West Virginia Legislative Hand Book
The Battle of the Top of the Allegheny on December 13, 1861.
The Battle of the Top of the Allegheny on December 13, 1861.
This is an article about the Battle of the Top of Allegheny, fought in. Pocahontas County, December 13, 1861, between the forces of the Union under Gen. R. H. Milroy, and the forces of the Confederacy, under Gen. W. W. Loring, Col. Edward Johnson, commanding.
The two commands had camped within sight of each other since the 13th day of July, the day that the Federal forces had occupied the place at White's on Cheat Mountain. For five months the hostile camps; had watched the smoke rising from the camp fires, across one of the big valleys of West Virginia. Each camp was in the high altitude of more than four thousand feet above the sea level.
The Federal advance had been here blocked and the summer and fall had been passed with battles and skirmishes and an extraordinary effort was planned by Milroy. Both armies were on the Staunton and Parkersburg Turnpike, a famous stage road which enjoyed in its time much of the travel that afterwards was accommodated by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. The Federal camp was known officially as Camp Cheat Mountain Summit. The Confederate camp was known officially as Camp Baldwin, named in honor of a Confederate colonel of that name. Between the two for a good part of the time, and until the winter fastened down was Camp Bartow, named after a Confederate general who was killed at the first battle of Bull Run. This was at the ford of the East Fork of Greenbrier River at Travellers Repose, now the town of Bartow.
The Confederates had made a winter camp on top of Allegheny Mountain by erecting log cabins. As you go along the road there now you can see piles of stone placed at regular intervals which represent the chimneys of those cabins. You can see the trenches and fortifications at Cheat, Bartow, and Allegheny to this day. I have a recollection of seeing the log cabins on Allegheny Mountain. The pike climbs the mountain from its foot at Bartow to the top 'in long easy grades and it is an eight to ten-mile journey. The top of the mountain is a wind-swept pasture of good grazing land and the pike lies for some miles through this level tableland before it descends on the eastern side. In making the attack, the Federals had to climb up the side of the mountain and fight on top of the table.
There were three battles at the Greenbrier ford, October 3, October 31, and December 12. The Federals were repulsed in the first two engagements and returned to their camp on the top of Cheat. The advance of December 12 found the camp at the Greenbrier deserted, but on that day Maj. D. H. Ross, of the Fifty-second Virginia, had been dispatched to that point with 106 men to form an ambuscade on the road between Durbin and Bartow. When the advance guard came up, Ross and his men fired on them and killed ten men and wounded a number of others. The Federals deployed and advanced in great force and Ross withdrew and reached Camp Baldwin that night.
Ambrose Bierce was marching with the Federals that day. If ever I have a literary executioner, he will find that years ago I referred casually to Ambrose Bierce as a Confederate soldier, being misled by an article of his that appeared shortly after he came back here to visit his fighting ground. I understood him to say that he had camped at Bartow, and naturally I jumped to the conclusion that he was a Confederate.
Since reading more of his books I am better informed now. He tells of a horror that was incidental to the battles of December 12 and 13. He said that after they had started to advance from Cheat, they marched down the mountain all day and up the other mountain all night.
The firing at the foot of the mountain halted the advancing columns for a time but after the nest had been cleared out the army reached the forks of the road where the Green Bank road joins the Staunton and Parkersburg Turnpike, where B. B. Beard now lives. Then it was the old tavern known as Travellers Repose where the stage coaches changed horses.
At this place the army was divided. Something like half of them marched down the Green Bank road and turned at the Uriah Heavener farm and climbed the road that is still used as a short cut up the leading ridge between Saulsbury Run and Buffalo Run.
The rest continued up the pike. As the battle was scheduled to begin before daylight, the dead were not buried but were laid on the upper side of the road and covered with blankets. As the soldiers passed that way many of them stopped to look at the dead boys to see if they recognized a friend among them. The next day as they returned from the battle ground defeated, they found that a drove of hogs had been at the bodies and had eaten the faces of the dead men. The soldiers fired a volley and killed the hogs and gathered up the dead soldiers and buried them. This dreadful thing is described by Ambrose Bierce in his book entitled "Iconoclastic Memories of the Civil War." He said that when they got in sight of the dead men on that retreat, it. seemed that they had moved and tossed their coverings off. War is too great a price to pay for glory.
It will be remembered that when the pike gets within a mile of the top of the mountain that it makes a sharp curve to the south and from there it climbs gently to the top where it passes a church. The Federal army left the pike at that curve and climbed directly up the hillside, the purpose being to get in behind the camp. But there were pickets out and the camp was alarmed by their shots at 4:16 that winter morning, and the Confederates marched several companies out to meet the Federals as they came to the top. The Federal army came to the edge of the forest and waited until near daylight and then advanced into the open field and the firing became general. The opposing lines swung back and forwards and at one stage of the battle the Confederates on this, their right flank, were driven to take shelter in their log cabins, and there was fighting all over the place from seven in the morning until two in the afternoon.
The party advancing up the crest of Buffalo Ridge failed in its purpose of surprising the camp. On that side of the camp there were trenches prepared to guard both roads and there was some very efficient artillery. The trenches were full of soldiers prepared for the emergency but when the Federals first appeared, Captain Anderson, of the Lee Battery, thinking that it was a band of 'pickets being driven in, sprang up on the side of the trench and called to them to hurry up and get into the trenches. He was shot and instantly killed by the troops and the fighting went on until the retreat was sounded and the Federal army made its slow and disconsolate way back to Cheat Mountain Summit. According to the dispatches that went in to the Confederate headquarters it was a great battle and a great victory. According to the report sent in by the Federals it was a reconnaissance in force. Ascording [sic] to the Confederate reports 1,200 Confederates had repulsed an army of 5,000. The Federal reports show that they had 1,760 men and the Confederates had 2,500. Now that the Federal reports and the Confederate reports are printed in the same book, it is to be noticed that this same discrepancy always may be expected.
The damage done was as follows: Federal loss, 20 dead, 107 wounded, 10 missing, total 147. Confederate loss, 20 killed, 98 wounded, 28 missing, total 146.
As a Christmas gift, J. P. Benjamin, Secretary of War, wrote that President Jefferson Davis having been informed of the valor of Col. Edward Johnson in repulsing a vastly superior force, was much gratified at the news of success, and had made him a brigadier general.
This was the last battle of the season of 1861 on the Staunton and Parkersburg Turnpike. The troops went into winter quarters. Ambrose Bierce says that he spent many a winter day in the snow up to his knees tracking bears to their dens. I fear his memory of bear hunts was not accurate for the Cheat Mountain bears usually hole up prior to the first big snow and hibernate. Still there may have been so many soldiers among the thornless blackberries of Cheat in the summer that the bears did not get fat enough to sleep.
April 1, General Fremont commanding the Mountain Department, wrote to Milroy at Huttonsville to get ready to take the road again. The Mountain Department consisted of something like thirty-four thousand soldiers divided into six districts. Cumberland, Railroad, Cheat Mountain, Kanawha, Big Sandy, and Cumberland Gap. Cheat Mountain had 6,082 men. On the 6th of April, 1862, Milroy marched into the deserted camp on top of the Allegheny and took charge. On the 12th of April he had reached Monterey, and routed a Confederate force, and on May 8, he met the Confederates under Stonewall Jackson at McDowell and suffered a defeat, and he then abandoned the Staunton and Parkersburg Turnpike and went around another way, extricating his army by way of Franklin and the South Branch Valley.
About this time in the beginning of the second year of the war with the troops swept out from northern West Virginia, the irregular fighters commenced to cause trouble. They called them guerillas at first but afterwards they coined the word bushwhacker for them, meaning one who shoots from ambush. It was the curse of a brave and impetuous people such as are to be found in the mountains, that they could not help taking part in the fighting, whether they had been sworn in as soldiers or not. They carried guns like city men carry canes, and they shot on one side or other according to their convictions. Milroy wrote to Fremont that such bands were being mustered in and asked that Governor Pierpoint, at Wheeling send recruiters to hold as many to the Federal side as possible.
I think that a personal letter that Gen. J. D. Imboden wrote from the mountains gives as good a picture as can be had of the irregular troops. It was while he was marching through the mountains as a colonel with his regiment, and he writes from the Forks of Waters, Highland County:
"There are no troops of consequence west of Beverly. Just in the edge of the village of St. George, I was riding some distance ahead of my men and suddenly came upon old John Snyder and one of the Parsons, both armed with rifles. Parsons fled and I got into a fight with Snyder. Just as he was aiming at me with his long rifle, I fired at him with my revolver. He dropped his gun like a hot potato and leaned forward on the neck of his horse and escaped into the laurel. Pursuit was immediate but he escaped. I have since learned from some refugees that I wounded him badly, though I fear not mortally. I had a fair shot at about 50 yards and I aimed at his hips. We were bushwacked about half a day in Tucker as we fell back from St. George by Union men, but the cowardly scoundrels went so far up the mountains that they only hit one of my men, and he was but slightly wounded in the foot. I sent out a whole company once to try to catch three bushwackers, but it was impossible to come up with them in the brush. If I had caught them I intended hanging them in five minutes. The greatest difficulty in our way out here is the infernal Union men. They carry intelligence and bushwack us when they can, and yet will swear allegiance a dozen times a day. The proper policy to pursue towards Union men who are not in arms as soldiers is one of the most difficult problems that I have to deal with."
The private soldiers found the winter long on Cheat Mountain and Milroy at Huttonsville grew restive before it was over. On March 16, 1862, he was chafing at the delay. That day he wrote to Gen. W. S. Rosecrans a plan of a campaign. He proposed to take his 3,000 infantry and march to a point seven miles east of the summit of Cheat Mountain, and instead of trying to go by the pike which was blocked by Camp Baldwin, he would turn to the right at the foot of the mountain and go to Green Bank eight miles from Baldwin. This road was not entirely cut out, referring, no doubt, to timber blockades so commonly used in this section during that war. At Huntersville twenty miles from Green Bank he would sweep out of the way the Confederate force consisting of twelve or thirteen hundred soldiers and two pieces of artillery. Here he suggested that he would wait until he could be reinforced by General Cox from Lewisburg. With that force he would cross over the Frost Gap into Highland and get to the rear of the camp on the Allegheny, which had at that time about 2,000 men. His greatest need was for some modern cannon. He had smooth bores and he wanted rifled guns. The reason for haste was that the day before had been set for the drafting of the militia of Pocahontas and Highland counties and that many citizens to escape the draft were hiding in the mountains and trying to escape. Seven had arrived the day before and they told him that General Johnson had been to Richmond to tell the war department that if he was not reinforced by 6,000 troops, that the Yankees would surround him. Milroy closed by saying that he feared the game he watched so long might escape him.
On the 19th day of March, three days later he wrote that forty-six refugees from Pocahontas and Highland counties had come to him to escape being drafted into the rebel army; that the penalty to refuse to be drafted was death.
Milroy moved a couple of weeks later and found that the game he had watched so long had really escaped.
March 31, 1862, Milroy at Huttonsville reported that refugees continued to come into his camp in great destitution in squads of from 6 to 25. This day twelve arrived from Pocahontas County and reported that the impressment still continued. A report came that 300 Confederate guerillas attacked a Union settlement in Pendleton County and were repulsed by 75 Union citizens. Confederates were reinforced and citizens driven back. Milroy had sent Major Webster and 300 men of the 25th Ohio to their assistance.
On April 12, 1862, Milroy wrote from Monterey that all kinds of bad men were organizing into gangs in western Virginia to plunder and devastate the counties there. One of the "cut-throats" that he had captured had blank commissions signed by Governor Letcher for guerilla captains and lieutenants. (We called them rangers.) Milroy suggested that if there was a live governor in Wheeling that he be sent out to organize Union home guards.
April 16, 1862, Gen. Geo. Crook reports that he is not able to apprehend the bushwhackers. He wrote from Summerville. He said they took to the woods and disintegrated and hid and then reassembled for fresh depredations. He thinks that if the Federal soldiers were withdrawn that the Union citizens would defend themselves but that they would not raise a hand while the army was there.
April 4, 1862, Gen. William Skeen wrote to the Confederate headquarters that these men that Virginia had authorized to organize as rangers for the horns defense were devastating the country, and had killed three citizens of Pocahontas County and stolen fifteen horses. He complained of them as bitterly as did the Federal generals.
April 18, 1862, General Fremont ordered General Milroy, General Schenck, and Col. T. M. Harris to break up and destroy the guerilla organizations. "All adult males found at the houses of Sylvanus Harper, of Bennett, of Hedwick, of Ferris, and the Arbigasses, should be arrested, and every effort made to kill or capture all who belong to those bands in that vicinity."
May 1, 1862, Milroy wrote from McDowell that the guerillas had captured 20 wagons and 80 horses, and that he had compelled the neighborhood to furnish another wagon train and horses.
May 9, 1862, Crook wrote again from Summersville, that he had had word that 300 Moccasin Rangers were raiding Webster County and that he had sent an expedition there, but had found but three and they were too sick to be removed.
It will be seen by these reports at the time that the mountain men had divided in sentiment and had gone to war on their own hook. It was here that the word bushwhacker was coined. The dictionary says that it was a name for a Confederate guerilla, but we know it was used to designate anyone who shot from the brush. The soldiers who rode in these mountains believed that they were able by a sixth sense to feel the presence of bushwhackers, just as it was the belief that in Indian times, that the settlers had premonition of the coming of the Indians into a community.
During the first year of the war, the western waters were invested with a number of armies and there was hardly a county where there were not troops. In the mountains these soldiers covered all the territory. When they were withdrawn after the battle of the Allegheny, then it was that hundreds if not thousands of able-bodied mountain men took up arms to defend themselves, and there were uneasy times.
Soldiers at home on furloughs responded to appeals for assistance and little armies would spring up in a day and have a skirmish, and disband as quickly as they had come together. It was but an echo of the minute men of the Revolution.
The courts did not meet and the citizens suffered from the needs of soldiers of both armies and from the irregular troops. It is certain that nowhere in the country was there such peril to inhabitants as in these mountain counties. In the northwestern counties, the Federal arms from the first provided safety for the citizens, but in counties on both sides of the Allegheny there was great distress and danger on account of the strength that was divided between the two sides.
One general took to arresting men who had sons in the Confederate army, and he was quickly recalled, for it so often happened in these cases that the prisoners had sons in the Federal army also, and he retired before a storm of his own raising.
Word has recently come that Ambrose Bierce, who disappeared about 1913, went to Mexico during the days of General Villa and that he attached himself to the body of men surrounding that insurgent; that he was tired and sick of existence and so conducted himself that he was shot and killed in some way in that war.