Isaac Smith was a Confederate Major who served as Tompkins' deputy in the 22nd VA.
Ellen Tompkins - wife to the colonel, prisoner of the general, an friend to many of the sick and wounded.
War Diaries: The 1861 Kanawha Valley Campaigns by David L. Phillips is an examination of one of the initial military campaigns of the Civil War. Nearly simultaneously with McClellan’s maneuver campaign across the north central portion of western Virginia along the Parkersburg - Grafton - Philippi - Rich Mountain axis, a second force invaded western Virginia from Ohio. This force, under the command of Brigadier General Jacob D. Cox, crossed the Ohio River near Point Pleasant and moved slowly up the Kanawha River aboard steamboats as companies of infantry marched along the shores as a protective early warning screen. As this force began to encounter Virginia troops, fighting began that resulted in the general evacuation of the strategic Kanawha Valley by the Confederate forces sent there to defend it.
The military history of this campaign is developed from the letters, diaries, and personal narratives of the people participating in the campaign. Their unique perspective reveals private thoughts, such as those of Major Isaac Smith who wrote of seeing “the Star Spangled Banner” during his duty as officer of the day at Robert E. Lee’s camp on Sewell Mountain. Smith wrote of the old national flag, “...in spite of my position, I love it yet.” Smith was one of the first of the western Virginians to meet Robert E. Lee when he arrived to take command of his two rebellious subordinates, former Virginia governors Henry A. Wise and John B. Floyd, who were engaged in what was described as a “comic opera” campaign. Smith wrote of Lee:
“He is known to be the most talented man in the U.S. Army after Gen. Scott -- is about 6 feet high, a most perfect figure, straight without stiffness, full chest, trim built in every respect, decidedly the handsomest figure I ever saw -- his features equally handsome, and his face and eyes are full of intelligence -- courteous and perfectly easy in his manners, and with the most remarkable faculty of keeping his own counsel I have ever known -- perfectly circumspect in all he says, answers all questions civilly, but with good care that no one shall find out more than he intends them to know.... It is probable that he will straighten up matters here, set these two political generals on the right course in the right way and then leave us.”
The major participants in this Civil War drama included Virginia Colonel Christopher Tompkins, a West Point graduate who settled in central western Virginia in 1855. He had resigned his army commission and settled his family on a large farm in the vicinity of the small hamlet of Gauley Bridge, at the confluence of New and Gauley Rivers and the headwaters of the Kanawha River. This was the objective of his enemy, Union General Jacob Cox. The fighting and impact of Civil War combat on civilian populations is well-documented by the participants in this early fighting.
As Cox marched up the narrow valley, Tompkins maneuvered his western Virginia volunteer infantry regiment to avoid capture or destruction while under the command of the two feuding commander, Wise and Floyd. The quick retreat resulted in the abandonment of Tompkins’ farm, along with his wife and children who fell into the hands of the Union force under Cox.
Cox received a letter from Tompkins that requested the Union officer to guard the family of the Confederate officer, something Cox agreed to do. Cox’s wartime reminiscences explains his role in the complex arrangement as he ensured the safety of this opponent’s family and the visits he made to the lovely “Mistress of the Mansion,” under his care in a war zone.
Many of Ellen Tompkins’ wartime letters were preserved from that period and serve to illustrate her fears as Union soldiers arrived to occupy her farm as her husband’s regiment withdrew in the opposite direction. Worries about the safety of her husband and children, especially her lovely teenage daughter and namesake, Ellen, about whom she wrote “Ellen is never seen...”, fill her accounts of military activity in the vicinity of her home as two amateur armies maneuvered to gain advantage over their opponents.
The participants include very dramatic entries into the letters and diaries that were prepared for only a very small audience, if these were ever to be seen at all. For example, while Isaac Smith was ordered into a hopeless rearguard position at the very end of the 1861 campaign season, he wrote the following into a diary he was keeping as an extended letter for his wife -- now located in Union-controlled territory:
“...Very soon the heavy rain began to fall. I laid down upon some straw, covered up head and feet with my old shaggy blanket and the rain poured down upon us in torrents. The most vivid lightning and tremendous peals of thunder were seen and heard every few moments. Added to all this the officer who was to command us the next morning was foolishly drunk, perfectly childish and silly. I regard my position that night as the most unfortunate of my life. It seemed that God was against me, and I felt the contest of the morning would be fatal to me. The great possibility of the destruction of our train, the personal discomforts of my position, the gross injustice and tyranny which placed me there, God’s terrible presence in the heavens, the anticipated desperate fight of the morning and a drunken commander seemed to leave no hope, no prospect of escape. I was not afraid as cowards are, for this war I believe has assured me that I am not afraid of the battle field, but I was superstitious and felt that God had declared against me. With all this (thanks to my good old blanket) I slept soundly and sweetly during part of the night. I surrendered my fate to my heavenly father and slept in peace....”
These early battles and maneuvering are documented by a unique set of participants: a Confederate colonel initially responsible for the defense of the region, his deputy -- a serving Confederate officer whose father was the leader of the “New State Movement” that would successfully withdraw to form West Virginia, the enemy of both Confederates, and the wife of the Confederate colonel who wrote lengthily letters to her sister in Delaware after being interned by the Union general.
Colonel Tompkins and Major Smith resigned their commissions -- along with several other officers in the small Confederate army in the Kanawha Valley -- after a series of antagonistic encounters with the tyrannical General John B. Floyd. Tompkins was particularly incensed after Floyd ordered his artillery to fire on Tompkins’ farm -- while his wife and children were inside their home.
Following this incident, Ellen Tompkins and her children were allowed by General Cox to pass through the opposing lines for the safety of Richmond, but the war was not over for this unusual trio. Ellen relocated to her home in Baltimore where she operated a Confederate safe house for most of the war; Isaac Smith returned to the Kanawha Valley at the rear of William W. Loring’s invading columns in the September, 1862, and his correspondence to Tompkins indicates that his activities were related to espionage activities. Colonel Tompkins accepted employment as supervisor of collieries for the Tredegar Arms Works in Richmond, but seems to have operated as a “spymaster” coordinating the activities of an espionage ring in operation in Charleston, West Virginia, with Isaac Smith taking a prominent part.
A former member of the U.S. Army Special Forces and the descendant of four soldiers who served in the Confederate army, Civil War historian David Phillips is a specialist in the Allegheny Campaigns and Union special operations. He is the author of several books on the Civil War, including Tiger John: The Rebel Who Burned Chambersburg, War Stories: The War in West Virginia, and three volumes in the Civil War Chronicles series: Daring Raiders, Crucial Land Battles, and A Soldier's Story. Phillips lives and writes in Leesburg, Virginia.