Union Victory in Spite of Itself at Rich Mountain

Thursday, July 11, 1861

Message in hand, Sergeant David Wolcott of the First Ohio Cavalry trotted along the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike towards where he thought General Rosecrans Brigade was marching. Passing a Union outpost, Wolcott was warned that the road he was on wasn’t the same road Rosecrans was using. Showing that his message was from General McClellan, they reluctantly let him pass. Through the pouring rain, he could see little ahead of him. He probably did not see the muzzle flash from the musket that fired the bullet that knocked him off his horse. He was quickly captured and taken to Confederate Col. Pegram, commander of the Rebel forces on Rich Mountain near Beverly, western Virginia.

Pegram learned that Wolcott was acting as a go-between for Rosecrans and McClellan. Rosecrans’s Brigade was apparently using a back road to get around Pegram’s flank. But which flank, wondered the Colonel. Fearing such a Union maneuver, he had moved two companies nearly two miles behind his main lines to the summit of Rich Mountain the night before. With this information, he sent two more companies and a piece of artillery to join them. This placed 300 Rebels upon the summit and left 1,000 on the main line to face McClellan.

Rosecrans’ men, 1,900 strong, had stepped off before dawn, following local boy David Hart, whose family lived behind the Confederate lines. He was leading them up an abandoned road that would carry the whole brigade to the summit, two miles behind the main entrenchments of the Rebels. Upon reaching the top, they were to open fire, signalling McClellan’s two brigades, facing the Confederates head on, to charge.

McClellan only reluctantly agreed to the flank attack, suggested by young David Hart, and only agreed to it on the condition that Rosecrans keep up an hourly contact with him. The march, however, was taking much longer than it was supposed to. The road was narrow and the weather was anything but welcoming. Rosecrans had sent a few hourly reports, but with nothing more to tell his commanding General, he gave up on it. Fearing the worst, McClellan sent the since-captured Sgt. Wolcott to recall the flank attack and so Rosecrans received no message to return.

Around two in the afternoon, about a mile from the Hart House, Rosecrans reached the summit, but saw no Rebels. Pushing closer towards the house and the Turnpike, his skirmishers, pushed out in advance of the main body, were fired upon. The Rebels were just as surprised to see them as they were surprised to see the Rebels.

Young David Hart was taken behind the main line and accused of leading them into a trap. Assuring them that he was true to the Union, he urged them forward. And forward they went. When the line emerged from the woods near the Hart House, the 300 Confederates and their cannon opened fire tearing a huge hole in the Union line. More firing threw the green Federal troops into a panic and they fell back to the cheers of the Rebels.

Once regrouped, they came again, advancing against the Rebel cannon whose crew was loading and firing faster than on any drill. For well over an hour, 300 Rebels held off 1,900 Union soldiers. Wanting to end this, Rosecrans called for his men to fix bayonets. Through a hail storm of bullets fired from behind boulders and the Hart’s outbuildings, Rosecrans led the charge amongst the Confederates, finally sending the resolute 300 running, and captured their cannon.

Col. Pegram, himself, led fifty Confederates and another piece of artillery towards the sounds of gunfire. They arrived too late to help the retreating men, but not too late to catch a volley from Rosecrans’s boys. The fifty joined the 300 in the retreat.

The Union troops chased the fleeing Rebels through the woods, but few were caught. Rich Mountain fell silent. But was it supposed to be silent? What about McClellan’s attack on the main body? Rosecrans heard nothing from that direction and as the afternoon wore on, he feared a counter attack from either the 350 Rebels that may have joined with a 500-strong Rebel regiment near Beverly or from the main body itself. As dusk turned to darkness, Rosecrans realized he was cut off and possibly between two formidable Confederate forces.

Meanwhile, when General McClellan heard the firing from the flank attack, he assumed the worst; that Rosecrans had been defeated and driven back. After a quick look at the Confederate lines to his front, he decided that his 4,000 troops could not carry the position held by no more than 1,000 Rebels and called off his end of the attack. Later that night, he pulled back even farther, across Roaring Creek.

As for Col. Pegram, he found his way back to the Confederate camp and, after a conference with his officers, they decided to try to make it to General Garnett’s lines sixteen miles north at Laurel Hill. The first group of them left just before dusk while the remaining 600 left after midnight. The second column was led by mapmaker Jed Hotchkiss, who had mapped out the ground and knew the way to Beverly. Pegram joined them, but soon found himself cut off from Hotchkiss. Over 550 of his men followed him, though he had no idea where he was going.

Sixteen miles north at Laurel Hill, General Garnett, commander of the entire Confederate force in the area, learned of the defeat at Rich Mountain that evening. They had been under a sporadic artillery fire all day, but Union General Morris, to his front, made no attack. Realizing that the victorious Union troops would soon capture Beverly and cut off his retreat route to Staunton, Virginia, Garnett decided that he needed to evacuate his camp at Laurel Hill immediately. He left the campfires burning and slipped south through the darkness.

With Rosecrans on the summit of Rich Mountain, McClellan beyond the foot of it, and the Rebels finding their way to Beverly, the battle was over. The Union suffered twelve dead and forty-nine wounded. The Confederates probably suffered similar casualties with the addition of some captured.1


  1. Like with other day-long descriptions, I have pulled this telling from a few difference sources. Lee vs. McClellan by Newell as well as Rebels at the Gate by Lesser were the two main sources. Official Records, Series 1, Vol 2. also came in very handy, of course. []
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Union Victory in Spite of Itself at Rich Mountain by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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