As citizens across the North reeled at news of the Union Army’s debacles at Big Bethel and Bull Run in June and July 1861, they could at least be consoled by good news coming out of western Virginia. As the war began, control of that region’s ample resources was critical to both sides. Stretching from the Allegheny Mountains to the Ohio River—and comprising about a third of the mammoth Old Dominion—it stood not only as one of the nation’s leading producers of coal and lead, but also of salt. At least two other factors troubled Jefferson Davis’s Confederate government in Richmond, however. Western Virginia provided a natural barrier to potential Union invasions of the fertile Shenandoah Valley, and many Southerners feared losing territory that had been part of the state for 85 years would be a tragic symbolic blow.
It was no secret western Virginia’s residents were primarily Unionist, identifying economically more with the small farms and industrial communities of the Ohio Valley and the North than with the slave-dependent planter class to the south and east. The Lincoln administration quickly recognized that and sent needed resources to the region while also establishing a military presence. Perhaps Lincoln’s biggest concern was making sure the B&O and Northwestern Virginia railroads—key commerce and troop transport arteries between Harpers Ferry and the Ohio River cities of Wheeling and Parkersburg— continued to run smoothly. Confederate operatives had already burned several B&O bridges.
The Union response to the B&O threat opened what became a six-month campaign for western Virginia. Leading the way for the Federals was a brash, 34-year-old West Pointer, Maj. Gen. George McClellan, commander of the Department of Ohio. McClellan wasted no time organizing an army to take control of the situation. Over the next two months, Little Mac’s forces dominated, recording impressive victories at Grafton, Philippi, Laurel Hill, Rich Mountain and Corrick’s Ford. McClellan so impressed Lincoln, in fact, that he was called to Washington in late July to revive the Army of the Potomac after Bull Run.
McClellan left the Army of Western Virginia in capable hands. Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans’ legacy would be ruined at Chickamauga two years later, but at this stage of the war he performed with the steadiness of a seasoned veteran. Other notables were Brig. Gen. Jacob D. Cox, Brig. Gen. Thomas A. Morris and future President Rutherford B. Hayes, a major in the 23rd
The same could not be said for some Confederate commanders, particularly political generals John Buchanan Floyd and Henry A. Wise. The two former Virginia governors disliked each other so much that they refused to cooperate, even when collaboration might well have meant victory. And though Floyd had been President James Buchanan’s secretary of war, he showed minimal military aptitude. “I discovered [he] was as incapacitated for the work he had undertaken as I would have been to lead an Italian opera,” mocked a subordinate, Col. Henry Heth.
While the Federals surged to victories at Laurel Hill and Rich Mountain in mid-July, Cox was tasked with clearing Rebels from the Kanawha Valley to the south. Despite a slip-up at the Battle of Scary Creek on July 17, he ultimately succeeded, aided somewhat by Wise’s ineptitude.
The Rebels twice tried to re-establish themselves in the Kanawha Valley. Floyd had initial success in late August–early September, managing a surprise victory over Col. Erastus Tyler at Kessler’s Cross Lanes on August 26, but he suffered a hard-fought, tactical defeat to Rosecrans two weeks later at Carnifex Ferry. His second attempt fizzled in November, and western Virginia remained in Union hands for the rest of the war.
Had Floyd pushed to exploit his Cross Lanes triumph, it might have made a difference. But, concerned by supply shortages, he pulled back to the Gauley River and entrenched on what he felt was a strong defensive front near the Carnifex Ferry crossing. Rosecrans was determined to blunt the Rebels’ momentum and headed after Floyd with three brigades on September 3. After defeating Floyd, he planned to join Cox in Charleston to crush any remaining Rebel threats.
Rosecrans’ men reached Muddlety the evening of September 9 and began moving again early the next morning, still unsure where the Rebels were camped. Covering 18 miles that day, they finally ran into Floyd at about 3:15 p.m. The 10th Ohio, part of Gen. Henry Benham’s 1st Brigade, was well in advance and sustained the Rebels’ powerful opening barrage on its own. The 10th’s colonel, William H. Lytle, was wounded as he ordered the regiment forward, but continued to relay orders while lying on the ground. The eventual arrival of the 13th Ohio and two artillery units helped stabilize the Federals’ situation.
The battle lasted four hours, with neither side gaining a clear advantage. Darkness and steep terrain foiled a final Federal attempt to turn the Rebels’ right flank. Floyd remained defiant that his undersized army had won the battle, but conceded about 8 p.m. that the Union artillery was too strong and ordered a retreat across the Gauley, hoping to unite with a force commanded by Robert E. Lee pushing west from Lewisburg.
The loss at Carnifex Ferry ended any realistic Confederate hopes in the Kanawha Valley. Fighting continued for two months, but the die had been cast. West Virginia was officially granted statehood in the Union on June 20, 1863.
Chris Howland is a senior editor for America’s Civil War.
Originally published in the September 2014 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.