I have always found William Woods Averell a somewhat fascinating Civil War command figure. Now, I know that many of you may be saying, “William who?” However, if you have been reading this blog consistently over the course of the last year, you may recall that I have mentioned Averell on several occasions. That is because Averell commanded the Union’s 4th Separate Brigade in West Virginia. As a result, he played a key role in the events surrounding my essays on Droop Mountain, the David Creigh affair, and the service of one of my ancestors, Samuel Snider, who served as a private in Averell’s command.
As to why he fascinates me, one of the reasons is that reaction of, ‘William who?” Interestingly, while almost every Civil War general who ever commanded anything beyond his adjutant and immediate staff has a biography published, no one has ever written one on Averell. The closest thing to a biographic effort was Edward Eckert and Nicholas Amato’s editing of Averell’s unfinished memoirs, titled “Ten Years in the Saddle,” which only covered his early life and his military career up to 1862. Beyond that, little notice has been given to Averell’s wartime career. And, perhaps, that is because the only thing noteworthy about Averell’s command performance is his unrealized potential, and maybe that is also what makes him a little fascinating as well.
William Averell grew up in the area around Cameron, New York, and his father was a man of many trades, including farmer, justice of the peace, postmaster, and constable. When young William was old enough to be on his own, he moved to the nearby town of Bath, where he worked as a drugstore clerk. However, like many young men, Averell had ambitions beyond life in upstate New York and yearned to attend college. Unfortunately, his parents did not have the funds to support his ambitions, so he sought an appointment to West Point, which he received in 1850. Averell thrived during his years at the Military Academy, making many good friends and embracing the life of a soldier—he found what he believed to be his calling. He would graduate in 1855, 26th in a class of 34, and was commissioned as a lieutenant of cavalry.
Following assignments at Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis and Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania, we was sent west to the New Mexico Territory, where he saw his first combat fighting the Navajos, Kiowas, and Zunis. Unlike some, Averell seems to have enjoyed the life of a soldier in a distant frontier garrison, both the often dull routine as well as the excitement of patrol, with its ambushes and close encounters with death. However, the most important thing to note about William Averell and his early military career is that he truly became a classic product of the “Old Army” and, as such, for better and for worse, his attitudes and conduct as a commander during the Civil War would be formed on that basis.
When I say that Averell was a product of the pre-war U.S. Army culture, I mean that is several ways. First, while he recognized wars were the result of political policy, he did not believe that they should be fought for political ends or purposes. Even more so, he did not believe that those holding political office, including the President of the United States, should play any significant role in the conduct and execution of the war—that was solely the domain of the soldier. This attitude was further strengthened by Averell’s view of the Civil War as an unnecessary product of political ambitions and failures that was now left to soldiers to fix. One could also go so far as to say that he viewed the Civil War as an unpleasant interruption in the soldierly life that now caused members of the heretofore brotherly fraternity of Army officers to fight one another, disrupting the pleasant and serene lifestyle of garrison duties.
In fairness, however, it must also be said that Averell believed in the cause of the Union, as did many of his fellow Northern professional soldiers, and was determined to fight in that cause. Still, it is important to understand that the Union was all he believed in fighting for—unpleasant issues such as the extension of slavery to the territories and emancipation had no place in the cause. The South merely needed to be shown the error of their ways via a few Federal victories and then politely allowed to re-renter the Union. In this sense, one can see that Averell stood in the same camp of officers that included men like George B. McClellan and John Fitz-Porter. In fact, it has been said that he almost a mirror image of McClellan, and, as I will describe, there is much truth in that statement.
Averell was badly wounded by a Indian arrow in 1859 and he returned to his family in Bath to convalesce and regain strength in his leg. Than convalescence leave would continue until the firing on Fort Sumter, some two years later. Having regained his health, he traveled to Washington and reported for duty. Following a rather incredible assignment in which he traveled thousands of miles on horseback through Confederate territory to successfully deliver orders to a Federal garrison in the Indian Territory beyond Arkansas, Averell was ordered to Averell was take command of an unruly Kentucky Cavalry regiment, later re-designated as the Third Pennsylvania Cavalry. Appointed as the regiment’s colonel, he trained, organized, and equipped them, turning them into a reasonable facsimile of a fighting unit. This success resulted in his promotion to command of a cavalry brigade that included that same regiment.
However, by the early summer of 1863, Averell had displayed another characteristic shared by George McClellan: a lack of resolve. Like McClellan, Averell was an excellent organizer, trainer, and planner. But, unfortunately and just like McClellan, when the fighting began, while he might go into battle with fury, he soon would back off and never finish the job. Like McClellan, he did not believe in the concept of a “hard war” as did men like Grant and Sherman, and he wanted the fighting to be more civilized and polite. He thought that one should hurt the enemy just enough to make them change their minds. As a result, he lacked the kind of aggression needed to be a successful commander. During the Chancellorsville campaign, this tendency highlighted him sufficiently to receive the wrath of General Joe Hooker. Hooker needed scapegoats following his disastrous defeat and Averell became one. Hooker relieved him of command and he was ordered first to Washington and then Philadelphia.
Before he could arrive in Philadelphia, fate intervened in the form of General Robert Schenck, commander of the Department of West Virginia. Schenck was badly in need of officers who could reorganize and train his scattered forces and he believed Averell might be just the man for the job. Upon arrival in West Virginia, Averell found his command to be a somewhat ragtag mixture of Ohio and West Virginia cavalry, infantry, and light artillery who had seen rather undistinguished service in a series of Federal defeats in the Shenandoah Valley and at Second Manassas. Worse, shortly after he arrived, Averell was ordered to retrain and reorganize his infantry into cavalry and to do so 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 would be successful operating under Averell during a series minor raids and skirmishes during the summer and early fall of 1863.
Their first real test and Averell’s, as well, would come in the Droop Mountain campaign. The men would perform well, driving off Confederate forces defending the road over that mountain toward Lewisburg and sending them into full retreat. Averell, on the other hand, would not do so well. While his plan and execution for the engagement at Droop Mountain was masterful, he once again stopped short of his objective. His orders had been to take Lewisburg and drive on to the nearby Virginia and Tennessee Railroad bridge over the New River. Once there, he was to destroy the bridge and, thus, sever a vital supply link to Confederate forces operating under James Longstreet in eastern Tennessee. But, once he reached Lewisburg, Averell hesitated, perceiving danger in every rumored move of the enemy and always believing the worst. He then elected to liberally interpret his orders and, citing supply shortages which did not exist, he turned his command about and went home.
This is not to say, however, that Averell was not a good leader. Shortly after Droop Mountain, he led his men on the Salem Raid against the same Virginia and Tennessee Railroad, this time trying to destroy rail lines and rolling stock near Salem, Virginia. The raid was noteworthy for its audacity and the horrible winter weather his command encountered. But, despite snow, sleet, ice, driving rains, and flooded streams, Averell led his men to Salem and back, suffering with them, shivering in his saddle just like them. Few officers could have performed as well. Still, the raid accomplished little and the rail facilities in and around Salem were repaired in a matter of days. And, like Droop Mountain, the raid would be presented by Averell as a great success and his commanders would accept that version of the story.
The picture that emerges here is one of an officer who appeared competent but, perhaps, that was only because he was fighting small, isolated actions in one of the war’s backwaters. Here, his lack of aggressive leadership was not so apparent. Unfortunately for William Averell, the course of the war would soon change and he would again find himself commanding troops engaged in major actions. Worse, this time, he would be serving under one of the most aggressive and mercurial commanders of the war, Philip Sheridan.
In the summer of 1864, Averell and his brigade would be reassigned to Sheridan’s new Army of the Shenandoah, which was directed by General grant to drive Jubal Early’s Confederate army out of the valley and secure the Shenandoah once and for all. Sheridan was the perfect man for the job—decisive, aggressive, and demanding, everything William Averell and officers like him were not. Initially, he performed well. Late in the afternoon during the Battle of Third Winchester, with infantry fighting raging, Averell and Wesley Merritt led their cavalry divisions down the Valley Pike from the north at a thundering gallop, crashing into the Confederate left flank. They quickly overran the cavalry and infantry defending the Southern redoubts there and forced the enemy infantry to withdraw. The damage caused by this attack was phenomenal. The word that Union cavalry was in their rear spread panic all along the Confederate line, and Early’s soldiers began a mad dash for the rear, “whirling through Winchester.” In some ways, this moment would be the zenith of Averell’s career, and it would be short lived.
A few days later, at Fisher’s Hill, as Early’s army fell back in disorder from another defeat at Sheridan’s hands, Averell was ordered pursue the retreating Confederate troops. Sheridan’s hope was that the cavalry would scatter and essentially destroy Early’s forces then and there, ending the campaign. He sent a dispatch to Averell, saying, “I do not want you to let the enemy bluff you or your command, and I want you to distinctly understand this note. I do not advise rashness, but I do desire resolution and actual fighting, with necessary casualties, before you retire. There must now be no backing or filling by you, without a superior force of the enemy actually engaging you.” However, once again, Averell chose to interpret his orders loosely. Rather than aggressively following and engaging Early’s men, he decided to stop and regroup, allowing the enemy to retreat unmolested. Sheridan was outraged. That very evening, he issued the following special order:
SPECIAL ORDERS No. 41.
HDQRS. MIDDLE MILITARY DIVISION, September 23, 1864.
I. Bvt. Maj. Gen. W. W. Averell, commanding Second Cavalry Division, Department of West Virginia, is relieved from duty with that command and will at once proceed to Wheeling, W. Va., there to await orders from these headquarters or higher authority. General Averell will only take with him his personal staff. Col. William H. Powell, Second West Virginia Cavalry, is assigned to the command of the Second Cavalry Division, Department of West Virginia, until otherwise ordered.
By command of Major-General Sheridan
Averell was crushed and his military career was over. He returned home to Bath where, ironically, he would receive his brevet promotion to Major general on March 13, 1865. Five days later, he would tender his formal resignation from the army that he loved so much. He consider Sheridan’s actions in relieving him at Fisher’s Hill to have been illegal and unjustified and, while he would go on to a successful post-war career as a diplomat and inventor, he would spend much of his remaining life fighting to restore his name as an officer. Finally, in 1888, with fellow Democrat Grover Cleveland in the White House, Averell was reinstated in the Army by a special Act of Congress and placed upon the retired list. With his reinstatement, he was appointed to the post of Assistant Inspector General of Soldiers’ Homes. He resigned the position in 1898 and died two years later on February 3, 1900.
In some ways, William Averell’s command portrait is that of a man caught in the middle of tremendous change, both in the military culture of the United States and in the nature of war itself. No longer would the Army fight wars free from what men like Averell and McClellan saw as political “interference.” From this point forward, the president would function as commander-in-chief and establish political war aims for the nation. The military’s job was to develop and execute a strategy to achieve those aims. Further, under General Order 100, which was issued in 1863 and would serve as the foundation for U.S. military doctrine well into the 20th century, those aims would now include freedom for any and all enslaved persons. And, the strategy to achieve those aims might very well involve the use of massive force and destructive power. For all his talents as a soldier, William Averell could not see the necessity to change with the times, to look ahead, and to see that the army and the art of war were revolutionizing right before his eyes. His stubborn adherence to a command style based on training, detailed organization, endless preparation, and an overriding spirit of caution combined with a lack of vision to be his undoing as a commander.