The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Battle of Cove Mountain

By John M. Johnson © 1990

Issue: May, 1990

Editor's Note... John M. Johnson has more than a passing interest in the battle and the area known as Crockett's Cove. His great grandparents were slaves of the Thompson Sayer Crockett family mentioned in this article and he owns property there. He has old family stories that have been passed down to him and the old T. S. Crockett house is still standing today, owned by Mrs. Alberta Lewis.

We walked around the property and he pointed out the upstairs window Mrs. Crockett peaked out of when the retreating Union Army stopped to ask directions. An interesting side note is the old house is made of handmade bricks. In the mortar between the bricks, there are notes written in pencil. One note near the front door states, "Feb. 11, 1864 - If Sally A. Watson will marry me she will inherit the things of the house. T.C.C." If you are at old brick buildings, be sure to look at the mortar between the bricks. Many times people would write messages there and many of them remain to this day.

Near noon on the 10th of May, 1864, Averell and the Confederate forces met at the Gap of the Cove (Crocketts Cove), also called Grassy Lick.

The Union Army spent the night before at the Elijah Smith home north of the Gap of the Cove, and demanded the women of the home cook for them. The night went by in a very spirited fashion for the soldiers expected an easy victory over Wytheville, Virginia the next day.

Brigadier General Alfred N. Duffie, of the Union Army was the best drill master that the regiment had, and after the 1863 raid on Wytheville, the 2nd Regiment was in camp for some months in the Kanawha Valley training and drilling. Duffie had also trained company "H" as bodyguards who were also with the command at the Gap of the Cove.

On the morning of the 10th of May, after discussing battle plans, the regiment of Union soldiers, both infantry and cavalry, started the march in the direction of Wytheville, and being very cautious, the command stopped at the forks of the road near the Allen Crockett house for a short time. General Duffie dismounted one of his bodyguards and sent him in the direction of the Gap of the Cove. In the meantime, the rest of the regiment moved even closer to the Gap with drawn sabers while waiting the return of the bodyguard. They knew that Wytheville was not far away and an attack could be expected at any time.

The bodyguard had crept up into the wooded area, perhaps at the lower end of Cove Mountain, and plainly viewed the confederate position and heavy reinforcements of cannons being hurried forward.

It was evident that the Confederates knew of the advance attack from the Union Army, and had been in the Gap for sometime, and were to spring a surprise attack and maybe trap the Union Army in the Gap.

The bodyguard hurried back to warn Duffie, who went back to the Gap to see for himself and to evaluate the situation. After viewing the strong position secured by the Confederates, the charge was abandoned. General Averell and Colonel Powell later learned that the whole movement had been watched from a distance by the Confederates who knew of the coming attack and had placed a battery of cannons in the road at the south end of the Gap, armed with grapeshot and ball canister, and masked with brush to conceal the big cannons, while a force of infantry were on both sides of the road. The following orders show that the Confederates were fully informed of the planned attack on Saltville.

Major General Breckenridge
Dublin, Va.
My two best scouts are just in directly from Averell's camp on Kanawha. They left there last Wednesday. Averell is certainly there. There were eight mounted Regiments and eleven Regiments of Infantry, and others expected from Parkersburg. This force is called, on the Kanawha River, the right wing of Grant's army. Their intentions, as expected there, is to strike the Salt Works and the New River Bridge. There is no mistake about this information. They were expected to move very soon.
John Echols
Brig. Genl.

There were people in an out of the camps from both the North and the South posing as merchants and the like. Bits and pieces of information were picked up from overheard conversations and carried back to the commanders and in turn the commanders took action to head off any attack and tried always to be one step ahead of the enemy; if at all possible. These so called spies were perhaps in the Wythe County area.

An unknown soldier sat atop "Mill Ridge" some four hundred yards north of Cove Mountain hiding in the cover of the wood lines, and spotted a lone figure walking in a clover field in the distance, dressed in overalls and a man's hat.

The soldier perhaps was armed with the very accurate Spencer or Sharp's rifle (often used by snipers), took very careful aim to turn the intruder back. That one shot was enough to send Mrs. Sally Brown scampering back across the field to her log cabin (still standing) in Mr. Garnet Ager's Field. Because she was dressed in overalls and a hat, the sniper was unaware that she was a woman, and did not take the chance of letting her cross the field to warn the opposing side of the concealed cannons and infantry that were at the Gap.

Sally had just left the cabin and had traveled a short distance, when she spotted a four leaf clover under her foot. She had stopped to pluck the clover when the lead ball passed so close to her leg that she could feel the wind from it as it passed. It struck the earth just inches from her. In an instant the crack from the rifle was heard and it was evident that she was the target. Mrs. Sally Brown was lucky that day, but bad luck was soon to come. For not long afterwards she was to receive the sad news that her husband, Andrew Brown had died in the battle of Cloyd's Mountain in Pulaski County, May 9, 1884.

Maybe this shot set the battle in motion at the Gap. For at this time the 2nd Regiment fell back a short distance from the Gap and formed battle lines with Colonel Powell at the left of the flank. The purpose was to draw the Confederates out of the Gap into the open fields where the battle could commence.

At Cove Mountain in Wythe County, the battle was to rage on for the next four hours. With the 34th Ohio Volunteer Calvary in support of Powell and General Averell. It is estimated that nearly 4,000 soldiers accompanied the Confederate Army with General Morgan. Colonel Graham, along with General Jones, when the Confederates were plainly seen and heard coming down the north side of Cove Mountain, along with artillery.

The rain had been falling for almost two days making the battle more complex. Some of the bullets were encased with a brass shell. Some were encased in paper, and when this bullet was dropped or came in any contact with moisture, it was useless. But some of the soldiers no matter how well they were trained sometimes dropped the bullets, and out of pure fright they tried to retrieve them and fire the soiled wet shell, only to make matters worse. After the wet bullets were rammed into the barrel of the rifle and was in vain, the soldier sometimes used the weapon as a club, but most of the time relied on the bayonet. After attaching the bayonet, close contact had to be made with the enemy. Most soldiers did not like the thought of looking the opponent in the eye while in battle. Later, towards the end of the Civil War this problem was overcome by encasing all bullets in brass.

After the Confederates were drawn out of the Gap, the cannons were placed on or near Cove Mountain's lower end. The firing of the cannons could be plainly heard miles away at Wytheville. Sabers had been drawn in the bottom land, and hand to hand fighting had commenced. Earlier in the battle General Averell had been wounded by a ball cutting the skin across his forehead, causing some aggravation from the bleeding. His sight was also impaired.

While under heavy fire the lines of the 14th Pennsylvania were broken. At this time Colonel Powell divided the Regiment into platoons, and when the determined Confederate Army pushed the Union Army east and up the valley towards Crab Orchard. Colonel Powell sat straight on his horse and rode from one end of the column to the other, and his commanding voice could be heard over the noise of battle, "Platoon right about march," and the command was to be executed as if in precision dress formation. The Union Army would retreat for a short distance and the same command was to be given again to face the Confederates just a few hundred yards away, and another fight would commence.

The Union Army was determined to get through the Gap, and they were to try a second time, but on this occasion the 14th Pennsylvania was pushed back into Cove Creek as the Confederate cannons pounded away at a small ridge which adjoined Cove Mountain. At this time the 14th lines had broken again and Cove Creek ran red with blood. Many of the bodies of the dead and wounded floated on the surface of the water.

But again Colonel Powell regrouped the Regiment, and the Union Army was pushed further back into the valley, further from the Gap than before. By this time the Union Army was hungry and fatigued from the battle. Upon leaving Logan's Court House (Logan, West Virginia) a few days earlier, they only drew four days rations for the men and one day's forage for the horses. The men and horses were exhausted, but in vain another attack was launched On the last attack the Union Army fell back to the Brick Church at the east end of the Cove, and the Confederates retired to the Gap and set up fortifications. The battle was over.

No private homes were destroyed in the Cove maybe because the Union Army had been treated fairly at the Elijah Smith home the night before, and had been fed by some of the residents of the community shortly after the battle had concluded. Some impositions had been made on the cooks and servants at the John Crockett home close to the Brick Church. The demand was to feed them, and corn cakes were to become a welcome feast straight from the griddle, and sometimes the cooking process was not complete before the hot cakes were snatched from the stove.

The battle was lost and the troops had been fed, and the wounded from the Union Army were placed in the Brick Church. Many years later and even today evidence of the battle can still be seen on the blood stained floors of the historic church, which was constructed in 1858. Some of the bodies of Union Soldiers are said to be buried on the grounds in the rear of the Church, the rest of the wounded (who were too sick to travel) were left behind by General Averell and Colonel Powell in the Church and were later found by citizens of the community.

But Colonel Powell and General Averell had another problem. The Gap was guarded and secured by the Confederates and the night was upon them. They were also lost. Sending three officers back to the Thompson Sayers Crockett home east of the Brick Church, the officers stopped at the front gate and called for assistance. They were answered by Mrs. Crockett, a little frightened, as she called from an upstairs window. After assuring her that she would not be harmed, the officers were polite in asking directions to get out of the Cove. A slave by the name of "Uncle Peter" was summoned by Mrs. Crockett. He is thought to have been Peter Monroe.

After Peter led the Union Army out of the Cove by way of Crab Orchard, across Little Walker Mountain, the strenuous battle forced the 2nd Regiment to rest for the night. They were to march to Christiansburg the next day. Their intentions were to join General George Crook at Dublin.

The loss of the dead and wounded depleted the ranks of the Union Regiment. The number is believed to be 114, that of the Confederate Army unknown. A number of these men are said to be buried on a hillside between the Gap of the Cove and Wytheville. One person stated that some years later the hogs belonging to one of the farmers in the area, rooted some bones from shallow graves and these were believed to be the remains of Civil War soldiers, both North and South.

The cannons are silent at the Gap, and 126 years later the sounds of old muskets loud cracks have been replaced by more modern high powered rifles. Interstate 77 runs through the Gap, with its fast moving automobiles and tractor drawn trailers have taken the place of the horse drawn wagons and carriages, which once traveled the old turnpike.

The battle smoke from black powder has drifted away like a spirit, the smell and noise of war are gone, and the return of Colonel William H. Powell is history.