RELIEF OF CHEAT MOUNTAIN.
GEN. R. E. LEE was now in command of the "Army of Northern Virginia," advancing to retrieve the losses of Gens. Floyd and Wise. The predatory bands were called from their fastnesses in the mountains of Western Virginia, and reorganized with large additions at Staunton and Lynchburg. Having fully completed his arrangements, early in September Lee ordered the advance with 11,000 men. As he approached Cheat Mountain he divided his forces into two columns, sending one along the Staunton pike to attack Col. Kimball, of the 14th Indiana, with his 300 men on the summit of the mountain, and leading the other in person by the Huntersville road toward Elkwater. His object was to get to the left and rear of the latter post. Four companies of Indiana troops, however, held the whole force in check, and forced them to the rear and right of Cheat Mountain, completely hemming in the 300 who held the summit. This event was sprung so suddenly and unexpectedly upon Reynolds' outposts, that the only wonder is that they were not captured without firing a gun. But the word surrender was not in the vocabulary of the beleaguered Indiana boys, who stood firm to their posts and held the attacking troops completely at bay until relief came to them.
On the 12th of September, the Second Virginia and Sixth Ohio Infantry, were ordered up from Beverly on a forced march, starting at 3 o'clock in the afternoon, leaving behind a small detachment of the Second for camp and garrison duty at Beverly.
The regiments arrived at Huttonville after dark, and waited there long enough to take a good rest, when they pushed rapidly on to Elkwater. The mud was fearful, being in many places axle deep, rendering travel hard and difficult. The march from Huttonville was through intense darkness, rendered doubly, so by the lowering clouds, the lofty mountains about us, and the thick forests of pine that stood like blackened walls on either side the column. As we marched along, ever and anon would be heard a smothered exclamation from some comrade, whose foot had haplessly caught in a root or laurel bush, tripping him and sending him headlong into the abyss of mire. It was fun for the rest of the comrades, but a very grave matter for the mud bespattered boy. Thus we marched for twelve weary miles, but the men stood it bravely, the cheering prospects of a brush with the enemy banishing all grumbling and discontent. We made no secret of our march. The shouts of the teamsters as they plunged along through the mud; the shouts of laughter when some comrade met a muddy fate, commingled with the war whoops of the men and the loud commands of the officers, reached the ears of the rebel force that lay along the base of the mountain on the opposite side of the valley through which the narrow river ran, striking them with terror, and no doubt aiding in inducing them to abandon their contemplated capture of the gallant 300 men on the summit of Cheat mountain, who were now completely surrounded. The two regiments arrived at Elkwater about midnight, having marched twenty-five miles in less than nine hours. They were greeted with loud cheers by the small garrison at Elkwater, and the tired and mud-covered troops soon found repose on the wet ground where, without shelter, they slept till the reveille called them to duty. After partaking of a hasty and meagre breakfast, the Second Virginia and the Third Ohio, which took the place of the Sixth Ohio, started for the work that was before them - to help drive Lee's army of 11,000 back across Cheat river, and thus relieve the little garrison on Cheat mountain. The Second Virginia, with Col. Moss at its head, was ordered to take the advance. The boys stripped for the fray, and arriving at the swollen river, dashed through it waist deep with a cheerfulness that was prophetic of certain victory. The Third Ohio catching the inspiration, followed with a bound, and the dripping column moved rapidly forward.
The enemy had taken position on the side of a foot hill of Cheat mountain, his right resting at Becca creek, a small mountain stream running down a gulch in the mountain three or four miles from the summit. The pickets at the base of the foot hill were soon discovered, but taking alarm at the bold front of the advancing column, they fled to their camp and gave the alarm. The two regiments now came up on the double quick, charging over the rocks and through the bushes up the mountain, with the prospect of finding the enemy somewhere in line of battle; but in this they were disappointed, for they soon reached his camp, which was found to be deserted, and the morning meal of hot corn and coffee was left smoking by the lonesome looking camp fires. The troops picked up haversacks, guns, pistols, etc., besides nearly 700 blankets, and took a hasty lunch of the hot corn and coffee. The enemy continued his flight with such celerity that pursuit from that point was deemed useless, and Gen. Reynolds gave orders to hold the position at all hazards, as that was the key to the camp on the summit. The enemy's line had extended along the base of the mountain, a distance of some four miles south of Becca creek, and parallel with the river, his left resting a short distance above the mouth of Elkwater; and while the stirring events referred to were occurring, Lee's forces made an attack on Reynolds at Elkwater, but were repulsed, and he hastily fell back and took position above the mouth of the creek. The next day, rallying his disheartened army, he made another desperate effort to carry our position at Elkwater, and simultaneously made an attack on Cheat river bridge, but was again repulsed with a severe loss, and retreated ten miles.
In the memoirs of Gen. Robert E. Lee, pages 122 to 126, an account is given of this campaign, as follows:
The possession of the pass (Cheat mountain) was of great importance to the confederates, as the Parkersburg turnpike was the principal line over which operations could be successfully carried on in northwestern Virginia.
Early in September, Gen. H. R. Jackson reported to Gen. Loring that Col. Rust, Third Arkansas regiment, had made a reconnoisance to the rear of Cheat mountain pass, and had discovered a route, though difficult, by which infantry could be led. Soon after Col. Rust reported in person, and informed Gen. Lee of the practicability of reaching the rear of the enemy's position on Cheat mountain, from which a favorable attack could be made.
Another route was in the meantime discovered, leading along the western side of Cheat mountain, by which troops could be conducted to a point on the Parkersburg turnpike about two miles below the federal position in the pass. This being the information that Gen. Lee had been most desirous of obtaining, he determined to attack the enemy without further delay. The opposing forces at this time were about equal in numbers. Loring's force was now 6,000, Jackson's about 5,000 strong. Reynolds' force had been increased to about 11,000 men; of these, 2,000 were on Cheat mountain and about 5,000 in position on the Lewisburg road in front of Loring. The remainder of Reynolds' force was held in reserve near the junction of the Parkersburg turnpike and the Lewisburg road.
Lee determined to attack on the morning of the 12th of September. The plan was that Col. Rust should gain the rear of the federal position by early dawn and begin the attack. Gen. Anderson, with two Tennessee regiments from Loring's command, was to support him, while Jackson was to make a diversion in front. Cheat Mountain Pass being carried, Jackson with his whole force was to sweep down the mountain and fill upon the rear of the other federal position; Gen. Donaldson with two regiments was to gain a favorable position for attacking the enemy on the Lewisburg road in flank or rear; and Loring was to advance by the main road on the federal front. In case of failure, Anderson and Donaldson were to rejoin Loring, and Rust was to find his way back to Jackson. The troops gained their designated positions with remarkable promptness and accuracy in point of time, considering the distance and the difficulties to be overcome. Col. Rust's attack on Cheat Mountain was to be the signal for the general advance of all the troops. It was anxiously expected from early dawn throughout the day.
The Tennesseeans under Anderson became so impatient that they requested to be led to the attack without waiting for Rust, but Anderson thought that he must be governed by the letter of his instructions and declined granting the request of his men.
Anderson and Donaldson, finding that their situation was becoming critical, being liable to discovery and between two superior forces, rejoined Loring on the 13th. On the same day Col. Rust reported in person his operations, which amounted to this: He had heard nothing of Anderson; he passed the day watching the federals, who were in a state of unconscious security, and then retired, his presence not having been suspected.
A council of war was then held, in which it was decided that the position of the federals was too strong to be attacked in front with any reasonable prospect of success, and that a flank attack was now out of the question, inasmuch as the federals had been aroused by the discovery of the danger which had so recently threatened them. The troops were therefore ordered to resume their former positions.
In a letter to Governor Letcher, dated September 17, Gen. Lee wrote as follows about his failure:
I was very sanguine of taking the enemy's works on last Thursday morning, I had considered the subject well. With great effort the troops intended for the surprise had reached their destination, having traversed twenty miles of steep, rugged mountain paths, and the last day through a terrible storm, which lasted all night, and in which they had to stand drenched to the skin in the cold rain. Still their spirits were good. When morning broke I could see the enemy's tents on Valley river at the point on the Huttonville road just below me. It was a tempting sight. We waited for the attack on Cheat mountain, which was to be the signal, till 10 A. M.; the men were cleaning their unserviceable arms. But the signal did not come. All chance for surprise was gone. The provisions of the men had been destroyed the preceding day by the storm. They had nothing to eat that morning, could not hold out another day, and were obliged to be withdrawn. The party sent to Cheat mountain to take that in in the rear had also to be withdrawn. The attack to come off from the east side failed from the difficulties in the way; the opportunity was lost and our plan discovered. It is a grievous disappointment to me, I assure you. But for the rainstorm I have no doubt it would have succeeded. This, Governor, is for your own eyes. Please do not speak of it; we must try again.
The garrison at the summit, magnified into 2,000 by General Lee, consisted in fact of 300, which may be taken as a fair indication of Lee's estimate of our forces, and of the reasons that led to his utter rout in the mountains. The facts are that he was out generaled and outfought, and that by a force less than his own. The forces so completely routed and driven from their stronghold, were under the eye of General Lee, and to our regiment is due, in part, the honor of administering the first defeat to General Lee.
Colonel Moss, of the Second, who was senior officer, in command of that little army at Becca Creek, immediately turned his attention to the relief of the 300 men on the summit. It was necessary that communication be opened without delay, as the force he had just driven from their camp near Becca creek, would probably make a hasty march back to the Staunton pike on the other side of the mountain, and unite with the force at the Cheat river bridge, for the purpose of capturing Colonel Kimball on the summit, or with their whole force combined, they might return with the view of routing Col. Moss' command.
The Fourteenth was spent in scouting and adjusting the picket lines. One of the guards fired at our own men, which brought the entire command into line of battle. On the 15th a scouting party of twenty men from Company I, was ordered to open communication with Kimball's camp on the mountain. They followed a bridle path along the side of the mountain and reached the pike about three miles west of the summit, where they met a scouting party from the garrison who, supposing our boys to be rebels, prepared to give them a warm reception, but fortunately two of Col. Kimball's men were with the latter acting as guides, who were recognized. Two dead rebels were found lying near where the path strikes the pike, who had been killed the previous day while engaged in action with Kimball's forces, and left unburied. Colonel Sullivan with the Thirteenth Indiana regiment, had marched from Huttonville the day before, and assisted Kimball in clearing the pike. They had a brisk fight with the enemy at or near the junction of the path and pike, in which the latter were repulsed with a severe loss, the woods being strewn with their guns and clothing in large quantities. The force on the summit were at work unceasingly, and felled acres of heavy pines on the eastern slope of the mountain, so as to sweep the bridge that spans the river less than a mile from the summit, where the confederates were making repeated efforts to cross, with a view of taking the garrison by storm. Then Colonel Moss deemed it necessary to fortify his position on Becca creek, with the expectation that Lee would pay the camp a flying visit, and breastworks were thrown up capable of giving protection to the two regiments, being yet all the troops there. The path leading to the pike was picketed and patroled day and night, and every precaution taken to guard against surprise. We were ordered to hold this position at all hazards, and this too when reduced to half rations, compelled to live and sleep in the open air, without the shadow of a tent, while the rain poured down in torrents, drenching everything susceptible to water.
On the night of the 20th the pickets began firing, when the command was hastily formed behind the breastworks, ready to repel the anticipated attack of the enemy. Guns were carefully examined and every preparation made for the scene of carnage momentarily expected. The officers passing along the line, cautioned us not to fire until the command was given, and then to fire low. We patiently waited for that command, shivering in the cold night air, but it never came. Ere long quiet reigned in the valley, the guards were again posted, and we were ordered to sleep on our arms. It has not been learned to this day what the pickets fired at. Morning came, and Capt. Plankey with one party, and Capt. Smith with another of 20 men from his own company, scouted through the surrounding country, but failed to find the enemy. Capt. Smith's party went about five miles and returned with two fat ground hogs as the fruit of their expedition. A great deal more scouting was done, and energy wasted, during our stay in the lonely valley. On the 22d a supply train reached us, and our hunger was relieved. The Sixth Ohio and an Indiana regiment passed through the valley to the summit of Cheat Mountain, thus relieving us, and we returned to Elkwater on the 23d pretty well worn out. The long, forced march of the men on the night of the 12th from Beverly to Elkwater; their plunging through the river on the morning of the 13th; their incessant scouting, picketing and scouring the mountains in drenching rains without shelter, and living on half rations for eleven days and nights, spoke volumes for their powers of endurance, and an iron constitution could not endure much more. Gen. Reynolds complimented the officers and men for their gallantry in charging over those rugged steeps and dislodging the enemy, for their promptness in executing every command, and also for their bravery and tenacity in holding a position of such vital importance, constantly menaced by a force five times their own, without shelter and almost without food, heedless of the pelting showers that dally and lightly fell for those eleven days. But the work was done and well done. Lee had been held in check at Cheat Mountain and Becca Creek, and repulsed at Elkwater, and was disheartened. Lee, who subsequently distinguished himself as the great military leader of the confederates, had come to retrieve the disasters of Floyd and Wise, and was himself repulsed. But his great disaster in this campaign, compelled him to relinquish his hold on this western region, and we may well imagine his chagrin, as he led his defeated army away from before the bristling bayonets and guns of Cheat Mountain and Elkwater.