Civil War's first campaign battle sites made accessible in new guidebook
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.
At the base of Rich Mountain, the trenches and earthen walls that surrounded the 1,300 Confederate troops at Camp Garnett are still visible in the woods. In the battlefield atop the mountain, where nearly 300 Confederates and 46 federal troops were killed or wounded, large sandstone boulders bear inscriptions carved by veterans of the battle.
Other stops on the second tour include Elkwater, where Union troops, including future president Rutherford Hayes, camped during the Battle of Cheat Mountain, and where Gen. Robert E. Lee's aide-de-camp, John A. Washington, a descendant of the first president, was killed by Union gunfire.
The third driving tour includes a stop at Cheat Mountain Summit, or Camp Milroy, where, at an elevation of 4,000 feet, Union troops established a fort along the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike that Lee and his troops failed to capture in September 1861. Lee's failure here led to his vilification in the Southern press, from which he received such nicknames as "Granny Lee" for his indecisive leadership early in the war.
Earthworks are still visible at Cheat Summit, as they are at another stop on the tour, Camp Allegheny -- a Confederate bastion about 15 miles to the east, atop another 4,000-foot mountain crossed by the old turnpike. There are trenches, firing pits for artillery pieces and the foundations of cabins used to house Confederate troops who fought off both a Union attack and hypothermia in December of 1861.
"These early battles facilitated West Virginia statehood," said Lesser. "The great issues dividing North and South in 1861 also divided Virginia. So it was fitting that the first campaign of the Civil War would be fought here, in the mountains of 'western' Virginia."
Lesser said many of West Virginia's seldom-visited Civil War encampment and battle sites are fairly well preserved, with Rich Mountain, Camp Bartow and Camp Allegheny among the most pristine.
"If you're interested in the Civil War, you can only go to places like Gettysburg and Antietam so many times without seeing the same thing over and over," Lesser said. "When you visit these untrammeled sites, there's an air of mystery and a sense of discovery that you don't get at a place that's peppered with signs and monuments. There's better scenery, too."
"The First Campaign: A Guide to Civil War in the Mountains of West Virginia, 1861," published by Quarrier Press of Charleston, retails for $15.95. It is available in selected bookstores or through West Virginia Book Company at 304-342-1848 or www.wvbooks.com.
Reach Rick Steelhammer at email@example.com or 304-348-5169.