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 War.”
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.