Prelude to the Battle of Middle Fork Bridge
The possibility of civil war in the United States divided the state of Virginia during the early months of 1861. Led by residents in the eastern part of the state, Virginians voted to secede from the Union rather than agree to the call of President 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. During the summer of 1861, Union and Confederate forces struggled for control of western Virginia.
Rebels Seize Threaten B&O Railroad
Western Virginia was considered important because gaps in the Appalachia Mountains connected the East to the Midwest. In early May, General Robert E. Lee, in Richmond, Virginia, ordered Colonel George A. Porterfield to Grafton to organize an army of volunteers and to seize control of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and turnpikes through the mountains. On May 24, Porterfield occupied the town of Grafton, on the B&O railroad in northwestern Virginia, with fewer than 500 men. The next day, the Rebels burned two B&O railroad bridges near Farmington.
Federals Protect B&O Railroad
The federal government countered by sending 20,000 troops into the area under the command of Major General George McClellan. McClellan immediately deployed Colonel Benjamin Franklin Kelley and 1,600 Federal soldiers from Wheeling to protect the B&O bridge over the Monongahela River.
Rebels Routed at Philippi
By May 28, McClellan had ordered about 3,000 troops into western Virginia and placed them under the overall command of Brigadier General Thomas A. Morris. Morris set off to engage the small Confederate force occupying Grafton, but as his men approached the town, Porterfield withdrew to Philippi, seventeen miles to the south, where more volunteers joined his command. On June 3, Morris deployed two columns of Northern troops in a pre-dawn attack against a Confederate encampment at Philippi. The Union soldiers routed the Rebels and forced Porterfield to retreat south to Beverly, thirty-five miles away.
Garnett in Charge of Rebel Forces
On June 15, the Confederate government placed Brigadier General Robert Selden Garnett in charge of the forces opposing McClellan in western Virginia. Garnett inherited a difficult situation. With just 4,600 soldiers, officials expected him to stem a federal onslaught that was gradually pushing the Rebels south and east.
Rebels Guard Mountain Passes
Garnett deployed his troops at two key passes through the mountains. He sent Lieutenant Colonel John Pegram, in charge of roughly 1,300 men, to guard the pass at Rich Mountain, just west of Beverly. Garnett took personal command of the rest of his force, which was guarding the pass at Laurel Hill north of Beverly. Under the direction of Colonel Jonathan M. Heck, the Rebels constructed a fortified position at Rich Mountain, known as Camp Garnett.
McClellan Plans an Attack
While Garnett’s men were busily erecting fortifications at Laurel Hill and Rich Mountain, McClellan arrived at Grafton on June 23, 1861, to coordinate an attack upon the Confederates. McClellan moved three divisions south from Clarksburg and ordered Morris’s brigade at Philippi to join him.
Clash at Middle Fork Bridge
On July 6, Union Brigadier General Newton Schleich sent out advance scouts from Company A of the 3rd Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry under Captain Lawson. Lawson’s men encountered Confederate pickets of Lieutenant Colonel John M. Heck’s Regiment at Middle Fork Bridge. Initially, the Rebel pickets surrounded the Federals, but after a heated skirmish, the Yankees cut their way out, losing one man killed and having five more wounded.
Later that day, a larger contingent of Federals, comprising the 9th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry, returned and drove the Rebels off, capturing the bridge.
On July 7, two companies of Confederates commanded by Major Nathan Tyler attempted to recapture the bridge, but the Northerners repulsed the attack.
Aftermath of the Battle of Middle Fork Bridge
Casualties at the Battle of Middle Fork Bridge were light by later Civil War measures. The Union reported fewer than ten casualties (1 killed, 5 wounded). Confederate losses were fewer than 10. More facts about the battle, casualties, and participants can be found in our fact sheet.
The Confederate failure to hold Middle Fork Bridge aided the federal advance toward Rich Mountain, where they won an important battle on July 11, 1861. The Union victory at the Battle of Rich Mountain helped to secure federal control of western Virginia and contributed to the establishment of the state of West Virginia in 1863.