Also known as the Rich Mountain Campaign, or simply Operations in Western Virginia, the Western Virginia Campaign was a struggle between Union and Confederate forces in 1861 for control of the mountainous area of western Virginia.
Prelude to the Western Virginia Campaign
As the possibility of civil war in the United States grew during the early months of 1861, Virginia was a divided state. Led by residents of the eastern part of the state, Virginia voted to secede from the Union rather than answer the call of President Abraham 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 to remain in the Union.
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 Appalachia 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 soldiers pressed the Confederate forces in the area throughout the summer and fall, gradually driving the Rebels out of the region, paving the way for the creation of the new state of West Virginia in October, although the federal government did not recognize West Virginia as a formal state until June 1863.
Battle of Philippi (June 3, 1861)
On June 3, Brigadier General Thomas A. Morris deployed two columns of Union troops in a pre-dawn attack against a Confederate encampment at Philippi. The Rebels were so completely surprised that some of them frantically retreated in their bedclothes, prompting Northern journalists to refer to the battle as the “Races at Philippi.” Many historians consider the Battle of Philippi as the first significant land engagement in the eastern theater of the American Civil War.
Battle of Rich Mountain (July 11, 1861)
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, Confederate officials expected him to stem a federal onslaught that was gradually pushing the Rebels south and east.
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 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 devised a plan calling for Morris’ brigade to demonstrate in front of Laurel Mountain, keeping Garnett in place, while McClellan sent the bulk of his force against Pegram’s 1,300 soldiers at Camp Garnett. On the night of July 10, Brigadier General William Rosecrans led 2,000 men on a march over the mountain. The next day, he defeated a small Rebel force near the crest of the mountain at Hart’s farm. Rosecrans then prepared to attack the Confederate rear on July 12.
Realizing that Rosecrans was at his rear, Pegram ordered the evacuation of Camp Garnett during the night. About half of the retreating Rebels made it to Beverly, but pursuing Yankees captured Pegram and the others on July 13. Upon hearing of Pegram’s withdrawal, Garnett abandoned his position at Laurel Hill. As his troops retreated south, Federal troops mortally wounded Garnett on July 13, while he directed his rearguard Garnett’s death made him the first general officer to die in the Civil War.
Battle of Kessler’s Cross Lanes (August 26, 1861)
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. Union officials placed Brigadier General Joseph J. Reynolds in direct command of the federal force in Tygart Valley.
In late July, Union Brigadier General Jacob Cox led his “Kanawha Brigade” of Ohio Volunteer Regiments into western Virginia and drove Rebel forces out of the Kanawha River Valley. Confederate Brigadier General John B. Floyd countered by crossing the Gauley River with 2,000 soldiers and routing Colonel Erastus Tyler and his 7th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry at Kessler’s Cross Lanes on August 26, 1861. Floyd then withdrew to the river and established a defensive position at Carnifex Ferry known as Camp Gauley.
Battle of Carnifex Ferry (September 10, 1861)
In early September, Rosecrans assembled a Union force of roughly 7,000 soldiers and marched on Floyd’s soldiers at Camp Gauley. The leading elements of Rosecrans’ force came into contact with Floyd’s men near Carnifex Ferry after 12 noon on September 10. Before Rosecrans could concentrate his troops for engagement, a battle erupted. Rosecrans spent the day sending in his brigades one at a time as they arrived at the battlefield, allowing the outnumbered Confederates to repulse the piecemeal Union attacks. When the fighting ended that night, Floyd withdrew rather than face Rosecrans’ fully assembled force the next day. The following morning, Union troops occupied Camp Gauley without incident. The Union victory at Carnifex Ferry left western Virginia under the control of Federal troops.
Battle of Cheat Mountain (September 12–15, 1861)
In early September, Robert E. Lee left Sewell Mountain and joined Brigadier General William W. Loring and his 11,000-man Army of the Northwest at Valley Mountain in Pocahontas County. The two Confederate generals planned an offensive against the Northern forces at Cheat Mountain. The plan called for three Rebel brigades to attack Cheat Summit Fort on September 12. Bad weather and rugged terrain created poor communication between the three brigades, resulting in an uncoordinated and ineffective assault. The Confederate force probed at the Union position for three days before giving up and withdrawing to Valley Mountain. Lee’s first encounter leading troops in combat during the Civil War did not end well, causing Confederate officials to reassign him in October.
Battle of Greenbrier River (October 3, 1861)
On the night of October 2, Brigadier General Joseph Reynolds led two Union brigades from Cheat Mountain toward a Confederate encampment near the Greenbrier River. The Rebels dashed Reynolds’ attempt to surprise them the next morning when their pickets detected his force before they reached the main encampment. The Federals drove the Confederate pickets back in the morning, but after sporadic fighting throughout the rest of the day proved futile, Reynolds withdrew to Cheat Mountain.
Aftermath of the Western Virginia Campaign
By late October, Northern forces and Union sympathizers firmly controlled western Virginia. On October 24, 1861, residents of thirty-nine counties in western Virginia approved the formation of the new state of West Virginia. A week later, Confederate officials recalled Lee and Wise Richmond, and they dispatched Floyd to Fort Donelson, Tennessee.