Short summary of the events around Cotton Hill, Va. in November of 1861
The need for good experienced men, few and far between at this juncture of the war, was heard again. General Floyd had chased the outposts on the Fayette Road all the way to the Gauley River and stationed himself, with 4,000 men, upon Cotton Hill on November 1st. This hilltop commanded control of Gauley Bridge and Montgomery's Ferry. From here Floyd open fired with a pair of 6 pound rifled pieces of artillery which quickly brought all river operations by the Union troops to a halt. The only way supplies could be moved in or out of the area was under the cover of darkness. This, as you can guess was a tremendously hazardous affair.
There has been much written about the activities around Cotton Hill during the first two weeks of November. This was the Unions first real opportunity to defeat or capture a Rebel force of any size. General Rosecrans was adamant about the proceedings of the Union Army and I will point this out over the next several pages. He had set up camp on the east side of the Gauley River near Gauley Bridge. Here he recruited more horses for his teams, tried to supply new clothing to those who needed them, and also reassigned men who had been in the hospitals. He now had with him four brigades of men; one brigade each under the following men- General Cox, General Schenk, General Benham, and Colonel McCook.
General Rosecrans had summoned General Cox to Carnifex Ferry on September the 15th to discuss the approaching conflict with Floyd. They formulated a plan by which Generals Benham and Schenk would work in concert to capture or destroy General Floyds forces near Fayetteville, just southeast of Cotton Hill. The plan called for General Benham, with a force of some three thousand men, to cross the Gauley River at Loop Creek. He would make his way around or over Cotton Hill and attack General Floyd from the front. General Shenck would cross New River at Townsends Ferry, 15 miles above Gauley Bridge, using boats improvised out of wagon bodies and virtually anything else they could find. Colonel McCook was ordered to watch Millers Ferry, where he was camped, and be ready to cross and move on Fayette Court House at a moments notice.
General Cox was to cross at Montgomery's Ferry and support General Benham if necessary. Of course all of this had to be well played out in order for the plan to be successful, timing and surprise being the two important aspects. If successful they could cut off General Floyds retreat, thus either capturing or destroying Floyds command. General Rosecrans anticipated problems in crossing New River and advised General Schenk "if you cannot cross, you will come down and attack by the front, while General Benham will cut off their retreat."
The Seventh played an important part in the events and operations around Cotton Hill and Fayetteville during those first two weeks of November. On November the 2nd General Rosecrans sent the following dispatch to General Benham:
Headquarters, Dept. of Western Virginia
Camp Gauley Mountain, Nov. 2nd, 1861
“You will immediately prepare to cross the river for an operation up Paint or Loop Creek. The steps thereto are rest for the men, boats to cross, and ammunition in sufficient quantities. Tyler will be ordered to send you 500 picked men, Woods 500, and Siber 500. It will take probably two days to organize this movement. We hope to cross at or near Millers Ferry in force, at the same time we make a strong demonstration or attack on their front. Let everything be done to secure supplies; every faculty made use of. Advise me of your progress.
Brigadier General, U.S. Army
On November the 4th Colonel Creighton, of the Seventh, leading a detachment of 430 men, boarded a river boat and steamed down the Kanawha River to a point approximately 7 miles below Gauley Bridge, and directly opposite Loop Creek. Here the men of the Seventh joined the other forces under General Benham at about dusk. There had been several reports around camp that many regiments had shunned the mission of crossing Cotton Hill because of steep and dangerous cliffs, but General Benham remarked 'give me the Seventh Ohio Regiment and I can drive the Rebels to hell, a place beyond the confines of this lower world.'
On the sixth of November the Seventh was ordered across the Kanawha River and up Loop Creek to establish a camp at the foot of Cotton Hill. The men were not prepared for what they were about to attempt because Loop Creek was not an ordinary creek. To make things worse the march was to occur at night and in complete silence so as not to alarm the enemy.
Just prior to dawn the men arrived at 's farm, some nine miles up Loop Creek, and set up camp. At this point the men were about three miles from General Floyds forces then encamped just east of Cotton Hill.
Colonel Creighton was in command of this force and he sent out pickets and scouts to determine the exact position of General Floyd. He advised his men to report their findings directly to General Benham, which was done. At this time detachments from the 44th and 37th Ohio were placed under the command of Colonel Creighton bringing his command to approximately 1200 men. The command remained here until the 12th of November keeping in constant touch with General Benham.
At this juncture the weather became a direct factor in the outcome of the campaign. On the 9th General Schenk made the first attempt to cross New River, with no success. The high river condition caused by a torrential downpour of the past few days had made a crossing impossible. His boats were of little use to him in his efforts to ford the swift and fast moving water. General Cox constructed flatboats to move his troops across the river and in an hours time had 500 men on the other side of the river.
To complicate things the air had turned very cold and it was creating severe difficulties for the men. One of the men of the Seventh described the scene of the camp during the morning of the 10th of November as follows: "The severe frost of the night did much mischief in the wet socks of the soldiers while sleeping in the open air. It was amusing , in the latter part of the night, to see men racing about in camp at double quick to prevent their feet from freezing to the ground.
In preparation for the campaign the regiment was allotted only four days rations and very little camp equipage. It was determined that the men would be gone a few short days and General Floyd would be pushed out of the Kanawha Valley. No one had envisioned the weather turning as bad so quickly, this, with the lack of tents and other necessities brought severe hardships to the men.
On the 12th of November the regiment was ordered forward to Cassidy's Mill. The mill was located east and a little south of their present location. Their journey would be short but because of the extremely hazardous terrain it would not be easy. Shortly after daylight the regiment began their move up the mountain taking an old bridle pathway and following it to the top. As Colonel Creighton reached the top he peered down on the troops which were following and could see a mile long snake like appearance of the troops winding in and out along the bridle path behind him. The single line formation continued as the men began the descent on the other side of the mountain, it also being a very trying trip for the hungry and cold men.
Cassidy's Mill was reached about 10 pm that evening and Colonel Creighton immediately posted his pickets and sent the scouts out to scour the area and check the position of the enemy. Lewis R. Davis of Company A, Edwin Hart of Company D, and Joseph E. Clarke of Company E scouted the area closest to Floyds camp and were nearly captured on several different occasions. It had been a long and very arduous trip for the men and it took its toll. The weather was still very unfavorable. The rains continued to fall throughout the day and evening making any movement by the men very difficult.
General Benham decided to send the Seventh to Cassidy's Mill because of the terrible condition of New River and the unlikeness of General Schenks ability to cross with his command. The original plans would now have to be altered to suit the weather. Controversy abounds over the next several steps in General Benhams movements. He ordered the detachments of the 44th and 37th Ohio regiments to leave the Seventh at Cassidy's Mills and proceed to join him at the base of Cotton Hill near Hershbergers farm. This movement left the Seventh, all 430 of them, only three miles from the entire Rebel force under General Floyds command. The Seventh was so close that they could here the bugle calls in Floyd's camp. Had General Benhams force been at the same location as the Seventh was, he surely could have done irreparable damage to Floyds forces. This not being the case, they allowed General Floyd and his entire command, at 2:30 am on the morning of the 13th, to effect his escape moving down the Raleigh Road south out of the Kanawha Valley.
General Floyd's scouts must have seen what was about to transpire and directed the General to remove his forces from such a vulnerable position. When the Rebels left they destroyed nearly all of their camp equipment and left many wagons burning in their hasty retreat. When the Seventh arrived at the deserted Rebel camp, Dickersons's farm, evidence of their eagerness to get out was everywhere. The fences were lined with carcasses of cattle that were to be food for the army. In some cases the beef was still intact on the carcass.
The chase continued and at noon on the 14th the regiment arrived northwest of McCoy's Mill, here the forces under Floyd decided to make a stand, or at least hold Benhams forces while the remainder of his troops got off safely. About this same time the 13th Ohio overtook the rear guard of the Rebels. Here a sharp encounter occurred which resulted in the mortal wounding of George Croghan, Colonel of the 2nd Georgia Cavalry and formerly of the United States Army. The Colonel had been taken to one of the nearby homes and left there to die in peace. When General Benham appeared on the scene he was informed of the injured Colonel nearby. Not knowing who the Colonel was he went to try to get further information from him. To his astonishment he discovered Colonel Croghan, a former classmate at West Point. Trying to comfort him as best as possible, the Colonel confided to General Benham that he was against the war and was politically forced into taking the command and that he missed the Old Flag tremendously. He died not long afterward with General Benham by his side.
The Seventh was held in reserve initially but this, however, did not last long. At about 1 o'clock the Seventh, headed by Colonel Creighton, was ordered to perform a flank attack upon the forces under Floyd. Companies A and K were in the front while the attack was taking place. Just west of McCoys Mill is a small ridge by which Colonel Creighton and the Seventh passed behind, and then over, thereby completely surprising Floyds troops. The surprise was complete and the regiment opened with two pieces of rifled artillery upon the Rebels. This caused great confusion among the Confederates, and being flanked gave them no alternative but to fall back. When the Seventh saw the retreat they immediately pursued at close range, close enough to here the Rebel bugler signaling the retreat. At this point the fight became a rout and as the enemy retired they discarded everything that might impede their plight.
The forces under General Benham continued their pursuit. Shortly after passing through McCoys Mill a small stream whose banks are exceptionally steep for its size was encountered. Within the stream could be seen the remnants of many wagons, full of gear, and also some cannon strewn about on the bottom as the Rebels continued to retreat in total disarray.
The chase continued relentlessly onward. Floyds troops were in a disastrous situation, they must now continue to run or face capture by the Union forces. Their retreat was hampered by the road conditions which by now were almost impassable. If they stopped for anything General Floyd knew his forces would be destroyed. However, due to the Unions inept leadership, General Floyd was allowed to retire without further molestation.
General Schenk arrived at the scene, Kenton's farm, three miles east of McCoys Mill, and ordered a halt in the pursuit. Therefore, at 11 pm on the evening of the 14th of November General Benhams forces ceased the pursuit and began their return to Gauley Bridge. After all the work the men had put forth to route the enemy they were told to retire.
After much discussion with the men the decision was made to return at once and not wait until morning. There was nowhere to bunk down for the night because they were already soaked from the continuous rains of the passed few days. The troops were very disappointed that they were not allowed to finish off the task they had been given.
General Benhams report, on the return of his forces after the pursuit was halted, illustrated the horrid conditions that the men had faced :
"As the men were still, or more than nine tenths of them, without shelter in a most drenching rain or succession of violent thunder storms, many without blankets, which had been thrown off during the ardor of the chase, and as they were still standing around their fires, unable to sleep in the rain, upon the open ground, the greater part of the command, though most unwilling to give up the pursuit, felt that if we were so ordered that it would be best for themselves, after a few hours halt (it could not be called rest), to retrace their steps that very night rather than remain standing in the cold and wet until morning, with only the prospect of their return. We accordingly commenced our return (from Kentons farm, 15 miles out from Fayetteville, on the road to Raleigh) soon after 1 o'clock am, reaching McCoys Mill about 4 o'clock am, we rested until about 6 am of the 15th, when we moved onward, and with a single halt reached this place, Fayetteville, soon after noon, being still in excellent spirits, their main disappointment being in not having been permitted to continue the pursuit of the Rebels. We are at this hour partly in houses, but a great number are out in the open air in the village, where it is now snowing upon them, which, added to their great exposure, will, I fear, half annihilate their effective strength.
“I have now but to report the noble conduct of the forces during this most toilsome march, where through all their great exposure in the storm, upon the route, and in bivouac, without shelter against the rain or snow that fell in each of the last three nights, not a murmur was heard by me, but every duty was performed with great cheerfulness and alacrity, and the principal officers of the command were worthy of the men they lead.
“Colonel Creighton of the Seventh Ohio, executed the maneuver from our right flank which decided the rout at McCoys Mill, in the most gallant style.
In the morning they were to march to Gauley Bridge were they would board steamers that would take them back to Charleston. That night, the 16th of November, after marching continuously for several days, they threw themselves upon the ground, wet clothes and all. When they awakened in the morning they found themselves with a blanket provided by mother nature of about 4 inches of snow. Many of the men's wet clothes were actually frozen to the turf, making it very difficult to free themselves from the ground.
General Rosecrans submitted a report to General McClellan discussing the operation around Cotton Hill. Portions of which follow:
November 25th, 1861
....."One of the plans for capturing Floyd failed on account of the high water, the other, while it was successful in driving them from this part of the country, failed to capture and destroy their force for want of vigorous and energetic execution of plans confided to General Benham."
....."It has been with great regret that I have to censure a general officer for the failure to capture the rebel forces who were justly ours."
On November 29th, 1861 General Rosecrans sent the following dispatch to General L. Thomas in Washington D. C.:
"On the 26th instant I found it necessary to arrest General H. W. Benham for unofficer like neglect of duty. He applied for a leave of absence on a medical certificate, with permission to visit a city, and has gone to New York."
General Floyds forces never again returned to the Valley of the Kanawha. They continued their flight to Raleigh where they set up camp for the winter and remained until the following spring. Lee's entire campaign in Western Virginia was regarded by many as being a total failure, was ordered to Charleston, South Carolina to become commander of the installation there.
On the 17th of November the regiment crossed the Gauley River and boarded the steamer Marmora which transported them back to Charleston where they rejoined the rest of the Seventh.
Created and Maintained by Larry Hardman- 1999, Rights Reserved; For Inquires or Information Contact: mailto:LHARDMAN1@neo.rr.com