Following the Federal victory at Philippi on the 3rd, Federal troops entered Philippi and ransacked the town. They captured the Confederate headquarters flag and destroyed the offices of the secessionist newspaper, the Barbour Jeffersonian. Major General George B. McClellan, commanding the Department of the Ohio which encompassed all Federals in western Virginia, had three main objectives:
- Protect the Unionists who dominated western Virginia’s populace;
- Protect the vital Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in the region;
- Open an invasion route through the Shenandoah Valley into eastern Virginia.
McClellan would personally command the column at Philippi, and Brigadier General Jacob D. Cox would lead the second column, which would move up the Great Kanawha Valley farther south and target Staunton in the Shenandoah Valley.
Residents of the Kanawha Valley were more secessionist than the western Virginians to their north. Colonels John McCausland and Christopher Tompkins had spent the past month recruiting men into the Virginia militia, but there was concern that no more secessionists could be rallied to stop Cox’s impending invasion. Consequently, President Jefferson Davis summoned former Virginia Governor Henry A. Wise to Richmond and gave him a brigadier general commission.
Wise was to “proceed, with the force placed at your disposal, by the most speedy route of communication, to the valley of the Kanawha,” and “rally the people of that valley and the adjoining counties to resist and repel the invading army.” Wise had no military training, and his only military experience had been his role in securing Harpers Ferry and the Norfolk Navy Yard in April. Nevertheless, Davis hoped that Wise’s popularity as a politician would rally Virginians in that region to resist the Federals. Wise’s first move was to raise a force at Staunton; his command would soon become known as the Army of the Kanawha.
Meanwhile, the Confederates who had been defeated at Philippi were losing confidence in their commander, Colonel George A. Porterfield. One officer informed Virginia Governor John Letcher that Porterfield “is entirely unequal to the position which he occupies.” The inexperienced troops had not been trained well enough to anticipate the attack at Philippi, and this officer charged that Porterfield was responsible. Success in northwestern Virginia depended “upon an immediate change of commanders, and giving the command to a bold and experienced leader.”
Porterfield was mildly reprimanded for his role in the “Philippi Races.” Major General Robert E. Lee, overall commander of Virginia forces, ordered Robert S. Garnett to lead a force to Porterfield’s camp at Beverly. Garnett received a brigadier general commission and was assigned to replace Porterfield as commander of the new Confederate Army of the Northwest. Militia from seven counties were ordered to join up with Garnett, giving him about 5,000 men. Garnett was also authorized to recruit volunteers, but because the region was so heavily Unionist, he recruited just 23 men. Garnett had no illusions of success; before leaving for Beverly, he had confided to an officer: “They have not given me an adequate force. I can do nothing. They have sent me to my death.”
Garnett took command at Huttonsville on the 14th. He reported having only 23 infantry companies, which were “in a miserable condition.” Two days later, his Confederates seized Laurel Hill, the northeast extension of Rich Mountain. These two peaks, separated by the Tygart River Valley, comprised the western range of the Alleghenies and formed the gateway into northwestern Virginia. Garnett divided his force between Laurel Hill and Rich Mountain and entrenched at both points. He blocked the roads from the northwest with felled trees and raided the communication lines of McClellan’s numerically superior Federals.
McClellan’s main force was at Grafton. An 800-man detachment consisting of Colonel Lew Wallace’s 11th Indiana Zouaves was at Cumberland, Maryland, and Major General Robert Patterson’s Army of the Shenandoah was stationed further east near Hagerstown, Maryland. McClellan thought the Confederates would threaten Cumberland, so he asked General-in-Chief Winfield Scott to order Patterson to reinforce Wallace.
As McClellan prepared to leave his Cincinnati headquarters to take personal command at Grafton, Scott replied: “I do not credit the existence of any formidable Rebel force in the mountains to disturb Wallace, and have so said to Patterson.” Scott then wrote to Patterson: “McClellan is again alarmed for the safety of Wallace. I do not believe there is any formidable force in the mountains to assail Wallace, and sooner than be annoyed with these daily rumors it would perhaps be better to call him (Wallace) to you and absorb him.”
At this time, only a portion of General Joseph E. Johnston’s army under Colonel A.P. Hill was near Wallace, with the rest of Johnston’s forces placed between Martinsburg and Winchester, mostly at Bunker Hill. The 1st Brigade under Colonel Thomas J. Jackson received orders to seize the vital railroad depots at Martinsburg to keep them from falling into Federal hands. Jackson’s men were on the march by 5 p.m. on the 19th and continued moving into the evening.
Patterson’s Federals remained around Harpers Ferry, protecting laborers trying to repair the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad bridge, which had been destroyed by Johnston’s retreating Confederates. Patterson would not advance into Virginie because he had received intelligence that Confederates were operating across the Potomac from Williamsport.
After Johnston had abandoned Harpers Ferry, he received word from Confederate Adjutant General Samuel Cooper:
“The movements of the enemy indicate the importance he attaches to the possession of the Valley of Virginia, and that he has probably seen the power he would acquire if left free to do so, by advancing as far as Staunton and distributing his forces so as to cut off our communication with the west and south, as well as to operate against our Army of the Potomac (at Manassas Junction), by movements upon its lines of communications, or attacking upon the reverse, supplying himself at the same time with all the provisions he may acquire in the Valley of the Shenandoah, enabling him to dispense with his long line of transportation from Pennsylvania. Every thing should be destroyed which would facilitate his movements through ‘the Valley.’”
- Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), The Coming Fury: Centennial History of the Civil War Book 1. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1961.
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- Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee. Scribner, (Kindle Edition), 2008.
- Johnston, Joseph E., Narrative of Military Operations During the Civil War. Sharpe Books, Kindle Edition, 2014.
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- Wert, Jeffry D. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.