July 6 -7, 1861
The Battle of Middle Fork Bridge was fought on July 6 and 7, 1861, in Upshur 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 divided state. Led by residents of the eastern part of the state, Virginians voted to secede from the Union rather than to accede to President 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.
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. In early May, General Robert E. Lee, in Richmond, Virginia, ordered Colonel George A. Porterfield to Grafton 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 Union government countered by sending 20,000 troops into the area under the command of Major General George 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 approximately 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 his men approached the town, Porterfield withdrew to Philippi, seventeen miles to the south, where some more volunteers joined his command. On June 3, Morris deployed two columns of Northern 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 inherited a difficult situation. With just 4,600 soldiers, 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 remainder of his force, which was 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.
While Garnett’s men were busily erecting fortifications at Laurel Hill and Rich Mountain, McClellan arrived at Grafton on June 23, 1861 to coordinate an attack upon the Confederates. McClellan moved three divisions south from Clarksburg and ordered Morris’s brigade at Philippi to join him.
On July 6, McClellan sent out advance scouts from Company A of the 3rd Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry, under Captain Lawson. Confederate pickets surrounded Lawson’s men at Middle Fork Bridge. After a heated skirmish, the Yankees cut their way out, losing one man killed and having five more wounded. Later that day, a larger contingent of Federals, consisting of the 9th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry, returned and drove the Rebels off, capturing the bridge. The Confederates attempted to recapture the bridge on the next day, but the Northerners repulsed the attack.
Ohio units involved in the Battle of Middle Fork Bridge included:
Company A, 3rd Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
9th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry