West Virginia Campaign of 1861

May–December 1861

The West Virginia Campaign of 1861 was a struggle between Union and Confederate forces for control of the mountainous region of Western Virginia. The Union victory paved the way for West Virginia to separate from Virginia in 1863 and join the Union.

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

Major General George B. McClellan’s Union soldiers drove the Confederates out of western Virginia during the summer and fall of 1861, paving the way for the creation of the new state of West Virginia. Image Source: Library of Congress.

West Virginia Campaign Summary

The West Virginia Campaign of 1861 was a series of battles that took place in Western Virginia from May to December 1861, during the American Civil War. At the time, Virginia was divided over the issue of secession, with the eastern part of the state choosing to join the Confederacy. At the same time, residents of the mountainous western region wanted to remain in the Union.

The campaign started in the summer of 1861, as both Union and Confederate forces vied for control of Western Virginia. The region was strategically important due to the roads and trails through the mountains that connected Eastern Virginia to the Ohio Valley and the Midwest. At the onset, Confederate forces disrupted transportation and took control of key locations, but the Union countered by deploying 20,000 troops under the command of Major General George McClellan.

Several major battles marked the campaign. 

  • The Battle of Philippi on June 3, 1861, saw Union forces surprise Confederate troops, resulting in a significant engagement and the first major land battle in the Eastern theater of the war. 
  • The Battle of Rich Mountain on July 11, 1861, involved Union forces led by Brigadier General William Rosecrans defeating Confederate troops under Brigadier General Robert Selden Garnett, who became the first general officer to die in the war.
  • The Battle of Kessler’s Cross Lanes on August 26, 1861, saw Confederate forces under Brigadier General John B. Floyd routing Union troops. 

However, the Union gained the upper hand in subsequent battles, including the Battle of Carnifex Ferry on September 10, 1861, and the Battle of Cheat Mountain from September 12 to 15, 1861. These victories allowed Union forces to maintain control over Western Virginia.

The campaign’s outcome led to the eventual Confederate withdrawal from the region, solidifying Union control. On October 24, 1861, residents of 39 counties in Western Virginia approved the formation of the new state of West Virginia, which was officially admitted to the Union on June 20, 1863. The Western Virginia Campaign played a significant role in establishing West Virginia as a separate state and contributed to the overall Union war effort by securing control over a strategic area.

Events Leading Up to the West 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.

The Struggle for West 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 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 Confederates 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.

Map of Virginia and Western Virginia, Civil War
This 1864 map shows West Virginia, which became a separate state after the Western Virginia Campaign. Image Source: Wikimedia.

Major Events of the West Virginia Campaign

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 Confederates 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 Confederates 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 Confederates constructed a fortified position at Rich Mountain, known as Camp Garnett.

Battle of Rich Mountain, 1861, Union Charge
This illustration depicts Union soldiers charging during the Battle of Rich Mountain. Image Source: Harper’s Weekly, July 27, 1861, Archive.org.

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, Rosecrans defeated a small Confederate force at the Battle of Rich Mountain, which took place 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 Confederates 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, making 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 Confederate 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 Confederate 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 the Battle of 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 the Battle of Carnifex Ferry left western Virginia under the control of Federal troops.

Battle of Carnifex Ferry, Confederate Withdrawal, Illustration
This illustration depicts Confederate troops evacuating after the Battle of Carnifex Ferry. Image Source: Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume 1, 1887, Archive.org.

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 Confederate 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, which ended the Battle of Cheat 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 Confederates 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, which ended the Battle of Greenbrier River.

Outcome of the West Virginia Campaign

The outcome of the Western Virginia Campaign allowed Northern forces and Union sympathizers to have firm control of western Virginia by late October.

On October 24, 1861, residents of 39 counties in western Virginia approved the formation of the new state of West Virginia. A week later, Confederate officials recalled Lee and Wise to Richmond, and they dispatched Floyd to Fort Donelson, Tennessee.

West Virginia was admitted to the Union as a new state on June 20, 1863.

Significance of the West Virginia Campaign

The Western Virginia Campaign was important for two main reasons:

  1. It led to the eventual Confederate withdrawal from western Virginia.
  2. It contributed to the establishment of West Virginia as a state.

West Virginia Campaign Facts

Definition

The West Virginia Campaign is defined as a struggle between Union and Confederate forces for control of western Virginia during the summer of 1861.

Also Known As

  • Operations in Western Virginia
  • Rich Mountain Campaign

Date and Location

  • May–December 1861
  • Barbour, Nicholas, Pocahontas, Randolph counties in Western Virginia (modern-day West Virginia)

Principal Union Commanders

Principal Confederate Commanders

Union Forces Engaged

  • Department of the Ohio, Cheat Mountain District

Confederate Forces Engaged

  • Virginia Militia
  • Army of the Northwest

Number of Union Soldiers Engaged

  • The number of Union soldiers engaged in the Western Virginia Campaign is undetermined.

Number of Confederate Soldiers Engaged

  • The number of Confederate soldiers engaged in the Western Virginia Campaign is undetermined.

Estimated Union Casualties

The total number of Union casualties during the Western Virginia Campaign was about 559 (killed, wounded, captured/missing).

Estimated Confederate Casualties

The total number of Confederate casualties during the Western Virginia Campaign was about 1,291 (killed, wounded, captured/missing).

Result of the Western Virginia Campaign

  • The result of the Western Virginia Campaign was a Union victory.

West Virginia Campaign Timeline

These are the main events and battles of the Western Virginia Campaign in chronological order.