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