After the decisive defeat of Confederate forces on June 3, 1861, at Philippi, Brig. Gen. Robert S. Garnett, the new Confederate commander, established two defensive positions, at Laurel Hill and Rich Mountain, near present Elkins. Suspecting that the 20,000 Union troops under Gen. George B. McClellan would strike the naturally weaker Laurel Hill fortification, Garnett took 3,200 men there, leaving Col. John Pegram and 1,300 men to defend Rich Mountain.
In fact, McClellan did the opposite, sending a diversionary force to Laurel Hill while he marched with three brigades to Rich Mountain. While Brig. Gen. William S. Rosecrans, guided by local Unionist David Hart, made a wide flanking movement, McClellan took a position in front of the Confederate lines to complete a pincer movement. Pegram’s Confederates resisted but were soon forced to give way, most of them eventually surrendering to the Yankees. Learning of Pegram’s defeat at Rich Mountain, Garnett abandoned Laurel Hill. False information convinced him that his line of retreat along the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike was cut off, and he began an arduous and circuitous retreat toward Red House, Maryland. In a rear-guard action at Corricks Ford, Garnett was shot and killed, the first general to die in the Civil War.
The Battle of Rich Mountain was fought July 11, 1861. Despite the relatively small number of troops involved, the battle had two important results. First, the victor, General McClellan, would be given command of the Army of the Potomac for the next two years. More significantly for our state’s history, trans-Allegheny Virginia was to all intents and purposes lost to the Southern cause, helping to clear the way for the formation of West Virginia on June 20, 1863.
The Rich Mountain Battlefield was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992.
Read the National Register nomination.
Written by Jack Wills
Stutler, Boyd. West Virginia in the Civil War. Charleston: Education Foundation, 1966.
Cox, Jacob D. "McClellan in West Virginia," in Robert Johnson & Clarence Buel, eds, Battles and Leaders of the Civil War. vol. 1. New York: Century Co., 1884-87.