Prelude to the Battle of Charleston
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. Federal officials countered by sending 20,000 troops into the area under the command of Major General George B. McClellan.
McClellan Occupies Charleston
McClellan’s forces pressed the Confederate troops in the area throughout the summer and fall. Following the Union victory at the Battle of Rich Mountain (July 11, 1861), Federal troops marched into Charleston two weeks later on July 25. Subsequent Union successes at the Battle of Carnifex Ferry (September 10, 1861), and the Battle of Cheat Mountain (September 12–15, 1861) cemented Federal control of the Kanawha River Valley and western Virginia.
Kanawha Valley Under-defended
On August 11, 1862, Union officials transferred Brigadier General Jacob D. Cox and roughly 5,000 soldiers from his Kanawha Division to eastern Virginia as part of the troop buildup for the Northern Virginia Campaign (July 19–September 1, 1862). Cox’s departure left the Kanawha Valley dangerously under-defended.
On August 22, 1862, Confederate Major General William Wing Loring, commanding the Department of Southwestern Virginia, ordered Brigadier General Albert Jenkins to lead a cavalry raid into the Kanawha Valley, south of Charleston. Upon his return, Jenkins confirmed reports that the Union had recently cut the size of the garrison protecting the valley in half, from 10,000 to 5,000 soldiers, commanded by Colonel Joseph A. J. Lightburn.
Battle of Fayetteville
Sensing an opportunity to restore Confederate control of the valley, Loring led about 5,000 Confederate soldiers northwest from Narrows, Virginia, on September 6, 1862, toward the Kanawha River. Four days and roughly seventy-five miles later, Loring’s troops engaged the Federals and drove them away from Fayetteville, Virginia, on September 10. Throughout the next two days (September 11–12, 1862), the two sides engaged in several skirmishes as the Confederates continued to drive the Yankees north.
Loring Drives Federals From Charleston
Early on Saturday morning, September 13, 1862, the Confederates established artillery batteries on the high ground east of Charleston and began shelling Union forces near the site of the present state capitol building. The Federals countered with their own barrage, touching off a spirited artillery engagement that lasted most of the morning.
At roughly 11:30 a.m., the Yankees yielded their position and withdrew to the center of town. As the Confederates continued to push the Federals back, Colonel Lightburn advised the civilian population to evacuate and then torched several buildings to keep them from falling into Confederate hands.
At about 3 p.m., General Loring’s men captured the Union garrison flag and the triumphant general rode into downtown Charleston. Meanwhile, Lightburn’s men crossed the suspension bridge spanning the Elk River and then destroyed it to delay the pursuing Confederates. Each side shelled their opponent until about 5 p.m. and infantrymen continued to skirmish until darkness ended the battle.
The next day, Loring reported to Confederate Secretary of War George Randolph that “besides inflicting a great loss in men, we have captured immense amounts of wagons and horses, inventories of which we are now taking, and which will doubtless amount to at least $1,000,000.” After pausing in Charleston long enough to enable his supply train to catch up with his soldiers, Loring continued in hot pursuit of the retreating Federals.
Outcome of the Battle of Charleston
Accompanied by liberated slaves and townspeople, Lightburn’s soldiers traveled fifty miles northward for the next three days, struggling to protect a 700-wagon supply train, while skirmishing with the Confederates to their rear. On September 16, 1862, they crossed the Ohio River at Ravenswood, Virginia (now West Virginia) and Loring called off the chase.
Loring’s hugely successful campaign, which drove the Yankees out of western Virginia, cost him only 97 casualties (eight killed and 89 wounded). Lightburn suffered 310 casualties (25 killed, 95 wounded, and 190 missing/captured), but officials credited him with saving a huge supply train valued at over one million dollars.
Loring’s triumph was short-lived. While occupying Charleston, he became embroiled in disagreements with Virginia state officials. He also vacillated between maintaining control of the Kanawha Valley and complying with Robert E. Lee’s request for support as the Army of Northern Virginia retreated from Maryland following the Battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862). As a result, on October 15, 1862, Confederate officials relieved Loring from his command.
Loring’s replacement, General John Echols, could not halt the reoccupation of the valley by an overwhelming Federal force led by Brigadier General Jacob D. Cox, who had returned to the area. By November, the Yankees regained control of the Kanawha Valley and western Virginia.