Review: Lee Vs. McClellan: The First Campaign

Why Does Brett Review Older Books?

Lee Vs. McClellan: The First Campaign. Clayton R. Newell. Washington, D.C: Regnery Publishing, Inc. (October 1996). 325 pp. 7 maps.

The following is a review and summary of Clayton R. Newell’s Lee Vs. McClellan: The First Campaign. When I first started reading Lee Vs. McClellan, I did not have a firm grasp of the campaign at all. There is something I find exciting about examining a military campaign for the first time. The “newness” of this particular campaign sure beats reading about Gettysburg for the hundredth time, for example. Going in, I knew that several others whose opinions I respect, including Drew Wagenhoffer and James Durney, had given this one good marks. I also knew, as the title suggests, that this was the true first meeting of McClellan and Lee. And lastly, from reading the dust jacket I learned that the successful conclusion of the campaign from a Union perspective led in no small to the creation of West Virginia. In this book, Newell shows how the fickle nature of war can prostrate a supposedly great man (McClellan) while at the same time resurrecting a career (Lee). He also weaves the campaign narrative around the political maneuvering that brought about the creation of West Virginia in 1863.

The West Virginia Campaign of 1861 was literally the first land campaign of the Civil War. It is known by many names, and often looked at in parts rather than as a whole, but Newell believes that to understand each individual battle or movement, you need to look at the overall campaign. The author stresses that military campaigns are fought as a means to a political end. Interestingly, Lee and McClellan never met in a battle during the campaign, but each shaped his side’s strategy for at least parts of May-December 1861.
Chapter 1: Lee’s Virginia on the Brink of War

Virginia was divided east vs. west in the secession crisis. Ft. Sumter and Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers propelled VA into secession, but the western Virginia delegates refused to agree to this course. The division was partly due to geography. The eastern portion of the state was suitable for large farming ventures that could use slavery to their advantage. The mountainous western portion of the state favored subsistence farming, and mostly German and Scotch-Irish settlers were located there. As such, they were firmly opposed to slavery, and pro-Union sentiment was strong in the western counties in April 1861.
Chapter 2: Two Armies

Lee began the war as the commander of Virginia’s militia, while McClellan similarly received his start as commander of Ohio’s militia. The plans made by each determined the campaign’s outcome, but the two generals never squared off in battle. Newell describes the theater of operations in this chapter. There were few good east-west roads, and even they tended to become impassable in a typical winter. Some key cities in western Virginia are also discussed, including future state capitals Wheeling and Charleston. Any city located along one of the good roads was also important by default. Both sides’ actions based were on political considerations, more so than most. The winner would take western Virginia. While Lee had four invasion routes into Virginia to contend with, McClellan could simply concentrate on his particular offensive from Ohio. Moreover, McClellan was thinking strategically while Lee only thought tactically. This difference would hurt the Confederates in the end.

Chapter 3: Lee and McClellan

Newell hear dedicates a brief chapter discussing the backgrounds of each commander.

Chapter 4: A Railroad Man At War

Chapter 4 concentrates on the Secession convention in Virginia. There was strong resistance in the western counties. Troops were being raised on both sides in the same western Virginia counties. Lincoln waited until after Virginia’s people voted for secession before moving troops into the state. McClellan knew instinctively how important railroads and the telegraph would be. Lee, on the other hand, underestimated the ability of pro-Confederate western Virginians to defend the area. McClellan crossed over into Virginia in late May 1861. He planned to occupy the transportation centers of Grafton and Gauley Bridge in an effort to gain political control over the western portion of the state.

Chapter 5: Philippi

McClellan sent six or so regiments to occupy Grafton, the junction of the Northwestern Virginia and B&O Railroads. Benjamin Kelley, along with Brig. Gen. Thomas Morris, led two columns to the town. Confederates under Col. George Porterfield retreated to Philippi on their approach. The Union leaders planned a two-pronged offensive south to Philippi, but the Confederates escaped. The result was known as the “Philippi races”. The initial “battle” was not much of one, but its true importance was that it showed the loyal people of western Virginia that the Federal government would support them. It led directly to the Second Wheeling Convention, which declared a new, loyal Government of Virginia. Lincoln and Congress recognized this new government shortly thereafter. The Convention postponed the question of becoming a new state until a later date. It was tough to enforce their power due to the large number of pro-secessionists still present in the western counties.
Chapter 6: Lee’s Divided Command

Lee sent Robert Garnett to take over the northern Confederate force in West Virginia. Henry Wise had been appointed by Davis to the southern command in the Kanawha Valley. McClellan continued to receive troops from Indiana and Ohio, and soon moved into western Virginia to take command himself. Newell emphasizes the central command of the Union and the divided command of the Confederates, saying that this allowed McClellan to be successful more so than any other reason. Garnett had occupied two positions, one at Laurel Hill under himself and the other at Rich Mountain under John Pegram. At Rich Mountain on July 11, 1861, McClellan allowed Rosecrans to lead a flank march around the Confederate force stationed there. The Union troops won the day at Rich Mountain, forcing Pegram to surrender some of his men and also making Robert Garnett’s position to the north at Laurel Hill untenable. At the “battle” of Corrick’s Ford during Garnett’s retreat, the commander was shot and killed, becoming the first general on either side to die in battle. The Confederates retreated southeast to Monterey, where Brig. Gen. Henry Rootes Jackson replaced the fallen Garnett.
Chapter 7: “Something Between a Victory and a Defeat”

Newell next turns to operations in the Kanawha Valley after Rich Mountain. Wise was sent into the Kanawha Valley with the Wise Legion, and he also took control of the other troops present in the area. Floyd still at Wytheville in Shenandoah, ordered to reinforce Wise. Cox was then ordered by McClellan to organize a brigade and move into Kanawha Valley via Point Pleasant. Cox would hold Wise while McClellan moved in on his northern or right flank. Wise, however, retreated before Floyd could join him. McClellan’s overall command, and the divided command of the Confederates, led to the withdrawal. There was a small fight at Scary Creek between portions of Cox’s and Wise’s commands, but it was more of a draw than anything. Newell writes that Wise’s small success there would soon be overwhelmed by McClellan’s mastery of the operational situation via railroads, the telegraph, and his being in overall command.
Chapter 8: Davis Turns To Lee

The First Battle of Manassas had a large effect on the Western Virginia Campaign. McClellan’s small victories, accompanied by his “Napoleonic rhetoric”, as Newell puts it, made him a Northern hero. Johnston and Beauregard beat McDowell at First Manassas on July 21, 1861, and the North started looking for someone to replace the Union commander. Newell points out that Lee had organized much of the force that won the battle, but got no recognition because he wasn’t in field command. At the same time, McClellan had organized most of the forces from Ohio, but he had used them under his command and gained renown as a result. After Bull Run, McClellan was ordered to Washington after having declared the Western Virginia Campaign was “over”. The Confederates had the final say if it was really “over”, and they sent Lee to western Virginia to continue the fight.
Chapter 9: Lee Goes to the Front

Since Robert Garnett had died in the retreat from Rich Mountain, William Loring was appointed in his place after a brief period during which Henry Jackson was in command. Lee was sent by Davis not as the overall commander, but as a sort of advisor to Loring, Wise, and Floyd. His visit to Loring at Huntersville did not go well at all. Lee backed down and reaffirmed Loring was in control. At the same time Loring was taking command in the northwest for the Rebels, Rosecrans took over for McClellan as overall commander in western Virginia. McClellan advised “Rosy” to assume the defensive, and Jacob Cox in the Kanawha Valley was also ordered to stand down. Henry Wise continued to retreat east away from Charleston in the Kanawha Valley, however, and despite losing some three-months men, Cox followed him all the way to Gauley Bridge, completely clearing the valley of Rebels. Wise moved to White Sulfur Springs and met up with Floyd, who was also a political general and Wise’s rival. The two men argued with each other, and with Lee unable to give suggestions to Loring, the Rebel command in western Virginia was as divided as ever. Rosecrans, meanwhile, continued the single, solid overall command McClellan had started. The proposed Confederate offensive faced serious obstacles, according to Newell, and stood in stark contrast to the earlier spring offensive of the Federals. Meanwhile, the politicians in western Virginia debated the feasibility of making a new state, including when this should happen and how large it should be.
Chapter 10: Lee’s Warring Generals

Due to the Confederate victory at Manassas, Rosecrans went on the defensive. He established a telegraph line and defensive outposts on a north-south line from Weston in the north all the way to Cox’s position at Gauley Bridge in the south. Rosecrans believed that the various Rebel forces were operating in step with one another, and he was convinced they would launch a major offensive to take back as much territory as possible. Floyd, with Wise reluctantly in tow, decided to split the line of communications between Cox and Rosecrans at Carnifex Ferry. He reached that town and dug in while Wise threatened Gauley Bridge. In response, Rosecrans formed three brigades at Clarksburg in the north and moved south toward Carnifex Ferry and Gauley Bridge. At the Battle of Carnifex Ferry, Rosecrans was unable to break Floyd’s line, but Floyd retreated that night. Floyd and Wise continued the retreat to Sewell Mountain 18 miles to the east, where they continued to quarrel. Cox and Rosecrans followed, but slowly. Newell points out that even more territory had been gained before the all-important October 24 referendum on possibly forming a new state.
Chapter 11: Lee’s Plan Goes Awry

Loring had so far failed to listen to Lee, and his hesitation to attack the Cheat Mountain position allowed the Federals to strengthen it and move on Floyd to the south. Two things happened in late August-early September to change this. First, Lee was promoted to full General, making Loring much more willing to listen to him. Second, Lee himself found a flank route to attack Cheat Mountain. Newell here criticizes Lee for not taking charge of the situation earlier, and also for thinking tactically when he should have been thinking operationally. Loring and Lee came up with a complicated plan to attack Cheat Mountain and another Federal position at Elkwater using five columns. Here Newell again chastises Lee for appointing Albert Rust, a junior regimental commander, to lead the key column that was to make a flanking attack. Surprisingly, says Newell, all columns got into position on time…but Rust failed to attack and retreated, forcing the other columns to pull back. Lee’s failure at Cheat Mountain on September 12 was due to his appointment of Rust to command the key column, says Newell. Lee, having now heard of the bitter feud between Floyd and Wise and their constant retreating, now headed south in an attempt to force them to work together and try to salvage the southern flank of the campaign. Newell says that, finally, the Confederates had one man in charge of the campaign. Whether or not it was too late would remain to be seen.
Chapter 12: “If They Would Attack Us…”

Lee reached the feuding Wise and Floyd in late September 1861. Wise was at Sewell Mountain with Floyd positioned several miles further east. Cox had moved near Sewell Mountain in a threatening manner, and Floyd and Wise each urged the other to join forces. Lee apparently did not want to offend either man, so he left things the way they were at first before finally ordering Floyd to join Wise at Sewell Mountain. Lee was appalled at the condition of Wise’s troops, who were scantily clad, poorly armed, and not well-trained. The problem of the feuding generals was solved when Davis ordered Wise to turn over his command to Floyd and head to Richmond. In late September, it started to rain, wiping out portions of the supply line for both armies. In early October, as a result, Rosecrans retreated to Gauley Bridge, and Lee’s men were too worn out and starved to follow. Lee then sent Floyd on a move to Fayetteville to try to flank the Yankee retreat. Floyd did manage to occupy Cotton Hill, a rise across the Kanawha River from Gauley Bridge, and he shelled the town and Rosecrans’ supplies. Rosecrans attempted to trap Floyd on the hill, but the ineptness of Henry Benham, one of Rosecrans’ brigade commanders, allowed Floyd to escape. In the northern portion of western Virginia, J.J. Reynolds attacked a Confederate position at Camp Bartow on the Greenbrier River. Lee’s attention turned to that area, and he contemplated ordering Loring to reinforce Jackson against Reynolds. The poor winter weather basically ended the campaign, and troops were gradually sent to other theaters of war. The North had captured all of western Virginia, but they hadn’t yet come close to capturing the all-important Shenandoah Valley. Lee had returned to Richmond on October 30.
Chapter 13: The Lessons of Defeat

Both sides were ready in late 1861 to move into winter quarters. Lee moved Jackson’s troops from Camp Bartow further east to Camp Allegheny, trying to better protect them from attack. Edward Johnson took over for General Jackson, who had resigned from the Confederate Army. Robert Milroy, who had taken over for Reynolds on the northern side, attacked Camp Allegheny and was driven back in a sharp little fight on December 13, 1861. Een before this fight, troops began to be transferred to other areas: Floyd’s Brigade went to Tennessee, while Ambrose Bierce’s Ninth Indiana was sent to Cheat Mountain, spent the winter there, and was then sent to Tennessee in February. As these troops departed, the Yankee government in western Virginia started to raise troops to replace them.
Lee and McClellan compared and contrasted

McClellan was at his apex, and Lee his nadir of their respective careers.

Lee would not publicly blame others for the defeat. Davis, meanwhile, still had faith in the general and knew the whole story. The Confederate President sent Lee to South Carolina in November 1861. Newell says that Lee had a remarkable ability to inspire confidence in troops, but that in this early campaign he failed as a commander of generals. Lee issued broad orders and allowed subordinates to carry them out as they saw fit. While this would later work in the Army of Northern Virginia, men such as Loring, Wise, and Floyd were ill-equipped to handle this type of discretion. Lee also used complex offensive plans for new troops, and his thinking stayed at the tactical level during the campaign. He misunderstood the political situation, thinking that the militia in western Virginia could defend the area. To make matters worse, he had four avenues of invasion to worry about as commander of Virginia militia. Nevertheless, Lee was promoted and became the third ranking Confederate general. His concern for his men became well known. Most importantly, says the author, Lee learned to not shy away from decisive action when circumstances required.

McClellan was suddenly a national hero for his role in the Campaign. The press and public thought him a Napoleon who could end the war quickly. The general was a master organizer, but he had trouble commanding in the field. Little Mac had been quick to criticize subordinates, unlike Lee, and he also possessed a large ego, according to Newell. However, in McClellan’s favor, he planned the campaign at the strategic level while also recognizing the political implications of success or failure. In addition, he could concentrate on an offensive campaign in one direction, rather than defending four separate areas like Lee. McClellan’s plan to invade Virginia along the Kanawha Valley was the first attempt at an overall plan to end war.

Heavy rains in August and September had made movement difficult. The terrain also combined to make supply lines vulnerable. The campaign was a significant Federal success, with little cost of life. The Union control of the territory west of the Alleghenies made life easy on the pro-Union politicians who wished to form a new state. Confederates could claim partial victory by denying the North access to the Shenandoah Valley. Elements of modern warfare were introduced, including the telegraph and steam powered railroads and ships. The goal of both sides was the same: control of western Virginia (a political goal obtained by military means). The campaign was decisive, according to Newell, because it fostered conditions that led to the creation of West Virginia. The Federals gained a significant strategic advantage but failed to use this springboard to attack the Shenandoah Valley. Occupation of western Virginia allowed Ohio and Pennsylvania to concentrate on providing troops rather than defending their borders. Around 30,000 men served the Union and 10,000-12,000 served the Confederacy from western Virginia. This first campaign of the war lasted 8 months. The Alleghenies produced a natural defensive line along which both sides settled. The campaign left McClellan high and Lee low, but both retained the confidence of the politicians.
Epilogue: How They Fared After the First Campaign

Newell discusses the various generals and their later exploits or failures in the Civil War


The notes were not prodigious, but there were an adequate number.


The bibliography seems to be mostly magazine and journal articles along with some regimental histories.



The book seems to be quite adequately indexed as well.


-7 maps

The maps were just barely adequate. The best map can be found on page 30, and I referred back to it constantly. However, there were no smaller maps of the key areas such as Cheat Mountain, Gauley Bridge, etc. Battle maps were sorely lacking as well. Given the overall goal of focusing on the campaign rather than the individual battles, this is not a fatal flaw.
The usual McClellan digs are here, though I don’t really disagree too much with the conventional view of McClellan. I learned quite a lot about the first year of the war in western Virginia from Newell’s book. The author held my interest and never veered off-topic. This seemed to be a very good primer and a gateway to explore some of the topics in detail, including the Battles of Rich Mountain, Philippi, and Carnifex Ferry and the formation of the state of West Virginia. The divided nature of the Confederate command versus the united nature of the Union command played a huge role in this campaign, and the author emphasizes this repeatedly. The lack of good maps combined with the lack of detail in some places made it tough for me to envision what was going on at times geographically speaking. Those with a better knowledge of town locations in West Virginia would have fared much better than I did. One example was Floyd’s trip to Fayetteville. It is never explicitly marked on a map, other than to say “this road led there”; I knew it was vaguely southeast of Gauley Bridge somewhere, but that’s it. I followed Newell’s book with W. Hunter Lesser’s book Rebels At The Gate, so look for a review of that one I the next week or so and a Back-To-Back Books entry some time in the near future comparing and contrasting the two books.

I thoroughly enjoyed learning about a campaign with which I was totally unfamiliar. Newell here offers a concise history of a little-known campaign which was also politically important, more so than most. The author writes well, particularly when discussing the individual battles. The maps were less than satisfactory, being barely adequate for their purpose. On the other hand, since this is a campaign study focusing more on the overall results than the individual battles, I can live with these maps. I would highly recommend this one to those readers interested in Civil War paths less traveled, or in the history of West Virginia and its formation. The seeds for that formation were sewn by the events portrayed in this book.

Note: This blog entry originally appeared on June 15, 2006 on the American Civil War Gaming & Reading blog, but was not in the last saved archive. These old posts from June 2006-February 2007 will be gradually added here over time.

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