ELKINS, W.Va. -- It's a pleasant coincidence that the Civil War's first campaign took place amid some of the most magnificent scenery West Virginia has to offer.
Anyone interested in retracing the paths Robert E. Lee, George B. McClellan and their armies carved through the mountains of West Virginia 150 years ago will not only find a number of Civil War sites to explore, but an abundance of landscape vistas to savor.
A new guidebook by Civil War historian Hunter Lesser makes finding West Virginia's 1861 battle sites - many of them located far off the beaten track -- easy to find and learn about.
"The First Campaign: A Guide to Civil War in the Mountains of West Virginia, 1861," serves up three one-day driving tours, each about 100 miles long, staged from Elkins, the region's largest town, which lies at the hub of First Campaign activity.
Lesser, a former U.S. Forest Service archeologist, is the author of a number of Civil War books, including "Rebels at the Gate: Lee and McClellan on the Front Line of a Nation Divided," published in 2004.
"I found out that a number of people were using 'Rebels at the Gate' to try to guide themselves to places mentioned in the book," Lesser said, which gave him the idea of producing a driving guide. The 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the Civil War seemed like a logical time to release the new book.
The guide's first trip takes visits to Philippi, site of the Civil War's first land battle, and Belington, where 4,000 Confederates camped and dug out rifle and artillery pits at Laurel Hill on the outskirts of town. The position was abandoned on July 11, 1861, following several days of skirmishing with Union troops.
Confederate Gen. Robert Garnett, given command of about 5,000 troops to counter a force of nearly 20,000 men led by McClellan, correctly concluded in a letter that the inadequate force assigned him meant that the military leaders in Richmond "have sent me to my death." He was shot and killed on July 13 after crossing Shavers Fork at Corricks Ford, on the outskirts of Parsons - another stop on the guide's first trip -- becoming the first general to die in the war.
The guide's second trip includes sites associated with the July 11 Battle of Rich Mountain, which established McClellan as the Union Army's top officer during the early years of the war.