Chapter XIV - General Garnett's Retreat

History of Hampshire County West Virginia From Its Earliest Settlement to the Present
By Hu Maxwell and H. L. Swisher
Morgantown, West Virginia; A. Brown Boughner Printer; 1897

PART 1 State History
Pages 174-181

Colonel Porterfield was relieved of his command by General Garnett, June 14, 1861, and the military affairs of northwestern Virginia were looked after by Garnett in person. The Richmond government and the Southern Confederacy had no intention of abandoning the country beyond the Alleghanies. On the contrary, it was resolved to hold it at all hazzards; but subsequent events showed that the confederates either greatly underestimated the strength of McClellan's army, or greatly overestimated the strength of their own forces sent against him. Otherwise, Garnett, with a force of only eight thousand, would not have been pushed forward against the lines of an army of twenty thousand; and that, too, in a position so remote that Garnett was practically isolated from all assistance from the south and east. Reinforcements numbering about two thousand men were on the way from Staunton to Beverly, at the time of Garnett's defeat; but had these troops reached him in time to be of service, he would still have had only half as large a force as that of McClellan opposed to him. Military men have severely criticised General Lee for what they regard as a blunder in thus sending an army to almost certain destruction, with little hope of performing any service to the confederacy.

Had the confederates been able to hold the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, the disaster attending General Garnett's campaign would probably not have occurred. With that road in their hands, they could have thrown soldiers and supplies into Grafton and Clarksburg within ten hours from Harper's Ferry. They would thus have had quick communication with their base of supplies, and an open way to fall back when compelled to do so. But they did not hold the Baltimore and Ohio road, and their only practicable route into western Virginia, north of the Kanawha was by wagon roads across the Alleghanies, by way of the Valley of Virginia. This was a long and difficult route by which to transport supplies for an army; and in case that army was compelled to retreat, the line of retreat was liable to be cut by the enemy, as it actually was in the case of Garnett.

On July 1, 1861. General Garnett had about four thousand five hundred men. The most of them were from eastern Virginia and the states further south. A considerable part of them were Georgians who had recently been stationed at Pensacola, Florida. Reinforcements were constantly arriving over the Alleghanies, and by July 10, he had eight thousand men. He moved northward and westward from Beverly and fortified two points on Laurel hill, one named Camp Rich Mountain, five miles west of Beverly, the other fifteen miles north by west, near Belington, in Barbour county. These positions were naturally strong, and their strength was increased by fortifications of logs and stones. They were only a few miles from the outposts of McClellan's army. Had the confederate positions been attacked from the front, it is probable that they could have held out a considerable time. But, there was little in the way of flank movements, and when McClellan made his attack, it was by flanking. General Garnett was not a novice in the field. He had seen service in the Mexican war; had taken part in many of the hardest battles; had fought Indians three years on the Pacific coast, and at the outbreak of the civil war he was traveling in Europe. He hastened home; resigned his position in the United States army, and joined the confederate army, and was almost immediately sent into West Virginia to be sacrificed.

While the confederates were fortifying their positions in Randolph and Barbour counties, the union forces were not idle. On June 22 General McClellan crossed the Ohio river at Parkersburg. The next day at Grafton he issued two proclamations, one to the citizens of West Virginia, the other to his soldiers. To the citizens he gave assurance again that he came as a friend, to uphold the laws, to protect the law abiding, and to punish those in rebellion against the government. In the proclamation to his soldiers he told them that he had entered West Virginia to bring peace to the peaceable and the sword to the rebellious who were in arms; but mercy to disarmed rebels. He soon began to concentrate his forces for an attack on Garnett. He moved his headquarters to Buckhannon on July 2, to be near the center of operations. Clarksburg was his base of supplies, and he constructed a telegraph line as he advanced, one of the first, if not the very first military telegraph line in America. From Buckhannon he could move in any desired direction by good roads. He had fortified posts at Webster, Clarksburg, Parkersburg and Grafton. Eight days later he had moved his headquarters to Middle Fork, between Buckhannon and Beverly, and in the meantime his forces had made a general advance. He was now within sight of the confederate fortifications on Rich mountain. General Morris, who was leading the advance against Laurel Hill, was also within sight of the confederates. There had already been some skirmishing, and all believed that the time was near when a battle would be fought. Lieutenant John Pegram, with thirteen hundred confederates, was in command at Rich Mountain; and at Laurel Hill General Garnett, with between four thousand and five thousand men, was in command. There were about two thousand more confederates at various points within a few miles.

After examining the ground McClellan decided to make the first attack on the Rich Mountain works, but in order to divert attention from his real purpose, he ordered General Morris, who was in front of General Garnett's position, to bombard the confederates at Laurel Hill. Accordingly shells were thrown in the direction of the confederate works, some of which exploded within the lines, but doing little damage. On the afternoon of July 10 General McClellan prepared to attack Pegram at Rich Mountain, but upon examination of the approaches he saw that an attack in front would probably be unsuccessful. General Rosecrans, who was in charge of one wing of the forces in front of the confederate position, met a young man named Hart, whose father lived two miles in the rear of the rebel fortifications, and he said he could pilot a force, by an obscure road, round the southern end of the confederate lines and reach his father's farm, from which an attack on Pegram in the rear could be made. The young man was taken to General McClellan and consented to act as a guide. Thereupon General McClellan changed his plan from attacking in front to an attack in the rear. He moved a portion of his forces to the western face of Rich Mountain, ready to support the attack when made, and he then dispatched General Rosecrans, under the guidance of young Hart, by the circuitous route, to the rear of the confederates. General Rosecrans reached his destination and sent a messenger to inform General McClellan of the fact, and that all was in readiness for the attack. This messenger was captured by the confederates, and Pegram learned of the new danger which threatened him, while McClellan was left in doubt whether his troops had been able to reach the point for which they had started. Had it not been for this perhaps the fighting the next day would have resulted in the capture of the confederates.

Colonel Pegram, finding that he was to be attacked from the rear, sent three hundred and fifty men to the point of danger, and built the best breastworks possible in the short time at his disposal. When Rosecrans advanced to the attack he was stubbornly resisted, and the fight continued two or three hours, and neither side could gain any advantage. Pegram was sending down reinforcements from the mountain when the union forces made a charge, and swept the confederates from the field. Colonel Pegram went up the mountain and collected several companies and prepared to renew the attack. It was now late in the afternoon of July 11. The men were panic stricken, but they moved forward, and were led around the mountain within musket range of the union forces that had remained on the battle ground. But the confederates became alarmed and fled without making an attack. Their forces were scattered all over the mountain, and night was coming on. Colonel Pegram saw that all was lost, and determined to make his way to Garnett's army, if possible, about fifteen miles distant, through the woods. He commenced collecting his men and sending them forward. It was after midnight when he left the camp on the summit of Rich mountain, and set forward with the last remnants of his men in an effort to reach the confederate forces on Laurel Hill. The loss of the confederates in the battle had been about forty-five killed and about twenty wounded. All their baggage and artillery fell into the hands of the union army. Sixty-three confederates were captured. Rosecrans lost twelve killed and forty-nine wounded.

The retreat from Rich mountain was disastrous. The confederates were eighteen hours in groping their way twelve miles through the woods in the direction of Garnett's camp. Near sunset on July 12, they reached the Tygart river, three miles from the Laurel Hill camp, and there learned from the citizens that Garnett had already retreated and that the union forces were in hot pursuit. There seemed only one possible avenue of escape open for Pegram's force. That was a miserable road leading across the mountains into Pendleton county. Few persons lived near the road, and the outlook was that the men would starve to death if they attempted to make their way through. They were already starving. Accordingly, Colonel Pegram that night sent a flag of truce to Beverly, offering to surrender, and at the same time stating that his men were starving. Early the next morning General McClellan sent several wagon loads of bread to them, and met them on their way to Beverly. The number of prisoners surrendered was thirty officers and five hundred and twenty-five men. The remainder of the force at Rich Mountain had been killed, wounded, captured and scattered.

It now remains to be told how General Garnett fared. The fact that he had posted the greater part of his army on Laurel Hill is proof that he expected the principal attack to be made on that place. He was for a time deceived by the bombardment directed against him, but he was undeceived by the sound of cannon at Rich Mountain, and later he learned that Colonel Pegram had been defeated, and that General McClellan had thrown troops across Rich Mountain and had successfully turned the flank of the confederate position. All that was left for Garnett was to withdraw his army while there was yet time. His line of retreat was the pike from Beverly to Staunton, and the union forces were pushing forward to occupy that and to cut him off in that direction. On the afternoon of July 12, 1861, Garnett retreated, hastening to reach Beverly in advance of the union forces. On the way he met fugitives from Pegram's army and was told by them that McClellan had already reached Beverly, and that the road in that direction was closed. Thereupon Garnett turned eastward into Tucker county, over a very rough road. It is now believed that the union forces had not reached Beverly at that time, and that Colonel Pegram's fugitives had mistaken retreating confederate cavalry for union troops. In Captain A. J. Smith's history of the 31st Virginia (confederate) regiment, it is stated that the reason why Garnett turned eastward was because confederate cavalry had blockaded the Beverly pike. Whether this was the case or whether McClellan had reached Beverly, retreat in that direction had been cut off. General Morris pursued the retreating confederates over the mountain to Cheat river, skirmishing on the way. General Garnett remained in the rear directing his skirmishers; and on July 14, at Corrick's Ford, where Parsons, the county seat of Tucker county, has since been located, he found that he could no longer avoid giving battle. With a few hundred men he opened fire on the advance of the pursuing army and checked the pursuit. But in bringing off his skirmishers from behind a pile of driftwood, Garnett was killed and his men were seized with panic and fled, leaving his body on the field, with a score or more of dead.

Up to this point the retreat had been orderly, but it soon became a rout. The roads were narrow and rough, and the excessive rains had rendered them almost impassible. Wagons and stores were abandoned, and when Horse Shoe run, a long and narrow defile leading to the Red House, in Maryland, was reached information was received that union troops from Rowlesburg and Oakland were at the Red House, cutting off retreat in that direction. The artillery was sent to the front. A portion of the cavalry was piloted by a mountaineer along a narrow path across the Backbone and Alleghany mountains. The main body continued its retreat to the Red House. A union force had reached that point, but retreated as the confederate front came within hearing about two o'clock on the morning of July 15. The army pursued its way unmolested across the Alleghanies and proceeded to Monterey. Two regiments marching in haste to reinforce Garnett at Laurel Hill, had reached Monterey when news of Garnett's retreat was received. The regiments halted there, and as Garnett's stragglers came in they were reorganized.

The union army made no pursuit beyond Corrick's Ford, except that detachments followed to the Red House to pick up the stores abandoned by the confederates. Garnett's body fell into the hands of the union forces and was prepared for burial and sent to Richmond. It was carried in a canoe to Rowlesburg, on the Baltimore and Ohio railroad thirty miles below, on Cheat river, in charge of Whitelaw Reid, who had taken part in the battle at Corrick's Ford. Reid was acting in the double capacity of correspondent for the Cincinnati Gazette and an aid on the staff of General Morris. When Rowlesburg was reached Garnett's body was sent by express to Governor Letcher, at Richmond.

This closed the campaign in that part of West Virginia for 1861. The confederates had failed to hold the country. On July 22 General McClellan was transferred to Washington to take charge of military operations there. In comparison with the greater battles and more extensive campaign later in the war, the affairs in West Virginia were small. But they were of great importance at the time. Had the result been different, had the rebels held their ground at Grafton, Philippi, Rich Mountain and Laurel Hill, and had the union forces been driven out of the state, across the Ohio, the outcome would have changed the history of the war, but probably not the result.

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