Scattering and Gathering the Rebels in Western Virginia

Friday, July 12, 1861

The wet dawn was hardly a welcome to Confederate Col. Pegram. His force at Rich Mountain had been flanked and thrown into a retreat the day before. Some of his men had made it off the mountain and into Beverly, but as he looked from the woods towards the town, he saw in the distance what he thought were Union soldiers. Pegram, and the 550 men he now led, decided to stay away from the town and hide out in the woods on the eastern side of the mountain until the coast was clear.

General Garnett, commanding the entire Confederate force, upon hearing of Pegram’s defeat, ordered a retreat from Laurel Hill, near Leedsville [modern-day Elkins], 16 miles north of Rich Mountain, to Beverly. He hoped to reach it before it was taken by the Yankees. While moving south on a road leading to Beverly, his scouts reported that the town was already held by Union troops. Garnett turned his men around, deciding to head north on an old wagon road and then cross the Allegheny Mountains on the North West Turnpike near Red House, Maryland. From there, he would move south to Monterey, once again on the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike. It was the choice between a 150 mile detour or surrender to the Union troops occupying Beverly.

In both cases, however, Confederates mistook their fellow Rebels as Union troops. If both Pegram and Garnett would have continued into town, they could have joined forces. Instead, Pegram was is the woods with 550 men, Garnett was heading north with nearly 3,000, while another Confederate regiment and a smattering of veterans from the previous day’s battle, headed south to Huttonsville. Torrents of rain poured down over all of them through the night and morning.

Union General Rosecrans, who had pulled off the flank attack the previous day, received word from a Confederate prisoner that the Rebel camp near the western foot of Rich Mountain had been abandoned. By 6am Union troops had captured the camp, 170 Confederates (many wounded) and four pieces of artillery.

When word of the camp’s capture reached General George McClellan, commander of all Union troops in the region, he wasn’t sure what to make of it. It was his frontal attack that was to take the camp while Rosecrans’ flank attack threw the Rebels into confusion. McClellan called off his part of the plan just as Rosecrans was initiating his. The Turnpike was now completely held by the Federal troops from Rich Mountain to Beverly. It wasn’t until noon, however, that McClellan got any of his 6,000 troops into town. The Rebels had vacated it at 11am.

Opposite the abandoned Confederate works at Laurel Hill, Union General Morris, commanding 4,000, didn’t realize that Garnett had slipped away until around noon – twelve hours after his departure. Morris dispatched Captain Henry Washington Benham and 1,800 troops to track down the fleeing Confederates. The column was easy to follow with cast-off Rebel knapsacks, wagons and various accoutrements strewn along the ground.

Their search led them through the rain and afternoon into evening to a rugged wagon road. Knowing they were close to the Rebels, Benham decided to camp for the night.1

In the woods on the eastern slope of Rich Mountain, Col. Pegram decided he was trapped. With Union troops actually occupying Beverly to the east, he was virtually surrounded. With no other choice before him, he wrote to General McClellan:

I write to state to you that I have, in consequence of the retreat of General Garnett, and the jaded and reduced condition of my command, most of them having been without food for two days, concluded, with the concurrence of a majority of my captains and field officers, to surrender my command to you to-morrow as prisoners of war. I have only to add, I trust they will only receive at your hands such treatment as has been invariably shown to the Northern prisoners by the South.2


Movements in the Kanawha Valley

News of Garnett’s defeat had not reached Henry Wise or John Floyd, the other two Confederate Generals in western Virginia, but they had their own troubles to worry about. Dispatched by McClellan, Brig-General Jacob Cox reached Point Pleasant on the Ohio River the day before the Battle of Rich Mountain. The next day, he gathered his brigade of five regiments, placing a regiment at Gyandotte and Ravenswood, along the Ohio River, both fifty or sixty miles from Point Pleasant. Cox planned for the two flanking regiments to move east from the Ohio as he and the other three moved east up the Kanawha River towards Confederate General Wise.

With the additional Union movement in the Kanawha Valley, General Floyd, near Wytheville, was ordered to move towards General Wise at Charleston. On this date, the 45th Virginia, commanded by Col. Henry Heth, left Wytheville for Sweet Springs, near Lewisburg, western Virginia.

General Cox used steam ships to take two of his regiments up the Kanawha. The third regiment took to the banks as an advance guard. On this date, the second day of the advance, the regiment on land exchanged some hot fire with a detachment of Rebels. Nobody on either side was even wounded, but it served as a reminder that this was a dangerous game.3


Patterson Sort of Left on His Own

Meanwhile, in eastern Virginia, not much had changed since a few days ago when Union General Patterson, stalled at Martinsburg, had second thoughts about his plan to advance upon General Johnston’s Army of the Shenandoah at Winchester.

General-in-Chief Winfield Scott replied to Patterson, giving him permission to move from Martinsburg to Charlestown to have a better angle on Johnston. If that movement caused the Rebels to move towards Manassas, following them from Martinsburg might be hazardous. However, if Patterson moved out from Charlestown via Harpers Ferry, it might be “practicable.” Patterson was also told to stay on the Virginia side of the Potomac, “except in extreme case.” Scott wished to hear from him on Tuesday, July 16.4

Patterson, whose job was to keep Johnston from joining forces with General Beauregard at Manassas, knew what “Tuesday, July 16” meant. A code had been worked out to indicate when McDowell would advance upon Beauregard. When Scott told Patterson that he wished to hear from him on a certain date, that date was the jump off day for McDowell’s advance.5

  1. Accounts taken from both Rebels at the Gate by Lesser and Lee vs. McClellan by Newell. Lesser’s book is highly detailed as to the roads taken, which I unfortunately can’t use so well here, but it’s great reading and I strongly suggest it. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p210. []
  3. Lee Vs. McClellan by Newell. []
  4. A Narrative of the Campaign in the Valley of the Shenandoah, in 1861 by Robert Patterson. []
  5. The Army of the Potomac; Birth of Command, November 1860-September 1861 by Russel H. Beatie, Da Capo Press, 2002. []
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Scattering and Gathering the Rebels in Western Virginia by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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