Battle of Cove Mountain
On May 10, Brig. Gen. W.W. Averell’s raiders encountered a brigade under William “Grumble” Jones near Cove Mountain. After delaying the Union advance, the Confederates withdrew. The next day, Averell reached the New River Bridge on the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad, which he burned. (NPS summary)
On the 7th Averell moved his cavalry column south from Wyoming Courthouse into Abb’s Valley, where they encountered two companies of the 8th Virginia Cavalry. The Confederate pickets were completely surprised and 50 were taken prisoner but escaping members of the unit spread the word of Averell’s approach. The Federal advance again clashed with the 8th the next day at Five Oaks. One Federal trooper was killed in the brief skirmish that left 4 Confederate troopers dead and 5 wounded.
The early warning provided by the 8th Virginia allowed time to consolidate scattered forces. While the 8th continued to skirmish heavily with the advancing Union troopers, BG William “Grumble” Jones and BG John H. Morgan built up a defense force around his primary objective at Saltville. Averell, like Toland before him, wanted no part of attacking the heavily defended area, particularly against the likes of the feared Morgan. He shifted the emphasis of his portion of the raid to Wytheville and the lead works there. Morgan and Jones almost immediately received word of the move away from Saltville and reacted. Jones loaded his men on a waiting train and departed for Wytheville while Morgan and his men began a ride toward the threatened town.
The Union cavalrymen stumbled on to the supply train of the 16th Virginia Cavalry on their new route and destroyed 11 wagons. The main body of the 16th, however, had left its mission of trailing Crook and arrived at Wytheville where it linked up with the 8th Virginia that was coming in from its picket duty. Jones arrived by train and strengthened the defense of Crockett Cove Gap. Morgan assumed positions in the mountains west of the gap.
Averell decided to test the position in the gap by seeking a way around the Confederate right flank. This dismounted effort was met and repulsed by the 16th Virginia. Averell then ordered Colonel Powell; recovered from the “mortal” wound he suffered in the first Saltville expedition, to conduct a saber charge into the gap. Powell thought better of the idea and sent a scout on a reconnaissance to check the defenses there. The scout returned with a detailed picture of the Confederates preparing their own attack, complete with artillery support. Averell withdrew and prepared Duffie’s Brigade for the expected assault. The 3rd West Virginia and the 34th Ohio occupied the flanks dismounted while the 2nd West Virginia remained mounted in the center. Colonel Schoonmaker’s Brigade continued to do battle with the 16th Virginia and was slowly being pushed back on the Federal left.
The Confederates launched a three pronged attack at the Union position. In conjunction with the action on the left Jones attacked straight up the gap and Morgan assailed the Union right. For four hours a back and forth battle raged until Morgan’s men finally managed to turn Averell’s right. The action continued until 2200 when total darkness forced the cancellation of further operations. Morgan intended on picking up the attack in the morning but Averell managed an escape by retreating during the night. Averell attempted to downplay the seriousness of his defeat by reporting that he faced a force “stated by rebel newspapers to have numbered 5,000.” This inflated estimate was probably more than double the actual Confederate strength. He also reported “114 officers and men killed and wounded” which told a more accurate tale of his complete failure to achieve anything at Wytheville. The Federal cavalry column limped to Dublin on the 11th in an effort to link up with Crook but the infantry had already departed the area.