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 President Lincoln’s request 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.
1861 — Struggle for Control of Western Virginia
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.
1862 — Frémont Takes Command of the Mountain Department of Virginia
In March 1862, President Lincoln placed Major General John C. Frémont in command of the Mountain Department of Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky. When campaigning resumed in the spring, Frémont had his troops positioned to breach the Allegheny Mountains to invade central Virginia and Tennessee.
Federals Advance in April 1862
In April, Union troops of Brigadier General Jacob D. Cox’s District of Kanawha entered Mercer County via Flat Top Mountain and threatened the East Tennessee & Virginia Railroad. Soldiers commanded by Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes drove Confederate defenders back to the county seat at Princeton. On May 1, as the Federals continued their advance, the Rebels burned the town before withdrawing. The Yankees passed through Princeton and on to Giles County, where they occupied Pearisburg for a few days.
On May 10, the Confederates counterattacked and drove the Federals back to Princeton. The Army of East Kentucky, commanded by Brigadier General Humphrey Marshall, then reinforced the Rebels. On May 16, the Confederates drove the Union soldiers out of Princeton. They then established a line overlooking Princeton on Pigeon Roost, a ridge south of town.
After being reinforced by members of the 37th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Cox reversed course and marched back toward Princeton. As the Yankees approached the town, on the morning of May 17, the 51st Virginia Infantry ambushed them from Pigeon Roost, killing about twenty men, wounding roughly fifty more, and taking fourteen prisoners. After the ambush, Cox withdrew.
Aftermath of the Battle
After the Confederate victory, Cox withdrew twenty miles to Camp Flat Top. A week later, Colonel George Crook, commanding Cox’s 3rd brigade, defeated Brigadier General Henry Heth’s brigade at the Battle of Lewisburg and occupied Lewisburg on May 23, 1862. When Crook learned that Confederate Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s army routed Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’ division at the Battle of Winchester (March 25), he evacuated Lewisburg.