The Best Laid Plans
In September of 1863 the Federals were defeated at the Battle of Chickamauga and were being pressed westward by the Confederates. Commanding the Confederate Department of Western Virginia and East Tennessee with headquarters at Dublin, Virginia, General Sam Jones moved with a large part of his forces to join in pushing the Federals from Tennessee. The Union General-in-Chief, H. W. Halleck, sought to relieve the pressure on the Federals by sending cavalry units from West Virginia to sever the vital Virginia and Tennessee Railroad in the vicinity of Lynchburg. By this move Halleck hoped to force Jones to withdraw from East Tennessee to protect the railroad which connected the armies in Virginia and Tennessee. Soon after the battle of Chickamauga, Halleck presented this plan to the commander of the Department of West Virginia, Brigadier General Benjamin F. Kelley.
Kelley was the former commander of the First (West) Virginia Regiment and leader of the forces which wrested Philippi from the Confederates on June 3, 1861, the first land battle of the first campaign of the Civil War. Kelley survived the wound he received in the chest during that engagement to become commander of the Federal forces in West Virginia, following such notables as General George B. McClellan, General William S. Rosecrans, whose career was closed by the Battle of Chickamauga, and General John C. Fremont. Kelley placed the 32,000 troops of his command at strategic points throughout West Virginia, which had been admitted to the Union by Lincoln's proclamation in June of 1863.
The protection of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was Kelley's chief responsibility. The Eleventh and Twelfth Corps were transferred by the B&O on this occasion from the Washington area to reinforce the Federals in Tennessee. To protect the railroad Kelley posted heavy contingents of troops at points from his headquarters at Clarksburg to Harpers Ferry in the Eastern Panhandle. A veteran of Civil War campaigns in West Virginia, General E. P. Scammon commanded some 6,000 troops concentrated at Charleston. Another contingent of some 5,000 troops under General William W. Averell was located in Randolph County with headquarters at Beverly, a little town some 15 miles south of Leadsville (Elkins) on the historic Parkersburg and Staunton Turnpike. General Kelley assigned the defenses of central and southeastern West Virginia to Generals Scammon and Averell.
Under command of General Sam Jones, the Confederates in West Virginia were located at points along the Alleghanies from Princeton to Mill Point, some 34 miles north of Lewisburg. With headquarters at Mill Point, Colonel H. R. Jackson's command was rather widely distributed in the surrounding area. General John Echols' brigade was at Lewisburg, while Colonel M. J. Ferguson held in readiness the Fourteenth and Sixteenth Virginia Cavalry. Under Lee's orders, Brigadier General John Imboden was encamped near Bridgewater east of Beverly. Maintaining pressure on the Federals in this area and trying to occupy as many of the enemy as possible, Imboden's primary objective was to strike the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad at the earliest opportunity to prevent its being used to transport troops to Tennessee.
Kelley informed General Halleck that part of the Confederates had been withdrawn from West Virginia and that the offensive against the Virginia and Tennessee would be launched from Beverly. According to Kelley's plan as disclosed to Halleck, Averell was to move to Lewisburg, while another column was to leave Charleston to arrive there at the same time. As the two arms of this pincer movement converged upon Lewisburg, Kelley hoped that the Confederates in Greenbrier, Pocahontas, and Monroe counties would be driven out or trapped between the two. At Lewisburg, General Averell was to determine if circumstances warranted the completion of his drive to sever the Virginia and Tennessee. With Halleck's concurrence, Kelley issued the appropriate orders to Averell and left his headquarters to coordinate the movement from Charleston.
Kelley had good reason to entrust such a hazardous movement behind Confederate lines to General Averell. This twenty-nine-year-old cavalry officer had earned a reputation as an Indian fighter following his graduation from West Point. Already Averell had distinguished himself in many battles in the Civil War. He was with McClellan during the abortive Peninsular Campaign, later participating in the bloody affair at Fredericksburg in December, 1862. Averell's transfer to West Virginia in May of 1863, and his vigorous attempts to cope with the guerrilla bands and Confederate raids further enhanced his reputation.
Soon after Averell arrived in West Virginia, many infantry units were converted to "mounted infantry" regiments. The mounted infantry regiments were an innovation designed particularly to cope with the guerrilla forays and embarrassing Confederate raids which had destroyed oil and other properties, as well as crippled the Baltimore and Ohio. A delegation from West Virginia visited Lincoln in February of 1863 to request this change from foot to horse. Following Lincoln's intercession with Halleck this request was granted. The monted infantry units were mobile and could cope with confederate cavalry raids -- reverting to normal infantry tactics when confronting an entrenched position.
As the Federal cavalry advanced against the Confederates in eastern Tennessee, Averell left Beverly on November 1 with orders to arrive in Lewisburg on Saturday, November 7 (at "two p.m."). Averell's command consisted of the Second, Third, and Eighth West Virginia Mounted Regiments, the Tenth West Virginia Infantry, two batteries of the First West Virginia Light Artillery, the Twenty-Eighth Ohio Infantry, the Fourteenth Pennsylvania Cavalry, and major Thomas Gibson's (Pennsylvania) Independent Cavalry Battalion. As the citizens of Beverly observed the departure of the Federals, they were perhaps reminded of General George B. McClellan's feat at the the battle at Rich Mountain some two years earlier. Perhaps Averell could imitate his former commander's successes in West Virginia!
The column which left Charleston two days later was commanded by General Alfred N. Duffie, a regular army officer. The Second West Virginia Cavalry, the Thirty-Fourth Ohio Mounted Infantry, and an artillery battery, a total of some 1,000 men, were in this column. Duffie proceeded eastward over the Lewisburg pike until he halted on November 6 fifteen miles west of Lewisburg at Meadow Bluff. Pre-occuppied with Averell's advance, the Confederates were unaware of Duffie's movements until he contacted the outposts at Meadow Bluff.
The first obstacle encountered by Averell was Jackson's command at Mill Point. At Mill Point Jackson's headquarters were protected by part of the Nineteenth Virginia Cavalry and an artillery battery. The remainder of the Nineteenth had been sent into Nicholas county on an expedition. At Marlings Bottom (Marlinton) Jackson had stationed the Twentieth Virginia Cavalry, while other detachments were located at Dunmore and Edray.