July 7, 1861 – Heavy skirmishing erupted at the foot of Laurel Hill as Major General George B. McClellan’s Federals prepared to attack Confederate defenders led by Brigadier General Robert S. Garnett.
By this month, Garnett had positioned his Army of the Northwest, the primary Confederate force in northwestern Virginia, at Laurel Hill and Rich Mountain near the town of Beverly. Garnett had no more than 4,500 effectives to face an advancing force of 12,000 Federals under McClellan.
Garnett submitted a somber report on the 1st, warning his superiors that “with the railroad running across my entire front, I have become satisfied that I cannot operate beyond my present position with any reasonable expectation of substantial success, with the present force under my command, and deem it my duty to state the fact.” Garnett’s troops were “in a most miserable condition as to arms, clothing, equipment, and discipline.” Moreover, he had gained only eight local recruits because “these people are thoroughly imbued with an ignorant and bigoted Union sentiment.”
That same day, Major General Robert E. Lee, military advisor to President Jefferson Davis, wrote to Garnett informing him that a few thousand men in some infantry companies and two cavalry companies would be sent to Beverly to reinforce him. They were to guard the passes where the main roads ran from the Shenandoah Valley to Wheeling and Parkersburg. Lee complimented Garnett on his defenses and reminded him that “the rupture of the railroad at Cheat River (near Rowlesburg) would be worth to us an army.”
McClellan’s Federals arrived at Buckhannon, eight miles west of Laurel Hill, on July 2. They had marched 25 miles in two days. As McClellan moved on from Buckhannon, he received a message from his brigade commander at Philippi, Brigadier General Thomas A. Morris. Morris requested reinforcements to face a potential enemy threat. McClellan reluctantly sent him the 6th Ohio “on temporary duty with you until the crisis has passed.” And since the troops could probably “be employed to more advantage at other points, this is all the re-enforcement I can now spare.”
McClellan also told Morris that “if 4,000 (nearly) of our men, in a position selected and fortified in advance, with ample time to examine the ground carefully and provide against any possible plan of attack, are not enough to hold the place against any force these people can bring against it, I think we had better all go home at once.” He then warned Morris that if he “cannot undertake the defense of Philippi with the force now under your control, I must find some one who will… Do not ask for further re-enforcements. If you do, I shall take it as a request to be relieved from your command and to return to Indiana. I have spoken plainly. I speak officially.”
In a letter to his wife, McClellan called Morris “a timid old woman.” He had no better words for Brigadier General William S. Rosecrans, another subordinate, calling him a “silly fussy goose.” On July 5, McClellan reported his progress against Garnett to the War Department: “The delays I have met have been irksome to me in the extreme, but I feel that it would be exceedingly foolish to give way to impatience and advance before everything is prepared.”
Meanwhile, Garnett informed Lee that he believed the Federals were probably finished occupying territory in northwestern Virginia. Lee disagreed: “I do not think it probable that the enemy will confine himself to that portion of the northwest country which he now holds, but, if he can drive you back, will endeavor to penetrate as far as Staunton. Your object will be to prevent him, if possible, and to restrict his limits within the narrowest range, which, although outnumbered, it is hoped by skill and boldness you will accomplish.” McClellan’s advance prevented Garnett from receiving this message.
McClellan placed two Ohio volunteer regiments under Colonel Robert L. McCook in the lead, and they came up to two of Garnett’s regiments on Laurel Hill. McClellan planned to simultaneously move his three other brigades toward the enemy at nearby Rich Mountain. Despite receiving reinforcements, Garnett wrote to Lee still expressing doubt that he could defend against the advancing Federals.
As McCook’s Federals probed Garnett’s defenses at the foot of Laurel Hill on the 7th, McClellan had Morris move his 4,000 Federals toward Laurel Hill as well to deceive Garnett into thinking the main attack would be there. McClellan’s real attack would be against Rich Mountain. Skirmishing continued intermittently for the next four days as a full-scale battle loomed.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, William C., First Blood: Fort Sumter to Bull Run (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 89; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 42-43; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 2651-63; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 299-300; Smith, Dean E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 538; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 426