160 Years Ago Today: The Battle of Rich Mountain

Soon after Virginia seceded from the Unites States in May 1861 and joined the Confederacy, Union Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, as commander of the Department of the Ohio, invaded western Virginia under the pretext of protecting unionists there. These western counties would later vote to secede from Virginia and form the state of West Virginia.

Following an ignominious Confederate defeat at the Battle of Philippi in early June, Confederate Brig. Gen. Robert S. Garnett fortified two key mountain passes: one through Laurel Mountain leading to Leadsville and the other through Rich Mountain to Beverly. The smaller force, consisting of 1,300 men and four cannon at Camp Garnett in Rich Mountain, was commanded by Lt. Col. John Pegram.

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.

Later, Maj. Nathaniel Tyler of the 20th Virginia Infantry Regiment described what happened:

“The fight began about 11 o’clock and lasted for three hours, when the enemy succeeded in getting to the road between our position and Beverly. Captain De Langel had used with great effect the one piece of artillery sent to him by Colonel Pegram, but when the second cannon arrived the enemy opened such a destructive fire upon it that neither men nor horses could maintain the position. The horses becoming unmanageable ran off and upset the gun and caisson down a precipice, depriving Captain De Langer of all ammunition.”

Pegram realized he was nearly surrounded, so he ordered a quick retreat under cover of darkness. Pegram and Garnett were separated, and Pegram and his men surrendered in the face of starvation in the wilderness. He wrote McClellan:

“Owing to the reduced and almost famished condition of the force now here under my command, I am compelled to offer to surrender them to you as prisoners of war. I have only to ask that they receive at your hands such treatment as Northern prisoners have invariably received from the South.”

McClellan accepted the surrender and gleefully wrote his superiors in Washington:

“I have the honor to inform you that army under my command has gained a decisive victory, which seems to have accomplished the objects of my march. I turned the enemy’s very strong entrenchments on Rich Mountain yesterday with General Rocescrans’ brigade of four regiments and one company of cavalry. He had a spirited action with a large party of the enemy (who had two guns) on the summit of the mountain, captured both guns, and killed a large number of the enemy.”

Three hundred Confederates were killed or wounded at Rich Mountain. In contrast, Union forces sustained 46 casualties at Rich Mountain and up to 53 at Corrick’s Ford. McClellan was widely praised for his victory and was given command of the Military Division of the Potomac on July 26, 1861.

Read primary sources from this dramatic event in American history:

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