WEST VIRGINIA IN THE CIVIL WAR

FIRST CAMPAIGN OF CIVIL WAR
IN WEST VIRGINIA

By
Boyd B. Stutler

It was a discouraged Porterfield who camped at the base of Cheat Mountain with a disheveled band of raw recruits. He notified his superiors in Richmond that he must have reinforcements and better equipment if he were to cope with the great number of troops from Ohio and Indiana that McClellan was pouring into the state. Instead of complying with his request, he was ordered to stand trial for his weak resistance at Philippi. He was exonerated by the board of inquiry at Beverly on June 20, 1861, but lost his command.

Porterfield was superseded in Command of troops in northern Virginia by Brigadier General Robert S. Garnett, an experienced military man who had resigned his commission in the United States Army to join the Confederate forces. Early in July, Garnett's forces were augmented by six thousand men transferred from the eastern section of the state. Lee ordered him to destroy the Baltimore and Ohio railroad at Rowlesburg. This he was unable to do because of the concentration of Federal troops in that vicinity. But he blocked the Cheat River by felling trees across it and thus handicapped McClellan in moving troops and supplies in that area.

Garnett hastily built two forts at strategic points on Laurel Hill and Rich Mountain. The first was near Belington and the latter in the pass about five miles west of Beverly. These forts commanded the roads to the upper Monongahela Valley and the crossing of the Alleghenies.

In the meantime, on June 22, McClellan crossed the Ohio to take personal command and the following day established his headquarters at Grafton. Later he moved to Buckhannon, from which point he directed troops at Clarksburg, Weston, Philippi, and other centers. McClellan kept informed on the activities of Garnett through reports of spies. From people who lived in the vicinity he learned that the two positions fortified by Garnett were about twelve miles apart with no connecting road and that a deep gorge lay between them.

Garnett considered Rich Mountain to be the stronger of the two positions. On it he threw up heavy breastworks of timber and earth with trenches below. He placed Colonel Pegram in charge at this place. Garnett, thinking that any attack attempted by the Federals would be at Laurel Hill on the main road up the Tygarts Valley, took command of that position himself with about six thousand men.

McClellan had a far superior force of nearly twenty thousand men, and he determined to capture Garnett's army. His strategy was to attack the southern position on Rich Mountain and thus cut off the base of supplies and prevent the retreat of the Confederate forces that were at Laurel Hill. On July 6, he sent a small force under General Thomas A. Morris from Philippi toward Laurel Hill. This was merely a feint to distract the attention of Garnett. Then McClellan himself led his main body of troops to the rear, and on July 11 attacked the small force on Rich Mountain. After a brief fight, the Confederates abandoned their position and retreated in an effort to reach the main force at Laurel Hill. But in the night they got lost in the underbrush and thickets and were captured by McClellan's men.

When Garnett learned of the defeat of his men at Rich Mountain, he abandoned his position on Laurel Hill and began a retreat toward the south. Then he discovered that McClellan had blocked his road, having seized the summit of Cheat Mountain, a part of the Staunton Pike beyond Beverly and Huttonsville. Garnett then attempted to escape over the mountain trails to the north of the main highway, cutting trees and blockading roads behind him. But General Morris, with a force of about three thousand men, pursued the fleeing Confederates rapidly. He overtook them at Corrick's Ford, near Parsons, where a battle ensued. Garnett was killed on July 13, and his men scattered in unorganized retreat. They abandoned their baggage, guns, supplies, and artillery, and fled across the Alleghenies through Hardy and Pendleton counties to Monterey.

Garnett's body was moved to Grafton. Then, on July 15, General George B. McClellan wrote from his headquarters near Huttonsville to the "Commanding Officer of Confederate Forces near Staunton, Va." as follows:

"You will, ere this, no doubt, be informed of the unhappy fate of General Garnett, who fell while acting the part of a gallant soldier. His remains are now at Grafton, preserved in ice, where they will await the instructions of his relatives, should they desire to remove them to his home."

Two days later, July 17, Brigadier General Henry R. Jackson, CSA, wrote an appreciative letter and stated that Lieutenant Bruce and Dr. Garnett, a relative and aide-de-camp of the General, would come and arrange for the removal of the remains to his home. He wrote, "That his relatives and many friends will most sensibly appreciate your kind acts and words respecting him cannot be a subject of surmise."

In General McClellan's letter to the Commander of the Confederate forces he referred to a message he had received from the Commander in Chief of the United States military forces (President Lincoln) in which he was instructed to release all prisoners surrendered after the Rich Mountain battle to their homes, some eight hundred, if they would willingly swear not to bear arms or serve in any capacity against the Union in the war until released from such obligation. He wrote that he would furnish wagons, utensils, rations, tents, and supplies for the needs of the prisoners. He added, "I will be glad also to arrange for the return of the wounded as soon as their condition will permit it. In the meantime their friends may rest assured that every attention will be paid to them."

The character of McClellan is revealed in this letter, written just after the beginning of the Civil War. "While I am determined to play my part in this unhappy contest to the utmost of my energy and ability, permit me to assure you of my desire to do all in my power to alleviate its miseries, and to confine its effects to those who constitute the organized armies and meet in battle. It is my intention to cause the persons and property of private citizens to be respected, and to render the condition of prisoners and wounded as little oppressive and miserable as possible."

After the battle of Corrick's Ford when the commander of the Confederate forces was killed, the troops retreated along a road that was difficult because of mud caused by incessant rains during the preceding night. The story of the flight of that disorganized army, over narrow country roads, through strange territory, and with the fear that the Federals would overtake them at any moment, presents a dark picture. As they plodded leaderless through the night, they abandoned wagons which were sunk in the mud, left artillery which they were unable to transport, and drivers cut their horses loose and rode them. The sick and wounded were left to the tender mercies of the scattered farmers or they crawled into sheltered places beside the road to die.

To add to the discomfort and hardships of the retreating army, the rain continued to come down in torrents, and scouts reported to the disconsolate stragglers that the Federals had cut them off at Red House. The line of straggling soldiers extended for ten miles or more; many of the men were without shoes. They threw away their guns, their knapsacks, and every extra weight that might impede their progress. The head of the column arrived at Red House about two o'clock in the morning. From there on they were not pursued or attacked.

Meanwhile, General Robert E. Lee, not having heard about Garnett's defeat and death, wired Brigadier General Henry R. Jackson on July 14, at Staunton, to take three regiments and other troops "and move to the relief of General Garnett."

Jackson proceeded to Monterey from which place he wired, on July 16, for immediate reinforcements; that Garnett had been killed and that the Federals would probably advance toward Staunton. He reported he had between 2,500 and 3,000 able-bodied men. What Jackson surmised had been recommended by McClellan in a telegram on July 7 to Colonel E.D. Thompson, Assistant Adjutant General. He urged that he be permitted to march on Staunton or Wytheville and he was sure he could "break the backbone of secession."

General Jackson, at Monterey, became discouraged when he saw the "flower of Virginia" come straggling in from over the mountains. He wrote, "The debris of General Garnett's command are constantly pouring in ... I fear that ... they will be almost useless for any military purpose."

Thus ended the first concerted campaign of the Confederacy to conquer northwestern Virginia; a defeat that was to have a discouraging reaction on the leaders of the South.

The Federals established strong posts at Huttonsville, Elkwater, Cheat Summit, and with smaller outposts sufficient to hold the Tygarts and Cheat areas. Thus ended the first, and possibly the most far-reaching in importance, of the campaigns in the Civil War waged in West Virginia. It was a great success for the Union and the most severe blow suffered by the South at the beginning of the Civil War.

Francis H. Pierpont was named as governor of the Restored Government of Virginia on June 20, 1861, and in less than six weeks he had recruited ten regiments for the Federal army. By the end of 1861, the counties comprising West Virginia had gone far beyond their quota--8,497--and had furnished 12,757 soldiers to the Union cause.

Possibly no other man in the state would have served quite so well as a courageous leader and organizer as Pierpont. In addition to securing recruits for the regular forces, he also formed many companies of home guards or local militia. These were essential because of the disturbed conditions in many localities and the fact that "bushwhackers" and roving bands of outlaws were taking advantage of the situation to steal and plunder communities.

By the defection of west Virginia, the South lost possibly forty thousand men and was deprived of two-fifths of the original Virginia territory. In addition, the Union gained more than thirty thousand regular soldiers, not counting the local organizations of militia. These men were engaged in defending their homes, a fact that made them much more forceful and determined than if they were merely in a war to settle a principle or to protect the property of others.

The Union also gained the use of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, a vital factor in the transportation of troops and supplies, because this was the only through line between St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Washington. The fact that West Virginia remained loyal had two other decided effects on the Civil War: it determined the battle lines and afforded an opportunity for the Union forces to strike both flanks of the Southern forces, and it had a decided influence on the morale of neighboring states and of the leaders of the Federal government.


Stutler, Boyd B., West Virginia in the Civil War (Charleston, West Virginia; Educational Foundation, Inc., 1963), 28-32.

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