After Confederates fired on Fort Sumter in April 1861, no one was sure what would happen next. When Virginia seceded in May, a young Union general named George B. McClellan invaded northwestern Virginia. Few remember this minor campaign, but it launched him to national fame and notoriety.
When Virginia voters ratified the decision of its secession convention on May 23, 1861, Richmond had already been proclaimed the Confederate capital and militia units were mobilizing. As commander of the Department of the Ohio, Union Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan invaded northwestern Virginia under the pretext of protecting unionists there. Western counties would later vote to secede from Virginia and form the state of West Virginia.
McClellan sent 3,000 volunteer troops into Virginia under the overall command of Brig. Gen. Thomas A. Morris. Opposing them were approximately 800 poorly trained and equipped militia commanded by Col. George A. Porterfield gathered at the town of Grafton. Porterfield retreated to Philippi as the Union army advanced. Morris divided his force into two columns, which converged on Philippi and the Confederates camped there.
Skirmish at Philippi
Before dawn on June 3rd, the Confederates were sheltering from the rain in their tents and were almost taken completely by surprise, if not for a local woman firing her pistol at the Union troops. The Confederates broke and ran with Morris’ men in hot pursuit, leading Northern journalists to call the fight the “Races at Philippi”.
Col. Benjamin Franklin Kelley, who would later become commander of the Department of West Virginia and a major general, commanded the Union 1st Virginia Infantry Regiment and was seriously wounded in the fight, though his men captured the abandoned Confederate baggage train. Kelley was one of the first Union officers wounded in the war.
Confederate forces lost 26 killed or wounded in their ignominious defeat. Union casualties amounted to four killed or wounded.
Battle of Belington / Laurel Hill
Following the defeat at Philippi, Brig. Gen. Robert S. 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.
On July 7, 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. McClellan ordered Morris to “amuse” his opponent and prevent him from reinforcing Rich Mountain.
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.
Battle of Rich Mountain
McClellan brought 5,000 men and eight cannon within two miles of Camp Garnett, where he permitted Brig. Gen. William S. Rosecrans and approximately 2,000 men to conduct a flanking attack, guided by a 22-year-old local unionist named David Hart. On the afternoon of July 11th, Rosecrans’ men surprised, assailed, and eventually overwhelmed the Confederate rearguard on Hart’s family farm.
Lt. Col. Pegram realized he was nearly surrounded, so he ordered a quick retreat under cover of darkness. He and his men eventually surrendered when they realized they couldn’t escape through the mountains. Three hundred Confederates were killed or wounded at Rich Mountain. In contrast, Union forces sustained 46 casualties.
Battle of Corrick’s Ford
Following defeat at Rich Mountain, Brig. Gen. Robert Garnett attempted to retreat from his camp on Laurel Hill to Beverly, but was misinformed about a Union presence there and fled northeast toward the Cheat River. “They have not given me an adequate force,” Garnett lamented. “I can do nothing. They have sent me to my death.” His words would be prophetic.
On July 13th, Garnett arrived at Corrick’s Ford on the Cheat River with 4,500 men. As they crossed, Thomas Morris’ brigade attacked, and while looking for another route to escape across the river, Garnett was shot and killed. His army abandoned its wagons, cannon, and supplies and fled.
Twenty Confederates were killed or wounded, including Garnett, who was the first general officer to fall in battle during the Civil War. Six hundred went missing and probably deserted. In contrast, Union forces sustained 53 casualties.
In six weeks, Union forces drove the Confederates completely out of northwestern Virginia and destroyed an entire army (albeit a small one). Despite hardly being present at any of the fighting, 34-year-old George B. McClellan was hailed as a hero for his victory and given command of the Military Division of the Potomac on July 26, 1861. He would go on to become one of the most controversial commanders of the war.