CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Robert E. Lee's rise to the peak of success as Confederate military leader seemed as unlikely as the appearance of a dry road or favorable news account, as he rode through the southeastern mountains of what is now West Virginia 150 years ago today.
After three months of failure in engagements with Union troops at Cheat Mountain, Elkwater and Sewell Mountain, Lee had been recalled to the Confederate capital of Richmond, where he would arrive on Oct. 31, 1861, to report for reassignment.
"Outwitted, outmaneuvered and outgeneraled," wrote an editorialist for the Richmond Examiner, in commenting on Lee's recall. Other newspapers were even less kind, referring to him as "Granny Lee" for his perceived lack of military decisiveness or the "King of Spades" and the "Great Entrencher" for his propensity for building earthworks to protect his soldiers, rather than attack the enemy.
On the trip back to Richmond, Lee "had to have been terribly unhappy," said Civil War historian W. Hunter Lesser of Elkins, author of "Rebels at the Gate," a book on the first campaign of the Civil War. "He described his campaign as a 'forlorn hope expedition' in a letter to a daughter," Lesser said.
During his time in what is now West Virginia, Lee narrowly escaped capture and his son was nearly shot to death.
Just one week before he departed for Richmond, a West Virginia statehood referendum, authorized in August during the Second Wheeling Convention of pro-Union western Virginians, was overwhelmingly passed. Lee's efforts during the past three months did little to boost support for the Southern cause in western Virginia, or to intimidate Northern sympathizers from proceeding with plans to carve a new state from old Virginia.
To cap things off, the summer and fall of 1861 was one of the wettest periods in history for the region, turning wagon roads into muddy quagmires and making rivers hazardous to ford.
"It rains here all the time," Lee wrote in a letter to a daughter, following his first month in western Virginia. "There has not been enough sunshine since my arrival to dry my clothes."
In addition to having to deal with near-impassible roads, swollen rivers and diseases spread quickly by soldiers sheltering in close quarters, Lee had to negotiate incessant feuding between his immediate subordinates.
Brig. Gen. Henry A. Wise, and Brig. Gen. John B. Floyd, both former governors of Virginia and lifelong civilians before the Civil War, despised and mistrusted one another. They sought Lee's constant attention to settle their disputes and broker cooperation.
But not all of Lee's ill fortune in western Virginia could be blamed on the weather or bickering subordinates.
Battle of Cheat Mountain
During his first combat role of the war -- the Sept. 12, 1861, Battle of Cheat Mountain -- Lee devised a plan of attack seen as overly complex by many historians.
Lee's objective was to overpower a Union force of Ohio and Indiana soldiers occupying Cheat Summit Fort, built along the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike at an elevation of nearly 4,000 feet.
Lee's plan involved an assault by five separate but converging columns. A column commanded by Brig. Gen. Henry R. Jackson of Georgia was assigned to create a diversion along the turnpike in the vicinity of the mountaintop fort, while troops led by Col. Albert Rust of Arkansas were to take a seldom used back trail up the mountain and come within range of the fort without being detected.
Meanwhile, Brig. Gen. S.R. Anderson of Tennessee, following a livestock trail discovered earlier by Lee, was to lead another group up the west side of Cheat Mountain to reach the turnpike a short distance from the fort. Finally, columns led by Brig. Gen. Daniel Donelson of Tennessee and Col. Jesse Burk of Virginia would sweep up opposite sides of the Tygart Valley River and attack an associated Union encampment at Elkwater, at the base of the mountain.
By dawn on Sept. 12, all five columns managed to arrive at their appointed locations, despite heavy rains, hard-to-follow trails and near freezing temperatures. Rust, a congressman before the war with no prior military experience, was given the job of initiating the attack on the Union fort. Rifle and artillery fire from Rust's brigade was to have signaled the other four columns to attack.
Atop the mountain, Rust's force captured two Union pickets and several supply wagons. The prisoners told Rust's men that 5,000 federal troops occupied Cheat Summit Fort -- about 2,000 more than were actually garrisoned there. Rust rode to a clearing to get a good look at the fortifications, finding an imposing blockhouse surrounded by trenches and earthen walls studded with protruding wooden spikes.
While Rust balked at attacking, two companies of Indiana troops emerged from the fort to see just how large Rust's force was. The Union soldiers fired a volley into the woods at the Confederates, causing the inexperienced Southern troops to break ranks and run. As it turned out, only about 200 Union soldiers were responsible for routing Rust's force of nearly 1,600 men.
As Rust's men fled down the mountainside, the other four Confederate brigades waited for a signal to attack that never came, and eventually withdrew when it became obvious the element of surprise had been lost. Although the Confederate troops outnumbered Union forces at Cheat Summit and Elkwater by a margin of about 5,000 to 3,000, the Cheat Mountain campaign turned out to be a demoralizing loss.
Lee, who had accompanied Donelson's column, spent the rainy night huddled next to a haystack. Shortly after daybreak, he and a small entourage emerged from the hayfield and rode along Becky Creek, just south of Huttonsville, where they narrowly escaped capture.
As the small party of Confederate officers reached a main road at the mouth of the creek, a squadron of federal cavalry galloped past, ignoring them to pursue a much larger force still atop the mountain. Lee, who took a casual approach to military uniforms while in the field, was apparently not identified as an officer by the cavalrymen.
"Walter H. Taylor, Lee's aide de camp, wrote that it was a 'very close call,'" Lesser said.