160 Years Ago Today: The Battle of Belington or Laurel Hill

Following an ignominious Confederate defeat at the Battle of Philippi in early June, Robert E. Lee’s adjutant general, 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.

They faced over 20,000 men of Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan‘s Army of the West.

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.

McClellan wrote Morris:

“Occupy Belington by a strong advanced guard, and place a strong detachment to cover the paths leading from the rebel camp to the flank of your position. From this position push out strong infantry reconnaissances, to ascertain the exact position, condition, and movements of the enemy. Watch them closely day and night. Have everything ready to pursue them should they retreat, and follow them up closely in that event. Make extended reconnaissances, calculated to give the impression that the main attack is to be made by you, and use all efforts to retain them in their present position.”

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 a dozen or two on either side. Confederate forces held out until the 11th, when they slipped away under cover of night to avoid being surrounded. The battle was technically a draw, but defeat at Rich Mountain on July 11 compelled Garnett to abandon his fortified camp at Laurel Hill.

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