Monday, July 11, 2011

150 Years Ago: Rich Mountain

Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans, USAImage of General William Rosecrans via Wikipedia

On Thursday, July 11, 1861, the battle of Rich Mountain took place in Randolph County, Virginia (now West Virginia).

Union Major General George McClellan, commanding the Department of the Ohio, had come to western Virginia in late May, occupying Grafton, a key junction on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.  He then sent a detachment to rout a small Confederate force at Philippi on June 3.  He then spent several weeks consolidating his forces and securing the portion of the railroad that ran through this mountainous country.

He was opposed by Brigadier General Robert Garnett who commanded some 5000 men at Beverly, a vital turnpike crossroads.  Garnett had been unable to get reinforcements or recruits from the pro-Union population, and was reduced to staging raids on Union supply lines.

When McClellan was finally ready, he moved forward to take on this force and capture Beverly.  He commanded an imposing force of 20,000, but some 5000 were were scattered throughout the countryside guarding the railroad, bridges and roads.

He found the Confederates entrenched on Rich Mountain and Laurel Mountain, protecting Beverly on the west and north respectively.  He split his force into two columns that marched on the positions in a coordinated advance.  From Philippi, Brigadier General Thomas Morris marched to confront the force at Laurel Mountain.  McClellan, with his principal lieutenant, Brigadier General William Rosecrans, moved from Buckhannon toward Rich Mountain.

Morris was in position on July 7 and engaged the Confederates in a series of small skirmishes over the next few days that convinced Garnett that he would be attacked from the north.  He concentrated most of his men on Laurel Mountain, leaving just 1300 under Colonel John Pegram on Rich Mountain.

Even with an overwhelming advantage, McClellan was hesitant to launch a frontal assault on Rich Mountain.  The Confederates had a strong position and a prisoner had convinced the general that he faced many more men than were actually there.

A young civilian, David Hart, appeared in the Union lines and told Rosecrans of a path that led around the left flank of the Confederate position.  Rosecrans took the young man to McClellan and, after deciding that Hart could be trusted, came up with a new plan.  Rosecrans would take his brigade of 1900 men -- the 8th, 10th and 13th Indiana, and the 19th Ohio Regiments -- south of the Confederate position and attack the Confederates from the rear.  McClellan would wait with the rest of the men and make a frontal assault when Rosecrans launched his assault.

At 5 a.m. on July 11, Rosecrans's force headed off with David Hart in the lead.  It was slow going, taking eight hours to get seven or eight miles through the mountain forest, but Rosecrans finally emerged a mile or two in the rear of the Confederate position.  After a sharp fight that lasted almost two hours, Rosecrans personally led a charge that overwhelmed the Confederates.  McClellan never made the planned frontal assault.

From McClellan's official report:
Headquarters, Department of the Ohio, Rich Mountain, Va., 9 a.m., July 12, 1861.
Col. E. D. Townsend: We are in possession of all the enemy's works up to a point in the right of Beverly. I have taken all his guns, a very large amount of wagons, tents, &c.--everything he had — a large number of prisoners, many of whom were wounded, and several officers prisoners. They lost many killed. We have lost, in all, perhaps twenty killed and fifty wounded, of whom all but two or three were in the column under Rosecrans, which turned the position. The mass of the enemy escaped through the woods, entirely disorganized. Among the prisoners is Dr. Taylor, formerly of the army. Col. Pegram was in command.

Colonel Rosecrans's column left camp yesterday morning, and marched some eight miles through the mountains, reaching the turnpike some two or three miles in rear of the enemy, defeating an advanced post, and taking a couple of guns. I had a position ready for twelve guns near the main camp, and as guns were moving up, I ascertained that the enemy had retreated. I am now pushing on to Beverly, a part of Colonel Rosecrans's troops being now within three miles of it.

McClellan submitted a second report a little later:
Beverly, July 12th, 1861.
Col. E. D. Townsend, Washington, D. C,:
The success of to-day is all that I could desire. We captured six brass cannons, of which one is rifled, all the enemy's camp equipage and transportation, even to his cups. The number of tents will probably reach two hundred, and more than sixty wagons. Their killed and wounded will amount to fully one hundred and fifty, with one hundred prisoners, and more coming in constantly. I know already of ten officers killed and prisoners. Their retreat is complete.

I occupied Beverly by a rapid march. Garnett abandoned his camp early in the morning, leaving much of his equipage. He came within a few miles of Beverly, but our rapid march turned him back in great confusion, and he is now retreating on the road to St. George. I have ordered Gen. Morris to follow him up closely.

I have telegraphed for the two Pennsylvania regiments at Cumberland to join Gen. Hill at Rowlesburg. The General is concentrating all his troops at Rowlesburg, and he will cut off Garnett's retreat near West Union, or, if possible, at St. George.

I may say that we have driven out some ten thousand troops, strongly intrenched, with the loss of 11 killed and 35 wounded. The provision returns here show Garnett's force to have been ten thousand men. They were Eastern Virginians, Tennesseans, Georgians, and, I think, Carolinians. To-morrow I can give full details, as to prisoners, &c.

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