The Battle of Cheat Mountain was an inauspicious start to Robert E. Lee’s career as a battlefield commander. He had been sent to West Virginia to attempt to restore the Confederate position in that part of the state, badly damaged by the defeat at Rich Mountain (12 July 1861).
Lee’s first targets were the Union positions at Cheat Mountain and Elkwater, guarding the Staunton Turnpike, one of the best roads through the mountains between the Shenandoah Valley and West Virginia. He had 9,000 men with which to carry out this operation, but they were not in the best of condition. The weather was also poor. The situation was made worse by Lee’s over ambitious plan. He split his force into five columns, and sent them by different routes towards the two main Union positions.
The result of this was that Lee’s men launched a series of piecemeal attacks on the Federal position. The commander on the spot, General John Reynolds, reported attacks on both positions on 12 September, Elkwater on 13 September, both positions again on 14 September and the strongest attack on Cheat Mountain on 15 September. Each of these attacks was repulsed, and after the attack on 15 September Lee called off his attacks. Lee moved south to the Kanawha Valley, where he was also unable to achieve anything, and soon returned to Virginia.