by Andy Mateja

Robert E Lee is considered by many to be the South’s GREATEST military leader of all times. However Lee’s entry into the War Between The States was far from the stellar reputation he developed later on.
Unlike many of the Eastern Confederate leaders, Lee did not begin his career at the First Battle of Bull Run.
Before that epic battle got underway, Union Maj Gen George B. McClellan was leading an expedition into the western portion of Virginia. By July 1861, the Northerners had captured almost 1/3 of the entire state, making Wheeling the capital of the “New Restored Government of Virginia”.
Confederate President Jefferson Davis wanted the captured territory back as western Virginia and appointed Robert E. Lee in early August to command the assault. Besides an effective way to disrupt Midwestern supplies from reaching Washington DC, it was the geographic pathway to Ohio and Kentucky for Confederate armies and Virginia Tennessee and North Carolina for Union armies
Unfortunately for Lee he had to content with political appointed brigade commanders and a General who had outranked Lee in the regular army and felt “superior” to his new commander. W.W. Loring, who commanded the bulk of Lee’s forces, felt his new commander was actually banished by Richmond to Western Virginia and was to serve merely as an “advisor”.
Lee definitely had his hands full at the beginning of his first independent command. Besides being deluged by heavy rains that continued for almost 4 weeks, diseases such as typhoid, measles and diphtheria impacted his troops from the beginning. Add to that jealous rivalries between his brigade commanders Henry Wise and John Floyd, both prominent former politicians who were more concerned about which of them was going to receive credit for any successful actions. Wise refused to obey orders from Floyd despite Lee’s urging and admonitions. Floyd decided to move forward without Wise’s brigade and was caught off guard by the heavily reinforced Union forces now commanded by Brig. Gen William S Rosecrans. The Confederates quickly retreated to where they started from.
In early September Lee decided to use the bulk of his new command to attack Cheat Mountain which was situated behind Rosecrans Union troops. Lee divided his attacking troops into multiple parts to deal with separated Union troops segments. However the Confederates could not coordinate their attacks due in part to the rough terrain and the incessant rain which continued into September
Lee’s lead commanders during the Cheat Mountain also were fooled into believing they were outnumbered by their Yankee opponents when in fact they outnumber them by almost 10 to 1. The remainder of his troops waited for the signal to attack which never came.
On September 15th Lee decided to pull back to await another opportunity to attack when the weather was more favorable. Also Wise and Floyd continued their personal feud while Rosecrans’s Union troops continued to advance with impunity. Lee had to now decide between his two brigade commanders and asked for assistance from Richmond. They decided to recall Wise to alleviate tension which gratified Lee.
While Lee was pulling back, he expected Rosecrans to attack him. Rosecrans did not as he felt Lee’s defense position during the retreat was too strong. So on October 5th Rosecrans pulled back as well. Lee now felt he could take advantage of Rosecrans’s withdrawal but one again the continuing rain turned the roads in to a muddy quagmire and confusion escalated within his army ranks
Lee finally gave up the area completely at the end of October….failing to stop the Union advance and regain any lost territory. He was personally embarrassed by the outcome as was Jefferson Davis, who reassigned Lee to coastline of South Carolina. In essence Robert E Lee was being relegated into obscurity.
Lee was also being viciously blasted by the southern press for his shortcomings in Western Virginia. Soldiers were also ridiculing him ostensibly for his unwillingness to fight. They started calling him “Granny Lee”, “Evacuating Lee “and the “King of Spades” Soldiers were refusing to serve under him.
Due to newspaper accounts and political maneuvering by Floyd, Richmond officials held Lee accountable for the failure in Western Virginia. None of the officers under his command at the time received and censure…..on Robt. E Lee. Some critics were even resorting to “I told you so” statements about this soon to be Confederate icon.
Lee acknowledged that his problems during the campaign resulted from incessant rains, no decent roads, and subordinates that constantly bickered with one another instead of following orders. He did not seize the initiative and awaited Rosecrans to make a mistake before attacking.
The Confederate inaction in Western Virginia between August and October actually benefited the Union troops. During the fall of 1861, 40 counties in Western Virginia voted to separate from Virginia and form their own government …..selecting Wheeling as their first capital.
Most southern military and political leaders felt Lee’s career was virtually over after the verbal chastising he received from the press and public over this unfortunate event. But fate stepped into his life once again when six months later he was requested to fill in for the wounded commander of the largest Confederate army in the East which he immortalized by renaming it “The Army of Northern Virginia” and leading it to a string of thrilling and unprecedented victories known throughout the world.
Imagine if Lee had resigned because of the negative public sentiment about his first combat action as a Confederate commander. How long would the war really have lasted without his leadership and inspiration and unswerving devotion …..???

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