Prelude to the Battle of Kessler’s Cross Lanes
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 July 11, 1861, approximately 2,000 of McClellan’s soldiers, commanded by Brigadier General William S. Rosecrans, used a remote mountain pass to flank Pegram’s fortifications at Rich Mountain. Upon learning of Rosecrans’ approach, Pegram dispatched a force to stop the Yankees. During the heated afternoon engagement that followed, the outnumbered Rebels held off the Bluecoats for two hours before being subdued at the Battle of Rich Mountain. With Rosecrans at his back, Pegram evacuated his defenses that night.
Battle of Corrick’s Ford
Upon learning of Pegram’s withdrawal, Garnett abandoned Laurel Hill, marching his men across Cheat Mountain and into the Cheat River Valley. McClellan sent Morris’ Indiana Brigade in pursuit. Rugged mountain terrain, heavy rains, and muddy roads that bogged down his wagon trains slowed Garnett’s retreat. On July 13, around noon, Morris caught up with Garnett’s rear guard near Corrick’s Ford over Shavers Fork of the Cheat River. During the ensuing Battle of Corrick’s Ford, a member of the 7th Indiana mortally wounded Garnett, making him the first general officer to die in action during the Civil War.
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 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. Rosecrans placed Brigadier General Joseph J. Reynolds in direct command of the federal force in Tygart Valley.
August 26, 1861 — Clash 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 the Confederates out of the Kanawha River Valley.
On August 21, Confederate Brigadier General John B. Floyd countered by crossing the Gauley River with roughly 2,000 soldiers and establishing an entrenched encampment.
Four days later, Colonel Erastus Tyler marched 850 soldiers of the 7th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry from Gauley Bridge to Kessler’s Cross Lanes, fewer than three miles from Floyd’s camp.
Floyd wasted no time in responding to the federal threat. Early the next morning, August 26, his soldiers launched a surprise attack against Tyler’s encampment. The Rebels routed the Federals in a short battle that last only thirty to forty-five minutes.
Aftermath of the Battle of Kessler’s Cross Lanes
Tyler suffered nearly 150 casualties, including two men killed. Floyd lost about forty men, including several killed.
After the Confederate victory, Floyd withdrew to the river and established a defensive position, known as Camp Gauley, at Carnifex Ferry.