The Civil War raged for four years, as massive armies led by great generals moved across the Eastern and Western theaters of war, engaging in famous battles. The outcome of these battles often seemed to have great weight, both political and military, and, just as often, the armies and the battles left thousands of casualties and physical destruction in their wake. At least, that is how most of us see the war in our minds, that is the focus of most Civil War historiography, and perhaps that is rightfully so. However, any war has margins, places where the great armies do not go, where no great battles are fought, and where no great outcomes are determined. Yet, these places still see fighting, and the lives of those that live there are forever altered. Here, the casualties and the damage may be smaller in scale, but, that makes them more individual, more personal and the pain of loss somehow greater because it is not lost in the enormity of the event itself.
In the case of the Civil War, there were hundreds of battles fought “on the margins.” They escape our notice and, yet, men died in these engagements fighting for the very same reasons as those who fought in the great battles. If one examines some of these battles, you find the same dynamics of command and leadership, success and failure, that determined the outcomes of Shiloh or Gettysburg. Plus, for me, the tragedy and the human loss is somehow greater in these battles because they did not have an impact on the war—there was carnage and death but nothing was gained. In the Civil War, West Virginia was one of those places that was on the margins of the war.
On June 20, 1863, the 39 northwestern counties of Virginia were admitted to the Union as the new state of West Virginia. Created by the furor over Virginia’s secession from the Union in 1861, West Virginia was a direct byproduct of the Civil War. Yet, despite this fact, this staunchly Unionist region was largely a backwater of the war in terms of military activity. While the major battles and campaigns of the war raged on in the two theaters of operation on either side of the Appalachians, West Virginia was, at best, a mere sideshow. Here, in this rugged, mountainous terrain, amid a scattered population of mostly poor subsistence farmers, with its few cities linked by a rough, patchwork system of roads, military operations consisted primarily of isolated skirmishes between small units, ambushes by guerillas and “bushwhackers,” and the occasional cavalry raid.
Yet, West Virginia did have some military significance because the new state was sandwiched firmly between two critical rail links: the Union’s Baltimore and Ohio and the Confederacy’s Virginia and Tennessee. Each of these rail lines served as irreplaceable lines of communication between both Union and Confederate sources of men and materiel located on the east coast and their respective armies waging war in the Western Theater. Therefore, the disruption of the opposing railway was also of great importance to each side. But, as the fall of 1863 approached, the Federal need to cut the Virginia and Tennessee became especially urgent. As a result, beginning in late October 1863, Union forces in West Virginia would undertake what became a series of small campaigns and raids all designed to disrupt that key Confederate railway.
The first of these campaigns would climax in a somewhat obscure engagement known as the Battle of Droop Mountain. Conventional historical wisdom has long described this fight as the battle which finally determined control of West Virginia. But, did the battle really have this grand impact or was it really just another meaningless skirmish fought in an isolated backwater of the war? Droop Mountain might have been the key engagement in severing the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad, and might have, indeed, determined the fate of the new state—it might have been a small battle that actually meant something in the larger war. Sadly, however, in reality, the battle would accomplish little in any broader strategic sense, not because it was battle fought on the margins, but because of a failure of command. Droop Mountain was a success made meaningless due the actions of one officer who lacked the will to see it through. In this instance, that lack of will, combined with the total absence of the necessary moral courage required follow orders and achieve their objectives, would belong to General William W. Averell, commander of the Union army’s 4th Separate Brigade. Further, in a larger sense for Averell, it would also be one of the first signs of a character flaw which would eventual end what might have been a promising military career.
As the early fall of 1863 began, control of West Virginia and the rail lines it sat astride was weighing heavily on the mind of the Union General-in-Chief, Major General Henry Halleck. September had been a disastrous month for Union forces in the West with Rosecrans’ defeat at Chickamauga in September and Braxton Bragg’s subsequent siege of Chattanooga, where Rosecrans and his men were now bottled up. With Rosecrans’ army pinned down, Confederate forces began a series of ominous moves to threaten Federal control of Eastern Tennessee. Beyond their strategic value, the control of the counties in this region had strong political and emotional value as the local population was overwhelmingly Unionist in sentiment. Their “liberation” had long been a goal of President Lincoln and, now that had been accomplished, the prospect of surrendering the region back to Confederate forces was simply unacceptable.
As a part of the initial stages of this new Confederate campaign, General Sam Jones, who commanded the Confederate Department of Western Virginia and East Tennessee, was ordered to move a large part of his forces into Eastern Tennessee and, within weeks, Bragg would order General James Longstreet to move his corps north from the siege lines surrounding Chattanooga to make a major push at seizing Knoxville. Knoxville, which had been held by Union forces under General Ambrose Burnside since September 3, was considered the key point to the entire region by both sides, and Halleck felt that Union forces must cut the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad to prevent the re-supply and reinforcement of Confederate forces bent on its capture.
To that end, in October, Halleck sent a message to General Benjamin F. Kelley, commander of the Department of West Virginia, indicating that Kelley’s forces should conduct operations designed to cut the Virginia and Tennessee. On October 26, Kelley issued orders to Averell, commander of the 4th Separate Brigade in Beverly, West Virginia, to move on Lewisburg in Greenbrier County with most of his command and drive Confederate forces from the area. He would be assisted in this effort by forces under General Alfred Duffie, who would move in parallel with Averell from Duffie’s base at Charlestown, and link up with Averell in the vicinity of Lewisburg on November 7.
However, the critical part of Kelley’s orders involved the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad. Once Lewisburg was secured, Kelley instructed Averell to leave any infantry behind and advance with the combined mounted forces from his own brigade and Duffie’s command “to Union, in Monroe County, and thence to the bridge on the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad across New River, and destroy the same.”
Unfortunately, using a phrase that was to plague many a Union and Confederate general during the war, Kelley chose to caveat those orders by stating that this should be done if Averell deemed it “practicable” based upon any information he might receive once his forces reached Lewisburg. This license to exercise military judgment would end up costing the Union forces a chance to strike a potentially meaningful blow against the Confederate strategy in Eastern Tennessee.
In Kelley’s defense, on the surface, Averell appeared a good choice in whom to place such trust. A 29-year old veteran, Averell seemed a most capable cavalry officer. After graduating from West Point in 1855, Averell had served with distinction in the West, where he was badly wounded battling Navajos in the New Mexico Territory. When the war broke out, he was on the army’s disabled list, but he was soon appointed Colonel of the 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry and quickly rose to command the 2nd Division of the Cavalry Corps in the Army of the Potomac. However, he eventually ran afoul of Major General Joseph Hooker, who was looking for scapegoats in the wake of the disastrous Battle of Chancellorsville. Hooker blamed Averell for his leading role in General George Stoneman's failed raid against Confederate communications prior to that battle, and he relieved Averell of command, exiling him to West Virginia, where he was given command of the then newly formed 4th Separate Brigade.
When Averell arrived in West Virginia in the early summer of 1863, he found his new command a somewhat motley mix of cavalry, light artillery, and infantry. Worse, Averell’s orders directing him to assume command included instructions to turn his infantry into cavalry as quickly as possible. This would be a complicated task under the best of circumstances but Averell’s problem was compounded by a lack of proper saddles, bridles, and other essential materials needed to train and equip a mounted force. Luckily, however, most of the regiments being converted consisted of West Virginia farm boys who at least understood how to mount and ride a horse. That fact, combined with Averell’s considerable talents as an organizer and trainer resulted in the rapid transformation of three complete regiments of infantry into “mounted infantry.” These men quickly proved to not only be adept at rapid movement on horseback, they also possessed the ability to fight either mounted or dismounted. Described by one visiting Union general as a truly fierce looking group of solders, the 4th Separate Brigade had been successful thus far, but, prior to Droop Mountain, their effectiveness had only been demonstrated in minor raids and skirmishes. Therefore, the coming campaign to cut the Virginia and Tennessee would be their first true test.
The plan developed by Kelly and Averell was complicated, involving two geographically separated columns linking up in the face of enemy opposition—a difficult prospect given the communications of the time and one made worse by the rugged country and poor roads of West Virginia. However, despite that fact, the initial phases of the campaign went off like clockwork, with Averell’s 4,500 troops departing Beverly on November 1 and Duffie’s 1,000 stepping off from Charlestown two days later. Both columns made good progress and Averell encountered the first Confederate opposition at Mill Point on November 5, some 34 miles from Lewisburg. Duffie, meanwhile managed to move undetected until November 6 when his men encountered Southern pickets in the vicinity of Meadow Bluff, a mere 15 miles from Lewisburg. Averell’s men quickly pushed aside the small Confederate force at Mill Point, as the Southern commander, Colonel William Jackson, sent word to General Echols that a Union column he estimated to number 3,500 men was moving south towards Lewisburg.
Jackson retreated seven miles south to Droop Mountain, where the road to Lewisburg climbed from an open valley below to the mountain’s densely wooded crest. Averell followed, but never closed to less than 200 yards from Jackson’s rearguard. As the evening approached, Jackson’s men began to dig in atop the mountain and place their artillery. Jackson aligned his men to block the road and cover the few open approaches to the hilltop, where the land had been cleared and cultivated. The terrain was such that Averell’s men would have to cross a series of rolling hills and ravines covering a distance of over two miles to assault the Confederate position. Jackson’s position was further strengthened when reinforcements under General Echols began to arrive in the evening hours. Being senior to Jackson, Echols assumed command of a combined force of over 2,000 men, which he believed was sufficient to hold Averell’s brigade given the strength of their commanding position. To augment the natural strength of their line, Echols’ had his troops construct breastworks of logs, stone, and earth, all designed to blunt Averell’s anticipated assault.
On the morning of November 6, Averell examined and studied the terrain as well as what he could see of Echols’ defensive line. At first light, he ordered three companies of infantry to advance as skirmishers and confirm the precise nature of Echols’ defenses. They returned to report exactly what Averell expected to find: a strong defensive position designed to disrupt a frontal assault along the axis of the main road. Whatever leadership skills William Averell may have lacked, his abilities as a tactician were excellent and he developed a solid plan for assaulting Echols’ formidable defensive position. Averell intended to attack the Southern line from multiple points, with the key element being an attack through difficult terrain against Echols’ left flank and rear, where the Confederates would least expect it.
The details of Averell’s plan called for dismounted troopers of the 14th Pennsylvania Cavalry, supported by a battery of artillery to pressure the Confederate right, while the 2nd, 3rd, and 8th West Virginia Mounted Infantry demonstrated in Echols’ front. Meanwhile, the veteran Colonel August Moor would lead the flanking force, consisting of the 28th Ohio Infantry and 10th West Virginia Mounted Infantry, plus one company of the 14th Pennsylvania, in a march around the Confederate left. Once in position, Moor would attack the exposed Confederate flank, which would hopefully confuse the enemy and cause them to draw forces from their center. When that happened, Averell would assault the center of the Confederate line with his mounted infantry and, hopefully, overwhelm it.
At 9:00 a.m., Moor began the arduous task of moving his flanking force through the rugged forest and undergrowth, all the while trying to maintain some measure of surprise. His troops marched four miles to the northwest, zigzagging along ditches and fences, then turned back to the south, eventually covering over nine miles before reaching a position opposite the Confederate flank just before 2:00 p.m. Moor could hear firing from his left where Averell’s demonstration was taking place at the center and right of the Southern line. He moved his skirmishers forward and they quickly made contact with Echols’ pickets, who were rapidly driven back. Moor ordered the 28th Ohio forward at a double quick and they were met with a burst of rifle fire from Confederate infantry deployed behind the hedge-like defensive structures they had built during the night. The Ohioans lay down and began to return fire by file as Moor ordered the 10th West Virginia to now move forward and join on the left of the 28th. Together, the two regiments rose up and charged the Confederate line, sweeping to the hilltop, over the defensive embankments, and into the enemy’s rear.
Moor remembered the scene as a wild one, with his “men pouring a deadly fire into the moving rebels, killing and wounding artillery horses; rebel officers urging to make another stand, others cutting loose fallen horses, driving and pushing on cannon and caissons through their infantry.” Confederate opposition quickly melted away and their attempts to reinforce their left by drawing from the center were fruitless as the left collapsed too quickly to be supported.
Hearing the firing from Moor’s men and seeing what he described a “disturbed appearance in front,” Averell now ordered the remainder of his forces to press their attacks all along the Confederate line. The West Virginians attacking the center struggled up the steep slope but received no opposing rifle fire until they were only ten to fifteen yards from the Confederate positions. As a result, they quickly overran the breastworks Echols’ men had labored all night to build and the Confederate collapse was complete. As the defenders ran, throwing away arms and ammunition in the process, some Federal units stopped, exhausted from their climb, while others continued a disorganized pursuit of an even more disorganized foe.
Averell quickly gathered his forces but, rather than press a vigorous pursuit, he elected to encamp for the night and continue towards Lewisburg on the morning of November 7, where he expected to link up with General Duffie’s force and dispatch any remaining Confederate resistance. However, this final fight with Echols’ forces was not to be. The Southern commander, hearing of Duffie’s presence nearby, had his men retreat beyond Lewisburg and over the Greenbrier River, leaving large quantities of supplies behind for the Federals. General Duffie arrived in Lewisburg on the morning of November 7 and Averell’s triumphant brigade joined him a few hours later.
The first part of General Kelly’s plan had been accomplished. Both Union columns had reached Lewisburg on-time and had defeated a Confederate force in the process. Now, they could drive forward, easily push aside Echols’ demoralized units, and destroy the Virginia and Tennessee rail bridge at New River. But, this seemingly assured outcome did not materialize. After destroying all the Confederate supplies they found in Lewisburg, Averell ordered Duffie to begin the movement onward on the morning of November 8, but, contrary to his orders from General Kelley, he sent Duffie tentatively forward with only a small unit of cavalry.
The next morning, General Duffie and his cavalry troopers set out as ordered. After only a few miles march, however, his men encountered obstacles placed in the roadway by Echols’ retreating force, which were cleared as quickly as possible. Then, when they were only eight miles from Union, Duffie’s men ran into Confederate pickets and a brief skirmish ensued in which several Southern prisoners were taken. These men indicated to Duffie that Echols was still in full retreat and was heading all the way to New River, Averell’s final objective. The prisoners also told Duffie that Echols was being reinforced. Averell apparently heard similar stories in Lewisburg, as he stated in his after action report that he had heard “General Lee had promised Brigadier-General Echols ample re-enforcements at or near that point.” In actual fact, while General Jones was desperately trying to organize some form of reinforcement to Echols, there is no evidence any such forces ever materialized. All that can be found in the record of dispatches are a series of panicked requests for assistance from Jones and Echols, with a single response from Jefferson Davis stating that, “Unless local-defense men and militia can be had, there is no re-enforcement possible.”
This unsubstantiated rumor of reinforcement, along with a report from Duffie complaining of his men being “foot-sore” and short of supplies, led Averell to abandon the key and essential part of his mission, which was the destruction of the bridge at New River. From his report, one gets a sense that Averell was satisfied with a small victory at Droop Mountain, along with some destruction of enemy materiel, and decided to go home without accomplishing more of substance. But, even more so, Averell seems to be trying to find a reason to turn back and, as a result, some elements of his report do not ring true. For example, if Duffie was short of supplies, one wonders why he and Averell were so keen to destroy the Confederate stores they found in Lewisburg. Further, Averell had a combined force of nearly 5,000 men, which was certainly superior to anything Echols and Jones could rapidly muster at New River to oppose him. It would appear therefore, that Averell was choosing to deem the move to New River as not being “practicable” so as to capture what little success had been achieved at Droop Mountain and avoid any potential for further risk, even if it meant sacrificing the entire objective of the campaign.
So, on November 9, the two Union columns headed back to their own garrisons and, in the days that followed, Confederate forces quickly moved forward to regain their lost ground, even returning to their entrenchments on Droop Mountain. Confederate reports of Averell and Duffie’s departure seem almost incredulous. General Jones’ dispatch refers to the Unions forces having left “in haste” and adds that Union wounded taken prisoner in Lewisburg informed him that “the reason for their retreat [was] the want of subsistence, and for their haste that they had information that our troops were advancing upon them with large re-enforcements.” He adds that the wounded Union soldiers “complained of their losses and the fruitlessness of the expedition.”
It is, therefore, ironic that, in the aftermath, Droop Mountain would be heralded as the battle that saved West Virginia for the Union and ended organized Confederate operations in the state. This simply was not the case. The truth of the matter is that, in the coming months, the emphasis of operations in the region would simply shift into the Shenandoah Valley as the larger war moved toward a new and climactic stage. Therefore, the operational tempo in the state would also decline. As for the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad, Averell’s failure to decisively move to destroy the bridge at New River would require that his men make other attempts to cut the rail line. Within a few weeks, they would make an arduous and dangerous trek through the mountains in winter conditions in an attempt to destroy the Virginia and Tennessee rail facilities at Salem, Virginia. Again, the men would bravely accomplish all they were asked, but the results would be far less than conclusive. Averell could once more extol the success of his actions, but, despite his men’s sacrifice, the rail line would only be briefly disrupted and, thus, the raid would be of no military significance.
In the coming months, as operations shifted eastward across the mountains and were drawn into the war’s mainstream, Averell and his small brigade would move as well. His able mounted infantry became full fledged cavalry regiments, and both they and their commander would be assigned to fight under the legendary Phil Sheridan in his 1864 Shenandoah Valley campaign. While Averell’s cavalry would go on to be known as some of the toughest and finest fighters in the Union army, his lack of aggression and inability to follow through would be his eventual undoing. In September 1864, at Fisher’s Hill, Sheridan would order Averell to pursue the retreating enemy in an attempt to destroy the remnants of Jubal Early’s defeated army. Instead, as at Droop Mountain, Averell would interpret his orders in a casual manner, and, rather than executing a full fledged pursuit, he would hesitate, pause, and then stop to encamp, while the battered enemy escaped. This time, however, he had failed to follow the orders of one of the most demanding and mercurial officers in the Union army. Averell was relieved of command by Sheridan and, devastated by this action, he resigned from the army in May 1865. He would spend the next twenty years of his life fighting to restore his honor and position. Had he possessed the moral courage, conviction, and professionalism required to effectively lead, he would not have needed to do so. And, had he possessed the strength to command, he would not have wasted his men’s courage and sacrifice at Droop Mountain, resigning it to be just another small battle fought on the margins of the war.