May 15–17, 1862
The Princeton Court House, also known as the Battle of Pigeon’s Roost and the Battle of Pigeon Roost, was a three-day engagement in Mercer County, Virginia (now West Virginia) from May 15 to 17, 1862.
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 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 Union countered by sending 20,000 troops into the area under the command of Major General George McClellan. Federal victories at the Battles of Philippi (June 3), Rich Mountain (July 11), Carnifex Ferry (September 10) and Cheat Mountain (September 12-15) left the Union in control of most of the area by the end of the year.
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’s command was positioned to breach the Allegheny Mountains to invade central Virginia, as well as Tennessee.
In April, Union troops of Brigadier General Jacob D. Cox’s District of Kanawha entered Mercer County by way of Flat Top Mountain and threatened the East Tennessee & Virginian 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 Rebels burned the town before withdrawing. The Yankees passed through Princeton and on to Giles County, where they occupied Pearisburg for a few days. On May 10, the Confederates counterattacked and drove the Federals back to Princeton. The Rebels were then reinforced by the arrival of the Army of East Kentucky, commanded by Brigadier General Humphrey Marshall. Marshall went on the offensive. On May 16, the Confederates drove the Union soldiers out of Princeton and established a line on Pigeon Roost, a ridge south of town.
On the morning of May 17 Cox reversed course, reentered Princeton and began boosting his troop strength. As reinforcements from the 37th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry approached the town from the southeast, the 51st Virginia Infantry ambushed them, killing approximately twenty men, wounding roughly fifty more and taking fourteen prisoners. After the ambush, no further fighting occurred, and Cox withdrew twenty miles to Camp Flat Top.
Ohio units that participated in the Battle of Pigeon Roost included:
37th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry