The First Campaign

A review of Lee vs. McClellan, The First Campaign (Regnery Publishing, 2010) by Clayton R. Newell.

The title of this work is misleading, since Robert E. Lee never fielded troops against George B. McClellan. In fact, they never met on the battlefields, as McClellan had a unified command structure and ordered his troops about while Lee had to contend with a fractured command structure. Lincoln gave McClellan free reign to command troops from three States — Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois — while Lee was Jefferson Davis’ advisor to generals continuously feuding. In short, McClellan commanded his subordinates while Lee advised.

There were similarities to both men. Both attended West Point and graduated second in their class, Lee in 1829 and McClellan in 1845. Both received commissions into the Corps of Engineers. Both had their first taste of war in the Mexican War. After Mexico they both served at West Point. Both transferred to the cavalry in 1855. Lee stayed until 1861; McClellan resigned to work in railroading until 1861. They were both commissioned major generals on April 23, 1861.

Western Virginia is a vast wooded area between the Ohio River on the west and the Valley of Virginia on the east. The north-south canyon-valleys and swift-flowing streams and rivers made east-west movement difficult. There were then few roads and rail lines, offering little choice to an invading army advancing from the Ohio. There were, however, secondary roads in abundance. From November through April, however, most were not passable unless frozen. In May spring rains made them mud slides. In summer they were dusty and a rainstorm made them muddy again. With no maps of the area, commanders resorted to local guides, who could be on your side or not.

Western Virginia politically was in a constant feud with eastern Virginia, since they thought the east got most of the benefits while the west was ignored. They therefore welcomed Yankee troops entering the State from Ohio. Loyal units were immediately raised. For pro-Union politicians in the western part of Virginia, the Union buildup in Ohio offered a potential solution to their desire for Virginia, or at least part of it, to remain in the Union. But there were still many pro-Confederate residents in the Kanawha Valley.

Henry A. Wise, Governor of Virginia at the time of the John Brown raid, had dreamed in 1861 of organizing “an independent partisan command, subject only to the general laws and orders of the service.” When western Virginia’s Union loyalty became evident, Wise was summoned to Richmond by President Jefferson Davis, given a commission as a brigadier general, and hurried off to the Kanawha Valley. By his personal eloquence and appeals, he in seven weeks raised a “Legion” of 2850 men – infantry, cavalry, and artillery – which he mustered into Confederate service. “Every step,” he subsequently reported, “was amid the rattlesnakes of treason to the South or petty serpents of jealousy in the disaffection of my own camp.”

While Wise was in the Kanawha Valley, Brigadier General John B. Floyd was completing the enlistment of a “brigade of riflemen” that President Davis had authorized him to raise in southwest Virginia, where Floyd resided. Floyd had been a lawyer, a politician, a member of the Virginia legislature, and Governor of Virginia. As Secretary of War during most of Buchanan’s administration, he had been accused of favoring the South by scattering the regular army and by piling up late-model arms in Federal arsenals in the South.

These two newly minted generals were continuously feuding over their power in western Virginia, their rank, and who was in charge. When Robert E. Lee was finally sent there by Davis, he found these two generals more interested in their own territories than cooperating and defeating Yankees.

Typical of the early days of The War, troops were poorly armed and clothed, and sometimes badly fed. Battles which would be considered skirmishes later during this time were considered to be major battles. Take Philippi, for example. The Confederates had not put out skirmishers. They had been ordered to move to a new position that morning when the Yankees surprised them. The Yankees were trying a pincers movement, something that was difficult even late in The War, and one accidental shot started the battle. After this major battle, what the Yankee press called the “Philippi Races”, the Confederates had gotten away, the Union held the field, and several shots had been fired. The killed and wounded were 4 Union, 26 Confederate.

Lee could not get supplies because of the inclement weather and inadequate transportation. As a consequence offensive operations were restricted to brief periods, with men and animals becoming gaunt. Lee’s inability to get supplies determined his plans on Sewell Mountain and his subsequent decision not to continue the pursuit of Union forces. On the eve of the expected battle between the Union and Lee on Sewell Mountain, the New and Kanawha rivers reached the highest stages in their history. On this point Lee’s biographer, Douglas Southall Freeman, concludes, “It is very doubtful whether any soldier could have succeeded in such weather,” especially when, as stated by the same author, “The rains appear to have washed away his initiative.” Lee later told a friend, “[A] battle would have been without substantial result, that the Confederates were seventy miles from their rail base, that the roads were almost impassable, that it would have been difficult to procure two days’ food, and that if he had attacked and beaten [the Union commander] Rosecrans, he would have been compelled to retire because he could not provision his army.”

What is not discussed is that Confederates from the Deep South after this were removed and sent back South because of the cold weather; they weren’t prepared for it. My great-great-grandfather’s unit, the 13th Georgia, was removed and sent to South Carolina for that very reason. The wagons and the horses collapsed for both Union and Confederate, causing Union commanders to withdraw from the field and enter winter encampments. While McClellan’s troops could get supplies from the close-by Ohio River, Confederates had to depend upon horse-drawn wagons from the Shenandoah to the east.

Newell does a magnificent job of coordinating the formation of West Virginia with the various battles going on there. The main weakness is the maps. There is one good one of West Virginia, but terrible ones of the various battles. If you are going to attempt to read this book, I suggest you find some good maps of the first battles. He does include a “How They Fared” chapter telling what happened to the various commanders involved, which is informative.

These first battles and the loss of western Virginia are not well known in War Between the States history, so this book is a necessary addition. McClellan’s actions and successes made him a Union hero. Lee’s failures in trusting green troops and even greener generals led to his failure. But McClellan was allowed command, while Lee was merely an advisor. Lee as commander might have been a different story, as we now know.

About John C. Whatley

John C. Whatley is a retired USArmy Field Artillery Officer and an adjunct professor of business law. He is the author of over 200 by-lined articles on the War Between the States in magazines, newsletters, and newspapers, and is the author of the Typical Confederate series [Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Alabama so far]. He also speaks on The War to historic groups in various States. When he has time, he also works as a business and tax consultant. More from John C. Whatley

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