by Don Roberts
Western Virginia was crucial to the Union during the Civil War. The region that lay west of the Shenandoah Valley and north of the Kanawha River held nearly a quarter of Virginia’s nonslave population when the war began in 1861. Since the first pioneers had pushed across the mountains and settled the western lands of Virginia, grievances had existed between them and the “tidewater aristocrats” to the east who governed the huge commonwealth. An unfair tax structure that benefited the slave-owning eastern counties, coupled with the fact that the vast majority of the state’s roads and railroads were constructed in the east, contributed to the desire for the creation of a separate state.
Western Virginia Was Almost as Crucial to the Union
At the time of Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration in March 1861, seven states had already seceded, and there was much talk of others leaving the Union as well. Lincoln had to keep a hold on Maryland—it was unthinkable to have the nation’s capital surrounded by Rebel territory. Keeping a major Union presence in western Virginia was almost as important. Controlling the regions would help prevent an assault against Washington from arising up its ridges, and it would help protect the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, a vital part of the North’s line of communication with the western theater of operations.
Following the war’s outbreak, citizens in western Virginia voted against Virginia’s secession by three to one. By summer 1861 the Wheeling convention in the west had formed its own “restored government” of Virginia and considered the new Confederate government in Richmond illegal. The convention selected new officials as well as a new governor, Francis Pierpoint. President Lincoln recognized the new Virginia government. On July 13, 1861, two U.S. senators and three new congressmen took their seats in Congress, all from the state of Virginia.
As the political situation evolved in western Virginia, the military situation began to take shape as well. By early November 1861, General William S. Rosecrans secured much of western Virginia when he forced Confederate General John B. Floyd to withdraw all Rebel forces from the region. From then on, western Virginia remained in Northern control. The only exception was an occasional Confederate raid and a never-ending guerrilla campaign waged against Union forces. As Union infantry commander Robert H. Milroy wrote, “We have now over 40,000 men in the service of the U.S. in Western Va. … [but] our large armies are useless here. They cannot catch guerrillas in the mountains any more than a cow can catch fleas. We must inaugurate a system of Union guerrillas to put down the rebel guerrillas.”
William Averell’s First Separate Brigade
On December 31, 1862, President Lincoln approved an enabling act admitting West Virginia into the Union. As a result, all old western Virginia military units received new names as “Virginia” was not to be utilized any longer. General William Averell’s Fourth Separate Brigade became the First Separate Brigade, but was commonly known as “Averell’s Brigade.” The newly created Department of West Virginia, which contained some 23,000 men, was commanded by General Benjamin F. Kelley.
When Robert E. Lee advanced into Pennsylvania in July, he ordered troops under General Samuel Jones’s Department of Western Virginia to demonstrate toward West Virginia and then block any Federal thrust into the Shenandoah that might threaten Lee’s left flank as he moved north. Kelley dispatched Averell to repel the invaders. Riding with the 3rd and 8th West Virginia Regiments as well as the 14th Pennsylvania, Averell skirmished with the far-right flank of Jones’s line and drove the Confederates back across Cheat Mountain. The next day, July 4, Averell’s Brigade was ordered east to help cut off Lee’s retreat from Gettysburg. Riding 80 miles in three days, the troopers learned they had missed Lee’s column by less than 24 hours.
Impressed with his cavalry, Kelley next assigned Averell’s Brigade to ride 170 miles to the end of the Greenbrier Valley, capture Lewisburg, and return with the contents of the law library there as a symbol of the spoils of war. Supply difficulties dictated that Averell’s men would only be able to carry 35 rounds of ammunition each. Averell was reluctant to start the mission underprepared. Nevertheless, on August 18 he rode southward with 1,300 men.
Raiding through the towns of Monterey, Huntersville, and Warm Springs, Averell’s men were intercepted by Confederates under the command of Colonel George S. Patton (grandfather of World War II’s Patton) before they could reach Lewisburg. Following a day-long fight in which they ran out of ammunition, Averell’s men were forced to withdraw. Averell pushed his men hard the next day to avoid capture. Although they failed to reach their objective, the Federal cavalrymen had fought well and conducted a well-disciplined retreat in the face of a strong enemy force.