The Battle of Middle Fork Bridge, 1861

July 6–7, 1861

The Battle of Middle Fork Bridge was fought between the United States of America and the Confederate States of America from July 6 to July 7, 1861, during the Civil War. The outcome of the battle was a Union victory. The battle is most well-known for being part of the Western Virginia Campaign.

George B. McClellan, General, USA, Civil War, LOC

The Battle of Middle Fork Bridge was a minor engagement in Major General George McClellan’s Operations in Western Virginia during the first year of the Civil War. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Battle of Middle Fort Bridge Quick Facts

  • Date — July 6–7, 1861
  • Location — Upshur County, Virginia (now West Virginia)
  • Opponents — United States of America (USA) and Confederate States of America (CSA)
  • USA Commanders — Newton Schleich, Robert L. McCook, Orris A. Lawson
  • CSA Commanders — John M. Heck, Nathan Tyler
  • Winner — United States of America

Battle of Middle Fork Bridge Summary

The Battle of Middle Fork Bridge was a skirmish between Union and Confederate forces. Fifty soldiers from the Third Ohio Regiment, led by Captain O. A. Lawson, were detached for a scouting expedition. They encountered Union civilians seeking protection from Confederate forces and engaged them near Middle Fork Bridge. Lawson’s men ambushed the Confederates, resulting in casualties for both sides.

Battle of Middle Fork Bridge History and Overview

Virginia Divided

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 remain in the Union. During the summer of 1861, Union and Confederate forces struggled for control of western Virginia.

Confederates Threaten to Seize the B & O Railroad

Western Virginia was considered important because gaps in the Appalachian 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 Confederates 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.

Battle of Philippi, 1861, Railroad Battery, B&O Railroad
This illustration depicts a railroad battery, protecting workers on the B & O Railroad. Image Source: The Memorial War Book, 1894.

Confederates 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 Confederates and forced Porterfield to retreat south to Beverly, thirty-five miles away.

Garnett Placed in Charge of the Confederate 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 Confederates to the south and east.

General Robert S Garnett, Civil War
General Robert S. Garnett. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Confederates Guard the 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 Confederates 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.

July 6–7, 1861 — Middle Fork Bridge Battle

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 Confederate pickets surrounded the Federals, but after a heated skirmish, the Federals 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 Confederates off, capturing the bridge.

On July 7, two companies of Confederates commanded by Major Nathan Tyler attempted to recapture the bridge, but the Union forces repulsed the attack.

Battle of Middle Fork Bridge Outcome

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.

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.

An Account of the Battle of Middle Fork Bridge

This account of the Battle of Middle Fork Bridge appears in “The Rebellion Record, Volume 2,” edited by Frank Moore.

A correspondent of the Cincinnati Commercial gives the following account of this skirmish:—

Buckhannon, Va., July 7.

A gallant band of fifty Buckeyes, Third Ohio Regiment, under Capt. O. A. Lawson, of [252] Columbus, made a good record yesterday afternoon, at Middle-Fork Bridge. Friday afternoon, without General McClellan’s knowledge, General Schleich ordered Colonel Morrow to detach fifty men for a scouting expedition. Surgeon McMeans accompanied the party, five men being taken from each company of the regiment. The expedition proceeded by bridle paths across the hills to a point on Beverly pike, five miles this side of Middle-Fork Bridge, and encamped for the night. About midnight, Union men appealed to them for protection against marauding rebels, who had forced their women and children to flee to the woods for safety, and had pillaged their houses. Lawson scaled a rough mountain and crossed Middle-Fork in the morning, two and a half miles above the bridge. He followed the stream with great difficulty through unbroken thickets, until he reached a good ambush within musket range of the bridge, which was crowded with rebels. The enemy discovered his party, and an advance guard of five cautiously approached him from the bridge, all ready with their muskets. His men stood up and both parties fired simultaneously. Three of the rebels fled at the first round, and the other two dropped immediately afterwards. The enemy now opened upon his little band from three sides, from the bridge behind its embankments, and the thickets on the hill-side.

In order to get better opportunity, he moved his men into an open space, seventy-five yards from, and commanding, the eastern entrance of the bridge, and poured into the crowd of rebels a galling fire. The effect was awful imprecations and screams of “murder.” His men obeyed orders with absolute composure. A number had already been hit, and one was killed in the act of firing. After firing four rounds into the bridge, he ordered a retreat, and the lads backed slowly into the bushes, carrying their wounded. The enemy did not pursue, and his party recrossed the stream a mile and a half above the bridge. Capt. Lawson brought away the musket of the dead soldier, but was unable to carry off the body, the enemy’s ambuscade from the hill-sides being too hot. He says his party was not much harassed by the rebels at the bridge, but the ambuscade was annoying.

Those in the bridge and behind the embankment would pop up their heads and blaze away without good aim, but those in the bushes were more deliberate. An Irishman in the party says it was “hot as hell.” Lawson says his men behaved splendidly; not a man flinched, and they obeyed orders just as promptly as if on dress parade. The men say the Captain himself animated them by his cheerful voice, which was heard above the din of the conflict. Dr. McMeans says the Captain was as calm and collected as if he were playing soldier.

The casualties were as follows: Samuel W. Johns, of Hamilton, Butler County, shot dead by a ball through the breast; Corporal Joseph High, of Columbus, shot in the right foot by a rebel from the hill-side. The ball struck on the top of his ankle, and passed downwards, shattering the small bones of the foot. The surgeons hope to save the foot, but it is doubtful. High was in the front of the battle, and fell exclaiming: “Captain, I’m hit, but I must have another shot;” raising and standing on one foot he loaded and fired twice more, when, being faint, two of his comrades assisted him into the bushes. Nicholas Black, a Brighton butcher boy, of Cincinnati, was struck in the forehead, over the right eye, by a buckshot, which lodged between the skull bones — a severe wound, but not dangerous. He fell, and rising again, he took two more shots at the enemy. Geo. W. Darling, of Newark, was shot in the left arm; the ball entered at the elbow, and traversed the muscles of the arm seven or eight inches, ploughing up a ghastly furrow; the bone was not broken. David Edson, of Barnesville, Belmont County, slightly wounded in the right arm. Joseph Backus, of Newark, slightly wounded in the left leg. William Dening, of Hamilton, Butler County, had the skin above his right ear cut by a ball; seven or eight of the men received scratches, and had their clothing riddled. Captain Lawson says Mr. Miller, of Worthington, was the coolest and pluckiest fellow in the fight. He was the last to quit the field, and left the bushes twice to get a fair shot; but Dr. McMeans said every man of the party displayed good pluck. The wounded were brought to the hospital in wagons this morning, and are comfortable. Capt. Lawson and his men are confident that some were killed on the bridge. Seven were killed outside of the bridge. All accounts agree that the rebels were about three hundred strong, mostly Georgians, including forty horsemen, armed with Sharpe’s carbines.

General McClellan is much pleased with the gallantry of the men, but severely censures the expedition. Lawson gives valuable information about the topography of Middle-Fork.

Battle of Middle Fork Bridge Facts

Campaign

Military Forces Engaged

  • USA — 3rd and 9th Regiments (Ohio Volunteer Infantry)
  • CSA — 25th Virginia Infantry, 20th Virginia Infantry

Number of Soldiers Engaged

  • USA — Hundreds
  • CSA — Hundreds

Estimated Casualties

  • USA — 6 (1 killed, 5 wounded)
  • CSA — Fewer than 10

Battle of Middle Fork Bridge Timeline

These are the main events and battles of the Western Virginia Campaign that took place around the Battle of Middle Fork Bridge.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title The Battle of Middle Fork Bridge, 1861
  • Date July 6–7, 1861
  • Author
  • Keywords Battle of Middle Fork Bridge, Western Virginia Campaign
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date June 21, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 16, 2024

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