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Robert E. Lee: 'Outwitted, outmaneuvered and outgeneraled'

Lawrence Pierce
The red-brick Deitz farmhouse at Meadow Bluff in Greenbrier County was Robert E. Lee's last stop before leaving what is now West Virginia 150 years ago today.
Courtesy photo At an elevation of 4,000 feet, Union troops built what they considered an impregnable fort at Cheat Summit along the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike 150 years ago.
Courtesy photo Gen. Robert E. Lee sits astride Traveller, a Greenbrier County-raised horse he first encountered at Sewell Mountain, and later bought from a Confederate officer from Charleston.

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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.

Elkwater

With a sneak attack on Cheat Summit no longer possible, Lee began planning an assault on the Union camp at Elkwater.

On Sept. 13, he sent his son, Maj. W.H. Fitzhugh Lee, on a scouting trip to make note of Union positions in the vicinity. Accompanying him was Gen. Lee's second aide de camp, Lt. Col. John A. Washington, a great-grandnephew of the first president, who had recently sold his family's Mount Vernon estate.

From a hilltop west of the camp, the scouting party spotted a mounted federal soldier in the valley below, and made an effort to intercept and capture him for intelligence purposes. As young Lee and Washington galloped after the soldier, troops from the 17th Indiana Infantry emerged from a wooded slope and fired on them.

Maj. Lee survived having his horse shot out from under him, but Washington wasn't so lucky. Three shots pierced his body, killing him outright. Lee, who was not injured, managed to climb atop Washington's horse and escape behind Confederate lines.

Lee was deeply saddened by the death of Washington, who was a friend and a tent-mate, not to mention a relative of his wife.

On Sept. 14, after Union troops returned Washington's body, Lee called off the Cheat Mountain campaign.

While a full-out battle never materialized, casualties during the three-day encounter totaled about 80 for Union troops and 90 for Confederates.

Lee bore the brunt of the blame for the failure of the Cheat Mountain campaign, while Rust's indecision, followed by panic -- which caused the attack to fizzle -- drew no unfavorable consequences.

By Sept. 20, Lee was in the mountains along the Fayette-Greenbrier County line. There, feuding Confederate generals Wise and Floyd had refused to follow his suggestion to consolidate their troops in a single encampment, rather than in separate camps at Sewell Mountain and Meadow Bluff, 12 miles apart.

Wise was recalled to Richmond on Sept. 25, putting an end to the bickering and enabling Lee to create a single Confederate strongpoint at Big Sewell Mountain, which he believed more likely to be attacked by the Union force camped at Gauley Bridge.

In early October, federal troops approached Sewell Mountain camp, and appeared to be making preparations to attack. Lee felt confident his troops would prevail if the federals attacked his position, but did not believe he had the reserve of supplies needed to mount and maintain an offensive. Both southern and northern armies numbered about 9,000 men.

On the night of Oct. 5, Lee's lookouts heard the sounds of what they thought were Union wagons and artillery pieces being wheeled into position for attack. But when dawn broke, it turned out the noises heard during the night came from federal troops exiting the area and returning toward the Kanawha Valley.

"I wish he would have attacked us, as I believe he would have been repulsed with great loss," Lee wrote in a letter to his mother on Oct. 7. "His plan was to attack us at all points at the same time. The rumbling of his wheels, etc., was heard by our pickets, but as that was customary at night in the moving and placing of his cannon, it was [believed] to be a preparation for attack in the morning. When day appeared, the bird had flown."

In the letter, Lee vented a bit to his mother over his treatment by Southern newspapers.

"I am sorry, as you say, that the movements of the armies cannot keep pace with the expectations of the editors of papers," he wrote. "I know they can regulate matters satisfactorily to themselves on paper. I wish they could do so in the field. No one wishes them more success than I do and would be happy to see them have full swing."

Perhaps the best thing that happened to Lee during his time at Sewell Mountain was his introduction to the horse that would be his faithful companion through the end of the war and beyond.

Maj. Thomas Broun of Charleston, then serving in the 3rd Virginia Infantry, was riding a 4-year-old horse named Jeff Davis, which Lee admired for its rapid, springy walk, high spirits and bold carriage.

"When [Lee] first saw this horse, he took a great fancy to it," Broun said in an 1886 newspaper article. "He called it his colt, and said that he would use it before the war was over."

The horse, which Lee later renamed Traveller, had been raised in Blue Sulphur Springs, and was the blue ribbon winner at the Greenbrier County Fair in 1859 and 1860.

After Lee was recalled to Richmond and reassigned to oversee the construction of coastal defenses in South Carolina, he encountered the steed again in February 1862, near Pocotaligo, S.C.  There, Broun's brother, Capt. Joseph Broun, was serving as a quartermaster in the 60th Virginia Infantry.

"Upon seeing my brother on this horse, General Lee at once recognized the horse and again inquired pleasantly about 'his' colt," Broun said. Joseph Broun offered the horse to the general as a gift, which Lee declined. Broun countered by offering to sell the horse at cost, which Lee accepted, adding $25 to the $175 asking price to make up for currency depreciation.

Lee's other enduring memento from his time in West Virginia was his trademark gray beard, grown here for the first time, and worn for the remainder of the war.

After making the ride from Meadow Bluff to Richmond during the closing days of October, Lee learned that despite his vilification in the press, Confederate President Jefferson Davis continued to have faith in his leadership abilities and tactical skills.

After Gen. Joseph Johnston was wounded in the Battle of Seven Pines on June 1, 1862, Davis put Lee in command of the Army of Northern Virginia, where he began a string of Southern victories that caused a drop in Northern morale and a turnaround in Confederate public opinion.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.


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