The first real battle in West Virginia during the American Civil War. The area had little in common with the rest of Virginia, and once the state voted for secession West Virginians began to campaign for their own separate state. Meanwhile Union troops had entered the state to restore control over the crucial Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, the main rail link between Washington and the West. The small Confederate force blocking the railroad had been forced to retreat, first to Philippi where they were surprised on 4 June. Their retreat now took them to Beverly, twenty five miles further south, on the pass back into the Shenandoah Valley.
The Union forces in West Virginia were now commanded by General George McClellan. He now commanded 20,000 troops, of whom 12,000 were free to move against the Confederate forces at Beverly. There the Confederates had managed to scrape together an army 4,500 strong, commanded by Robert S. Garnett. Garnett had posted most of his men in the passes west of Beverly, with the largest contingent at Laurel Mountain to the north of the town, and a smaller force of 1,300 posted on Rich Mountain, to the west.
McClellan also split his army in two, leaving 4,000 men to pin Garnett in place at Laurel Mountain, and taking three brigades (8,000 men strong), to attack the Rich Mountain position. Much of the energy behind this campaign actually came from General Rosecrans. He now persuaded McClellan to adopt his plan for a flank attack. His plan showed the advantage of having local support – it involved the use of a path revealed to him by a local unionist. Rosecrans would take one brigade along this path, and attack the Confederate position from the flank, and then once the Confederates were fully engaged, McClellan would move with the remaining two brigades to complete the victory.
Rosecrans’s part of the battle went according to plan. Unfortunately, McClellan produced a characteristic performance. Hearing the sound of battle, he became convinced that Rosecrans was losing. Some commanders would have rushed his men into the attack in an attempt to restore the situation, but not McClellan. Instead he sat and did nothing, while Rosecrans went on to win the battle.
At the cost of 60 casualties, Rosecrans forced the Confederates into another retreat. The Confederates lost 170 men at Rich Mountain, and another 500 captured during the pursuit. Garnett’s 4,000 men were now trapped between two Union armies, and were forced into a desperate retreat north east across the mountains, with the Union forces in pursuit. The next day they were forced to fight at Corrick’s Ford, where Garnett became the first civil war general to be killed in battle.
Rich Mountain did not secure West Virginia for the Union. Robert E. Lee was sent to West Virginia, and given 20,000 men to drive the Union men out of Virginia. However, this did not lead to the first clash between Lee and McClellan. On 22 July 1861, George McClellan was summoned from West Virginia to take command of the Union army that had just been defeated at the First Battle of Bull Run.