By Jacob D. Cox, Major-General, U.S. V.
The reasons which made it important to occupy West Virginia with National troops were two-fold– political and strategic. The people were strongly attached to the Union, and had opposed the secession of Virginia, of which state they were a part. But few slaves were owned by them, and all there interests bound them more to Ohio and Pennsylvania than to eastern Virginia. Under the influence of Lincoln's administration, strongly backed, and indeed, chiefly represented, by Governor Dennison of Ohio, a movement was on foot to organize a loyal Virginia government, repudiating that of Governor Letcher and the State convention as self-destroyed by the act of secession. Governor Dennison had been urging McClellan to cross the Ohio to protect and encourage the loyal men when, on the 26th of May, news came that the Confederates had taken initiative, and that some bridges had been burned on the Baltimore and Ohio railroad a little west of Grafton, the crossing of the Monongahela River, where the two western branches of the railroad unite, viz. the line from Wheeling and that from Parkersburg. The great line of communication between Washington and the west had thus been cut, and action on our part was made necessary. Governor Dennison had anticipated the need of more troops than the thirteen regiments which had been organized as Ohio's quota under the President's first call. He had organized nine other regiments, numbering them consecutively with those mustered into the national service, and had put them in camps never the Ohio River, where they could occupy Wheeling, Parkersburg, and the mouth of the Great Kanawha at a moment's notice. Two Union regiments were also organizing in West Virginia itself, at Wheeling and Parkersburg, of which the first was commanded by Colonel (afterwards General) B. F. Kelley. West Virginia was in McClellan's department, and the formal authority to act had to come from Washington on the 24th, in the shape of an inquiry from General Scott whether the enemy's force at Grafton could be counteracted. The dispatch directed McClellan to "act promptly." On the 27th Colonel Kelley was sent by rail from Wheeling to drive off the enemy and protect the railroad. The hostile parties withdrew at Kelley's approach, and the bridges were quickly rebuilt. At the same time several of the Ohio regiments were ordered across the river, and a brigade of Indiana volunteers under Brigadier-General Thomas A. Morris was sent forward by rail from Indianapolis. Morris reached Grafton on the 1st of June, and was intrusted with the command of all the troops in West Virginia. He found that Colonel Kelley had already planned an expedition against the enemy, who had retired southward to Philippi, about thirty miles from Grafton. Morris approved the plan, but enlarged it by sending another column under Colonel Ebenezer Dumont of the 7th Indiana to cooperate with Kelley. Both columns were directed to make a night march, starting from points on the railroad about twelve miles apart, and converging on Philippi, which they were to attack at daybreak of June 3d. Each column consisted of about 1500 men, and Dumont's had with it 2 field-pieces of artillery, smooth 6-pounders.
The Confederate force was commanded by Colonel G. A. Porterfield, of the Virginia volunteer, and was something less than a thousand strong, about one-fourth cavalry.
The night was dark and stormy, and Porterfield's raw troops had not learned picket duty. The concerted movement against them was more successful than such marches commonly are, and Porterfield's first notice of anger was the opening of the artillery upon his sleeping troops. It had been expected that the two columns would inclose the enemy's camp and capture the whole; but, though in disorderly rout, Porterfield succeeded by personal coolness and courage, in getting them off with but few casualties and the loss of a few arms. The camp equipage and supplies were, of course, captured. Colonel Kelley was wounded by a pistol-shot in the breast, which was the only injury reported on the National side no prisoners were taken nor did any dead or wounded fall into our hands. Porterfield retreated to Beverly, some thirty miles farther to the south-east, and the National forces occupied Philippi. The telegraphic reports had put the Confederate force at 2000 and their loss at 15 killed. This implied a considerable list of wounded and prisoners also, and the newspapers gave it the air of a considerable victory. The campaign thus opened with apparent "eclat" for McClellan, and the "Philippi races," as they were locally called, greatly encouraged the Union men of West Virginia and correspondingly depressed the secessionists.
McCllelan, however was still of the opinion that his most promising line of operations would be by the Great Kanawha Valley, and he retained in their camp of instruction the Ohio regiments which were mustered into the service of the United States, sending into Virginia only those known as the State forces. Another reason for this was that the older regiments were now nearly at the end of their three-month enlistment, and were trying to reorganize under the President's second call, which required enlistment for "three year or the war." Nearly a month elapsed, when, having received reports that forces of the enemy were gathering at Beverly, McClellan determined to proceed in person to that region with his best-prepared troops, postponing his Kanawha plan till north-western Virginia should be cleared of hostile forces.
Reference to the map will show that as the Potomac route was usually in the hands of the Northern forces, a Confederate occupation of West Virginia must be made either by the Staunton and Beverly road, or by the Kanawha route, of which the key-point west of the mountains was Gauley Bridge.
General Lee determined to send columns upon both these lines- General Henry A. Wise upon the Kanawha route, and General Robert S. Garnett to Beverly. Upon Porterfield's retreat to Beverly after the "Philippi races," Garnett, who had been an officer in the United States army, was ordered to Beverly to assume command and to stimulate the recruiting and organization of regiments from the secession element of the population. Some Virginia regiments, raised on the eastern slope of the mountains, were sent with him, and to these was soon added the 1st Georgia. On the 1st of July he reported his force as 4500 men, but declared that his efforts to recruit had proven a complete failure, only 23 having joined. The West Virginians, he says, "are thoroughly imbued with an ignorant and bigoted Union sentiment." Other reenforcements were promised Garnett, but none reached him except the 44th Virginia regiment, which arrived at Beverly the very day of the action, but which did not take part in the fighting.
Tygart's Valley, in which Beverly lies, is between Cheat Mountain on the east, and
Rich Mountain on the west. The river, of the same name as the valley, flows northward about fifteen miles, then turns westward, breaking through the ridge, passes by Philippi, and afterward crosses the railroad at Grafton. The Staunton and Parkersburg Turnpike divides at Beverly, the Parkersburg route passing over a saddle in Rich Mountain, and the Wheeling route following the river to Philippi. The ridge north of the river at the gap is known as Laurel Mountain, and the road passes over a spur of it. Garnett regarded the two positions at Rich Mountain and Laurel Mountain as the gates to all the region beyond, and to the West. A rough mountain road, barely passable, connected the Laurel Mountain position with Cheat River on the east, and it was possible to go by this way northward through St. George to the Northwestern Turnpike, turning the mountain ranges.
Garnett thought the pass over Rich Mountain much the stronger and more - easily held, and he therefore intrenched there about 1300 of his men and 4 cannon, under command of Lieutenant-Colonel Pegram. The position chosen was on a spur of the mountain near its western base, and it was rudely fortified with breastworks of logs covered with an abattis of slashed timber along its front. The remainder of his force he placed in a similar fortified position on the road at Laurel Mountain, where he also had four guns, of which one was rifled. Here he commanded in person. His depot of supplies was at Beverly, which was 16 miles from the Laurel Mountain position and 5 from that at Rich Mountain. He was pretty accurately informed of McClellan's forces and movements, and his preparations had barely been completed by the 9th of July, when the Union general appeared in his front.
McClellan entered West Virginia in person on the 22d of June, and on the 23d issued from Grafton a proclamation to the inhabitants. He had gradually collected his forces along the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, which, at the time of the affair at Rich Mountain, consisted of 16 Ohio regiments, 9 from Indiana and 2 from West Virginia; in all, 27 regiments with 4 batteries of artillery of 6 guns each, 2 troops of cavalry, and an independent company of riflemen. Of his batteries, one was of the regular army, and another, a company of regulars (Company I, 4th U. S. Artillery), was with him awaiting mountain howitzers, which arrived a little later. The regiments varied somewhat in strength, but all were recently organized, and must have averaged at least 700 men each, making the whole force about 20,000. Of these, about 5000 were guarding the railroad and its bridges for some 200 miles, under the command of Brigadier-General C. W. Hill, of the Ohio Militia; a strong brigade under Brigadier-General Morris, of Indiana, was at Philippi, and the rest were in three brigades forming the immediate command of McClellan, the brigadiers being General W. S. Rosecrans, U.S. A, General Newton Schleich, of Ohio, and Colonel Robert L. McCook, of Ohio. On the date of his proclamation McClellan intended, as he informed General Scott, to move his principal column to Buckhannon on June 25th, and thence at once upon Beverly; but delays occurred, and it was not till July 2d that he reached Buckhannon, which is 24 miles west of Beverly, on the Parkersburg branch of the turnpike. Before leaving Grafton the rumors he heard had made him estimate Garnett's force at 6000 or 7000 men, of which the larger part were at Laurel Mountain in front of General Morris. On the 6th of July he moved McCook with two regiments to Middle Fork Bridge, about half-way to Beverly, and on the same day ordered Morris to march with his brigade from Philippi to a position one and a half miles in front of Garnett's principal camp, which was promptly done. Three days later, McClellan concentrated the three brigades of his own column at Roaring Creek, about two miles from Colonel Pegram's position at the base of Rich Mountain. The advance on both lines had been made with only a skirmishing resistance, the Confederates being aware of McClellan's great superiority in numbers, and choosing to await his attack in their fortified positions. The National commander was now convinced that his opponent was 10,000 strong, of which about 2,000 were before him at Rich Mountain. A reconnoissance made on the 10th showed that Pegrams position would be difficult to assail in front, but preparations were made to attack the next day, while Morris was directed to hold firmly his position before Garnett, watching for the effect of the attack at Rich Mountain. In the evening Rosecrans took to McClellan a young man named Hart, whose father lived on the top of the mountain two miles in rear of Pegram, and who thought he could guide a column of infantry to his father's farm by a circuit around Pegram's left flank south of the turnpike. The paths were so difficult that cannon could not go by them, but Rosecrans offered to lead a column of infantry and seize the road at the Hart farm. After some discussion McClellan adopted the suggestion, and it was arranged that Rosecrans should march at daybreak of the 11th with about two thousand men, including a troop of horse, and that upon the sound of his engagement in the rear of Pegram, McClellan would attack in force in front. By a blunder in one of the regimental camps, the reveille and assembly were sounded at midnight, and Pegram was put on the qi vive. He, however, believed that the attempt to turn his position would be by a path or country road passing round his right, between him and Garnett (of which the latter had warned him), and his attention was diverted from Rosecrans's actual route which he thought impracticable. The alert which had occurred at midnight made Rosecrans think it best to make a longer circuit than he at first intended, and it took ten hours of severe marching and mountain climbing to reach the Hart farm. The turning movement was made, but he found an enemy opposing him. Pegram had detached about 350 men from the 1300 which he had, and had ordered them to guard the road at the mountain summit. He sent with them a single cannon from the four which constituted his only battery, and they threw together a breastwork of logs. The turnpike at Hart's runs in a depression of the summit, and as Rosecrans, early in the afternoon, came out upon the road, he was warmly received by both musketry and cannon. The ground was rough, the men were for the first time under fire, and the skirmishing combat varied through two or three hours, when a charge by part of Rosecrans's line, aided by a few heavy volleys from another portion of his forces which had secured a good position broke the enemy's line. Reenforcements from Pegram were nearly at hand, with another cannon, but they did not come into action, and the runaway team of the caisson on the hill-top, dashing into the gun that was coming up, capsized it down the mountain-side where the descending road was scarped diagonally along it. Both guns felt into Rosecrans's hands, and he was in possession of the field. The march and the assault had been made in rain and storm. Nothing was heard from McClellan, and the enemy, rallying on their reeforcements, made such show of resistance on the crest a little farther on, that Roserans directed his men to rest upon their arms till next morning. When day broke on the 12th, the enemy had disappeared from the mountain-top, and Rosecrans, feeling his way down to the rear of Pegrams position, found it also abandoned, the two remaining cannon being spiked, and a few sick and wounded being left in charge of a surgeon. Still nothing was seen of McClellan and Rosecrans sent word to him, in his camp beyond Roaring Creek, that he was in possession of the enemy's position. Rosecrans's loss had been 12 killed and 49 wounded. The Confederates left 20 wounded on the field, and 63 were surrendered at the lower camp, including the sick. No trustworthy report of their dead was made.
The noise of the engagement had been heard in McClellan's camp, and he formed his troops for attack, but the long continuance of the cannonade and some signs of exultation in Pegram's camp seem to have made him think Rosecrans had been repulsed. The failure to attack in accordance with the plan has never been explained. Rosecrans's messengers had failed to reach McClellan during the 11th, but the sound of the battle was sufficient notice that he had gained the summit and was engaged; and he was, in fact, left to win his own battle or to get out of his embarrassment as he could. Toward evening McClellan began to cut a road for artillery to a neighboring height, from which he hoped his twelve guns would make Pegram's position untenable; but his lines were withdrawn again beyond Roaring Creek at nightfall, and further action was postponed to the next day.
About half of Pergram's men had succeeded in passing around Rosecrans's right flank during the night and had gained Beverly. These, with the newly arrived Confederate regiment, fled southward on the Staunton road. Garnett had learned in the evening by messenger from Beverly that Rich Mountain summit was carried, and evacuated his camp in front of Morris about midnight. He first marched toward Beverly, and was within five miles of that place when he received information retraced his steps nearly to his camp, and, leaving the turnpike at Leadsville, he turned off upon a country road over Cheat Mountain into Cheat River Valley, following the stream northward toward St. George and West Union, in the forlorn hope of turning the mountains at the north end of the ridges and regaining his communications by a very long detour. He might have continued southward through Beverly almost at leisure, for McClellan did not enter the town till past noon on the 12th.
Morris learned of Garnett's retreat at dawn, and started in pursuit as soon as rations could be issued. He marched first to Leadsville, where he halted to communicate with McClellan at Beverly and get further orders. These reached him in the night, and at daybreak of the 13th he resumed the pursuit. His advance-guard of three regiments, accompanied by Captain H. W. Benham of the Engineers, overtook the rear of the Confederate column about noon and continued a skirmishing pursuit for some two hours. Garnett himself handled his rear-guard with skill, and at Carrick's Ford a lively encounter was had. A mile or two farther, at another ford and when the skirmishing was very slight, he was killed while withdrawing his skirmishers from behind a pile of driftwood which he had used as a barricade. One of his cannon had become stalled in the ford, and, with about forty wagons, fell into Morris's hands. The direct pursuit was here discontinued, but McClellan had sent a dispatch to General Hill at Grafton, to collect the garrisons along the railway and block the way of the Confederates where they must pass around the northern spurs of the mountains.
His military telegraph terminated at the Roaring Creek camp, and the dispatch written in the evening of the 12th was not forwarded to Hill till near noon of the 13th. This officer immediately ordered the collection of the greater part of his detachments at Oakland and called upon the railway officials for special trains to hurry them to the rendezvous. About one thousand men under Colonel James Irvine of the 16th Ohio were at West Union where the St. George road reaches the Northwestern Turnpike, and Hill's information was that a detachment of these held Red House, a crossing several miles in advance by which the retreating enemy might go. Irvine was directed to hold his positions at all hazards till he could be reenforced. Hill himself hastened with the first train from Grafton to Oakland with
about 500 men and 3 cannon, reached his destination at nightfall, and hurried his detachment forward by a night march to Irvine, 10 or 12 miles over rough roads. It turned out that Irvine did not occupy Red House, and the prevalent belief that the enemy was about eight thousand in number, with the uncertainty of the road he would take, made it proper to keep the little force concentrated till reenforcements should come. The first of these reached Irvine about 6 o'clock on the morning of the 14th, raising his command to 1500, but a few moments after their arrival he learned that the enemy had passed Red House soon after daylight. He gave chase, but did not overtake them.
Meanwhile, General Hill had spent the night in trying to hasten forward the railway trains, but none were able to reach Oakland till morning, and Garnett's forces had now more than twenty miles the start, and were on fairly good roads, moving southward on the eastern side of the mountains. McClellan still telegraphed that Hill had the one opportunity of a lifetime to capture the fleeing army, and that officer hastened in pursuit, though unprovided with wagons or extra rations. When, however, the Union commander learned that the enemy had fairly turned the mountains, he ordered the pursuit stopped. Hill had used both intelligence and energy in his attempt to concentrate his troops, but it proved simply impossible for the railroad to carry them to Oakland before the enemy had passed the turning-point, twenty miles to the southward.
During the 12th Pegram's situation and movements were unknown. He had intended, when he evacuated his camp, to follow the line of retreat taken by the detachment already near the mountain-top, but, in the darkness of the night and in the tangled woods and thickets of the mountain-side, his column got divided, and, with the rear portion of it, he wandered all day on the 12th, seeking to make his way to Garnett. He halted at evening at the Tygart Valley River, six miles north of Beverly, and learned from some country people of Garnett's retreat. It was still possible to reach the mountains east of the valley, but beyond was a hundred miles of wilderness and half a dozen mountain ridges on which little, if any, food could be found for his men. He called a council of war, and, by advice of his officers, sent to McClellan, at Beverly, an offer of surrender. This was received on the 13th, and Pegram brought in 30 officers and 525 men. McClellan then moved southward himself, following the Staunton road, by which the remnant of Pegram's little force had escaped, and on the 14th occupied Huttonsville. Two regiments of Confederate troops were hastening from Staunton to reenforce Garnett. These were halted at Monterey, east of the principal ridge of the Alleghanies and upon them the retreating forces rallied. Brigadier-General H. R. Jackson was assigned to command in Garnett's place, and both Governor Letcher and General Lee made strenuous efforts to increase this army to a force sufficient