September 17th, 1862 would captivate the nation; indeed, the fighting along Antietam Creek in rural Maryland may have been the most important day of the American Civil War. Yet one regiment of the Union Army was instead focused on what was happening on a small river in western Virginia.
John J. Polsley was a captain in the 8th Virginia (Union) Mounted Infantry regiment. This regiment was formed in the fall of 1861, its volunteers stemming from the counties located in the Kanawha valley of present day West Virginia. Polsley wrote that he was promised, when he enlisted, that the regiment would stay in Western Virginia and not leave the region. This may seem like an impossible thing to promise, but for the men of this region the war was not on some far off battlefield. Rather, the war was being fought in their community. For Polsley and others in this unit, enlistment was just a formality in this conflict. The men believed (rightly so) that the war was at their doorstep, and desired to continue serving in West Virginia. But in July, 1862, their hopes were dashed and they were instead sent east to serve in the Shenandoah Valley under Union General Franz Sigel, whose goal was to rid the Shenandoah of Confederates. Crossing the Blue Ridge was an unwelcome feat for most of the men in the unit, so much so that Polsley noticed many of the men had slipped away. Desertion wasn't confusing to Polsley, who wrote “that if we go back to the Kanawha every deserter would return to the Regiment." Men deserted for a variety of reasons, but the men in the 8th VA (Union) deserted not to run back to the safety of home, rather they ran to fight back where they thought it mattered most. Polsley himself noted that in order to try to return back to Western Virginia, the regiment “got up petitions among themselves they want to go back, they want to fight in their own country" (emphasis added). These men sent these petitions to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, as well as President Lincoln, to return home to fight in their own country. To them the most pressing issue wasn’t these far off battlefields, but rather the protection of their families against Rebels near their homes. This particular motivation wasn't limited to just Western Virginia troops. Other units from border states similarly wanted to make sure that those at home were safe. What makes Western Virginia unique is that there was a specific department of the army devoted to fighting and campaigning in Western Virginia. The Army of West Virginia served in the state throughout the war. These men were not to be home guard soldiers, but rather Federal field army whose job was to rid the region of any Confederate forces. When men were taken out of this army and transferred elsewhere, their anxieties shifted from their own personal well being to their family members back home.
That brings us to the fall of 1862. Historians often focus on the Antietam Campaign and rightly so. Men in both armies North and South felt the anxiety that comes with knowing that a battle is imminent. But for Polsley, a man who would spend time in the infamous Libby Prison in Richmond, the most anxious he was during the entire war was when Confederate General Albert G. Jenkins led a raiding party into Western Virginia that autumn. Noting that regiments like Polsley’s were sent into the east, thus making Western Virginia was vulnerable, Albert Jenkins took a cavalry force numbering around 500 men through a raid into the western counties. Starting on August 22, he Jenkins raid led to Confederate control of Charleston and the Kanawha Valley by late October. For Polsley this was a nightmare. At the time, he was stationed outside of Washington D.C on garrison duty as a result of Robert E. Lee’s invasion of the North. As early as August, when he first got word of the Jenkins raid, he was looking for some sort of word from home. “I have wished to have a letter from you written since the Jenkins raid as I do not know whether you are at home yet or have skedaddled.” To him the invasion of Maryland took a backseat to what was happening at home, he longed to go protect those at home and not those in Washington.
On September 18th, Polsley and those in garrison duty must have known that a battle was finally fought. Telegraph wires would be overtaxed with news that a battle occurred and the results of that battle still not fully understood. At this moment, when the height of attention would be placed on Antietam, John Polsley sat down to write a letter. What Polsley wrote demonstrated his concern over affairs not in Maryland, but in Western Virginia: “The attention of everybody but those in this Brigade appears to be directed in the operations in Maryland exclusively. But we are more anxious for news from Western Virginia, and are extremely anxious to get back there." The smoke from one of the most influential events during his lifetime hadn’t fully cleared, yet he treats it as a small matter compared to what was happening in Western Virginia.
Home, that’s what Polsley and others signed up to protect. Despite the bloodshed and gravity of Antietam, it still wasn’t what was on Polsley’s or other Kanawha troops’ minds. While the world was attentive to the banks of Antietam creek, soldiers from Western Virginia were instead interested on different banks, the Kanawha River. It was this river that they signed up to protect, not because of the natural significance, but rather the deep seeded personal connections that they had it and those who lived around it. For the men in both armies, the homefront and the war front were two vastly different things, but for men like Polsley they were inseparable. Men strived to separate these two things, but for Polsley and others like him, the strived to “fight in their own country.”
Sources & Further Reading:
Lesser, W. Hunter. Rebels at the Gate: Lee and McClellan on the Front Line of a Nation Divided. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2004.
Polsley, John J. John J. Polsley Papers. West Virginia & Regional History Center, Morgantown, WV.
Snell, Mark A. West Virginia and the Civil War: Mountaineers Are Always Free. Charleston, SC: History Press, 2011.
Justin Voithofer is a senior history major at West Virginia University. He currently spends his summers at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park as a seasonal park ranger. Justin's Civil War interests focus on the military campaigns of the Civil War and the creation of (arguably) the greatest state in the Union, West Virginia. Besides volunteering for Younglife, Justin's life outside of the Civil War revolves around both WVU and professional Pittsburgh sports. Both of which have caused numerous heartaches that could only be compared to the 11th Corps after Chancellorsville, a feeling of despair and constantly asking the question "What the heck just happened..."