Battle of Greenbrier River (October 3, 1861)

Updated: January 05, 2017

The Battle of Greenbrier River, also known as the Battle of Camp Bartow, took place in Pocahontas County, Virginia (now West Virginia) on October 3, 1861. The battle was part of the Western Virginia Campaign.

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. The Virginia Militia acted quickly, disrupting traffic on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and taking control of turnpikes through the mountains. The Union government countered by sending 20,000 troops into the area under the command of Major General George B. McClellan. McClellan's forces pressed the Confederate troops in the area throughout the summer and fall, gradually driving the Rebels out of the region, paving the way for the creation of the State of West Virginia in October 1861, although the federal government did not formally recognize the new state until June 1863.

On June 3, 1861, Union troops commanded by Brigadier General Thomas A. Morris surprised a Confederate encampment at Philippi, Virginia and scored a Union victory in what generally is considered as the first significant land engagement in the Eastern Theater of the American Civil War.

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 mountains at Laurel Hill and 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 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 Garnett, Lieutenant Colonel John Pegram, ordered an evacuation during the night. Approximately 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 was 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. McClellan's departure left Brigadier General William S. Rosecrans in command 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.

After the Union victory at the Battle of Rich Mountain, approximately 9,000 soldiers under the command of Brigadier General Joseph Reynolds traveled east into Pocahontas County. Upon moving into the area, Reynolds erected fortifications at his headquarters at Elkwater and on the summit of Cheat Mountain to secure the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike, which moved through a pass along the base of the mountain.

In early September, Lee left Sewell Mountain and joined Brigadier General William W. Loring's 11,000-man Army of the Northwest at Valley Mountain in Pocahontas County. The two Confederate generals planned an offensive against the Federal forces at Cheat Mountain. The plan called for three Rebel 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 Federals for three days before giving up and withdrawing to Valley Mountain.

After Lee's failed offensive at Cheat Mountain, the Confederates established a fortified position, known as Camp Bartow, where the Greenbrier River crossed the Parkersburg-Staunton Turnpike. The roughly 1,800 effectives there were commanded by General Henry R. Jackson. Buoyed by the Federal success at Cheat Mountain, Union Brigadier General Joseph J. Reynolds planned an assault against Camp Bartow in early October. Reynolds hoped to drive the Rebels from their encampment and take control of the turnpike, giving Union troops direct access to eastern Virginia.

On the night of October 2, Reynolds led 5,000 Union soldiers from Cheat Mountain toward Camp Bartow. His attempt to surprise the Rebels the next morning was dashed when enemy pickets detected his force before they reached the main encampment. The Federals drove the Confederate pickets back and the main engagement began at approximately 8 o'clock. Jackson's men were well entrenched and refused to yield in the face of a prolonged artillery bombardment and repeated Federal assaults. After four and one-half hours of spirited battle, Reynolds observed Confederate reinforcements approaching from nearby Camp Allegheny. Incorrectly fearing that he would be outnumbered, Reynolds halted the engagement and withdrew to the Cheat Summit fortification.

Although the engagement was sharp and relatively long, neither side suffered heavy losses. Each general exaggerated the number of casualties inflicted on his enemy, but records indicate that the Union lost roughly forty-three soldiers (eight killed and thirty-five wounded), while the Confederacy lost fifty-two men (six killed, thirty-three wounded, and thirteen missing). Reynolds failed to achieve his goal of dislodging the Rebels from Camp Bartow. By late November, an outbreak of disease prompted the Confederates to abandon Camp Bartow and to consolidate their forces at Camp Allegheny.

Ohio units that participated in the Battle of Greenbrier River included:

Infantry units:

24th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

25th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

32nd Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

Artillery units:

12th Ohio Independent Battery

Cite this Entry

MLA Style

"Battle of Greenbrier River," Ohio Civil War Central, 2020, Ohio Civil War Central. 25 Sep 2020 <http://www.www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=718>

APA Style

"Battle of Greenbrier River." (2020) In Ohio Civil War Central, Retrieved September 25, 2020, from Ohio Civil War Central: http://www.www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=718

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