The Union victory at the Battle of Cheat Mountain, also known as the Battle of Cheat Summit Fort, fought from September 12 to 15, 1861, was instrumental in the formation of the State of West Virginia.
Prelude to the Battle
As the possibility of civil war in the United States increased during the early months of 1861, Virginia was a divided state. Led by residents of the eastern part of the state, Virginians 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 a movement to secede from Virginia and to remain in the Union.
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 federal 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. McClellan’s success paved the way for the creation of the State of West Virginia.
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, 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 sending the bulk of his force 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 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. About 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, Confederates mortally wounded Garnett as he directed his rear-guard on July 13. Garnett’s death made him the first general officer to die in the Civil War.
Lee Comes to Western Virginia
Following Garnett’s death, Confederate officials transferred General Robert E. Lee was 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.
Rosecrans Replaces McClellan
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 McClellan’s forces operating in western Virginia. Brigadier General Joseph J. Reynolds assumed direct command of the Federal troops in Tygart Valley.
Federals Move East
After the Union victory at the Battle of Rich Mountain, approximately 9,000 federal soldiers under the command of Brigadier General Joseph Reynolds marched east into Pocahontas County. Upon moving into the area, Reynolds erected fortifications at his headquarters at Elkwater and on the summit of Cheat Mountain to secure the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike, which moved through a pass along the base of the mountain. Reynolds assumed personal command of the soldiers at Elkwater and placed Colonel Nathan Kimball in command of the 1,800 defenders on Cheat Mountain.
Lee Plans an Assault
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 of approximately 1,500 soldiers each 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.
September 12–15, 1861 — Clash at Cheat Mountain
Lee appointed Colonel Albert Rust to lead the initial attack. On September 12, Rust’s force embarked on a march over an obscure wilderness path up the mountain toward the Federal stronghold. After hacking their way through dense brush during a pouring rain throughout the day, Rust’s men were in no condition to fight.
As the Rebels neared their goal, Kimball led 300 Union soldiers from Cheat Summit Fort to intercept them. Convinced that the Federals outnumbered his force, Rust lost his nerve and ordered his exhausted soldiers to retreat. Having lost the element of surprise, Lee’s entire operation crashed.
After continuing to probe at the Federal positions at Elkwater and on Cheat Mountain for the next three days, Lee ended the offensive and withdrew to Valley Mountain.
Aftermath of the Battle
Neither side suffered many casualties at the Battle of Cheat Mountain because little fighting occurred, but the battle was significant because the Union maintained control of the area. After another failed Confederate offensive a few weeks later, Federal forces and Union sympathizers firmly held sway in western Virginia. On October 24, 1861, residents of thirty-nine counties in western Virginia approved the formation of the new State of West Virginia. Congress admitted the new state to the Union on June 20, 1863.
A week after the Battle of Cheat Mountain, Confederate officials recalled Lee to Richmond. Afterward, critics in the Southern press derisively referred to him as “Granny Lee” because of his command’s reluctance to engage the enemy.