August 26, 1861
The Battle of Kessler's Cross Lanes, also known as the Battle of Cross Lanes and the Battle of Knives and Forks, was fought on August 26, 1861, in Nicholas County, Virginia (now West Virginia).
As the possibility of civil war in the United States evolved during the early months of 1861, Virginia was a much divided state. Led by residents of the eastern part of the state, Virginia voted to secede from the Union rather than to accede to President Abraham Lincoln's call 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 initiated their own movement to secede from Virginia and to remain in the Union.
For much 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. In early May, General Robert E. Lee, in Richmond, Virginia, ordered Colonel George A. Porterfield to Grafton, Virginia to organize an army of volunteers and to seize control of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, as well as turnpikes, through the mountains. On May 24, Porterfield occupied the town of Grafton, located on the B&O railroad in northwestern Virginia, with fewer than 500 men. The next day, the Rebels burned two B&O railroad bridges near Farmington.
The Federal government countered by sending 20,000 troops into the area under the command of Major General George B. 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. By May 28, McClellan had ordered a total of 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 he approached, Porterfield withdrew to Philippi, seventeen miles to the south, where he picked up some more volunteers. On June 3, Morris deployed two columns of Federal troops in a pre-dawn attack against a Confederate encampment at Philippi. The Union soldiers routed the Rebels and forced Porterfield to retreat south to Beverly, thirty-five miles away.
On June 15, the Confederate government placed Brigadier General Robert Selden Garnett in charge of the forces opposing McClellan in western Virginia. Garnett deployed his troops at two key passes through the mountain–at Laurel Hill and at Rich Mountain. In early July, McClellan feigned an attack against the Rebels at Laurel Mountain, while sending the bulk of his strength against the Confederates at Camp Garnett at Rich Mountain. On the night of July 10, McClellan sent 2,000 men, commanded by Brigadier General William S. Rosecrans, on a flanking march over the mountain. The next day, Rosecrans defeated a small Rebel force near the crest of the mountain and then prepared to attack the Confederate rear on July 12. With Rosecrans at his rear, the commander at Camp Garnet, Lieutenant Colonel John Pegram, ordered an evacuation during the night. About one half of the retreating Rebels made it to nearby Beverly, but pursuing Federals captured Pegram and the others on July 13. Upon hearing of Pegram's retreat, Garnett abandoned his position at Laurel Hill. As his troops retreated south, Garnett was mortally wounded on July 13, while directing his rear guard, making him the first general officer to die in the Civil War.
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. Brigadier General Joseph J. Reynolds was placed in direct command of the Federal force in Tygart Valley.
In late July, Union Brigadier General Jacob D. Cox led his "Kanawha Brigade" of Ohio volunteer regiments, into western Virginia and forced the Confederates out of the Kanawha River Valley. On August 21, Confederate Brigadier General John B. Floyd countered by crossing the Gauley River with roughly 2,000 soldiers and establishing an entrenched encampment. Four days later, Colonel Erastus Tyler marched 850 soldiers of the 7th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry from Gauley Bridge to Kessler's Cross Lanes, fewer than three miles from Floyd's camp. Floyd wasted no time in responding to the Federal threat. Early the next morning, August 26, his soldiers launched a surprise attack against Tyler's encampment. The Rebels routed the Federals in a short battle that last only thirty to forty-five minutes. Tyler suffered nearly 150 casualties, including two men killed. Floyd lost approximately forty men, including several killed. After the Confederate victory, Floyd withdrew to the river and established a defensive position, known as Camp Gauley, at Carnifex Ferry.
Ohio units that participated in the Battle of Kessler's Cross Lanes included:
7th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry