The first land battles of America’s Civil War took place in the Tygart Valley of present-day West Virginia. One of those contests—the Battle of Laurel Hill—is celebrated annually with a vivid re-enactment of the baptism by fire of north and south.
Newspaper headlines across the country screamed word of events from western Virginia in June and July 1861. Here Union troops under General George B. McClellan advanced on Confederates in the first land battles of the Civil War at Philippi, Laurel Hill, Rich Mountain and Corricks Ford.
On June 3, 1861,
Confederate forces at Philippi were surprised by a dawn artillery
bombardment, and fled so swiftly that their retreat became the “Philippi
Races.” Philippi went into history as the “first land battle of the Civil
Confederate General Robert S. Garnett now took command in western Virginia, seizing vital turnpike passes at Rich Mountain and Laurel Hill. Garnett established headquarters at Laurel Hill, awaiting reinforcements as he fortified that stronghold to halt the advance of Union troops in the Tygart Valley.
On July 11, 1861, within earshot of Laurel Hill, Union General McClellan’s troops won a decisive battle at Rich Mountain. General Garnett abruptly found his army cut off at Laurel Hill. In a desperate bid to escape, he retreated east along a rugged mountain trace to Corricks Ford on Shavers Fork of Cheat River.
At that swollen river crossing, Garnett was killed while defending the rear guard of his army—the first general to fall in action during the Civil War. His remnant force abandoned huge quantities of equipment and fled, demoralized.
The action at Laurel Hill played an important role in McClellan’s rise to fame as the “Young Napoleon,” and helped secure western Virginia for the Union. These first land battles resulted in Union control of western Virginia for virtually the duration of the Civil War.
Seizure of important transportation routes made it difficult to supply Confederate units throughout the conflict. The Union presence also ensured the safety of leaders who met in Wheeling to launch a new state—destined to become West Virginia on June 20, 1863.
The battlefields of Philippi, Laurel Hill, Rich Mountain and Corricks Ford were soon forgotten. But the political effect of these small mountain actions was enormous. Virginia was cleaved in two, and a unique government loyal to the Union was created as a model for other border states. General McClellan’s rise to stardom—based on his success in these first land battles—shaped the course of the Civil War.
In 1993, the Congressional Civil War Sites Advisory Commission gave “Priority I” status to Rich Mountain Battlefield, one of 50 battlegrounds with a “crucial need” for preservation. Camp Laurel Hill, Rich Mountain’s sister battlefield, deserves similar protection. Community leaders are actively engaged in protecting the remains of trenches, rifle pits and artillery positions that can still be traced. The historic landscape is surprisingly intact, a rich panorama of meadow and woodlots. The setting is not unlike that of 1861, when armies dueled here and the fate of America hung in the balance.
For a map locating the historical elements on modern features, click HERE.