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Trim: 6 x 9
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ISBN: 978-1-942294-70-2

Robert E. Lee and the 35th Star

Tim McKinney

In 1998 Tim McKinney published his first Civil war history book, The Civil War in Fayette County. This publication, along with books published by such local historians as Stan Cohen, Jack Dickenson, Terry Lowry, and William Wintz, covered the often little-known, yet interesting and many times significant, events in relation to West Virginia’s Civil war history. Now, Mr. McKinney has published his second book on West Virginia’s Civil War history, and he selected the unsuccessful campaign of General Robert E. Lee for his topic. Many people are familiar with the reverence and respect with which General Lee was, and is, held. Few but the avid Civil War student know of Lee’s early “failure” not necessarily a result of his own making. In 1861 Lee was sent to western Virginia to command. Bickering between two generals, John B. Floyd and Henry A. Wise (both ex-governors of Virginia, both political general with no military experience, both interesting albeit controversial and cantankerous men), was causing lack of cooperation and effectiveness in the campaign, resulting in a division of forces in the southern camps. Lee was sent to coordinate the campaign. Arriving in September 1861, Lee assumed command in the Sewell Mountain region of what is now West Virginia. Though Confederates maintained their positions on Sewell Mountain and Meadow Bluff, inclement weather, disease, and a lack of supplies eventually forced retreat from western Virginia. Mr. McKinney’s book deals with this campaign in a very interesting manner, giving insight into the quarreling of Generals Floyd and Wise, and explaining the reasons for Lee’s, and the Confederacy’s failure in what is now the state of West Virginia. With an abundant use of excerpts from letters, dispatches, and period maps, Mr. McKinney takes the reader to the scenes on and near Sewell Mountain. Of particular interest are the many personal accounts of the men and officers from both armies, making the reader empathize with the times, the people, and the situation. Appendix A, which details Lee’s acquisition of his famous warhorse Traveller from Greenbrier County, and Appendix B, detailing General Wise’s “rebuttal,” could have been omitted, but their inclusion heighten an already enlightening and educational study of this early Civil War campaign. For those readers with an interest in Civil War history, West Virginia history, or both, Mr. McKinney’s Robert E. Lee at Sewell Mountain: The West Virginia Campaign should be required reading. Joseph H. Ferrell, Editor Kanawha Valley Civil War Roundtable Newsletter published in West Virginia History, Volume 50, 1991.

 

 

Reviews

Often misunderstood and frequently overlooked, the campaigns of the Civil war in West Virginia deserve fresh study. In this work I have attempted to present a balanced view of the military, and to a lesser extent, the political events of 1861, which ultimately led to the addition of West Virginia as the thirty-fifth state in the Union. For purposes of clarity I have referred to “West” Virginia in 1861, although statehood was not achieved until June 20, 1863.

Supplementing the text are twenty-one maps which I believe will assist the reader in understanding the many troop movements and battles as they developed. For general reference it is recommended the reader refer to the large two-page map at the front of thre book.

The military campaigns of eastern Virginia and other theaters of the war, eventually cast the West Virginia campaigns into obscurity. That has truly been an historical injustice. The eyes of the country, and even the world, were focused on West Virginia in 1861 as the first theatre of the war. News from West Virginia was sought after in those early days of the conflict, as it would later be from anywhere else in the country. The military activity here was neither glorious nor bloodthirsty. It was however, ardous almost beyond description, and it left upon the minds of the participants a lasting impression of the privations and hardships of mountain warfare. Many of those who first felt the pain of war in West Virginia, and later participated in bloody and difficult campaigns elsewhere, would write that at no time during the war did their hardships exceed those of the West Virginia campaign.

In slightly more than one hundred pages, including a profusion of maps and photographs, this book takes the reader on a fast-paced retelling of primarily military events in Civil War western Virginia during the campaigns of 1861. “For decades prior to the advent of the American Civil War there existed differences between eastern and western Virginia that would ultimately contribute to the addition of West Virginia as the 35th star on our nations flag,” the reader is informed on the first page. Although a good portion of his narrative is devoted to Robert E. Lee’s abortive attempts to hold the area for the Confederacy at Cheat Mountain and along the roadways connecting the Kanawha Valley and eastern Virginia, Tim McKinney deals with other aspects of the war in present West Virginia. Commendably, the author has sorted through numerous regimental histories, memoirs, and archival collections to uncover new insights about the men in both armies that fought and died during the western Virginia campaigns.

By the time Lee arrived in August 1861, most of the region had been overrun by Federal troops, and the “Reorganized Government” of Virginia under Governor Francis H. Pierpont had been ensconced at Wheeling with the help of Union bayonets. On the military front, former governor Henry A. Wise and the Wise Legion had been driven from the Kanawha Valley following the indecisive fight at Scary Creek. Robert W. Garnett, an early Confederate commander, had been killed near present Elkins. Wheeling and much of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad had been abandoned, and George Porterfield had been hurled out of Grafton and Philippi. Abraham Lincoln’s generals in western Virginia, led by George B. McClellan and with superior numbers, quickly bested the lackluster Confederates. The early strategy of Jefferson Davis and Lee, his military advisor in transmontane Virginia, McKinney correctly observes, was “flawed.”

In fairness, the Confederates faced nearly insurmountable obstacles in what became West Virginia after much of the area was occupied by forces under McClellan during the first months of war. Wise probably captured it best when he wrote to his Richmond superiors: “The Kanawha Valley is wholly disaffected and traitorous. It was gone from Charleston to Point Pleasant before I got there. . . . You cannot persuade these people that Virginia can or ever will reconquer the northwest, and they are submitting, subdued, and debased.” Lee not only encountered hostile terrain with insufficient troops to defend it but also a population more likely to help the enemy than himself.

Victory against the Federals who had advanced eastward from Ohio persistently eluded this youngest son of Light-Horse Harry Lee of Revolutionary War renown. Besides a dearth of manpower, Lee was thwarted at every juncture by disease and foul weather that left his troops ravaged and cold. “The season was a most unfavorable one: for weeks it rained daily and in torrents; the conditions of the roads were frightful; they were barely passable,” stated his aide Colonel Walter H. Taylor. The rainy, disagreeable weather coupled with primitive sanitation in the camps contributed to an outbreak of measles and related disorders. Although McKinney indicates that “adequate records of the extent to which disease played in the Confederacys defeat in West Virginia does [sic] not exist,” sickness took an awesome toll upon Lee’s troops. Their Yankee counterparts also suffered the various plagues, and at one time during late 1861, Union commanders reported “1,101 cases of measles, 2,089 cases of typhoid fever, 2,565 cases of malaria, 2,026 cases of other types of fever, 1,656 cases of rheumatism, and numerous other ailments and injuries which the available records do not reflect.”

Finally, Lee devised a scheme to drive the Federals from their fortified positions atop Cheat Mountain Summit that ended in utter failure. Instead of surveying the laurel-covered precipice himself he relied upon others, including a former Arkansas congressman named Albert Rust, for his intelligence. When his troops became hopelessly bogged down and were forced to withdraw, Lee incurred the wrath of Southern newspapers as well as Confederate politicos. “In short,” McKinney quotes Lee’s biographer Douglas Southall Freeman, “the plan of action suggested that [he] was disposed to be overelaborate in his strategy to attempt too much with the tools he had.”

Before his return to Richmond at the behest of Jefferson Davis, Lee traveled southward to the Sewell Mountain region of Greenbrier County to sort out a nasty dispute between Confederate commanders John B. Floyd and Henry A. Wise, both former governors of the Old Dominion. Animosities between the two had reached the breaking point following Floyd’s withdrawal from the Carnifex Ferry battleground and the retreat of Wise from the Kanawha Valley. When Lee arrived, they were not only encamped within a short distance of each other but also engaged in a heated argument over who was in command. Although Davis ordered Wise to another theater, Lee, despite his later successes, was never able to exercise much control over the disparate Southern forces throughout western Virginia.

Following an impasse between Federal commander William S. Rosecrans and himself, Lee and Davis decided to abandon the region, eventhough Floyd had advanced to Cotton Hill overlooking Gauley Bridge. “There can be no doubt that General Lee and others in roles of leadership for the Confederacy, seriously, fatally, miscalculated both the Federal Government’s resolve to hold West Virginia, and the strong division among its populace, McKinney reasons. Lesser-known Confederates remained, but Lee’s departure for the South Carolina coast in October 1861 and the military collapse that followed pointed the way to West Virginia statehood without challenge. Yet the author finds merit in the efforts of Lee and his compeers: “They were able to prevent the Federal forces from advancing west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, or south of Lewisburg. Had the northern army done either in force, it would have spelled disaster for the Confederacy early in the conflict.”

Paul D. Casdorph

West Virginia State College

Pages: 144