McClellan Reluctantly Agrees to a Flank Attack

Wednesday, July 10, 1861

A frontal assault upon an enemy in a fortified position wasn’t exactly the most imaginative plan ever dreamed up. Neither General McClellan, author of the attack, nor General Rosecrans, who would be leading the attack, thought that charging a brigade up the face of Rich Mountain, in hopes to break through to Beverly, western Virginia, was the best idea. But what other ideas were there? The attack was planned for dawn the next morning.

One road led through the mountain pass to Beverly. The Confederates under Lt. Col. Pegram held the road, the pass and the mountain. McClellan, with 6,000 Union troops, estimated that there were only 2,000 Rebels before him on Rich Mountain (there were actually only 1,300). Even so, in their entrenched position, a couple of thousand Rebels could hold off several times their number, especially against a frontal assault.

To test the ground, McClellan, now at Middle Fork Bridge, sent two regiments of infantry, a battery of artillery and some cavalry forward as a heavy reconnaissance. They hit the Rebel pickets hard, pushing them back with only a few shots being fired. The Confederates threw in two companies of reinforcements, but there wasn’t much they could do against two regiments of infantry.

The skirmish was short and hardly a skirmish at all. It did, however, net the Federals two prisoners. One of the prisoners may have done more for his cause as a captured prisoner than as a free soldier. When questioned, he reported the number of Rebels at Rich Mountain as 8,000 – 9,000 with artillery to back them up (again, there were only 1,300 up on that hill).

Much of this part of western Virginia was pro-Union. A local teenager named David B. Hart lived near Rich Mountain, behind what was now Confederate lines. He knew the ground well and figured that McClellan would only know the one road through the pass.

Hart first spoke with General Rosecrans, who was very unthrilled about the prospect of a frontal assault. The boy told him of a path that went around the left of the Confederate position. Rosecrans was ecstatic and dropped by McClellan’s headquarters later that evening. After he explained Hart’s plan and the boy’s offer to be their guide, McClellan wasn’t sold.

Rosecrans assured the General that his 2,000 men could be in position to attack by 10am. It wasn’t dawn, but it also wasn’t a frontal assault. Finally, McClellan agreed, but only if Rosecrans would send him hourly reports from the flank march. When Rosecrans was ready to strike the flank, McClellan would strike the front. The next morning at 4am, the troops were to leave camp.1

That night, in the Confederate camp on Rich Mountain, the fires from the Union boys preparing for their early assault could be seen spreading out through the valley below until well after midnight. Something was definitely going on down there. A hurried excitement seemed to fill the camp below. Fearing an attack upon their rear, Lt. Col. Pegram sent two companies nearly two miles behind their lines to give ample warning in the case of a flank attack.2

In an attempt to pull troops away from Rich Mountain to the other Confederate position at Laurel Hill, McClellan ordered General Morris to entertain the Rebels to his front. Throughout the day, Morris’ artillery pounded away with solid shot, case shot and even cannister, doing more to unnerve the Rebels than to kill them.

During the ten hour bombardment, a private from Georgia made an interesting discovery. From the instant he saw the muzzle flash of a cannon, it took the sound eight seconds to reach him. It then took the projectile four more seconds to arrive. It was still long enough for him to take cover.

This cannonade induced General Garnett, headquartered at Laurel Hill, but commanding all of the Confederate forces in the area, to be nearly certain that the main Union attack was to be on his front, rather than at Rich Mountain. He had over 3,000 men entrenched and ready to defend every last inch of Laurel Hill against whatever was to their front.3

__________________

In Missouri, Union General Lyon’s men were entering their 30th hour of hard marching in hopes of coming to the rescue of the defeated Col. Sigel. In the afternoon, a messenger arrived and told Lyon that Sigel was safe and sound in Springfield. The Rebels did not pursue.

Word spread quickly through the lines and all 4,500 very worn out men flung themselves to the ground. They camped on the spot that night, only thirty or so miles from Springfield.4

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  1. Lee Vs. McClellan by Newell. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p256. []
  3. Rebels at the Gate by Lesser. []
  4. Bloody Hill by William Riley Brooksher. []
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8 thoughts on “McClellan Reluctantly Agrees to a Flank Attack

  1. There’s an error in fact in this post. If the sound from the cannon shot arrived in 8 seconds, and the projectile in 4, there would be no warning to take cover. Furthermore, that would imply the cannonball was supersonic – in fact, twice sonic – which in an age of black powder couldn’t happen.

    By the way – is this Col. Pegram the same officer who became the well-known artillery chief?

    1. Hi there, thanks for the comment.

      When a ball leaves a gun, it *is* super sonic. At Gettysburg in the Peach Orchard, for example, Union artillerymen noted that the sound and the projectile of the Confederate artillery arrived at the exact same time. For that to happen, the ball had to leave the muzzle faster than the speed of sound, travel on its arc, and the slow down by the time it reached the target.

      I’m definitely not saying that it was twice the speed of sound though. Let me look into the source here (which I’ll do tonight) and try to suss it out. It’s possible that I had the sound/projectile reversed.

      Still, I assumed that the Georgia private saw the muzzle flash, ducked and then counted the seconds until the sound/projectile came over.

      Also, this Pegram was the brother of William Ransom Johnson Pegram, the AoNV artillery chief.

      Thanks!

      Eric

    2. Hi Mark, I found the account in Lesser’s book and I was eight seconds off.

      Basically, this Georgian said that it took the sound eight seconds to get to him and the ball, another four seconds.

      Sorry about that. Sometimes I get things turned around.

      Thanks for pointing it out.

      Eric

  2. Only “some” of this part of western Virginia was pro-Union. Randolph County, where the battle took place, voted to secede from the United States on May 23, 1861,

    David Hart may have been a Unionist, but he was also paid $100 in gold (about $2500 today) to lead Union troops up the mountain. (see Fout’s Dark Days of the Civil War). David Hart also had to leave Randolph County when people found out what he had done, many had relatives in Confederate service on Rich Mountain and Laurel Hill. There were more west Virginians at the battle in Confederate service than Union, the 25th & 31st Virginia Infantries and the 9th Battalion of Virginia Infantry, composing about 18 companies of these organizations.

    1. I’m sort of surprised how incredibly important it is to you that West Virginia was pretty much all pro-Confederate. That totally doesn’t explain why Confederates had such a difficult time raising troops in Grafton, etc.

      I get it, you really like the South. Huzzah.

    2. Bob A.,

      According to “The Harts of Randolph” by Katherine Frame, David Hart was given $100 by his father a month earlier to leave the area. I’ve just read Fout’s account and find it interesting. Of course, I don’t know which version of the story is true. Too bad the habit of the day when Fout wrote was not to cite sources. 🙁 It seems, however, that the Harts probably had incentive to get the Confederates troops away from their home. Hart enlisted in September. Four of his brothers also served in the Union army. Many of the relatives, on the other hand, joined the rebels.

      What’s your source for saying that David had to leave Randolph county? I’m doing just a simple text search in Fout’s book but don’t see anything about it.

      In regards to pro north/south sentiments, this study regarding Barbour is excellent.

      John W Shaffer, “Loyalties In Conflict: Union and Confederate Sentiment in Barbour County,” West Virginia History 50, (1991): 109-128.

  3. I had more thoughts on that cannon shot. I found a table of gunnery for the common pieces. Muzzle velocity of the Napoleon & similar IS supersonic – but air resistance and the arc traveled mean that the ball doesn’t arrive ahead of the sound at goodly distances.

    By the way – the common mental calculation for lightning flash to thunder is 5 seconds per mile (which is not a bad approximation and easy to do in your head). By that formula, the distance for an 8-second flash-to-bang is 1.6 miles, or 2800 yards. Battle ranges were usually well under 1,000 yds. An artillerist firing at 2800 yds is merely harassing, not hitting anything!

    1. Thanks for that!

      And you’re right about the harassing vs. accurately aiming for something idea. In the Peach Orchard artillery battle, both sides were aiming specifically at the opposing artillery (thus the sound reaching the target at the same time as the projectile). At this battle, the Union artillery (and infantry) were merely entertaining Garnet, hoping he wouldn’t reinforce Rich Mountain.

      I’m not sure if the artillery was 2,800 yards away, but then, I’m also not sure how fast that Georgian was counting. 🙂

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