The Battle of Princeton Court House, 1862

May 15–17, 1862

The Battle of Princeton Court House was fought between the United States of America and the Confederate States of America from May 15–17, 1862. The outcome of the battle was a Confederate victory.

General Humphrey Marshall, Civil War, CSA

Brigadier General Humphrey Marshall commanded the victorious Confederate troops at the Battle of Princeton Court House. Image Souce: Wikimedia.

Battle of Princeton Court House Summary

The Battle of Princeton Court House took place from May 15–17, 1862, during Stonewall Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign. Union troops under the command of General Jacob D. Cox advanced into Mercer County, Virginia, threatening the East Tennessee & Virginia Railroad. They drove Confederate defenders back to Princeton, but the Confederates burned the town before retreating. The Union forces continued their advance to Giles County, occupying Pearisburg briefly. However, on May 10, the Confederates counterattacked and pushed the Federals back to Princeton. The Confederate Army of East Kentucky, led by Brigadier General Humphrey Marshall, reinforced the Confederates, and on May 16, they drove the Union soldiers out of Princeton and established a defensive line on Pigeon Roost Ridge. 

After reinforcements from the 37th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry, General Cox decided to march back toward Princeton on May 17. However, the Confederate 51st Virginia Infantry ambushed the Union troops from Pigeon Roost, resulting in significant casualties and prisoners for the Federals. Following the ambush, Cox withdrew his forces, handing the Confederates the victory.

General Jacob D. Cox (USA). Image Source: Wikipedia.

Battle of Princeton Court House Quick Facts

  • Also Known As: The Battle of Princeton Court House is also known as the Battle of Pigeon’s Roost and the Battle of Pigeon Roost.
  • Date Started: The Battle of Princeton Court House started on May 15, 1862.
  • Date Ended: The battle ended on May 17, 1862.
  • Location: The Battle of McDowell took place in Mercer County, Virginia (now West Virginia).
  • Campaign: The battle was part of the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862.
  • Who Won: The Confederate States of America won the Battle of Princeton Court House.

Battle of Princeton Court House History and Overview

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 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 Confederates 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.

General John C. Fremont, Civil War, USA
General John C. Frémont (USA). Image Source: National Archives.

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 Confederates burned the town before withdrawing. The Federals passed through Princeton and on to Giles County, where they occupied Pearisburg for a few days.

Confederate Counterattack

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 Confederates. 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.

Confederate Ambush

After being reinforced by members of the 37th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Cox reversed course and marched back toward Princeton. As the Federals 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.

Outcome of the Battle of Princeton Court House

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 and his 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.

Thomas Stonewall Jackson, Illustration
General Stonewall Jackson (CSA). Image Source: Library of Congress.

Battle of Princeton Court House Facts — Casualties, Military Leaders, and Statistics

Principal Union Commanders

  • Brigadier General Jacob Cox
  • Colonel Louis von Blessing

Principal Confederate Commanders

  • Brigadier General Humphrey Marshall

Union Forces Engaged

  • District of the Kanawha

Confederate Forces Engaged

  • Army of East Kentucky
  • Department of Southwest Virginia

Number of Union Soldiers Engaged

  • Roughly 1,000

Number of Confederate Soldiers Engaged

  • Roughly 2,000

Estimated Union Casualties

  • 113 (23 killed, roughly 69 wounded and 21 captured or missing)

Estimated Confederate Casualties

  • 16 (4 killed, 12 wounded)

Result

  • Confederate victory

Battle of Princeton Court House Timeline

These are the main battles and events of Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862 in order.

Citation Information

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

  • Article Title The Battle of Princeton Court House, 1862
  • Date May 15–17, 1862
  • Author
  • Keywords Battle of Princeton Court House
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date May 26, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 16, 2024

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