Following the Confederate defeat at Rich Mountain in northwestern Virginia, Brigadier General Robert S. Garnett had withdrawn the right wing of his Confederate Army of the Northwest from Laurel Hill. The Confederates 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 the 13th, the Federals caught up to the enemy near Carrick’s Ford about 12 p.m. on a branch of 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. As Garnett was positioning a company to stop the enemy from crossing the river, Federals shot him dead.
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, which McClellan returned to his family. The rest of Garnett’s men retreated toward Monterey, 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.
Meanwhile, 30 miles south of Carrick’s Ford at Beverly, Major General George B. McClellan, the overall Federal commander, accepted Lieutenant General John Pegram’s offer to surrender his 555 Confederates. Pegram commanded Garnett’s left wing that had been routed at Rich Mountain, and his retreat had been cut off by Federals under Brigadier General William S. Rosecrans. Pegram’s men had suffered the worst privations of the war thus far. The 60-hour retreat from Rich Mountain had included just five hours of rest and no food, with many men dropping out of the ranks and finding themselves in hostile country against an overwhelming enemy.
McClellan offered generous surrender terms that included distributing rations, housing the 33 captured officers in the Beverly Hotel, and providing tents for the captured troops. McClellan reported that he had given the captured slaves a choice to either remain with their masters or go north to freedom, and most chose to remain.
The engagement at Rich Mountain and the subsequent operations placed nearly all of northwestern Virginia under Federal control, including the rivers, railroads, and communication lines. McClellan directed one of his forces to move from Grafton to cut the enemy off, but the Confederates escaped the trap and moved southeast in an effort to reach Monterey in Highland County.
McClellan reported to Washington that his men had killed 200 enemy troops and captured another 1,000, figures that were wildly overinflated. He went on: “With the means at my disposal, and such resources as I command in Virginia, if the Government will give me ten thousand arms for distribution in Eastern Tennessee I think I can break the backbone of secession. Please instruct whether to move on to Staunton or on to Wytheville.”
General-in-Chief Winfield Scott worried that McClellan may be moving too quickly, but he congratulated him nonetheless: “The general-in-chief, and what is more, the Cabinet, including the President, are charmed with your activity, valor and consequent successes… We do not doubt that you will in due time sweep the rebels from Western Virginia, but we do not mean to precipitate you, as you are fast enough.” McClellan was instructed to parole his prisoners if they pledged never to take up arms against the U.S. again; officers that had once served in the U.S. Army were to be imprisoned at Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbor.
As news of the Federal success in northwestern Virginia spread, northerners desperate for victory hailed McClellan as a conquering hero. He was referred to in the press as “the Young Napoleon” and “Little Mac.” Rosecrans, who had done most of the planning and execution for this campaign, received minimal coverage. Exceptional at boosting his men’s morale, McClellan issued a stirring proclamation to the Federals at Beverly:
“Soldiers of the Army of the West! I am more than satisfied with you. You have annihilated two armies, commanded by educated and experienced soldiers, intrenched in mountain fastnesses fortified at their leisure… You have proved that Union men, fighting for the preservation of our Government, are more than a match for our misguided and erring brethren… In the future I may still have greater demands to make upon you, and still greater sacrifices for you to offer. It shall be my care to provide for you to the extent of my ability; but I know now that by your valor and endurance you will accomplish all that is asked.”
One of McClellan’s detachments under General Charles Hill continued pursuing the remnants of the Confederate Army of the Northwest, as Hill received intelligence that the enemy was 25 miles southeast of his force near Williamsport. Confederate Major M.G. Harmon reported to General Robert E. Lee, military advisor to Confederate President Jefferson Davis: “Our retreat to Monterey, is disastrous to us.” Harmon told Lee that if the Confederates could hold the Cheat Mountain passes near Huttonsville, they might be able to repulse McClellan’s forces.
When Confederate officials learned of the disasters at Rich Mountain-Laurel Hill-Carrick’s Ford and of Garnett’s death, they placed Brigadier General Henry R. Jackson in temporary command of the remaining 1,300 Confederates who escaped the fighting. General Lee hurried more troops to the region and assigned General William W. Loring to take temporary command. Lee directed Loring to begin offensive operations at his discretion.
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