On July 11, 1861, Union troops under General George B. McClellan score another major victory in the struggle for western Virginia at the Battle of Rich Mountain. The Yankee success secured the region and ensured the eventual creation of West Virginia.
Western Virginia was a crucial battleground in the early months of the war. The population of the region was deeply divided over the issue of secession, and western Virginia was also a vital east-west link for the Union because the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad ran through its mountains.
After McClellan scored a series of small victories in western Virginia in June and early July, Confederate General Robert Garnett and Colonel John Pegram positioned their forces at Rich Mountain and Laurel Hill to block two key roads and keep McClellan from penetrating any further east. McClellan crafted a plan to feign an attack against Garnett at Laurel Hill while he sent the bulk of his force against Pegram at Rich Mountain.
Part of McClellan’s force, led by General William Rosecrans, followed a rugged mountain path to swing around behind the Rebels’ left flank. McClellan had promised to attack the Confederate front when he heard gunfire from Rosecrans’s direction. After a difficult march through a drenching rain, Rosecrans struck the Confederate wing. It took several attempts, but he was finally able to drive the Confederates from their position. McClellan shelled the Rebel position, but did not make the expected assault. Each side suffered around 70 casualties.
Pegram was forced to abandon his position, but Rosecrans was blocking his escape route. Two days later, Pegram surrendered his force of 555. Although McClellan became a Union hero as a result of this victory, most historians agree that Rosecrans deserved the credit. Nonetheless, McClellan was on his way to becoming the commander of the Army of the Potomac.
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