Prelude to the Battle of Carnifex Ferry
As the possibility of civil war in the United States evolved during the early months of 1861, Virginia was a divided state. Led by residents of the eastern part of the state, Virginia voted to secede from the Union rather than comply with the request of President Abraham Lincoln for each state to provide volunteer soldiers to put down the insurrection that began at Fort Sumter in April. Having little in common with their neighbors to the east, residents of the mountainous area of western Virginia started their own movement to secede from Virginia and to remain in the Union.
Struggle for Control of Western Virginia
During the summer of 1861, Union and Confederate forces struggled for control of western Virginia. The area was of considerable importance 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 Union government 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 new State of West Virginia in October 1861, although the federal government did not recognize West Virginia as a formal 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 the night of July 10, Brigadier General William Rosecrans led 2,000 men on a march through the mountains, flanking a Rebel stronghold at Rich Mountain. His surprise attack on the Confederate rear the next day sent the Rebels into disarray. Rosecrans’ triumph forced General Robert S. Garnett’s 3,500 Rebel soldiers to abandoned their camp at Laurel Hill, tossing away supplies to lighten their loads and block the path of their pursuers as they fled south toward Beverly.
Union Victory at Corrick’s Ford
For the next two days, the Rebels and Yankees took part in a running battle. On the morning of July 13th, the Confederates made a stand at Corrick’s Ford, a river crossing on the Shavers Fork of the Cheat River. During the Union victory at the Battle of Corrick’s Ford Union soldiers mortally wounded Garnett as his troops fled in disarray.
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 Lincoln summoned McClellan to the White House and offered him command of the Military Division of the Potomac. McClellan’s departure left Brigadier General William S. Rosecrans in command of most of the Union forces operating in western Virginia.
Confederate Victory at Kessler’s Cross Lanes
In late July, Union Brigadier General Jacob Cox led his “Kanawha Brigade” of Ohio Volunteer Regiments into western Virginia and forced Confederate forces out of the Kanawha River Valley. Confederate Brigadier General John B. Floyd countered by crossing the Gauley River with 2,000 soldiers on August 26, 1861, and routing Colonel Erastus Tyler’s 7th Ohio Regiment encamped at Kessler’s Cross Lanes. Floyd then withdrew to the river and established a defensive position, known as Camp Gauley, at Carnifex Ferry.
Fighting Erupts at Carnifex Ferry
In early September, Rosecrans assembled a Union force of approximately 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 rest of 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.
Aftermath of the Battle of Carnifex Ferry
Rosecrans sustained a much higher casualty rate than Floyd (158 to 20) at the Battle of Carnifex Ferry, but the Rebel retreat further weakened the Confederacy’s influence in western Virginia. By late October, Northern forces and Union sympathizers had a firm grip on the region. On October 24, 1861, residents of thirty-nine counties in western Virginia approved the formation of the new state of West Virginia.