July 13, 1861 – One Confederate commander surrendered his command, and another became the first general killed in action in the war.
Major General George B. McClellan accepted Lieutenant Colonel John Pegram’s offer to surrender his 555 Confederates. Their retreat had been cut off by Brigadier General William S. Rosecans’s Federals two days earlier. Pegram’s men had suffered the worst privations of the war thus far; their 60-hour retreat from Rich Mountain had included just five hours of rest and no food, with many men dropping from the ranks and finding themselves in predominantly Unionist country against an overwhelming enemy.
McClellan offered Pegram generous terms that included rations, shelter for the 33 captured officers in the Beverly Hotel, and tents for the troops. McClellan reported that he had given the captured slaves a choice to either stay with their masters or go north to freedom, and most chose to stay. McClellan’s superiors directed him to allow officers and men to return home if they pledged never to take up arms against the U.S. again; but officers who had formerly served in the U.S. army would be sent to confinement in Baltimore’s Fort McHenry.
News of the Federal victory at Rich Mountain was telegraphed to Washington from Beverly. McClellan reported that his Federals had killed 200 men and captured 1,000, which were wildly inflated numbers. Even so, the engagement at Rich Mountain and the subsequent operations placed nearly all northwestern Virginia under Federal control, including rivers, railroads, and communication lines.
Newspapers began reporting on these minor victories, and desperate northerners quickly hailed McClellan as a conquering hero, which did little to diminish his ego. General-in-Chief Winfield Scott sent congratulations to the general whom people began calling “the Young Napoleon” and “Little Mac”: “The general in chief, and what is more, the Cabinet, including the President, are charmed with your activity, valor and consequent successes.” Rosecrans, who had done most of the planning and execution of the campaign, received minimal coverage.
McClellan praised his troops in a proclamation: “Soldiers of the Army of the West!… You have annihilated two armies… You have taken five guns, 12 colors, 1,500 stand of arms, 1,000 prisoners… Soldiers! I have confidence in you, and I trust you have learned to confide in me.” He directed one of his forces to move from Grafton to cut off the rest of Brigadier General Robert S. Garnett’s Army of the Northwest.
Garnett’s Confederates withdrew from Laurel Hill and crossed Cheat Mountain with a Federal brigade under Brigadier General Thomas A. Morris in pursuit. Both forces marched hard over harsh terrain in a heavy storm. On July 13, the Federals caught up to the enemy near Corrick’s Ford about 12 p.m. on the Cheat River, 30 miles from Rich Mountain.
Skirmishing occurred as the Confederates crossed the river. The Federals routed the 23rd Virginia, which was acting as a rear guard. When the fire became too heavy, Garnett led a movement to another ford about a mile away and personally directed the crossing on horseback. Once the Confederates reached this second ford, the running skirmish resumed. Federals shot Garnett dead while he was placing a company to stop the enemy from crossing the river.
Word spread among the Federals that a general had been killed. Garnett’s former West Point roommate, Federal Major John Love, identified his body. Garnett became the first general officer killed in combat on either side. Federals recovered the body, and McClellan returned it to his family. The rest of Garnett’s men retreated toward Monterey in Highland County, and Morris halted his pursuit after capturing a cannon and 40 wagons. Federals suffered between 10 and 53 casualties, while Confederates lost about 20 killed or wounded and 50 captured.
Confederate officials at Richmond learned of the disaster at Rich Mountain-Laurel Hill-Corrick’s Ford, as well as Garnett’s death, the next day. Brigadier General Henry R. Jackson took temporary command of the Confederate Army of the Northwest, which now numbered only about 1,300 men. General Robert E. Lee, military advisor to President Jefferson Davis, directed General William W. Loring to take command of the army and begin a new offensive at his discretion.
Meanwhile, a Federal detachment under General Charles Hill continued pursuing the Confederates, as Hill received intelligence that the enemy was 25 miles southeast of his forces near Williamsport. Confederate Major M.G. Harmon reported to General Lee: “Our retreat to Monterey, is disastrous to us.” Harmon told Lee that if the Confederates could hold the Cheat Mountain passes near McClellan’s camp at Huttonsville, they might be able to repulse McClellan’s forces.
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