or 8 thousand of our troops (who are also entrenched) commanded by Gen. Jackson. Gen Lee's head quarters are at Valey Mountain, where Anderson's and Donelsons brigades and Loring's brigade also are in position their forces amounting to about six thousand.Lee is in command of all our forces in western Virginia and he had matured a plan of attack which had it been carried out, must have succeeded though at a heavy sacrifice of human life. On the 10th our brigade commanded by Gen Anderson in person recieved orders to move forward by a mountain path that led by a circuitous route to a point on the Staunton and Parkersburg pike, between the two entrenchments ocupied by the enemy, and to hold the road for three hours on the morning of the 12th After the most wearysome march ever made by American soldiers we arrived at the appointed time and place. Immediately on arriving at the pike each company unslung knapsacks pike them on the side of the road and filed of down the road and fell in preparatory to marching half mile so as to gain better position. The left wing of our regiment marched in front, our company being the third from what was then the head of the colum, The bushes were so thick that you could not see ten feet into the woods, and our Gen, apprehending some danger of an ambuscade sent out skirmishers on both sides of the road with orders that at the appearing of the enemy to fire on them and retreat back to the main body. We had marched but two hundred yards before a shot was fired and our men run in. In less than ten seconds a voley was fired into the head of our column our men returned the fire and for about five minutes the bullets whistled merrily. Our company recieved the heaviest fire, We had one killed (an Irishman that joined us in East Tennessee) and three wounded John Groves Hugh Padgett and Dr Hooper, being situated as we were fired on by a concealed enemy, while we could only stand like a solid wall and guess where they were located. I think that they done some of the poorest shooting that I ever saw. After they had run away we found two or three of their dead within twenty feet of the road. There was two companies of them and under the circumstances they ought to have killed at least 25 or thirty of us when they only killed two, one from our company and one from the Pulaski company. I never got scared until about ten minutes after the fight was over. I do not know how many we killed I suppose about six or seven we wounded nine that we took as prisoners. We also took several prisoners who were passing the road among others a Lieutenant. You see two mountain paths marked on my map our brigade took the out side one Donelsons brigade started on the inside one at the same time, Gen Jackson was to attack the enemy at Cheat Mountain the fireing of his canon was to be a signal for Loring and Donelson to begin the attack at the intersection of the two roads our brigade being between the two positions held by the enemy who would prevent their reinforcing either and we would have cut off their retreat from either place Gen Jackson did not attack, I don't know why though I suppose he had good reason
write soon to your friend W. G. Graham

I think from the movement of our troops and wagon trains that the campaign is over for the season in this part of the state W. G. G.
Live Long and Prosper....

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