In northwestern Virginia, the 5,000 Federals under Brigadier General Joseph J. Reynolds had been compelled to stay at Cheat Mountain after repulsing a Confederate expedition because torrential rain had turned the roads to mud. But the rains had recently stopped, and now Reynolds resolved to conduct “an armed reconnaissance of the enemy’s position.” The Federals advanced down the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike in the pre-dawn morning of October 3, toward a Confederate force under Brigadier General Henry R. Jackson.
Jackson commanded a detachment of the Army of the Northwest at Camp Bartow, about 12 miles from Cheat Mountain on the southern fork of the Greenbrier River. His 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 Greenbrier 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. The fighting intensified as the 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.”
Reynolds, trying to avoid a frontal assault on the camp, 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 devastating 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. His command was back at 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 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.
Wert, Jeffry D. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.