1861 Report of Lt. Col. Jonathan McGee Heck, Twenty-fifth Virginia Infantry

-,–, 1861.

On May 24 I reported for duty to Colonel George A. Porterfield, who was then, with about 100 men, holding the town of Fetterman, three miles west of Grafton, on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.

On the 25th Colonel Porterfield received a re-enforcement of six or seven raw recruits, infantry and cavalry, under Colonel R. Turk.

On May 26 Colonel Porterfield, with his small force of half-armed and undisciplined troops, took possession of Grafton.

At 12 o’clock on the night of the 26th I was ordered by Colonel Porterfield to proceed to Richmond without delay, and report the condition of his little army, and the necessity of this being re-enforced. I started immediately, and by constant traveling reached Richmond in time to report to General Lee on the evening of the 28th. The general informed me that owing to the movements of the enemy at Alexandria and other points it would be impossible for him to do anything more for the army in the Northwest than to furnish me with some arms at Staunton, Va., and authority to recruit a regiment in the valley and mountain counties immediately on the route to Grafton.

In compliance with his order and instructions I repaired to Stauton on the 29th in company with Major R. E. Cowan, where we proceeded with all possible dispatch, assisted by Colonel M. G. Harman (at that time major and quartermaster at that point), to raise troops and get up supplies. While thus engaged the news of Colonel Porterfield’s retreat from Grafton and his subsequent defeat at Philippi reached us. This caused us some delay, as we had to provide clothing as well as provisions, as the army was then suffering, having lost all their guns. We also had some difficulty in fitting up a battery or four pieces (6-pounders), which had been furnished us by Governor Letcher, but was without caissons.

On June 7 we left Staunton with one battery of four pieces (6-pounder brass cannon), temporarily assigned to the Eighth Star Artillery, from Shenandoah County, command by Captain Rice, afterwards’ assigned to the Lee Battery, commanded by Captain Anderson; one company of cavalry, commanded by Captain Moorman, and three companies of infantry. About the same time we received orders from the governor to call out the militia of Pendleton, Highland, Bath, Pocahontas, Randolph, and Barbour. We immediate dispatch Lieutenant John T. Cowan (who had been ordered to report to me for duty) and others to these counties with the governors’ proclamation and orders for the militia of the three first-named counties to meet us at Monterey, in Highland County, on June 10. Having authority from the governor to use the militia or not, as we saw proper, we arranged for each county to furnish a company of 100 men, which was done, and the rest were discharged. We considered that many volunteers to be worth more than the whole militia force; besides, it was necessary of some to remain at home to take care of the crops, as our army had to be supplied principally from those counties. Three companies were formed from the militia of Highland, Bath, and Pendleton, and the militia from those counties sent home.

With this force (in all eight companies) we reached Colonel Porterfield’s headquarters, at Huttonsville, on June 15. General Garnett, who had reached there one day in advance with one staff officer, ordered Lieutenant Colonel W. L. Jackson and myself to form a regiment each from the companies then there, about twenty-four in number. My regiment was composed of ten companies of infantry, to which was attached one company of cavalry and one of artillery.

Immediately after the formation of my regiment I received orders to march that night to Rich Mountain Pass. Captain Corley, of the general staff, was sent with me to select the location for fortifications.

We marched that night, and early the next morning, June 16, occupied the western slope of the mountain near its base, seven miles west of Beverly.

We worked our whole force on the fortifications for several days, but made rather slow progress, as we had but few tools and no engineer until Prof. Jed. Hotchkiss joined the command.

On the same day that I occupied this position General Garnett, with Colonel Jackson’s regiment, occupied the Laurel Hill Pass, seventeen miles northwest of Beverly. The enemy was at this time holding Philippi with a considerable force and Buckhannon with a small force.

On June – I was ordered by General Garnett to take part of my regiment and all the wagons under my command and go to Buckhannon on a foraging expedition, a report of which you have.

The day after we left Buckhannon June–, the enemy, under General Rosecrans, about 5,000 strong, occupied the place and was very soon largely re-enforced.

On July [6] a detachment of about 100 men made an attack on our picket at Middle Fork Bridge, about half-way between our camp and Buckhannon. Notwithstanding their superior numbers they were repulsed, leaving one dead on the field. Three of our pickets were wounded-one slightly, the other two severely. The enemy soon afterwards appearing in large force, our picket was compelled to withdraw from the bridge.

On July 7 I sent out Major Tyler, of the Twentieth Virginia Regiment, who had been sent with seven companies to re-enforce me, with two companies to reconnoiter the enemy’s force and position at the bridge. This little force, under their gallant leader, attacked and drove in the enemy’s pickets, but finding the enemy in large force, withdrew in good order and returned to camp.

On the evening of the same day Lieutenant-Colonel Pegram arrived with the remainder of the Twentieth Regiment and assumed the command. I then offered to give him all the information I had of the surrounding country, fortifications, &c., and immediately introduced him to Professor Hotchkiss, my engineer.

On July 9 the enemy in large force moved up and occupied the Raring Run Flats, about two miles from and in sight of our position, and on the evening of the same day made a reconnaissance in force, driving in our pickets. Colonel Pegram at this time very much underrated the force of the enemy, and wrote to General Garnett for permission to surprise and attack, but I think this underrating of the enemy’s force kept General Garnett from ordering Colonel Pegram to fall back from the position, as I have no doubt he would have done, at the same time falling back from his own position to Cheat Mountain, had he learned or even supposed the enemy in front of our position half as strong as he was. I say this because I know General Garnett did not consider us strong enough in that position to resist a force so superior in numbers, even against a front attack only, as he inspected the position in person after the fortifications had been commenced, and remarked that we could defend the position against the attack of an enemy three or four times our number. The force brought against us was at least ten to one. I deem the foregoing statement due to the memory of one of Virginia’s noblest sons, a devoted patriot, a wise and sagacious general, who fell a victim to a combination of circumstances over which he had no control.

On July 10 the enemy made a second reconnaissance in force, which return dot camp late in the evening. Lights were seen in the enemy’s camp until after midnight, and he appeared to be in considerable commotion, as if preparing for some expedition requiring extra rations, &c. Colonel Pegram, in anticipation of a rear attack, sent to the top of the mountain, about two miles in our rear, two companies of the Twenty-fifth Regiment, Captain Curry’s, and-, of his own regiment, which remained out all night.

Early on the morning of the 11th a cavalry sergeant of the enemy (who had been detailed to assist in keeping open the communication between General Rosecrans, who had started very early that morning with six regiments of infantry to turn our left flank, and General McClellan, who, with the main body of the enemy and eighteen pieces of artillery, was to attack us in front as soon as Rosecrans made the attack in the rear) missed his way and rode up to our lines and was wounded and captured. Colonel Pegram learned from him that the enemy had moved a force to his rear, but could not learn by which flank, so he sent two more companies, with one piece of artillery, to re-enforce the picket on the mountain, which made in all a force of about 300 men, which was placed under the command of Captain De Lagnel, whose deed of daring on that day has won for him a name as lasting as history itself.

Colonel Scott, who was marching with a regiment to re-enforce General Garnett, was requested by Colonel Pegram to hold a road one mile west of Beverly. This was done because Colonel Pegram thought that the enemy would try to turn his right flank by a very circuitous route, coming in at that road, but the enemy made the attack about 11 o’clock on the mountain from the left flank, having made a circuit through the woods.

Our brave little band of heroes under Captain De Langnel met the enemy with great resolution and repulsed him twice, but were finally overpowered by overwhelming numbers and compelled to retreat, having lost in killed and wounded in the three hors’ fight about one-third of their whole force. After the brave Captain De Lagnel had been shot down, while, with the assistance of a boy-all the rest of the [men] at the guns having been killed or wounded-he was loading and firing his pieces, the gallant Captain Curry, of the Rockbridge Guards, assumed the command of the few remaining men and conducted the retreat in as good order as possible, being under the concentrated fire of four regiments, which made a perfect hail of leaden missiles.

The enemy, having charged and taken our piece of artillery, were bayoneting our wounded soldiers, who had been shot at their posts. As soon as Colonel Pegram learned that we had been driven from our position at Hart’s hose and lost our piece of artillery, he determined to take about half of the command and charge and retake the lost position, and immediately organized them and marched from our camp, leaving me in command, with instructions to hold that position at all hazards.

In the mean time the enemy was busy making preparations for an attack in front, cutting roads and placing a large number of pieces of artillery in position. Our force had been so weakened by the heavy detail made by Colonel Pegram that we could do nothing but strengthen our position and await the attack of the enemy.

About 11 o’clock at night, having heard nothing from Colonel Pegram, his adjutant and other officers insisted on a council of war being called. I called a few officers together and repeated to them my orders from Colonel Pegram, instructing me to hold the position until i heard from him, which might not be before morning, as he had not then determined whether he would attack General Rosecrans that night or in the morning.

We were about returning to our several posts, as we were expecting an attack every moment, when Colonel Pegram returned and informed us he had determined not to make the attack at Hart’s house, and had sent the men he had selected for that purpose away under the command of Major Nat. Tyler, and he ordered me to call in all the companies and pickets and retreat with them immediately in the direction of General Garnett’s camp, at Laurel Hill. I preceded without delay to execute the order; had the remaining pieces of artillery spiked; the men formed single file; a pass-word by which they might recognize each other in the dark was given them, and they were marching out of the camp when Colonel Pegram came up, owing to his weak condition, having been thrown from his horse during the day. His orderly, in halting the command until the colonel could get in front, failed to reach the head of the column, and forty or fifty men, under the command of Captain Lilley (guided by Major Stewart and Professor Hotchkiss), did not receive the orders to halt, and marched for some time, thinking they were followed by the rest of the command. On discovering that they had got separated from us, they changed their course, marched through Beverly and escaped.

Soon after leaving Camp Garnett this little force passed between two regiments of the enemy, as we afterwards learned, and escaped being fired upon by replying by chance with the signal adopted by the enemy. The night being very dark and route being over precipitous mountains and through almost impassable undergrowth, we made but little progress until after daylight.

Soon after sunup on the 12th we were in sight of Beverly on a high mountain, and could see the river valley for many miles both to our right and left. Had we gone directly down into this valley as urged by Colonel Wirt in person [and] some of the officers we would have escaped, as the enemy did not enter Beverly until about 1 p. m. on that day. I suppose that we would have gone into the valley at this point if Colonel Pegram had not mistaken some of our own (Lilley’s) men for the enemy’s advance; as it was we were kept in the mountains, marching slowly in the direction of General Garnett’s camp at Laurel Hill.

Late in the evening I asked permission of Colonel Pegram to go down into the valley and see if the road leading from Beverly to General Garnett’s camp was clear, which was granted. Taking with me a citizen that I could rely upon, I send him to a house where he learned from the inmates that there was no news in that neighborhood of any movements of the enemy in the valley; but as they were three miles from the main road and could give no certain news as to the movements on it, I returned and reported to Colonel Pegram, and he determined to move his men to the main road without delay.

We found this march through the valley to the main road rather difficult, as we had to wade the Valley River three times and cross much swampy land. When we were within a half mile of the main road the head of our column, having crossed the river, was halted till the rest of the command came up, when we were fired into, which caused some confusion, as it was very dark.

Colonel Pegram ordered me to recross the river with the command and form them, as he had just learned that the enemy was at Leadsville Church (3,000 strong), at the point where we would strike the main road. He soon afterwards ordered me to march the men back again to the foot of the mountain, he riding on in advance, having procured a horse after he got into the valley. When I arrived at the hose late at night I found Colonel Pegram, who was much exhausted and very weak, asleep. I awoke him, and he told me to call together the commandants of companies and procure a private room. I did so, and sent for the colonel, who informed the officers that he had concluded to surrender the command, as he believed it would be impossible to escape, being, as he believed, so surrounded by the enemy that it would be impossible for us to cross the valley to the mountains on the other side, and admitting that if we were able to do so, he thought that in their present exhausted and starving condition it would be impossible for the men to reach the nearest settlement.

All the officers seemed to agree with the colonel except Captain J. B. Moorman, of the Franklin Guards, and myself. The captain had marched his company by the same route after the defeat at Philippi, and thought that it could be done again. I argued that we could try the experiment, and if we came across a very superior force we could then surrender to it, which I thought would be much better than to send a proposition to surrender to Beverly, seven miles distant. I thought that with what meal, four, and meat we could get in the neighborhood (there being several houses near) we could manage to subsist the men on short rations until we could get something in the mountains. But, as stated before, a majority of the officers thought it would be better to surrender at once. Colonel Pegram then wrote a note to the commanding officer of the U. S. forces at Beverly and dispatched it about 12 o’clock that night (July 12) by a messenger, who returned a little after sunrise the next day with one of General McClellan’s staff officers, Colonel Key, and about twenty cavalry. Colonel Key brought Colonel Pegram a reply to his note from General McClellan (copies of which you have). Colonel Pegram and Colonel Key had a long conference, at the end of which the men were marched to Beverly and stacked their guns. There being no formal surrender of officer to surrender their swords to, Colonel Pegram and most of the officers who had swords hung them on the stacked arms, and many of them were soon stolen by the Yankee guards.

We were kept at Beverly and well treated by our captors until July 17, when all but Colonel Pegram were released on parole by order of General Scott, Pegram being refused his parole because he had been an officer in the U. S. Army.

The foregoing account has been written hastily and from memory, but I think in the main is correct. There are undoubtedly many points of interest that have been forgotten, but as I have been informed that you will have written statements from several of the officers, and among others one from Lieutenant John T. Cowan, who was with me all the time, and to whom I am much indebted. He is a cool and intrepid young officer, and certainly deserves a much better fate.

There are many officers who deserve honorable mention, and foremost among those is the brave Captain Curry, who was wounded in the fight at Rich Mountain; but where many acted so well distinction would be invidious.

Yours, very truly,

Late Lieutenant-Colonel, Commanding 25th Regiment.

R. R. HOWISON, Richmond, Va.


The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series I, Vol. II. With additions and corrections. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1902.