Federals and Confederates coveted the western Virginia region for its extensive salt and lead works, coal mines, niter deposits, and some gold and silver mines. Brigadier General Jacob D. Cox’s Federal brigade held Gauley Bridge, which effectively controlled the important Kanawha River Valley. Cox faced two main Confederate threats:
- Brigadier General Henry A. Wise, former Virginia governor, commanded his “Legion” at Hawks Nest, east of Gauley Bridge.
- Brigadier General John B. Floyd, former Virginia governor and U.S. secretary of war, commanded his 2,000-man Army of the Kanawha at Carnifex Ferry, a strategic crossing on the northern bank of the Gauley River, northeast of Cox.
Cox feared that Floyd and Wise would launch a coordinated attack on his positions from the north and east. Luckily for Cox, the Confederate forces were about 17 miles apart. More importantly, Floyd and Wise detested each other, which made coordinating their efforts nearly impossible.
Brigadier General William S. Rosecrans, the overall Federal commander in western Virginia, was leading three Ohio brigades totaling about 6,000 men from Clarksburg to reinforce Cox at Gauley Bridge. But to get there, Rosecrans had to push through Floyd at Carnifex Ferry. Floyd learned that Rosecrans was heading his way and asked Wise for reinforcements. Wise, unwilling to break up his Legion, sent Floyd just a token force. Wise also warned Floyd not to camp with his back to the river, but the advice went ignored.
Rosecrans’s Federals occupied Summersville, about 10 miles north of Carnifex Ferry, on the morning of the 10th. Local Unionists informed Rosecrans where Floyd had stationed his troops, and Rosecrans resolved to either “whip or pass” Floyd to reach Cox. The Federals advanced to Cross Lanes by 1 p.m., scouted the area, then continued forward around 2:30.
Floyd had his troops positioned on a bend in the Gauley River. The right flank was anchored at the river, the center (which included the road to Carnifex Ferry) was protected by artillery, and the left flank was open. Cliffs and the river were in the Confederate rear. Floyd thought the position was impregnable and did not order his men to build a bridge in the rear in case of emergency. Colonel Henry Heth, one of Floyd’s subordinates, built a rope bridge anyway.
As the Federals advanced into the woods, their visibility was obstructed until the Confederates fired into them. The Federals wavered, but one bullet from their modest return fire hit Floyd in the arm. Rosecrans ordered all his men forward, determined to take the Confederate breastworks by frontal assault. The mass Federal attack occurred just before nightfall and dislodged the Confederates’ right flank from the river. The Federals captured many supplies, but darkness prevented them from breaking the enemy line. Rosecrans fell back, planning to renew the assault the next day.
Floyd regrouped his men in a strong defensive line at the ferry and awaited another attack. However, Heth advised him that the Confederate left flank, being open, would be vulnerable to a renewed assault. Floyd, who seemed bewildered by combat and his wound, sent orders for Wise to reinforce him, but then opted to retreat without informing Wise. The Confederates used the ferry and Heth’s rope bridge to cross the river, destroying both after crossing to prevent a Federal pursuit. They headed south to link with Wise’s Legion.
Wise received Floyd’s order to reinforce him on the morning of the 11th. The Legion was halfway to Carnifex Ferry when Wise received another message ordering him to return to his original position and await the arrival of Floyd’s army. Floyd and Wise met at Dogwood Gap, where Floyd still seemed perplexed by the previous day’s events. He issued no further orders for the time being.
Meanwhile, Rosecrans learned of Floyd’s retreat and settled his troops in Floyd’s old camp until they were able to cross the river in pursuit. The engagement at Carnifex Ferry cost the Federals 17 killed and 141 wounded, while the Confederates lost 20 men. The Confederates held against the Federal assaults, but Floyd’s retreat made this a minor Federal victory. Rosecrans’s Federals struggled to cross the river after the Confederates had destroyed all the ferries, boats, and bridges. They finally joined with Cox’s forces in late September. Rosecrans was given command of the new Federal Department of Western Virginia.
By the 13th, Floyd’s Confederates were at Dogwood Gap, near Wise’s Legion at Hawks Nest. The commanders maintained separate camps even though their forces were now joined at the Big Sewell Mountain. Floyd set up camp atop the mountain, while Wise camped a mile and a half further east on a bluff that he believed was a stronger position.
Wise actually received more blame for this setback than Floyd because of his persistent reluctance to join forces with Floyd’s army. This engagement tightened the Federal grip on western Virginia, and responsibility for breaking that grip devolved to the other Confederate force in the region, led by General Robert E. Lee to the north.
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