Prelude to the Battle of Camp Allegheny
During the summer of 1861, Union and Confederate forces struggled for control of western Virginia. The area was highly important because gaps in the Appalachian Mountains connected the East to the Midwest. The Virginia Militia acted quickly, disrupting traffic on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and taking control of turnpikes through the mountains.
The U. S. War Department countered by sending 20,000 troops into the area under the command of Major General George McClellan. McClellan’s forces pressed the Confederate troops in the area throughout the summer and fall, gradually driving the Rebels out of the region, paving the way for the creation of the State of West Virginia in October 1861, although the federal government did not formally recognize the new state until June 1863.
Battle of Philippi
On June 3, 1861, Union troops commanded by Brigadier General Thomas A. Morris surprised a Confederate encampment at Philippi, Virginia, and scored a Union victory. Many historians consider the Battle of Philippi to be the first significant land engagement in the Eastern Theater of the American Civil War.
Battle of Rich Mountain
On June 15, 1861, the Confederate government placed Brigadier General Robert Selden Garnett in charge of the forces opposing McClellan in western Virginia. Garnett deployed his troops at two key passes through the mountains at Laurel Hill and Rich Mountain.
In early July, McClellan feigned an attack against the Rebels at Laurel Mountain, while deploying the bulk of his forces against the Confederates at Camp Garnett at Rich Mountain. On the night of July 10, McClellan sent 2,000 men commanded by Brigadier General William Rosecrans on a flanking march over the mountain. The next day, Rosecrans defeated a small Rebel force near the crest of the mountain at the Battle of Rich Mountain and then prepared to attack the Confederate rear on July 12.
With Rosecrans at his rear, the commander at Camp Garnett, Lieutenant Colonel John Pegram, ordered an evacuation during the night. Roughly one-half of the retreating Rebels made it to nearby Beverly, but pursuing Federals captured Pegram and the others on July 13.
Upon hearing of Pegram’s retreat, Garnett abandoned his position at Laurel Hill. As his troops retreated south, Union soldiers mortally wounded Garnett on July 13, while directing his rearguard Garnett’s death made him the first general officer to die in the Civil War. Following Garnett’s death, Confederate President Jefferson Davis transferred General Robert E. Lee to western Virginia to coordinate Rebel activities in the region.
Changes in Leadership
Following Garnett’s death, Confederate officials transferred General Robert E. Lee to western Virginia to coordinate Rebel forces in the region. Lee would later emerge as one of the South’s greatest generals, but even he could not salvage the Confederate situation in western Virginia.
On the Union side, President Abraham Lincoln summoned McClellan to the White House and offered him command of the Military Division of the Potomac. Following McClellan’s departure, Brigadier General William S. Rosecrans assumed control of McClellan’s forces operating in western Virginia. Union officials placed Brigadier General Joseph J. Reynolds in direct command of the federal force in Tygart Valley.
Battle of Kessler’s Cross Lane
In late July, Union Brigadier General Jacob Cox led his “Kanawha Brigade” of Ohio Volunteer Regiments into western Virginia and drove Rebel forces out of the Kanawha River Valley. Confederate Brigadier General John B. Floyd countered by crossing the Gauley River with 2,000 soldiers and routing Colonel Erastus Tyler’s 7th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry at the Battle of Kessler’s Cross Lanes on August 26, 1861. Floyd then withdrew to the river and established a defensive position at Carnifex Ferry known as Camp Gauley.
Battle of Carnifex Ferry
In early September, Rosecrans assembled a Union force of roughly 7,000 soldiers and marched on Floyd’s soldiers at Camp Gauley. The leading elements of Rosecrans’ force came into contact with Floyd’s men near Carnifex Ferry after noon on September 10. Before Rosecrans could concentrate his troops for engagement, a battle erupted. Rosecrans spent the day sending in his brigades one at a time as they arrived at the battlefield, allowing the outnumbered Confederates to repulse the piecemeal Union attacks. When the fighting ended that night, Floyd withdrew rather than face Rosecrans’ fully assembled force the next day. The following morning, Union troops occupied Camp Gauley without incident. The Union victory at the Battle of Carnifex Ferry left western Virginia under the control of Federal troops.
Battle of Cheat Mountain
After the Union victory at the Battle of Rich Mountain, McClellan divided his forces and sent roughly 10,000 men east into Pocahontas County, and established a fort on the eastern face of Cheat Mountain. In early September, Lee left Sewell Mountain and joined Brigadier General William W. Loring’s 11,000-man Army of the Northwest at Valley Mountain in Pocahontas County. The two Confederate generals planned an offensive against the Federal forces at Cheat Mountain. The plan called for three Rebel brigades to attack Cheat Summit Fort on September 12. Bad weather and rugged terrain created poor communication between the three brigades, resulting in an uncoordinated and ineffective assault. The Confederate force probed the Federals for three days during the Battle of Cheat Mountain before giving up and withdrawing to Valley Mountain.
Battle of Greenbrier River
On the night of October 2, Brigadier General Joseph Reynolds led two Union brigades from Cheat Mountain toward a Confederate encampment near the Greenbrier River. The Rebels dashed Reynolds’ attempt to surprise them the next morning when their pickets detected his force before they reached the main encampment. The Federals drove the Confederate pickets back in the morning, but after sporadic fighting throughout the rest of the day proved futile, Reynolds withdrew to Cheat Mountain, ending the Battle of Greenbrier River.
December 13, 1861 — Clash at Camp Allegheny
In December 1861, Colonel Edward Johnson’s Rebel forces occupied the summit of Allegheny Mountain near the town of Bartow in Pocahontas County, Virginia (now West Virginia). Johnson aimed to defend the Staunton and Parkersburg Turnpike, which connected the upper Shenandoah River valley with the Ohio River.
During the night of December 12, Brigadier General Robert H. Milroy’s Union force advanced in two columns toward Johnson’s outpost. Milroy intended to attack each flank of Johnson’s line simultaneously, but his left column marching up the turnpike encountered the Confederate right flank and attacked first. After several hours of close-quarter fighting, the Rebels drove the Yankees back. Shortly after that, the Union right column arrived and attacked the Confederate left. Once again, the Rebels prevailed and Milroy retreated to his camps near Cheat Mountain.
Aftermath of the Battle of Camp Allegheny
The Union suffered about 140 casualties (killed, wounded, missing/captured) during Milroy’s unsuccessful assault on Camp Allegheny. The Confederacy lost 162 men.
A few days before the battle, Confederate General William W. Loring ordered Johnson to abandon Camp Allegheny. Following Milroy’s assault, Loring reconsidered and ordered Johnson to hold the camp throughout the winter.
Johnson’s heroics during the engagement earned him the nickname “Allegheny Johnson.”