October 3, 1861 – In western Virginia, Brigadier General Joseph J. Reynolds’s 5,000 Federals abandoned their supply base at Cheat Mountain to attack about 1,800 Confederates under Brigadier General Henry R. Jackson on the southern fork of the Greenbrier River.
Reynolds began leading his troops down the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike in the pre-dawn morning of October 3. The Federals had been compelled to remain in their positions at Cheat Mountain after repulsing a Confederate expedition because torrential rain had turned roads to mud. But the rains had recently stopped, and now Reynolds resolved to conduct “an armed reconnaissance of the enemy’s position.”
General Jackson commanded a portion of the Confederate Army of the Northwest at Camp Bartow, 12 miles away. Jackson’s force totaled no more than 1,800 men in six regiments; the rest of the army had gone south with General William W. Loring to reinforce Confederates on Big Sewell Mountain. The Federal vanguard clashed with Confederate pickets around dawn; the pickets fell back and alarmed their comrades, who fell back across the river. Reynolds positioned his Federals for an attack as they approached the enemy camp around 7 a.m.
The forces skirmished as Federal artillery trained on Jackson’s center. Fighting intensified as Confederate artillery responded. An Indiana soldier called “the storm of shot and shell traversing mid air not more than 50 feet from our heads… at once terribly grand and terrific.”
Seeking to avoid a frontal assault on the camp, Reynolds directed a movement against the Confederate left. A Federal brigade forded the river around 9:30 and attacked, but the Confederates held firm and pushed the Federals back across the river. The artillery duel then resumed, during which a surgeon hoisted a white flag over a makeshift field hospital instead of the customary yellow flag. Reynolds sent a messenger to see if the Confederates were surrendering, but a colonel told the messenger, “Go back and shoot your damn guns!”
Federal officers urged Reynolds to commit all his men to the fight. Reynolds, certain that such an attack would fail, instead directed troops to attack the Confederate right. However, Jackson shifted his defenses to meet the threat. Four Federal regiments scaled a hill and were met by withering canister fire. As the Federal lines melted away, Reynolds decided that he could not capture Camp Bartow.
Unable to turn either flank, Reynolds ordered a withdrawal around 1 p.m., returning to Cheat Mountain by nightfall. The 13 Federal cannon had fired 11,000 rounds, virtually destroying the Confederate camp. Nevertheless, casualties were light, with Federals sustaining 44 (eight killed and 36 wounded) and Confederates losing 52 (six killed, 33 wounded, and 13 missing). With winter approaching, this effectively ended active operations for the year in western Virginia.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 70; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 323-24