Prelude to the Battle of Greenbrier River
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 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.
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 before giving up and withdrawing to Valley Mountain.
October 3, 1861 — Clash at Greenbrier River
Reynolds Eyes Camp Bartow
After Lee’s failed offensive at Cheat Mountain, the Confederates established a fortified position, known as Camp Bartow, where the Greenbrier River crossed the Parkersburg-Staunton Turnpike. General Henry R. Jackson commanded the roughly 1,800 troops garrisoned there. Buoyed by the federal success at Cheat Mountain, Union Brigadier General Joseph J. Reynolds planned an assault against Camp Bartow in early October. Reynolds hoped to drive the Rebels from their encampment and take control of the turnpike, giving Union troops direct access to eastern Virginia.
Reynolds Advances on Camp Bartow
On the night of October 2, Reynolds led 5,000 Union soldiers from Cheat Mountain toward Camp Bartow. The next morning, enemy pickets dashed Reynolds’ hopes to surprise the Rebels when they detected his force before it reached the main encampment.
The Federals drove the Confederate pickets back and the main engagement began at approximately 8 o’clock. Jackson’s well-entrenched men refused to yield in the face of a prolonged artillery bombardment and repeated Union assaults. After four-and-one-half hours of spirited fighting, Reynolds observed Confederate reinforcements approaching from nearby Camp Allegheny. Incorrectly fearing that the reinforced Rebels would outnumber his force, Reynolds halted the engagement and withdrew to the Cheat Summit fortification.
Aftermath of the Battle of Greenbrier River
Although the Battle of Greenbrier River was sharp and long, neither side suffered heavy losses. Each general exaggerated the number of casualties inflicted on his enemy, but records show that the Union lost forty-three soldiers (eight killed and thirty-five wounded), while the Confederacy lost fifty-two men (six killed, thirty-three wounded, and thirteen missing). Reynolds failed to dislodge the Rebels from Camp Bartow. By late November, an outbreak of disease prompted the Confederates to abandon Camp Bartow and to merge their forces at Camp Allegheny.