Review: Rebels At The Gate

Rebels At The Gate: Lee and McClellan on the Front Lines of a Nation Divided. W. Hunter Lesser. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, Inc. (May 2004). 376 pp. 3 maps.

The following is a review and summary of Rebels At The Gate, a book by W. Hunter Lesser focusing on the 1861 campaign in western Virginia. The overall Union victory in this series of fights paved the way for the creation of the state of West Virginia in 1863. I’ve already read Clayton Newell’s book Lee vs. McClellan, covering essentially the same campaign, so it will be interesting to see how the books compare and contrast. The author sets out to provide a look at the very human struggle in this mountainous area, often dividing families and friends. I know more about the Western Virginia Campaign than I did before I read Newell’s book, and I hope to add to that knowledge with this one. The maps were few and far between in Newell’s book, but I see hardly any in this book. That’s not a great sign. The key to this book, in my opinion, is how well it builds on Newell’s work. Lesser’s book is a little longer and was produced eight years later than Newell’s, so if he does not add anything new of substance, there really wasn’t much of a need for the book.
Prelude: The Delectable Mountains

Lesser sets the stage with a brief history of Virginia up to 1861. The state was filled with sectional strife since the western counties were filled with people opposed to slavery. Citizens in the Shenandoah Valley sided with eastern Virginia due to the slavery issue. Three major east-west turnpikes ran through the rough terrain of western Virginia: the Northwestern Turnpike, the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike, and the James River & Kanawha Turnpike. These roads were key to the military movements to be attempted in the near future. Both sides wanted to control western Virginia for political reasons. If the Union controlled this area, it would deny Virginia a good portion of her population and territory and erase invasion routes into Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Part I: Impending Storm

Chapter 1: A Very God of War

George McClellan was appointed head of the Ohio Militia, and later to the Department of Ohio. Lesser briefly describes McClellan’s background in this chapter as well. During the first call for volunteers, Ohio far exceeded its quota of 10,000 men. A camp of instruction was formed and was named Camp Dennison. McClellan created the first known plan for winning the war by invading Virginia and moving on Richmond through the Alleghenies. Northern states were concerned with Kentucky and western Virginia because both might provide avenues to attack Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Union men in western Virginia, and those scared of invasion in Ohio and Pennsylvania, clamored for a move into western Virginia. This area was of great strategic importance. Governor Dennison of Ohio agreed that the best defense was a good offense, and he gave McClellan the go-ahead to move into the western portions pf the Old Dominion.
Chapter 2: Bury It Deep Within The Hills

Chapter 2 was a chapter that dealt mostly with political issues. John Carlile, a Clarksburg attorney, spoke out against secession during Virginia’s Secession Convention from February to April 1861, but he was run out of Richmond after Virginia decided to secede pending a May 23 public referendum. Western men had voted against secession, and Carlile organized a convention of Unionists in Wheeling on May 13, 1861. Carlile favored creating a new state, but others such as William T. Willey and John Pierpont wanted to see if Virginia was truly going to vote to secede. The convention ended with a decision to wait until after the public referendum to decide what to do.
Chapter 3: A Tower Of Strength

Lesser next discusses Robert E. Lee’s background. Lee turned down an offer to command all U.S. forces and had his family move from Arlington soon after the start of the war. He was placed in command of the Virginia militia on April 23, 1861, the same day McClellan was placed in charge of their Ohio counterparts. Lee tried to prepare Virginia for attacks from all points of the compass except south, and this divided his attention. He sent several men to recruit in western Virginia, but they received a lukewarm reception. Lee could not fathom the possibility of Virginians betraying their state.
Chapter 4: The Girl I Left Behind Me

Recruiting and training took up the majority of Lee and McClellan’s time in the opening days after Fort Sumter. Lesser contrasts the great enthusiasm shown in Richmond with the divided loyalties of western Virginia just after Virginia seceded. Richmond was a large training camp, as were Cincinnati and Indianapolis. The author throws in some human interest stories as well, and quotes from quite a few diaries.
Chapter 5: McClellan Eyes Virginia

The 1st and 2nd (U.S.) Virginia Volunteer Infantry regiments are detailed as the chapter begins. Colonel Benjamin Kelley led the 1st, which was made up of men from Ohio and Pennsylvania in addition to loyal Virginians. When Virginia officially seceded, McClellan was ordered to move into the state to protect those loyal to the Union. He sent the 1st Virginia down the B&O Railroad from Wheeling with instructions to repair bridges burned by Confederate troops under Col. George Porterfield. Another Union force moved east from Parkersburg down the Northwestern Virginia Railroad, with both forces reaching Grafton in late May-early June 1861. Grafton was important as the intersection of the two railroads, and the Union advance forced the Confederates to retreat south to Philippi.

Part II: First Clash of Armies

Chapter 6: The Philippi Races

The resulting “Battle” of Philippi occurred on June 3, 1861. Two Union columns from Grafton headed south t confront Porterfield. Dumont marched to the west of the Tygart Valley River and Kelley to the east, with the whole under Brig. Gen. Thomas Morris. These forces were to attack Philippi from the north and southeast, respectively. Dumont attacked too soon, and Kelley was unable to cut off the resulting retreat. Col. Porterfield’s 775 Confederates “skedaddled” 30 miles southeast to Beverly. There was hardly any loss of life, but McClellan called it a “decisive engagement.” Philippi had been a Confederate hotbed, so its capture was doubly sweet for the Union forces. It was the first land engagement of the Civil War.
Chapter 7: Let This Line Be Drawn Between Us

The Second Wheeling Convention was held from June 11-25, 1861. The delegates, again led by John Carlile and Samuel Pierpont, voted to create a new “Reorganized” Government of Virginia. Once recognized as the legitimate government of the state by the Federal Government, they could look for statehood. Pierpont was elected governor of this “Reorganized” government. He raided several banks and appropriated money belonging to the state for the new government’s use. Lincoln and the Federal government soon recognized this government as legitimate.
Chapter 8: A Dreary-Hearted General

Lee sent his adjutant, Robert Garnett, to relieve Porterfield in West Virginia. Porterfield’s handling of the army at Philippi had caused the change. Garnett was pessimistic on his chances due to the fact that he had only 5,300 men. McClellan, now entering the theater of war, had 20,000. He also used the telegraph to his advantage. Garnett had his main force at Laurel Hill, and he placed another group of men to watch his flank at Rich Mountain under Lt. Col. John Pegram. McClellan planned to hold Garnett with a small force under Thomas Morris while he and his main force confronted Pegram, drove him back, and cut off Garnett’s retreat. It was to be a repeat of Cerro Gordo during the Mexican War. Morris’ men succeeded in holding Garnett’s attention, and it was now up to McClellan, who, as was to become a habit, overestimated the Southern forces.
Chapter 9: The Whole Earth Seemed To Shake

The resulting Battle of Rich Mountain took place on July 11, 1861. McClellan did not want to attack frontally, but he sent men forward to reconnoiter the Rebel position on Rich Mountain. Rosecrans found a potential guide, 22 year old John Hart, who lived nearby behind the Confederate lines. He promised to lead Rosecrans on a little used path to flank the Rebels. McClellan was initially inclined not to use the plan, but he finally assented. After Rosecrans’ guns were heard, Little Mac would attack from the front to relieve pressure. Rosecrans took much longer than he first believed, but he did manage to flank the Rebels and beat them in a pitched battle. McClellan did not attack, however! His timidity was the first sign of later things to come, says Lesser. Many of Pegram’s small force were captured on the retreat. Garnett was now in serious danger of being cut off.
Chapter 10: Death On Jordan’s Stormy Banks

Rosecrans’ flank attack at Rich Mountain threatened to cut Garnett off from Beverly. He set his men in motion, but received (erroneous) word that the Federals were already in Beverly. Garnett set off then on a rugged march to the northeast on horrible roads, 150 miles out of his way. He hoped to reach a point in Maryland from which he could move east to the Shenandoah Valley. Henry Benham was assigned several regiments with which to pursue Garnett, and he caught up to the Confederate rear guard at Corrick’s Ford on the Cheat River on July 13, 1861. Garnett was killed in the rear guard action, but his army mostly escaped. McClellan had also detailed a force to cut Garnett off from the north, but they moved tardily and allowed the escape. These Confederates were reduced in numbers and morale, but they were still a viable fighting force. Garnett was the first general killed in battle on either side.
Chapter 11: Victory On The Wires

McClellan had continued to have telegraph wire strung out behind him as he advanced, and he sent several telegraphs to the War Department shortly after Rich Mountain. His rhetoric was filled with hyperbole according to the author, and he made quite a name for himself in the popular imagination as a result. His men moved southeast to control the all-important pass over Cheat Mountain, and they found it unoccupied when they got there. Pegram mistook Confederates in Beverly for the enemy, and he too turned north just as Garnett had. This led to him being almost surrounded, and he ended up surrendering over 600 men of his command. McClellan also ordered Jacob Cox and his brigade over the Ohio River and into the Kanawha Valley at Point Pleasant, (West) Virginia on July 11. Cox sailed up the Kanawha River on steamboats and fought a fierce little action against Henry Wise’s Confederates at Scary Creek. McClellan called it “something between a victory and a defeat.” McClellan wanted to press forward on all fronts in western Virginia, but he was called to Washington shortly after the disaster at First Bull Run based largely on his success in West Virginia (though Rosecrans was more responsible for the Rich Mountain victory than he was!).

Part III: Tempest On The Mountaintops

Chapter 12: A Fortress In The Clouds

By July 27, 1861, McClellan was in Washington. Rosecrans was put in charge of the “Army of Operation”, which underwent a makeover as three month regiments returned home and three year units took their place. After the reorganization, Rosecrans had around 11,000 men in all. Ever since their defeat at Manassas, the Federals expected a Rebel attack in the area. Joseph J. Reynolds’ First Brigade, Army of Occupation was situated on Cheat Mountain in the pass that took the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike over that height. Reynolds established his supply camp 9 miles to the northwest, and he also occupied another pass at Elkwater to the southwest on the Huntersville Turnpike. Telegraph lines kept these camps connected. The weather was always cool at these higher elevations, even in the summer. When Garnett had been killed at Corrick’s Ford, Henry Rootes Jackson had been sent to supersede him. Jackson kept some of his men at Monterey facing Cheat Mountain, and placed others in Huntersville facing the Federals located at Camp Elkwater. Lee sent reinforcements to Jackson’s little army around this time. William Wing Loring was sent to take over for Jackson. Loring believed the Federals could be flanked out of the Cheat Mountain position by a march via Huntersville to Huttonsville, behind the Cheat Mountain area. Robert E. Lee was sent by Davis to supervise the area, but he was not given direct command.
Chapter 13: Scouts, Spies, and Bushwhackers

Lesser talks about the bushwhacking that occurred in the mountains in Chapter 13. One Federal Pinkerton posed as an Englishman and a Confederate officer wounded at Rich Mountain tried to pose as a farmer. The Federals sent out scouts routinely to attempt to discover Confederate intentions. The chapter was mainly composed of human interest stories.
Chapter 14: Mud, Measles, and Mutiny

Lee started for western Virginia from Staunton on July 29, 1861. He was not formally in charge of Army of the Northwest. Instead, the general was only there to give suggestions. Loring ,annoyed by this interference, was extremely uncooperative. Lee scouted Cheat Mountain himself. Lesser is not as critical of this as Newell was. Lesser then relates the story of captured Union spies Fletcher and Clark. Lee was loved by his men for sharing their hardships and being accessible. The Federals believed a Confederate defensive posture near D.C. meant an attack in western Virginia by Lee. Lee had become a full general by this time and the third-ranking officer in the Confederacy. Apparently finally impressed, Loring thawed out a bit and started accepting Lee’s suggestions. Three things stopped Lee’s ability to attack: rain, sickness, and cold. Heavy rains flooded the camps, regiments were decimated by disease, and it snowed in mid-August, but the Federals suffered equally in this harsh environment. The 14th Indiana grew disgruntled as some of the Ohio regiments received new sets of clothing. The men refused to elect new officers as others resigned or were out sick. J.J. Reynolds increased the discipline in the Federal camp, and this seemed to help matters.
Chapter 15: Feuding Generals and Dickering Delegates

Henry Wise and John B. Floyd were supposed to co-exist in the Kanawha Valley. Unfortunately for the Confederate cause, they hated each other! Both men were former Governors of Virginia, both were 55 years old in 1861, and both were obviously political generals. Wise commanded the Wise Legion, which was poorly equipped and always disorganized. Floyd commanded a brigade which was better equipped and organized, and seems to me to have been the better general, which isn’t saying much. Floyd had seniority by only a few days, and on this basis he was placed in charge of the force. Wise had retreated east out of the Kanawha Valley, but Floyd wanted to join forces and head west back into the area. Wise disobeyed direct orders many times, and each man complained to Davis and Lee, but the general was powerless to make these two get along. Floyd then won a small battle at Cross Lanes, routing an Ohio regiment, and Wise was naturally jealous. The Second Wheeling Convention met again on August 12, 1861. Two Senators (Carlile and Willey) and three congressmen were appointed to Congress. The Convention also ratified a plan to separate and become a new state named “Kanawha”, consisting of initially 39 counties, with others to join if their people voted for it.
Chapter 16: The Perfect Roll Down

By mid-September Lee was ready to attack. Col. Albert Rust of Arkansas had found a route around the Federal right at Cheat Mountain. He also asked to lead the assault column, much to Lee’s later regret. Loring had reorganized the Army of the Northwest into brigades based on state affiliation. The Confederates outnumbered the Federals 11,000 to 9,000, but many on both sides were sick. Lee issued “Special Order No. 28”, detailing a five column attack plan. Rust would move around the Federal right at Cheat Mountain, another column under Jackson would take the frontal approach to distract the Federals, and the other three columns moved from Huntersville under Lee and Loring were to attack Camp Elkwater and interpose between the two Federal forces. It was an ambitious plan for inexperienced troops such as Lee had under his command. Rust moved out on September 11, 1861, and all the Confederate forces were in position by nightfall on that day, doing surprisingly well to follow Lee’s orders and keep to the specified timetable on a dark night.
Chapter 17: Robert E. Lee’s Forlorn Hope

As the other four columns waited, Rust moved his men to a point just west of Cheat Fort on the morning of September 12, 1861. A sortie by two companies of an Indiana regiment sent Rust’s entire command fleeing. Donelson’s Brigade, near Camp Elkwater, made too much noise and alerted the Federals to their presence. Loring wanted to attack but Lee feared a frontal assault against the now alert Federals would cause too many casualties. Jackson, east of Cheat Mountain, couldn’t hear much in the way of firing. Anderson, on the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike between Cheat Mountain and Camp Elkwater, didn’t do much of anything either. To make matters even worse, rain made some of the Rebels’ powder wet. In the end, although Lee’s columns had all remarkably gotten into position, for various reasons the attack never got started. Lee took the blame for the defeat and never tried to make anyone else a scapegoat, to his everlasting credit. After the non-battle, Lee took his staff south to try to deal with the Wise-Floyd feud in the Kanawha Valley.
Chapter 18: Mixing Oil and Water

I can’t remember read a more entertaining chapter in a non-fiction book in quite some time. Lesser here chronicles the fight at Carnifex Ferry, but he was not nearly as detailed as Newell in describing the action. Lee is presented as being more forceful by Lesser than by Newell, though he again appears as a gentleman uneager to make waves. After Floyd’s loss at Carnifex Ferry, the two generals retreated to Big Sewell Mountain. Floyd then retreated a few miles further east, but Wise wouldn’t follow! Lee was sent in to fix things, though he didn’t have much success. Wise complained to Lee and Floyd to Davis. Just as Rosecrans was about to attack a still “defiant” Wise, Davis relieved him. Some of the Wise and Floyd quotes Lesser relates literally made me laugh out loud.
Chapter 19: Too Tender Of Blood

Rosecrans and Lee, with nearly an equal number of troops after Loring’s reinforcements arrived, waited on opposite sides of Sewell Mountain. Lee’s supply line was too long to advance, as was Rosecrans, and it had started to rain by this point. These issues caused a stalemate. Rosy blinked first and retreated back to Gauley Bridge on October 5, 1861. Lee decided to head back to Richmond, giving Floyd command. The political general advanced to near Gauley Bridge, but he had to retreat quickly after almost being surrounded there. Lee first grew a beard in the mountains, and he also first saw Traveller there. The future commander of the Amry of Northern Virginia had failed in this campaign, according to Lesser. West Virginia would become a new state loyal to the Union. Again, as at Cheat Mountain, Lee had failed to act. Newspapers called for his dismissal, saying he was “too tender of blood”. Davis, however, retained faith in him, knowing the difficulties he had faced. Lee was sent to South Carolina in late 1861 to start fresh. The author then moves back to the further travails of Fletcher and Clark, the two captured spies mentioned earlier in the book. Fletcher escaped, but he was taken prisoner again and sent to Richmond.
Chapter 20: A Touch Of Loyal Thunder And Lightning

Travellers Rest was located nine miles west of the Rebel Camp at Allegheny Mountain and twelve miles east of the Union camp at Cheat Mountain. Soon Rebel “Camp Bartow” was created there. On October 3, Joseph Reynolds attacked Henry Jackson there. The Union force had 5,000 men, and the Rebels had 1,800. After a morning of fighting, Reynolds broke off and withdrew. The fight was also called the “engagement at Greenbrier River”, and it was a rare victory for the Confederates in western Virginia.

Part IV: The Rending Of Virginia

Chapter 21: The Great Question

The statehood referendum was held on October 24, 1861. Troops began to leave the area that fall since the campaign was essentially over due to the harsh winter weather. Ball’s Bluff and Kelley’s advance on Romney in late October are discussed by Lesser, as well as McClellan’s training and shaping of the Army of the Potomac and his new appointment as General in Chief. The author gives descriptions of camp life, letters, pay, recreation, snowball fights, and other human interest stories in this section. Stonewall Jackson got Loring and part of his command to join him for the Romney expedition, but other regiments were forced to winter on Allegheny Mountain. Many Federal troops were sent to Kentucky.
Chapter 22: Night Clothes And A War Club

Edward Johnson faced off against Union general Robert H. Milroy at Cheat & Allegheny Mountains late that year. Around 1900 Federals faced 1200 Confederates at Camp Allegheny on December 13, 1861. Johnson’s men fought off and beat Milroy, who was forced to retreat. As a result, Johnson became a Confederate hero, and was called “Allegheny” Johnson from that day forward.
Chapter 23: Cold As The North Pole

The Rebel victory at Camp Allegheny meant each side stayed in the mountains for the winter. Delegates gathered in Wheeling in late November to write a constitution, and they chose the name West Virginia for the new state. Forty-four counties were guaranteed to be a part of the state, while several others were to take a vote. Slavery was brought up, but tabled for the near future. A public referendum to vote on the new Constitution was determined for April 1862. Jackson’s Romney Campaign was covered next. Loring was insubordinate to Jackson just as he had been to Lee. McClellan’s efforts during his Peninsula Campaign are briefly recounted, as is Lee’s time in South Carolina defending Charleston and Savannah. The Confederates suffered a string of disasters in early 1862. McClellan was steadily marching on Richmond, and Fort Donelson, Island #10, Nashville, and Memphis had all fallen in the west. Lee was then recalled to Richmond to help Davis as an advisor.
Chapter 24: All’s Fair In Love And War

This chapter focused on civilians in the path of war. In an interesting anecdote, Lesser relates that Stonewall Jackson’s sister remained loyal to the Union.
Chapter 25: Lincoln’s Odd Trick

On April 6, 1862, Milroy took a deserted Camp Allegheny. Earlier, on April 3, voters had approved the new state. The author then briefly describes Jackson’s Valley Campaign and Lee vs. McClellan round two on the Peninsula. The statehood of western Virginia was debated in the Senate during the summer of 1862. John Carlile at this moment turned into a “Judas”, trying to prevent emancipation in the new state. He had fallen in with the “Copperheads”. On July 14, 1862, the statehood bill passed in the Senate 23-17. Then on December 10, 1862, the House of Representatives passed the bill 96-55. Lincoln just needed to sign the bill into law. He did so at the last moment, and West Virginia became a state on June 20, 1863. Fully 40% of its citizens were Confederates, and many changed sides during the war. Like other border areas, West Virginia saw more than its fair share of guerilla warfare throughout the war, the author calling it “a child of the storm.”
Epilogue: Memories And Ghosts

Lesser concludes that the “first campaign [of the war in western Virginia] was decisive, with great political impact.” Virginia lost a third of her land area, and the mountains of West Virginia allowed Pennsylvania and Ohio to focus on offensive rather than defensive measures. The all-important Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, the main east-west link in the Union was also secured for Union. The Federals stopped short, according to the author. Lesser believes they could have taken the Shenandoah Valley then and there. Lesser stresses that the mountains in the area made campaigning difficult throughout 1861. This first campaign shaped both leaders and enlisted men, particularly McClellan and Lee. McClellan became a star as a result, but Lee left in disgrace. There roles would soon be reversed. Lesser closes out the book by discussing what became of the people and units involved in the campaign.


-315 to 356

These were numbered consecutively all the way through the book. They do not start over by chapter. This wasn’t a big distraction.

-357 to 371

I noticed that Lesser lists Newell’s book as a source, and at times he may have relied too heavily on that work. I found myself having intense feelings of déjà vu while reading this one. Some of this is unavoidable due to the identical subject matter, but the number of identical anecdotes grew a little tiresome. If you are going to write a new book covering the same thing only eight years later, come up with some new material! Lesser lists quite a few manuscript collections including some web site sources.


The index seemed to be rather short for a book of this length.

There is only ONE map at the front of the book. Two others are buried I the illustrations section, but they are so small as to be almost worthless. This was a MAJOR shortcoming in the book. If I hadn’t read Newell’s book literally several days earlier and this was my first experience of the events in western Virginia in 1861, I would have had trouble following along.
Lesser is a very good writer, and his book read like a good novel in many places. He seemed smoother than Newell in some cases. There was less focus on the battles, however, and Lesser seemed to gloss over these areas in many cases. To his credit, the author does include more detail on the political process than Newell.

The author succeeds in telling the story of the western Virginia Campaign adequately, but he really adds nothing new Newell’s book written only eight years earlier. As I asked at the beginning of this effort, was there really a need to write this book? I don’t really think so. Lesser added marginally more to the political process and some human interest stories at the expense of some of the battle descriptions, but the two books were remarkably similar. Since Newell’s book very recentr, readers would be best served choosing one or the other based on their preference for campaign and battle studies or political and social history. The lack of maps in Lesser’s book makes things very confusing, so if you do decide to purchase this one make sure you have period maps of western Virginia handy. If I had to choose one of the two books, it would be Newell’s, mainly due to the maps and more detail in the battle descriptions. In an ideal situation, Newell could have covered the military events, Lesser the social and political events, and someone like George Skoch could have done the maps! In any event, if you find this one first, feel free to buy it as long as you are comfortable with the map situation. If you are like me and find 3 bad maps unacceptable, go with Newell’s book.

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