September 17, 1861
My Dear Governor: I received your very kind note of the 5th instant just as I was about to accompany General Loring’s command on an expedition to the enemy’s works in front, or I would have before thanked you for the interest you take in my welfare, and your too flattering expressions of my ability. Indeed, you overrate me much, and I feel humbled when I weight myself by your standard. I am, however, very grateful for your confidence, and I can answer for my sincerity in the earnest endeavor I make to advance the cause I have so much at heart, though conscious of the slow progress I make.
I was very sanguine of taking the enemy’s works on last Thursday morning. I had considered the subject well. With great effort the troops intended for the surprise had reached their destination, having traversed twenty miles of steep, rugged mountain-paths; and the last day through a terrible storm which lasted all night, and in which they had to stand drenched to the skin in cold rain. Still their spirits were good.
When morning broke, I could see the enemy’s tents on Valley River at the point on the Huttonsville road, just below me. It was a tempting sight. We waited for the attack on Cheat Mountain, which was to be the signal. Till 10 A.M. the men were cleaning their unserviceable arms. But the signal did not come. All chance for a surprise was gone. The provisions of the men had been destroyed the preceding day by the storm. They had had nothing to eat that morning, could not hold out another day, and were obliged to be withdrawn.
The party sent to Cheat Mountain to take that in the rear had also to be withdrawn. The attack to come off from the east side failed from the difficulties in the way; the opportunity was lost, and our plan discovered. It is a grievous disappointment to me, I assure you. But for the rain-storm, I have no doubt it would have succeeded.
This, Governor, is for your own eye. Please do not speak of it; we must try again.
Our greatest loss is the death of my dear friend Colonel Washington. He and my son were reconnoitering the front of the enemy. They came unawares upon a concealed party who fired upon them within twenty yards, and the colonel fell pierced by three balls. My son’s horse received three shots, but he escaped on the colonel’s horse. His zeal for the cause to which had devoted himself carried him, I fear, too far.
We took some seventy prisoners, and killed some twenty-five or thirty of the enemy. Our loss was small besides what I have mentioned. Our greatest difficulty is the roads. It has been raining in these mountain about six weeks. It is impossible to get along. It is that which has paralyzed all our efforts. With sincere thanks for your good wishes,
I am, very truly yours,
General Robert E. Lee to Governor John Letcher (of Virginia) September 17, 1861
Robert E. Lee – 1861
Where was Robert E. Lee in 1861? Sometimes he makes it in the history books for his decision to support his homestate. And then he just sort of disappears.
He was helping/leading a campaign in the western mountainous region of Virginia. (Soon to become the state of West Virginia.) However, the campaign – as suggested in this letter – didn’t go well. The weather was a problem. The roads were awful. And the generals struggled. The campaign did nothing to enhance or polish Lee’s reputation, and it’s generally swept aside.
Off To Charleston, South Carolina
The Confederate government decided to move Lee to a better climate and see what he could do with coastal defenses. After-all, he was trained as an engineer and had been quite successful during the Mexican-War. Lee went to Charleston, South Carolina. He made improvements to the defenses and gun embattlements, but didn’t make the national newspaper headlines. Eventually, he was transferred back to Richmond (capital of the Confederacy) and took a “desk job” as a military advisor for Jefferson Davis.
“All chance for surprise was gone.” Those words stand out to me.
Now, personally, I think Lee wasn’t the best at battlefield strategy and is often over-rated. (Don’t shoot me – I like Lee; I just think he gets too much glory that he doesn’t always deserve.) However, Lee understood military principles – particularly the element of surprise. In coming years – with better equipped armies and bold subordinates under his command – Lee will unleash the element of surprise on unsuspecting foes.
Did he learn some valuable lessons in the western Virginia “campaign”? Possibly. If nothing else, he learned that steep mountains don’t always make the best battleground…
P.S. What quote or idea do you find note worthy in Lee’s letter?