The Battle of Allegheny Mountain and Confederate Defense of the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike, 1861-62
By Joe Geiger, Jr.
This book seeks to provide a detailed look at military activities along the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike from mid-September 1861 to the first week of April 1862. This campaign, fought primarily in Pocahontas County, Virginia, included the Battle of Greenbrier River, in which nearly 7,000 soldiers clashed in what was primarily an artillery duel; the Battle of Allegheny Mountain, the bloodiest battle of the first year of the war in present-day West Virginia; the January 1862 raid on Huntersville; and numerous other skirmishes, raids, expeditions, incidents and events.
The evidence shows that although Union forces never planned an offensive eastward along the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike after Major General George B. McClellan departed from western Virginia, Confederate leaders were convinced that failure to defend this road would result in a Union advance toward Staunton, a belief that doomed hundreds of Confederate soldiers to spend a winter in a most inhospitable land.
The soldiers who lived through these tumultuous times would remember their experiences in this remote region for the rest of their lives, and this endeavor was undertaken and completed so that their sacrifices and experiences are documented and preserved for future generations. They would undoubtedly be pleased to be remembered.
Joe Geiger is the director of Archives and History at the West Virginia Division of Culture. Geiger has published numerous scholarly articles and a book, Civil War in Cabell County, West Virginia, 1861-1865. He has a bachelor’s degree in business administration.
Below is an interview with the author, Joe Geiger:
Why did you write this book? What drove you to do what appears to be a massive amount of research and work to get this story?
My ancestors settled in Pocahontas County in the mid-nineteenth century. Research done by my grandfather for his autobiography noted that all three of his great-uncles fought for the Confederacy and that one died of wounds received in January 1862 and was buried in the family cemetery. When I sought to determine what happened, I learned about the battles of Greenbrier River and Allegheny Mountain and the Union raid on Huntersville and wanted to find out more about these events.
I began doing research and found dozens of primary source accounts of the campaign in numerous archives and historical societies. Reading these materials heightened my interest in the subject and I became determined to write a detailed history of the campaign.
What background experience did you have in this field when you decided to take on this project?
I loved reading about the Civil War in my youth, and have written a book, "Civil War in Cabell County, West Virginia 1861-65," and a number of articles.
What was the most surprising or unusual thing you learned from working on this book?
It was fascinating to read the letters and diaries of the soldiers who participated in this campaign. Many were from other states, such as Georgia, Indiana and Ohio, and for most, it was their first time away from home. They found themselves in a strange and beautiful land, and spent the winter in the midst of inhospitable mountains. A great many of them died from disease; those that survived would never forget their baptism of fire in western Virginia.
It is intriguing that the Confederates atop Allegheny Mountain had already been ordered to withdraw eastward when the Union force attacked on December 13, 1861. This battle changed the minds of Confederate leaders, who instead ordered them to remain in place until April 1862. Had the Union commander waited a few days, his troops could have taken the mountain fortress without firing a shot.
Why is this book important?
This book is important because it is a detailed account of the daily experiences of the soldiers who participated in this campaign.
Is the book of interest to the casual reader, or is it mainly just for diehard Civil War enthusiast?
Civil War enthusiasts will benefit from reading this book as it details a little-known campaign that honed the leadership skills of many leaders from North and South who would play prominent roles through the remainder of the war. One chapter is primarily devoted to the efforts of Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson to have the Army of the Northwest withdrawn from Allegheny Mountain to aid him in a winter offensive against Romney. This book will also be of interest to those seeking to learn more about the war in present-day West Virginia. An effort was made to let the words written by the soldiers guide the story.
What new information will this book make available that may help change people’s perception of the war activity in West Virginia?
This publication covers numerous skirmishes, expeditions, and activities that have never been recorded by historians. Of particular interest is the small-scale guerrilla activity that occurred in Pendleton, Randolph and Tucker counties in the early months of 1862.
Geiger: "HOLDING THE LINE: The Battle of Allegheny Mountain and Confederate Defense of the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike, 1861-62"
[Holding the Line: The Battle of Allegheny Mountain and Confederate Defense of the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike, 1861-62 by Joe Geiger (West Virginia Book Company, 2012). Softcover, maps, illustrations, notes, appendices, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:201/276. ISBN:978-1-891852-83-1 $19.95]
Spanning several Appalachian Mountain peaks and ranges, the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike was an important transportation artery linking far western Virginia (Parkersburg on the Ohio River) to the Shenandoah Valley at the town of Staunton. Though experience would quickly demonstrate the road to be unsuitable for sustained use during bad weather, it was actually considered a viable invasion route early in the war by the Union high command. All of these factors would make the turnpike a bloody witness to several battles and innumerable raids and skirmishes during 1861 and early 1862. These events are the subject of Joe Geiger's groundbreaking new study Holding the Line: The Battle of Allegheny Mountain and Confederate Defense of the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike, 1861-62.
Geiger's overview of the strategic importance of the turnpike to both sides is excellent, as is his exploration of the tug and pull relationship between military operations along the turnpike and adjacent fronts (especially Stonewall Jackson's Romney campaign, which drew heavily from the Confederate defenders of Allegheny Mountain). In terms of numbers present, the largest battle discussed in the book is the first, the October 3, 1861 clash at Greenbrier River between the division-sized command of Union General Joseph J. Reynolds and a Confederate brigade led by General Henry R. Jackson. In this fight, Jackson's Camp Bartow defenders turned back Reynolds's weak probes against both southern flanks, but the main action was a cross river artillery duel.
The bloodiest battle described in the book occurred two months later on December 13, when Union General Robert Milroy launched a two-pronged assault on the Confederate fortifications atop Allegheny Mountain. The federal attacks were uncoordinated, and Colonel Edward Johnson was able to shift his meager forces to meet both attacks and repulse them. As noted by Geiger, the irony of the battle was if Milroy only had waited a few days he could have taken the peak nearly unopposed [the Confederates were in the midst of a general withdrawal]. The southern victory confirmed the fears of those that saw the mountain passes as federal invasion routes that needed to be garrisoned. Thus, the Confederates would remain there during the miserable winter months of 1861-62.
During his research, Geiger uncovered a prodigious body of primary source material, especially in the form of unpublished diaries and letters. In addition to facilitating the author's construction of detailed accounts of the fighting, these sources also convey to readers how difficult it was for the soldiers, especially those native to the Deep South, to endure the brutal fall and winter weather conditions in the mountains.
Overall, the 1861 campaigns in western Virginia have been covered quite well in the literature, with book length studies from writers and historians like Francis Haselberger, Terry Lowry, Tim McKinney, Hunter Lesser, Eva Margaret Carnes, and Clayton Newell, but the subject matter discussed in Holding the Line is entirely new. In addition to his accounts of Greenbrier River and Allegheny Mountain, Geiger also meticulously documents the large number of raids, skirmishes, scouting expeditions, and guerrilla operations that occurred in the region through the spring of 1862.
The only significant problem I have with the book is with the maps, none of which are original creations. The handful of reproductions [O.R. atlas plates, a pair of drawings, and an engraving] are helpful with the big picture and offer a general understanding of the Battle of Greenbrier River, but there are no maps for the attack on Camp Allegheny and the archival drawing depicting sites of January 1862 skirmishes is illegible. A series of maps specifically wedded to the narrative should have been considered essential by author and publisher.
Map issues aside, Holding the Line is an important achievement, a highly detailed account of military events never before the subject of book length study. In addition to its descriptive accounts of regular operations, the book's concurrent guerrilla narrative (which highlights a number of aspects of the "inner" war) should educate readers of all backgrounds on the fact that the irregular war in the wilds of western Virginia was every bit as brutal and widespread as that experienced in border regions currently better documented in the literature. Holding the Line is highly recommended.