Battle of Carnifex Ferry (September 10, 1861)

Updated: November 18, 2017

The Battle of Carnifex Ferry took place in Nicholas County, Virginia (now West Virginia) on September 10, 1861. The Union victory left western Virginia under the control of Federal troops and contributed to the formation of the new state of West Virginia.

As the possibility of civil war in the United States evolved during the early months of 1861, Virginia was a divided state. Led by residents of the eastern part of the state, Virginia voted to secede from the Union rather than accede to President Lincoln's call for each state to provide volunteer soldiers to put down the insurrection that began at Fort Sumter in April. Having little in common with their neighbors to the east, residents of the mountainous area of western Virginia initiated their own movement to secede from Virginia and to remain in the Union.

During the summer of 1861, Union and Confederate forces struggled for control of western Virginia. The area was of considerable importance because gaps in the Appalachian Mountains connected the East to the Midwest. The Virginia Militia acted quickly, disrupting traffic on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and taking control of turnpikes through the mountains. The Union government countered by sending 20,000 troops into the area under the command of Major General George B. McClellan. McClellan's forces pressed the Confederate troops in the area throughout the summer and fall, gradually driving the Rebels out of the region, paving the way for the creation of the new State of West Virginia in October 1861, although the federal government did not recognize West Virginia as a formal state until June 1863.

On June 3, Union troops commanded by Brigadier General Thomas A. Morris surprised a Confederate encampment at Philippi, Virginia and scored a Union victory in what generally is considered as the first significant land engagement in the eastern theater of the American Civil War. On the night of July 10, Brigadier General William Rosecrans led 2,000 men on a march through the mountains, flanking a Rebel stronghold at Rich Mountain. His surprise attack on the Confederate rear the next day sent the Rebels into disarray. The Union victory at the Battle of Rich Mountain forced the Confederates to concede more territory to the Federals.

Following Garnett's death, Confederate officials transferred General Robert E. Lee to western Virginia to coordinate Rebel forces in the region. Lee would later emerge as one of the South's greatest generals, but even he could not salvage the Confederate situation in western Virginia.

On the Union side, President Lincoln summoned McClellan to the White House and offered him command of the Military Division of the Potomac. McClellan's departure left Brigadier General William S. Rosecrans in command of McClellan's forces operating in western Virginia. Brigadier General Joseph J. Reynolds was placed in direct command of the Federal force in Tygart Valley.

In late July, Union Brigadier General Jacob D. Cox led his "Kanawha Brigade" of Ohio Volunteer Regiments into western Virginia and forced Confederate forces out of the Kanawha River Valley. Confederate Brigadier General John B. Floyd countered by crossing the Gauley River with 2,000 soldiers on August 26, 1861 and routing Colonel Erastus Tyler's 7th Ohio Regiment encamped at Kessler's Cross Lanes. Floyd then withdrew to the river and established a defensive position, known as Camp Gauley, at Carnifex Ferry.

In early September, Rosecrans assembled a Union force of approximately 7,000 soldiers and marched on Floyd's soldiers at Camp Gauley. The leading elements of Rosecrans' force came into contact with Floyd's men near Carnifex Ferry after noon on September 10. Before Rosecrans was able to concentrate his troops for engagement, a battle erupted. Rosecrans spent the remainder of the day sending in his brigades one at a time as they arrived at the battlefield, allowing the outnumbered Confederates to repulse the piecemeal Union attacks. When the fighting ended that night, Floyd chose to withdraw rather than face Rosecrans' fully assembled force the next day. The following morning, Union troops occupied Camp Gauley without incident.

Rosecrans sustained a much higher casualty rate than Floyd (158 to 20) at the Battle of Carnifex Ferry, but the Rebel retreat further weakened the Confederacy's influence in western Virginia. By late October, Northern forces and Union sympathizers had firm control of the region. On October 24, 1861, residents of thirty-nine counties in western Virginia approved the formation of the new state of West Virginia.

Ohio units that participated in the Battle of Carnifex Ferry included:

Infantry units:

6th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

9th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

10th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

12th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

13th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

23rd Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

28th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

30th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

47th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

Cite this Entry

MLA Style

"Battle of Carnifex Ferry," Ohio Civil War Central, 2017, Ohio Civil War Central. 16 Dec 2017 <http://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=633>

APA Style

"Battle of Carnifex Ferry." (2017) In Ohio Civil War Central, Retrieved December 16, 2017, from Ohio Civil War Central: http://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=633

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