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Chapter 12: West Virginia.

Prior to 1861, the State of Virginia--the “Old Dominion” --extended from Chesapeake Bay westward to the Ohio River. This broad limit, however, gave her a defective boundary. The Alleghany Mountains, running through the very middle of the State, from northeast to southwest, completely bisected her territory into two divisions somewhat unequal in size, and greatly different in topographical features and character. East of the mountains, the land rises from a broad, low tide-water belt on the sea-coast, in a tolerably regular gradation of plains and plateaus, first to the Blue Ridge, then to the main Appalachian chain; west of the dividing crest, the country retains its mountainous characteristics, a succession of ridges and a medley of hills, till it reaches the Ohio River. Not alone through earlier settlement, but also by reason of climate, soil, and situation, East Virginia remained the region of large plantations, heavy slave population, and profitable agriculture, especially in production of tobacco; West Virginia, on the other hand, became the home of hunters, pioneers, lumbermen, miners, and in latter times the seat of a busy manufacturing industry-developing a diversified agriculture for local consumption, rather than the production of great staples for export. With preponderant population and wealth, East Virginia [138] absorbed political power, and selfishly laid and expended taxes to her local advantage, so that West Virginia was made to stand in the relation of a tributary province, rather than an integral and equally favored part of the commonwealth.

So too grew up essential differences in social tradition and aspiration. The tide-water population developed family estates, pretentious manor-homes, aristocratic exclusiveness, ancestral pride-peculiarities which could not thrive in hunters' camps, or the shanties of miners and lumbermen. The whole world over, and in all ages, mountain and forest life has bred a spirit of self-reliance, of personal independence, of the recognition of individual equality, and rights of simple manhood.

More than anything else, however, the system of slavery antagonized the two sections of the State. By the census of 1860, East Virginia contained 472,494 slaves; while West Virginia, with half as much free population, embraced a total of only 18,371 slaves. It is therefore not surprising that secessionism was rampant in the east, and that unionism prevailed in the west. Of the 55 final votes against the secret Ordinance of Secession in the Virginia Convention, 32 were cast by the West Virginia delegates, 14 others were contributed from other mountain counties; the populous plains and lowlands of the east supplied only 9. As in other parts of the South, the fungus of treason grew rankest in the hotbeds of the heavy slave counties; the poison of conspiracy infected the centres of accumulated wealth, of inherited family pride, of over-fattened political ambition; it was the Tylers, the Wises, the Floyds, the Masons, who, stuffed to repletion with political benefits, turned with ungrateful hearts to destroy the temple of government, wherein as selfish and hypocritical priests they had conducted a dissembling and perverted worship. [139]

While the Convention of Virginia was carrying on its eccentric and fluctuating political intrigues under guise of public deliberation, one of the West Virginia members offered resolutions making a somewhat startling, but entirely germane application of the heretical theory of secession. “The right of revolution,” he wrote, “can be exercised as well by a portion of the citizens of a State against their State government, as it can be exercised by the whole people of a State against their Federal Government.” “And that any change of the relation Virginia now sustains to the Federal Government, against the wishes of even a respectable minority of her people, would be such an act of injustice perpetrated upon the rights of that minority as to justify them in changing their relation to the State Government by separating themselves from that section of the State that had thus wantonly disregarded their interests and defied their will.”

The conspirators in the convention wilfully shut their eyes to the pertinency of this logic, but among the people of West Virginia it remained a quick and pervading principle of action. The Convention at Richmond passed its secret Ordinance of Secession on April 17th; within a week popular movements were already on foot in the towns and populous counties of West Virginia, looking to a division of the State. Numerous causes contributed to this result. Political jealousy and injustice, though a powerful influence, was not everything. Geography had already ordained separation by a formidable mountain-barrier. Her people felt themselves an integral part of the Great West. They responded to the impulse of its commercial ambition, its material development, its expansive business energy. Wheeling aspired to rival Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, not Richmond. They acknowledged neither tobacco nor cotton as kings; [140] lumber, coal, iron, salt, petroleum, were their candidates for supremacy in trade. Their commerce followed their streams into the Ohio. The Mississippi Valley was a broader market than the Atlantic sea-coast. Their business reached out for St. Louis, St. Paul, and Denver, as well as Memphis and New Orleans.

The effort, therefore, of the tide-water slaveholding aristocrats to carry them into a cotton confederacy, met an instantaneous and almost unanimous protest. The proposition was hardly a subject for discussion. To secede from secession was the common wish and determination. The only question was how to put their negative into effective operation. Rapid popular organization followed; the Government at Washington was appealed to, and promised countenance and support; and on May 13th, delegates from twenty-five counties met at Wheeling to consult and devise further action whereby they might fully and finally repudiate the treasonable revolt of East Virginia.

Circumstances favored their design. Under President Lincoln's call, the large and populous State of Ohio, West Virginia's nearest neighbor, was organizing thirteen regiments of three months volunteers. This quota entitled her to a major-general; and to this important command Governor Dennison appointed a young officer of thorough West Point training and varied experience-Captain George B. McClellan. He was also a personal favorite of General Scott, who had such confidence in his ability that he soon (May 3d) placed him in command of the Military Department of the Ohio, created to include the three States of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, with headquarters at Cincinnati, and to which West Virginia was not long after attached. The blockade of Washington, and other incidents, had served to keep Western quotas of troops on the Ohio line, and the [141] Unionists of West Virginia thus found a substantial military force at once in their immediate vicinity, with a commanding officer instructed to give them encouragement and support, and carefully studying the possible opportunities of service in their midst.

Although the convention proceedings must have made the Richmond authorities acquainted with the prevailing union sentiment of West Virginia, it is probable that they did not anticipate a general disaffection; not only did Governor Letcher's proclamations for State militia include that section with apparent confidence, but he at an early day despatched officers there to collect and organize it. Relatively, population was sparse and the country mountainous and hilly; there were, therefore, two principal localities, or lines of transit, travel, and business, where concentration could be best effected-one the line of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, the other the valley of the Great Kanawha River-and to these districts Governor Letcher sent his agents. Discouraging reports were, however, soon returned: that feeling was very bitter; that union organizations existed in most of the counties; that that section of the State was “verging on actual rebellion.” Fragments of rebel companies were indeed here and there springing up, but it became evident that no local force sufficient to hold the country would respond to the Confederate appeal. On the other hand, the open disaffection, and the ominous gathering of forces at several points along the Ohio side of the river, pointed to a short tenure of Confederate authority.

The Richmond officials were, however, unwilling to lose their control without a struggle, and, in default of local military support, determined to maintain themselves with forces from East Virginia. To that end they now sent a [142] few available companies, with some extra arms and supplies, from Staunton at the southern end of the Shenandoah Valley, by the Staunton and Parkersburg turnpike, a tolerably direct route, over the mountains, a distance of seventy-five to a hundred miles to Beverly, from which point they might menace and overawe Grafton, the junction of the main stem of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad with its branches to Parkersburg and Wheeling.

But the reaction against secession, the reawakening of union feeling, the growth and organization of the party which favored a permanent division of the State, largely outran all the conspirators' efforts and measures. Counter-revolution being positive and aggressive, was not only stronger, but more active than the revolution which had given it birth and opportunity. The inhabitants showed more alacrity to take up arms for the Government than for Letcher and Lee. A West Virginia regiment, formed by Colonel Kelly to fight for the Union, gathered recruits more rapidly at Wheeling, than the rebel camps which Colonel Porterfield had been sent to command and concentrate between Beverly and Grafton.

It will be remembered that the Richmond Convention had appointed the 23d of May (that being also a general election for members of the Legislature) as the day on which the people of Virginia should vote to ratify or reject the Ordinance of Secession. A curiously sophistical and pharisaical argument and appeal, published by Senator Mason in behalf of ratification, shows conclusively that the conspirators were in great apprehension lest their treason should be repudiated at the polls. But, with the State transformed to a camp, and filled with Jefferson Davis' “foreign” regiments, the result could hardly be in doubt. Under complete military domination, East Virginia [143] voted to ratify; West Virginia, comparatively free, voted to reject the Secession Ordinance.

This event both justified and sustained the movements of the West Virginia Unionists and the Government. If General McClellan had needed any further reasons for an active military interference, they were furnished by the fact that Porterfield began burning bridges on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Realizing that delay was becoming dangerous, and prompted by directions from Washington, McClellan, on the 26th, ordered two regiments to cross the river at Wheeling, and two others at Parkersburg, and to simultaneously move forward by the branch railroads from each of these points to their junction at Grafton. Owing to the necessity of repairing burnt bridges, their progress was cautious and slow. This gave ample time for Porterfield to become fully informed of the movement; whereupon he retired with his small command, stores and spare arms, to Philippi, on a country road, about fifteen miles directly south of Grafton, hoping to find there a secure retreat about which to gather a sufficient force to return and more thoroughly cut, harass, or control, the railroad.

But the Union forces, being in superior numbers, and assisted with ready information by friendly local sentiment, gave the rebels little respite. General McClellan had forwarded additional regiments to Grafton, with Brigadier-General Morris, an educated West Point officer, to command; and he now adopted and completed an expedition already projected before his arrival by Colonel Kelly, who, with his West Virginia regiment, had a thorough knowledge of the country. Under pretence of an advance on Harper's Ferry, Colonel Kelly, at the head of about two regiments, started eastward by rail on the morning of June 2d; that evening a similar detachment under Colonel Dumont started westward; [144] both columns, however, soon left the cars, and by different roads began a rapid march southward against Philippi. A furious rain-storm during the night greatly impeded, but also completely concealed, their unexpected advance. They arrived on opposite hills commanding the town, almost simultaneously at daylight of June 3d, though, by a mistake of the proper route, not in a position to cut off retreat. Here they found Porterfield's command, something over a thousand strong, carelessly awaiting the arrival of morning and the abatement of the storm, to begin a retreat which the rebel officers had informally resolved on the previous evening. The surprise was complete, and the attack so sudden and sharp as to force the rebels to disperse in utter rout and disorganization. Their loss in killed and captured was small, owing to the fatiguing night march which left the Union troops too thoroughly exhausted to make pursuit.

The complete success of this first dash at the enemy not only had the happiest effect in inspiriting the Union troops, but it also encouraged and fortified the West Virginia Unionists in their political scheme of forming a new State. On the day after the “Philippi races,” as the skirmish was facetiously nicknamed, a previously concerted agreement to elect delegates was carried out. These, representing about forty counties lying between the crest of the Alleghanies and the Ohio River, met in a formal convention at Wheeling, on June 11th. Its first step (June 13th), was to repudiate the treasonable usurpations of the Richmond Convention and Governor Letcher, to pronounce their acts without authority and void, and to declare as vacated all executive, legislative, and judicial offices in the State held by those “who adhere to said convention and Executive.” The second step was the adoption of an ordinance (June 19th) reorganizing the State government. On the following day the convention [145] appointed F. H. Pierpoint Governor, with an advisory council of five, to wield executive authority. A legislature was constituted by calling together, on July 1st, at Wheeling, such members chosen at the election of May 23d as would take a prescribed oath of allegiance to the United States and the restored government of Virginia, and providing for filling the vacancies of those who refused. A similar provision continued or substituted other State and county officers. After adding sundry ordinances of urgent necessity to this groundwork of restoration, the convention on the 25th took a recess till August. The Legislature, however, met according to call, and took up the difficult task of devising legal enactments suitable to the revolutionary crisis; and on July 9th, it chose two United States Senators, who, four days later, were admitted and took part in the national legislation.

So far, the work was simply a repudiation of secession, and a restoration of the usurped government of the whole State. But the main motive and purpose of the counterrevolution was not allowed to halt or fail. In August the Wheeling Convention reassembled, and on the 20th adopted an ordinance creating the new State of Kanawha, and providing for a ratifying popular vote to be taken on the question in the following October. It is not the province of this volume to follow further the political transformation of the “Old Dominion,” thus inaugurated, except to add that the proposed “State of Kanawha” became the “State of West Virginia,” and was duly admitted to the Union about two years later.

Governor Peirpoint, the head of the provisional government thus organized at Wheeling, made a formal application under the Constitution, to the Government of the United States, for aid to suppress rebellion and protect the [146] people against domestic violence; and in furtherance of this object General McClellan ordered additional forces into the State from his Department. Local enlistments had also by this time increased West Virginia's own contingent to three regiments under his command. In addition to affording protection to Union sentiment, this military occupation was designed to insure the safety of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, not alone of Grafton as a strategical point, but also of the valuable railroad bridge across the Cheat River, and numerous important tunnels in the mountains immediately east of it. The precaution was nowise superfluous; for the Rebel Government had some weeks before ordered a special expedition to destroy them and permanently break this important line of communication. General Lee still had his eye on such a possibility, and wrote to his new commander, under date of July 1st, “the rupture of the railroad at Cheat River would be worth to us an army.”

To effect this, and to hold West Virginia-or at least to prevent the Union forces from penetrating through the mountains in the direction of Staunton — the rebel authorities now sought to repair the Philippi disaster by sending two new commanders to that region Ex-Governor Henry A. Wise, invested with the rank of brigadier-general, to the Kanawha Valley, and General Garnett, formerly a major in the Federal Army, to Beverly, to gather up and reorganize the debris of Porterfield's command, which they also took immediate measures to reinforce.

Garnett, arriving near the end of June, found that Porterfield had retreated across an outlying mountain range into the Cheat River Valley, in which Beverly is situated. The turnpike from Staunton to Beverly is the central and principal mountain route within a long distance, both to the north and to the south. From Beverly northwestward the [147] turnpike branches, one line going to Buckhannon through a pass over Rich Mountain, the other going to Philippi through a pass in the same range, but which is there named Laurel Hill, the latter being some seventeen miles farther north. “I regard these two passes,” wrote Garnett, “as the gates to the northwestern country.” Here, then, he proposed to fortify himself, to forage on the country beyond, and to leisurely watch his chance of breaking the railroad. His circumstances were not the most favorable. The troops which he found at Huttonsville on his arrival were “in a miserable condition as to arms, clothing, equipments, instruction, and discipline.” “The Union men,” he also wrote, “are greatly in the ascendancy here, and are much more zealous and active in their cause than the Secessionists. The enemy are kept fully advised of our movements, even to the strength of our scouts and pickets, by the country people, while we are compelled to grope in the dark as much as if we were invading a foreign and hostile country.” Nevertheless, he began a vigorous reorganization; Lee immediately sent him reinforcements. In a short time he had Colonel Pegram established in the pass at Rich Mountain, with a regiment and six guns, while he himself held the pass at Laurel Hill with three or four regiments, leaving a detachment at Beverly.

This was the situation when, early in July, General McClellan resolved to take the offensive and drive the rebels from West Virginia. He had arrived on the scene of action about the same time with Garnett; and though he had a largely preponderating force in the State, it was considerably depleted by the local garrisons necessary to protect the railroad, and to give confidence to Unionists in exposed towns. For the immediate work in hand General Morris had five or six regiments at Philippi, confronting Garnett; McClellan [148]

Field of the West Virginia battles.

[149] directed him to take an advanced position within two miles of the enemy's works at Laurel Hill, to give an impression that he intended the main attack, and to be ready to pursue, should they retreat.

Meanwhile McClellan himself moved to Buckhannon with some seven regiments, with the design of turning the enemy's position on Rich Mountain. On the evening of July 9th he pushed forward to Roaring Creek, two miles from Pegram's entrenched camp. A reconnoissance on the 10th showed the enemy strongly posted in a mountain defile, where, with the large force he was supposed to have, a direct attack in front could only be made at great sacrifice. That evening Brigadier-General Rosecrans proposed a plan to turn the position, and McClellan (with some reluctance, it is said) permitted him to attempt it.

At daylight of July 11th, Rosecrans, with portions of four regiments — a total of nineteen hundred men-set out, and, amid a well-nigh continuous rain-storm, by eleven o'clock cut and climbed their way through a pathless forest and thicket to the very crest of Rich Mountain. Their ascent was made south of the turnpike, while Pegram was expecting the attempt on the north. To guard against either contingency, however, as his own camp and entrenchments were near the west base of the mountain, Pegram had sent a detachment of three hundred and ten men and two guns back to where the turnpike crosses the summit, two miles in his rear. There, at the farm of a man named Hart, they had scarcely had time to throw up some slight entrenchments for their guns, when Rosecrans' force, advancing toward the road from the south, encountered them. The rebels made a plucky resistance, but the Unionists had such advantage in numbers that the contest was quickly decided. “We formed at about three o'clock,” reports Rosecrans, “under cover of [150] our skirmishers, guarding well against a flank attack from the direction of the rebels' position, and after a brisk fire which threw the rebels into confusion, carried their position by a charge, driving them from behind some log breastworks, and pursued them into the thickets on the mountain. We captured twenty-one prisoners, two brass six-pounders, fifty stand of arms, and some corn and provisions. Our loss was twelve killed and forty-nine wounded.” He also places the reported burials of the rebels killed at one hundred and thirty-five, with about twenty wounded.

McClellan had moved all his force up to Pegram's front, and was waiting to begin a direct assault when he should learn that Rosecrans had commenced the attack on the rear. But Rosecrans' fight on the very top of Rich Mountain disconcerted the arrangement. The messenger sent to communicate between McClellan and himself rode unsuspectingly up to a rebel picket-guard, and was captured. McClellan waited all day in vain for the rear attack to begin; for when the engagement on the mountain was over, the day was already so far advanced, and Rosecrans' men were so thoroughly worn out with their toilsome ascent preceding the fight, that it was deemed most prudent to go into bivouac on the field of battle. McClellan was not informed of the fight and its result until the following day, July 12th, when it was also ascertained that the whole rebel camp and position had been precipitately evacuated; he was therefore now able, not only to secure their abandoned guns and supplies, but to push without opposition along the turnpike entirely over the mountain and occupy Beverly.

Pegram had, on the 11th, personally gone to the mountain-top-only, however, to witness the defeat and dispersion of his little detachment. Seeing himself thus in a trap, with McClellan in front and Rosecrans in secure possession [151] of the road behind him, he returned to his camp, and spiking his four guns, abandoned his camp and equipage and undertook to escape, with the remainder of his command-about six hundred men-by marching northward along the mountain to join Garnett at Laurel Hill. For the moment he succeeded in eluding both the Federal commanders, and after a laborious eighteen hours march over an almost impassable route, found himself within three miles of Leedsville. Here, however, he received news that Garnett had also retreated, and that a strong Union column was in pursuit. Thus he was once more caught between two Union armies; and seeing no further avenue of escape, he that night, July 12th, sent a proposal of surrender to General McClellan, who, on the following morning (July 13th), received Pegram and his command, a total remainder of five hundred and sixty men and thirty-three officers, as prisoners of war, at Beverly, where the half-famished rebel fugitives were only too glad to once more receive comfortable quarters and rations.

The earliest fugitives who escaped from the battle of Rich Mountain, on the afternoon of July 11th, carried the news of that disaster to Beverly, enabling the rebel regiments stationed there to retreat southward, and also, as is probable, communicating the intelligence to Garnett at Laurel Hill. That officer, already seriously threatened by General Morris in his immediate front, thereupon perceived that his position was no longer tenable, and ordered an immediate retreat. When Garnett reached Leedsville on the afternoon of the 12th, and heard that McClellan was at Beverly, he saw that his own further retreat to the south was also cut off. There was now no resource left but to adopt the rather desperate alternative of turning to the north and attempting to reach St. George and West Union by a rough and difficult mountain road. His command of thirty-three hundred men [152] and cumbrous trains thereby necessarily became very much scattered and disorganized. Although he had some fifteen hours the start of the Union pursuit, an column of three Federal regiments, led by Captain Benham of the Engineers, gained rapidly on the fugitives. Notwithstanding every effort of the rebels to impede them by felling trees in the narrow mountain defiles, the Union advance came up with their wagon-train at Carrick's Ford, one of the crossings of Cheat River, twenty-six miles northwest of Laurel Hill, about noon of July 13th. Here Garnett in person faced about his rear-guard (a single regiment, according to the rebel report), and taking post on a favorable and precipitous elevation of the right river bank, fifty to eighty feet high, planted three guns to command the ford and approaching road, and prepared to defend his retreat.

Steedman's regiment, with two guns, was leading the Union advance, and came up on the low, narrow approach, within close musket-range, before they discovered the rebel line. A brisk engagement at once ensued, and the other two regiments soon arrived. Owing to the restricted space, Milroy's regiment was obliged to take position where it could only deliver an oblique fire and at a greater distance. Dumont's regiment was thereupon ordered to advance and scale a difficult height in order to turn the enemy's left flank. Two companies had well-nigh gained the coveted position, when Benham received a mistaken report that the ascent was impracticable. He therefore ordered Dumont to return, to march his regiment along the very base of the hill on which the rebels were posted, to their right flank, and make the ascent there. The manoeuvre was gallantly executed, and scarcely had Dumont begun mounting the height, when the rebel line broke and fled, abandoning one of their guns.

Retreat and pursuit were once more commenced; and at [153] the next ford, perhaps a quarter of a mile farther on, there occurred an interchange of desultory skirmish-fire between small parties of sharpshooters, in which Garnett himself was killed.

At this result the Federals abandoned further pursuit, satisfied with the capture of the baggage-train, one gun, two stands of colors, and fifty prisoners; the casualties being thirteen killed and forty wounded of the Federals, and twenty killed and ten wounded of the rebels. McClellan had ordered yet another column to be gathered up along the railroad to intercept the flying enemy at West Union; but no substantial result followed the effort, and the remainder of Garnett's command escaped.

Counted according to mere numbers, the battles of Rich Mountain and Carick's Ford fall into a ridiculous insignificance in contrast with the great battles of the rebellion during the next three years. Hundreds of engagements, of greater magnitude and much more serious loss of life, preceded or followed the main contests of the war, of which history will hardly make a note. But this petty skirmish with three hundred rebels on Rich Mountain, and this rout of a little rear-guard at Carrick's Ford, were speedily followed by large political and military results. They closed a campaign, dispersed a rebel army, recovered a disputed State, permanently pushed back the military frontier. They enabled McClellan to send a laconic telegram, combining in one report1 the scattered and disconnected incidents of [154] three different days and happening forty miles apart, which (without exaggerating literal truth except as to the Union losses and number of prisoners) gave such a general impression of professional skill and achievement as to make him the hero of the hour, and which started a train of circumstances that, without further victories, made him General-in-Chief of all the Armies of the United States, on the first day of November following.

McClellan's campaign in West Virginia ends with the death of Garnett and the dispersion of his army. About a week afterward he was called to a new field of duty at Washington City. There is not room in this volume to further describe military operations in West Virginia during the remainder of the year 1861. Various movements and enterprises occurred under command of Wise, Floyd, and Lee, on the rebel side; and under Cox, Rosecrans, Milroy, and other gallant officers of the Union army. With somewhat fluctuating changes, the rebels were gradually forced back out of the Great Kanawha Valley; and the aggregate result left West Virginia in possession of the Federal troops, her own inherent loyalty having contributed largely to this condition. The union sentiment of the people was everywhere made more and more manifest, and the new State government was consolidated and heartily sustained, ending, as has already been mentioned, by her ultimate admission as a separate member of the Federal Union, in June, 1863.


Garnett and forces routed; his baggage and one gun taken: his army demoral-ized; Garnett killed. We have annihilated the enemy in Western Virginia, and have lost thirteen killed, and not more than forty wounded. We have in all killed at least two hundred of the enemy, and their prisoners will amount to at least one thousand. Have taken seven guns in all. I still look for the capture of the remnant of Garnett's army by General Hill. The troops defeated are the crack regiments of Eastern Virginia, aided by Georgians, Tennesseeans, and Caro-linians Our success is complete, and secession is killed in this country.

Geo. B. Mcclellan, Major-General Commanding.

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