Civil War in Southwestern Virginia

The 64th Virginia Mounted Infantry Regiment fought at many of the skirmishes in East Tennessee as well as at the 1863 battle for Cumberland Gap and the1864 battle of Jonesville; however, the regiment was far from the most efficient unit (Weaver 1992):

From a military point of view, the history of the entire regiment hinged on the first nine days of September 1863. The capture of two-thirds of the regiment's effective force at Cumberland Gap was never overcome. The 64th's first regimental commander, Campbell Slemp, was cashiered from service for disobeying orders. Auburn Pridemore and the other field and staff officers, however, were apparently no better at military discipline than Slemp was. In-fighting among the 64th Virginia Mounted Infantry's regimental and brigade officers destroyed a potentially valuable group of soldiers for the Confederacy. (Weaver 1992)

Despite having one of the lowest battle casualty rates of the Confederacy, the death rate was “horrendous” in no small part because the majority of soldiers were Union prisoners-of-war at Camp Douglas (Weaver 1992). Lieutenant Colonel Pridemore lost the majority of his men to Union ambushes set up by “some Union man in the country” (McKnight 2006:181). In addition to losses suffered in battle, the regiment’s size was adversely affected by illness; the 64th Virginia Mounted Infantry Regiment was reduced to less than 50 soldiers mainly because of disease (National Park Service 2016).

Few records survive on the initial volunteers or those that were conscripted from Lee County; however, the September 1st, 1862 roster of the 64th Virginia Mounted Infantry Regiment Company I lists a total of 68 men from Lee County registered in service to the Confederacy (Appendix A).  The roster includes names, age, and physical description, county of origin, occupation, and enlistment information.  The men who served in Company I were composed largely of farmers whose ages ranged from 18-44. They served under William Collier and were one of eleven companies in the 64th Mounted Infantry. According to Weaver (1992) “the 64th Virginia Mounted Infantry Regiment and its precursor unit, the 21st Virginia Infantry Battalion, were recruited in the autumn of 1861 in Lee, Scott, Wise and Buchanan counties.” The regiment was first officially organized in December, and then reorganized in September of 1863; it saw action shortly thereafter in the county.

Despite the lack of rail lines in the county, the war placed Lee County in both a significant and dangerous position. Lee County bordered both Union (neutral) Kentucky and Union-leaning east Tennessee, and was geographically close to the new Union state of West Virginia. This situation made southwest Virginia a skirmish and raiding locale. The Cumberland Gap was a significant investment as a gateway to Tennessee and Kentucky for both sides.

The first attempt to take Cumberland Gap was by Union troops led by General George W. Morgan in June 1862 (Luckett 1964:314). Luckett (1964:314) states that “Morgan who had already pushed through Rogers' and Big Creek gaps occupied Cumberland Gap June 18, 1862, reporting that, ‘after two weeks of maneuvering we have taken the American Gibraltar without the loss of a single man.” Union control did not last, and the Confederacy regained control in September after General Morgan disregarded Union orders and retreated (Luckett 1964:315). General Morgan’s retreat allowed for the easy reoccupation of Cumberland Gap by Confederate troops (Luckett 1964:315).

The second battle of Cumberland Gap can be described as a bloodless fiasco for the Confederacy. The Virginia 64th , under the leadership of Colonel Campbell Slemp,  fought under General John W. Frazer with the 5th Tennessee Brigade (Weaver 1992) (Luckett 1964:316). Union Major General Ambrose E. Burnside, surrounded the Gap and outnumbered Confederate forces three to one between September 7-9, 1863 which allowed him to capture the Gap in a bloodless surrender. According to Luckett (1965:316) Frazer surrendered “approximately 2,200 men and twelve pieces of field artillery.” Union forces maintained control of the Cumberland Gap for the remainder of the war.

Union occupation in Lee County did not necessarily preclude total control of the county. Cumberland Gap geographically resides a few hundred yards east, in Tennessee with the closest resources available located in Lee County (Middlesboro, Kentucky was not established until 1890). Incursions into Lee County were common and Union raiding parties often replenished supplies from Lee County residents, which included willing and unwilling supporters of the Union. One such incursion resulted in the burning of the Lee County courthouse. In late October 1863 a Union force pushed west from the Gap to Jonesville. The county clerk at the time had removed the records to an isolated farm house (McKnight 2006:180). The Union occupation of Jonesville triggered events that led to the Battle of Jonesville. Pridemore, a resident of Scott County, had lost too many men to protect the county from raiding parties and reported his lack of supplies, men, and resources faced with the occupation of Jonesville to Colonel Giltner (McKnight 2006:181). The loss of Pridemore’s men was in no small part due to ambushes of Union soldiers arranged by various county residents with Union sentiments (McKnight 2006:181). Giltner, Slemp, and Pridemore’s combined forces at Jonesville with Slemp’s, and “the Confederates succeeded in capturing an estimated 450 Union Soldiers near Jonesville during the first week of 1864” (McKnight 2006:181). The Confederate victory in Jonesville secured Confederate control in Lee County for the remainder of the war. Tensions were high in the area as Union forces controlled Cumberland Gap and Confederate forces controlled Jonesville. The proximity of these two areas likely made life in Lee County difficult for the remainder of the war (Figure 1).

            Richard G. Lowe’s article Virginia's Reconstruction Convention. General Schofield Rates the Delegates, describes the southwestern representatives and corroborates John Williams thoughts on the sentiments of ‘mountain folk’:

…the handful from Southwest Virginia, had begun the war as Confederate soldiers and supporters. As time passed and victory eluded the South, these small farmers and hundreds of others from the southwestern hills had simply tired of the drudgery and pain of war, walked away from their campfires, and returned to their homes. For the remainder of the war they had had to dodge Confederate troops sent to fetch them back to camp. At times, the contest between the deserters and the regular troops had flared into open battle. By 1865 many of the deserters had become bitter enemies of the Confederacy and everything connected with it. The Republican Party was a natural receptacle for these mountain folk. (Lowe 1972:344)

The southern states were ordered to adopt the Fourteenth Amendment and ratify their state constitutions, which the assembled delegates did in 1867, although tensions between both sides lingered (Lowe 1972:341; Williams 2002:187). After the war, new delegates were elected to the State Legislature. Representatives at the reconstruction convention in Richmond representing Lee, Scott and Wise Counties were listed as, “Andrew Milbourn. Farmer. Native and always loyal [to the Union]. Wealthy. Republican ….Charles Duncan. Merchant. Original Secessionist. Was a Lieutenant in Rebel Army. Unreconstructed” (Lowe 1972:356).

Figure 1: Sketch of Lee County, Virginia

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Martha Grace Lowry Mize

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