Laurel Hill Battlefield in Belington, West Virginia

Photo by Michael Kleen

See where amateur armies of North and South squared off in this early Civil War battle fought before the Battle of Bull Run.

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The Battle of Belington (Laurel Hill) was fought from July 7 to 11, 1861 between Union forces commanded by Brig. Gen. Thomas A. Morris and Confederate forces commanded by Brig. Gen. Robert S. Garnett in Barbour County, West Virginia during the American Civil War. The battle was technically a draw, but defeat at Rich Mountain on July 11 compelled Garnett to abandon his fortified camp at Laurel Hill.

Following an ignominious Confederate defeat at the Battle of Philippi in early June, Brig. Gen. Garnett took command of Confederate forces in western Virginia and fortified two key mountain passes: one at Laurel Mountain leading to Leadsville and the other at Rich Mountain to Beverly. Lt. Col. John Pegram commanded a smaller force at Camp Garnett in Rich Mountain, while Garnett stayed at Camp Laurel Hill with 4,000 men.

Garnett knew his prospects for victory were slim. “I don’t anticipate anything very brilliant–indeed I shall esteem myself fortunate if I escape disaster,” he wrote. His pessimism would be tested on July 7, when Brig. Gen. Morris arrived with his 3,500-man brigade and made camp in nearby Belington (where he soon received reinforcements, bringing his total to 4,000). The two sides skirmished for several days. Morris’ orders were to “amuse” his opponent and prevent him from reinforcing Rich Mountain.

Accounts of the battle vary, but it involved both infantry and artillery duels. A Confederate soldier wrote to the Richmond Daily Dispatch: “The company had no sooner taken their proper place, when they opened briskly on the foe, which was returned as briskly; but few of the return shots did any execution…,” and “During the latter part of the day the enemy fired a number of bomb shells, grape-shots and balls in the direction of our troops, playing havoc with the trees and shrubbery…”

Another Confederate, George P. Morgan, recorded in his journal: “Early in the morning the enemy made his appearance near our fortified camp (near Laurel Hill) and were promptly repulsed by the 1st Georgia regiment with the loss of one wounded on our side and several killed on theirs. The day was principally occupied in skirmishes, in which nearly all our forces were engaged, but with the loss of only one man on our side.”

Ambrose Bierce, a Union soldier in the 9th Indiana Infantry and later an accomplished author, remarked: “A few dozen of us, who had been swapping shots with the enemies’ skirmishers, grew tired of the resultless battle, and by a common impulse – and I think without orders or officers – ran forward into the woods and attacked the Confederate works. We did well enough considering the hopeless folly of the movement, but we came out of the woods faster than we went in – a good deal.”

Casualty estimates from these five days of fighting are hard to come by, since contemporary accounts tended to exaggerate, but the number of killed and wounded may have been as high as two dozen on either side. Confederate forces held out until the 11th, when they slipped away under cover of night to avoid being surrounded.

Fought between Northern and Southern states from 1861 to 1865, the American Civil War erupted over questions of slavery, the legality of secession, and the primacy of the Federal government. It ended with Northern victory and restoration of the Union. Nearly 850,000 people died in the conflict, the bloodiest war in U.S. history. Most of the war’s battles were fought in the South, devastating its economy and leaving generational scars.

After the armies moved on, Laurel Hill returned to its sleepy and agrarian existence. There was little effort to preserve or commemorate the battle until the early 2000s. In 2004, the City of Belington acquired ownership of 50 acres of the old camp and battlefield, and began to hold an annual reenactment there. A Civil War Trail interpretive sign was installed in Belington in 2005, and a trail and information kiosk were erected on the battlefield in 2008. Today, the Friends of Laurel Hill Battlefield protect and preserve it for posterity.

Laurel Hill Battlefield is located at 63 Laurel Mountain Road southeast of Belington, West Virginia. A parking lot is just north of the Mill Creek Reservoir, and the trails are west of there off Battlefield Drive. The park is open dawn to dusk. There is another sign along Laurel Mountain Road at GPS coordinates 39.013234, -79.924219.

Author: Michael Kleen

Michael Kleen is an author, raconteur, and occasional traveler. He has a M.A. in History and M.S. in Education. He enjoys studying military history, folklore, and philosophy.

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