The first few months of the war in western Virginia did not go well for the Confederates. The independent-minded inhabitants of the region generally rejected secession, and a movement was under way to separate from Virginia and remain with the Union. Lee said of the area, “Our citizens beyond this point are all on their side.” In the summer of 1861, Union forces had defeated the Confederates several times and secured the mountainous region’s major east-west transportation routes. Now, Confederate President Jefferson Davis dispatched Lee, his top military advisor, to the field in order to salvage the region. Although he arrived as a consultant to General William Loring, Lee was the ranking officer.
The Union commander in western Virginia, General William Rosecrans, established a long front between the Kanawha and Potomac Rivers, along which the Federals established a stronghold on Cheat Mountain. Lee felt that an offensive against Cheat Mountain was the only way to break the Union front. He realized that the Rebel forces in the area where hardly in shape for such a move. Many were sick, and the weather was particularly rainy.
However, the Confederates found a hidden and unguarded route to the top of Cheat Mountain. On September 11, Colonel Albert Rust, commander of the 3rd Arkansas, led a party up the trail and positioned for an assault. The plan called for a surprise attack by Rust, who would be joined by other Confederate detachments from the valley. But after capturing some Union pickets, Rust was convinced that the Union garrison numbered at least 4,000 with reinforcements on the way. In fact, just 300 Yankees manned the defenses on the mountain.
Discouraged, Rust retreated while the main Confederate column waited in the valley below. On September 14, the Confederates pulled away without firing a shot. The campaign was a fiasco, and it damaged Lee’s reputation. Part of the problem at Cheat Mountain was that Lee’s role was not well defined, and Loring often dismissed his suggestions. It was an ignominious start to Lee’s Civil War career, but his future achievements easily erased any tarnish the Cheat Mountain campaign put on his reputation.