July 11, 1861
The Battle of Rich Mountain was fought on July 11, 1861, in Randolph 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, Virginia voted to secede from the Union rather than 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.
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, 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 he approached, 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 8, 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, he was expected 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 set out toward the Confederate strongholds. After meeting light resistance from Rebel skirmishers, he established his headquarters at Roaring Creek, two miles west of Camp Garnett, on July 9. McClellan devised a plan calling for Morris’s brigade to demonstrate in front of Laurel Mountain, keeping Garnett in place, while McClellan sent the bulk of his force against Pegram at Rich Mountain.
Unsure of Pegram’s strength, McClellan was reluctant to order a frontal attack against the Confederate defenses at Rich Mountain. As McClellan deliberated, a local Union sympathizer, David Hart, apprised the Federals of a remote route that led to his family’s farm near the crest of Rich Mountain. Upon learning this, Brigadier General William Rosecrans convinced McClellan to allow Rosecrans to lead a force over the mountain to attack Pegram from the rear.
Leading a force of 2,000 soldiers, Rosecrans began his expedition at 4 a.m. on July 10. His orders were to subdue a small Rebel contingent at the Hart farm and then to move down the mountain to attack Camp Garnett. While Rosecrans was performing his flanking movement, McClellan was establishing his position in front of Rich Mountain to catch the Confederates in a pincer movement.
Meanwhile, Pegram learned of Rosecrans’s flanking maneuver and detached two companies of the 20th Virginia to reinforce the position at the Hart farm. The rugged trail and bad weather prevented Rosecrans from reaching the Hart farm until after two in the afternoon. When he arrived, he encountered stiff resistance from approximately 300 Rebels commanded by Captain Julius A. De Lagnel. The two forces engaged at 3 p.m., and De Lagnel's greatly outnumbered soldiers held off the Federals for two hours before being subdued.
After securing the Hart farm, Rosecrans orders were to turn and attack Camp Garnett, but the hour was so late that he decided to wait until morning. Having lost communication with Rosecrans and not hearing any sounds indicating an attack on Pegram’s rear, McClellan assumed the worst. Although his command of 4,000 soldiers greatly outnumbered the 1,000 Rebel defenders left at Camp Garnett, McClellan called off his attack and pulled back to his encampment at Roaring Creek.
Pegram, realizing that Rosecrans was at his rear, ordered the evacuation of Camp Garnett during the night. About one-half of the retreating Rebels made it to Beverly, but pursuing Federals 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, Garnett was mortally wounded while directing his rear guard, on July 13, making him the first general officer to die in the Civil War.
Casualties at the Battle of Rich Mountain were light by later Civil War standards. The Union lost forty-six men (killed, wounded, and captured/missing), and the Confederacy lost 300 soldiers (mostly prisoners). The Union victory at Rich Mountain was instrumental in securing Federal control of western Virginia and in contributing to the establishment of the state of West Virginia. In the wake of a few more Union victories in the region that autumn, residents of thirty-nine counties in western Virginia approved the formation of the new state on October 24. On June 20, 1863, officials in Washington completed the formalities and admitted West Virginia to the Union.
Ohio units that participated in the Battle of Rich Mountain included:
3rd Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
4th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
5th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
6th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
7th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
8th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
9th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
10th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
13th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
14th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
15th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
16th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
17th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
18th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
19th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
20th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
22nd Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
1st Ohio Light Artillery
1st Regiment Ohio Volunteer Cavalry
- Robert Edward Lee
- George Brinton McClellan
- William Starke Rosecrans
- Western Virginia Campaign
- Battle of Philippi
- Ohio Volunteer Infantry
- Robert Selden Garnett
- 10th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
- 4th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
- 17th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
- 1st Regiment Ohio Volunteer Cavalry
- Abraham Lincoln
- Battle of Fort Sumter