Discussion The Battle of Rich Mountain: The True History

Moe Daoust

Jun 11, 2018
The following is an article that I've written, which was never published, on the controversy surrounding George B. McClellan at Rich Mountain. I'd greatly appreciate comments being restricted to the events at Rich Mountain.

The Battle of Rich Mountain: The True History

By Maurice D’Aoust

In his April,1865 testimony before the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War (JCCW), William S. Rosecrans accused George B. McClellan of neglect and outright cowardice during the 1861 Battle of Rich Mountain. At the end of his testimony, Rosecrans made an interesting reference to "sundry reports of this battle, at variance in many material points with its true history as here given [italics added]."1 Upon close examination, it becomes overwhelmingly clear that Rosecrans's "true history" could not be further from the truth.

Following the rebel rout at Philippi, (West) Virginia in June 1861, Confederate general Robert S. Garnett attempted to secure northwestern Virginia against Federal incursion by deploying Colonel John Pegram's force at Buckhannon Pass. Situated on the western slope of Rich Mountain, the pass formed a naturally strong defensive position that was rendered all the more formidable with the addition of earth and log entrenchments. To further complicate matters for the enemy, a near impenetrable thicket of brush and woods surrounded the works, while felled trees obstructed any approach from the front. "The regiment there [comprised of 1,300 troops and four artillery pieces] will be able to hold five times their number in check," Garnett reported.2

In command of the Union force was General George B. McClellan who was then marching 7,000 men along the Staunton-Parkersburg turnpike in the direction of Rich Mountain. McClellan reached Buckhannon Pass on July 9th and the next day ordered a reconnaissance of the enemy's defenses, the result of which confirmed Garnett's opinion as to the strength of the position. "It was clear that a direct attack could succeed only after a great sacrifice of life, and the result of such an undertaking by perfectly raw troops was at least doubtful," McClellan wrote.3 What McClellan's estimate of Pegram's numbers might have been is unclear but it’s unlikely he would have credited him with much more than 2,000 men.

Days earlier, McClellan had informed Colonel E.D. Townsend that he expected to find the enemy at Rich Mountain and, if that were the case, of his intention to turn the position. "If possible, I will repeat the maneuver of Cerro Gordo" he wrote Townsend on July 5th.4 McClellan was referring to General Winfield Scott's famous flanking movement around Santa Ana's army at Cerro Gordo, during the Mexican War.

As though divining McClellan's intention, a young civilian named David Hart strode into General Rosecrans's lines on July 10th. A pro-Union man, Hart offered to guide Federal troops around the Confederate left flank to his father's farm, which was situated at the top of Rich Mountain and in the enemy's rear. Having satisfied himself that Hart was in earnest, Rosecrans brought him to McClellan's headquarters. After conducting his own interview of the young man and ironing out the final details of a plan, McClellan ordered Rosecrans to march his brigade "to the lofty summit of Rich Mountain, at Hart's farm . . . and to move thence at once down the turnpike road and attack the [Buckhannon Pass] intrenchments in rear . . . The remainder of the force under my command to be held in readiness to assault in front as soon as Rosecrans' musketry should indicate that he was immediately in their rear."5

At Cerro Gordo, Scott had ordered General David Twiggs to march his column around Santa Ana's left flank and "take up a position along the national road in the enemy's rear . . . " Like Rosecrans, Twiggs was to then advance on Santa Ana's entrenchments at "the strong and vital point of Cerro Gordo." Once Twiggs had commenced his attack on the works, Scott would launch a diversionary attack on the Mexicans' front.6 In concept, both Rosecrans's and Twiggs's orders could not have been more similar. There was, however, to be one more similarity insofar as how the two plans unfolded. Having each learned of the enemy's turning movement, Santa Ana and Pegram sent troops to the tops of Atalaya Hill and Rich Mountain, respectively, with orders to check the enemy's advance. Pegram had already posted two companies at the Hart farm but on the morning of the 11th he sent two more companies to the mountain top. All told, there were roughly 350 enemy troops and two artillery pieces waiting for Rosecrans at the farm.7

At 5 a.m. on July 11th, Rosecrans's column, comprised of 1,917 men, stepped off in a drenching rain. Due to the roughness of the mountain path, Rosecrans was unable to take any artillery with him. Just before noon, McClellan moved his remaining 5,000 troops forward and waited for Rosecrans to commence his attack on the rear of the Confederate trenches. In his instructions to Rosecrans, McClellan insisted on hourly progress reports and had provided Rosecrans with 75 cavalrymen for that purpose. Sometime between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., McClellan received a dispatch from Rosecrans stating he was still a mile and a half from the Hart farm and that, “owing to the excessive roughness of the road . . . I should not send another despatch [sic] until I had something of importance to communicate."8 Hours passed and all the while, McClellan and his men stood-by, waiting for Rosecrans's attack to commence.

It was roughly 2:30 p.m. before Rosecrans finally passed over the crest of Rich Mountain, still one and a half miles short of the Buckhannon Pass fortifications and several hours behind schedule. Nearing the Hart farm, Rosecrans's column was brought to an unexpected halt when it ran into those 350 rebel troops. A general engagement ensued but outnumbered by close to 6 to 1, the Confederates were soon sent reeling back down the mountain, to the relative safety of their lower fortifications, just as the Mexicans on Atalaya Hill had been compelled to do when attacked by Twiggs's troops fourteen years earlier. By then, it was nearing 5 p.m. and, having decided it was too late in the day to continue down the turnpike and attack the enemy's main works below, Rosecrans called it a day and bivouacked his troops. Considering the importance of the operation and the fact there were still several hours of daylight remaining at that time of year, it must be wondered why Rosecrans did not press on. At Cerro Gordo, following the Atalaya engagement, Twiggs did press on. Precisely as called for in Scott's orders, he subsequently attacked Santa Ana's entrenchements and in the process, succeeded in routing the entire Mexican army.

It stands to reason that neither McClellan nor Rosecrans expected there would be any resistance to speak of in the Hart farm area, as would have been the case had Pegram not been tipped off about the flanking movement. It is, therefor, understandable that McClellan would have been somewhat perplexed as to what was transpiring when he heard the continuous and stationary fire emanating from the top of the mountain. It can also be imagined that the sound of enemy artillery fire must have been of particular concern for him.

Lieutenant Colonel John Beatty of the 3rd Ohio Regiment, who was standing nearby and observed McClellan, mistook the general's countenance for "indecision." In a July 11, 1861 entry of his wartime journal Beatty wrote, "a thousand faces turned to hear the order to advance; but no order was given." Beatty and his men were not privy to the details of McClellan's plan, nor were they aware of how the Hart farm fit into the whole scheme of things. Beatty, himself, confirms this in that same journal entry when he writes, "We ascertained that Rosecrans . . . was seeking the enemy's rear by a mountain path, and we conjectured that, so soon as he had reached it, we would be ordered to make the assault in front."9 Beatty had wrongly interpreted the fighting at the Hart farm as meaning Rosecrans had reached the enemy's rear when, in fact, Rosecrans's actual objective, the rear of the Buckhannon Pass works, was still a mile and a half away.

Another member of Beatty's regiment, Major Joseph Keifer, was also chafing over McClellan's presumed inactivity after the firing broke out at the Hart farm. “Becoming restless and overcurious,” Keifer took it upon himself to conduct an unauthorized reconnaissance of Pegram's position. As Keifer and his men drew near the works, the rebels opened fire and sent the group scurrying back to their lines. When McClellan learned of Keifer's unsanctioned movement, he reprimanded the major, telling him he "might have brought on a general battle before the General Commanding was ready for it." It's easy to understand why McClellan, who was then anxiously waiting for Rosecrans to wrap things up at the Hart farm and come up on Pegram's main works, would have been so concerned about accidentally opening the battle before Rosecrans was in position. Like Beatty, Keifer admitted to being "wholly uninformed” about McClellan’s plan and not being familiar with its details, he erroneously concluded that McClellan was vacillating thereby leaving Rosecrans to fend for himself.10

Upon learning of Twiggs unexpected encounter with the Mexicans at Atalaya Hill, Scott did not launch an attack on the enemy’s fortified entrenchments. Neither did McClellan when he heard the unexpectedly protracted firing at the Hart farm and for good reason. In both instances, such an attack would have been premature and exceedingly dangerous. From the outset, McClellan's intention had been to prevent "a great sacrifice of life" by avoiding an unsupported frontal attack on Pegram's position. In his official report, Rosecrans echoed McClellan’s rationale when he conceded that the taking of those entrenchements by the front "would have cost us a thousand lives."11

Obviously, both McClellan and Scott had faith in their commanders and were satisfied they had provided each of them with a sufficient force with which to deal with any contingency. This certainly was the case as it relates to Rosecrans whose individual command outnumbered the entire Confederate force at Rich Mountain.

When the firing at Hart's farm finally subsided McClellan waited for Rosecrans to come marching down the turnpike road. By early evening, it was apparent that Rosecrans was not going to be attacking the enemy's main works that day, as called for in McClellan's orders. Having no way of knowing what had transpired at the Hart farm, McClellan could not help but be concerned over what would have prevented Rosecrans from continuing down the mountain. Although he would have taken some consolation in the fact he had sent his subordinate up there with an ample force, nothing in war is ever guaranteed. For that reason, McClellan instructed one of his topographical engineers "to find a position from which our artillery could command the works" but by the time a position was found and a road leading to it had been cut, it was too late to place the guns.12 Unless he received word from the flanking column during the night, he "determined to put the guns in position immediately after daybreak, and, after shelling the works, to attack, in order to relieve Rosecrans."13 At about 9 p.m. the last of McClellan’s troops were withdrawn to their encampments where they rested in preparation for the next day’s action.

As it transpired, no attack would be necessary. Early the next morning McClellan's pickets discovered that the enemy had abandoned his fortifications during the night. At about the same time, McClellan finally received word from Rosecrans, who, with his column, was then making his way down the turnpike toward the near empty rebel fortifications upon which now flew a white flag. The Battle of Rich Mountain was over. As it was, Union casualties, during the Hart farm engagement, had amounted to 61 including 12 killed. Rebel losses totaled 176 including an estimated 135 killed.14

On July 12th, Pegram, who was by then surrounded and cut off from Garnett's main force, surrendered what remained of his beaten and demoralized command to McClellan. As for Garnett, he would be killed the following day while attempting to keep McClellan’s pursuing columns at bay. Upon their commander's death, Garnett's men scattered, leaving western Virginia firmly in Union hands for the rest of the war.

In his official report, McClellan praised Rosecrans for "conducting his command up the very precipitous sides of the mountains and . . . for the very handsome manner in which he planned and directed his attack upon the rebels at Hart's farm . . ." Having given praise where praise was due, McClellan was not about to hide his disappointment in the fact "the order to General Rosecrans to advance to attack the rear of the enemy's lower intrenchments was not carried out."15 Indeed, had Rosecrans continued down the turnpike road on July 11th, as McClellan had intended him to do, it is more than conceivable that Pegram's entire command would have been forced to surrender, en masse, then and there.

Rosecrans's official report is markedly straightforward and aside from his embellishment of the enemy's numbers at the Hart farm, it is a relatively accurate account of the day's events and contains absolutely no hint of wrongdoing on McClellan's part. In that same report, Rosecrans readily admits to having failed to follow through on McClellan's order to attack the Buckhannon Pass entrenchments when he writes, "finding it too late to continue the operations against the rebels' position that evening . . . the troops were bivouacked." Rosecrans’s use of the term “continue” is explicit in that it verifies he knew he was expected to press on, past the Hart farm that day. He reaffirms this in his closing summary when he writes, "Our troops, . . . finding the hour late, bivouacked on their arms amid a cold, drenching rain, to await daylight, when they moved forward on the enemy's intrenched position, which was found abandoned."16

Ordinarily, that should have been the end of the affair and it would have been had Rosecrans not attempted to alter the record years later.

In his official report, Rosecrans wrote, "About 10 p.m. [on the 10th] I came to the headquarters with a plan for turning the enemy's position.” During his Joint Committee testimony, Rosecrans disclosed the alleged details of that plan while recounting a supposed conversation, between himself and McClellan, "Now, general, if you will allow me to take my brigade I will . . . surprise the enemy at the gap [the Hart farm], get hold of it, and thus hold his [the enemy's] only line of retreat. You can then take him on the front. If he gives way we shall have him; if he fights obstinately I will leave a portion of the force at the gap and with the remainder fall upon his rear." According to Rosecrans, McClellan, was to open his attack on Pegram's front the moment he heard the fighting commence at the Hart farm.

If that was, in fact, the plan Rosecrans went to headquarters with, McClellan, rightly turned it down in favor of his own in which Pegram’s main entrenchments, not the Hart farm, was to be Rosecrans's objective. Both McClellan's and Rosecrans's official reports confirm this. Indeed, the notion that McClellan would have considered, let alone approved, such a plan as was described by Rosecrans in his JCCW testimony, is ludicrous on several counts. Firstly, McClellan had, as stipulated in his July 5th message to Townsend, already resolved to duplicate Scott's Cerro Gordo maneuver by outflanking Pegram and then conducting a combined attack upon his main works from both the front and rear. In fact, just prior to sending out his reconnaissance on the morning of July 10th and hours before Rosecrans came to his headquarters with Hart, McClellan informed his wife, Mary Ellen, of his intention when he wrote, "They [the enemy] are strongly entrenc[h]ed, but I think I can come the Cerro Gordo over them." McClellan, an acknowledged military expert at the outset of the war, was present with Scott at Cerro Gordo when those events took place and it is certain that he was wholly familiar with the intricacies of Scott's maneuver.

Secondly, for McClellan to have attacked Pegram's fortified position while Rosecrans was engaged at the top of Rich Mountain, one and a half miles away, simply makes no tactical sense. In such a scenario, it must be wondered how many of McClellan's men would have been butchered during the two or so hours it took Rosecrans to deal with those 350 Confederates at the Hart farm. It's a given that the Rebels on McClellan's front would have continued fighting "obstinately" from behind their breastworks. In that event, how many more Union men would have been lost in the time it would have then taken Rosecrans to march his troops down the turnpike and fall upon the enemy's rear? Then again, how well would McClellan's untested men have held under such severe conditions? Had they been routed, as were Irvin McDowell's at Bull Run less than two weeks later, Rosecrans's now isolated command would have been ripe for the picking. For these tactical reasons alone, McClellan would have never assented to such an absurd plan as Rosecrans described to the Joint Committee.

Lastly, it may be wondered why McClellan did not position his artillery on the morning of the 11th. Quite simply, on the basis that Rosecrans was to have attacked the works from the rear that day (per McClellan's orders,) the last thing McClellan would have wanted was for his artillery to accidentally lob shells over the rebels’ heads and hit his own troops as they approached from behind. On the other hand, the fact McClellan did not post any artillery on the 11th also goes far in refuting Rosecrans's account whereby McClellan was to have attacked Pegram’s entrenchments at the same time as he (Rosecrans) was engaging the enemy at Hart’s farm. Had that been the plan, McClellan would have most assuredly positioned his artillery that morning, for no military man in his right mind would have conducted a lone frontal attack on such a heavily fortified position without artillery support.

All considered, there can be no doubt that, following the Hart farm engagement, McClellan fully expected Rosecrans's troops to come marching down the mountain turnpike and attack Pegram's main entrenchments from the rear. That had been the plan from the outset and Rosecrans twice acknowledges this in his official report. McClellan waited until early evening for the flanking column to appear on Pegram's rear and it's easy to imagine he would have been filled with anxiety and frustration with each minute that passed by without any sign of Rosecrans. It's also easy to understand why men like Beatty and Keifer, who, by their own admission, knew nothing of McClellan's plan, would have been confused over the Commanding General's supposed inactivity during and after the Hart farm engagement. The reality of the matter is that there really was little McClellan could do but wait for events to play themselves out. He had, after all, provided Rosecrans with a considerable force and events prove that out. When he finally became concerned that Rosecrans might be isolated and in need of relief, McClellan ordered the deployment of his artillery in preparation for an attack on Pegram's works. In their zeal, Beatty and Keifer may have been all for attacking Pegram then and there, without artillery support, but thankfully McClellan thought better of that and opted to wait until the next morning.

Near the end of his testimony, Rosecrans thrusts the knife into his commander's back when he informs the committee, "The enemy, having made no attack on his front, [Pegram] had despatched to the gap one half of his artillery and a considerable force in addition to that usually stationed there. The probabilities are that, had the attack in front been made, we should have beaten the enemy and destroyed or captured nearly his entire force that day, instead of allowing them to run away through the woods, individually or in squads, during the night subsequent to the capture of the gap, as they did. At all events General McClellan was bound, as a military man, to have made the attack in his front, for the purpose of preventing the enemy from falling on me with too heavy a force."17 It is this one statement upon which so many historians have hung their hats when it comes to assessing McClellan at Rich Mountain. Based on the evidence presented in this study, however, it should be wholly apparent that Rosecrans's accusations are baseless and moreover, that his testimony to the Joint Committee was nothing more than a self-serving attempt to cover up his own failure to attack the rear of Pegram's main fortifications that day.

Rosecrans repeated his fanciful account in a February 1883 National Tribune article but in that instance, he refrained from directly or publicly attacking McClellan as he had done during his testimony to the Joint Committee.18 "We had heard no noise from our front, and had no time to think of the reason why" is all he wrote in that regard but the implication was there.

Clearly, Rosecrans lied in both his Joint Committee testimony and in his National Tribune article. Why he did so may never be fully understood but lie he most assuredly did. Most historians would be quick, almost too quick, to accept Rosecrans’s corrupted post-war accounts. Drawing predominantly from these as well Beatty's and Keifer's misguided tales, all the while ignoring the overwhelming contradictory evidence, including McClellan's and Rosecrans's official reports, they have perpetuated Rosecrans’s myth right up to the present day.

At Rich Mountain, the lynchpin battle of his Western Virginia Campaign, George B. McClellan conceived of and then directed a picture-perfect flanking operation around the Confederates who, having first been forced to evacuate their position in total disarray, were then compelled to surrender the following day upon being surrounded by McClellan's forces. "Bound, as a military man" to do so, McClellan had taken all of the necessary measures to ensure his plan's success and in the process, had avoided a costly frontal attack on the enemy's fortified position. This is the veritable "true history" of McClellan at Rich Mountain. The record; the evidence; simple common sense; all make that abundantly clear and it is now time for historians to finally set the record straight.


1. Report of the Joint Committe on the Conduct of the War,Thirty at the Second Session Thirty Eighth Congress, "Rosecrans's Testimony," p. 361

2. Official Records, Ser..1, Vol II, p. 238

3. Ibid, p. 205

4. McClellan to Townsend, July 5, 1861, Ibid. p. 198

5. Ibid, p. 215; Ibid., p. 205 - 206; Report on the organization and campaigns of the Army of the Potomac, p. 29

6. 30th Congress, 1st Session, Senate Executive Document No. 1, p. 258, 274

7. Official Records, Ser..1, Vol II, p. 264, 268

8. Report of the Joint Committe on the Conduct of the War,Thirty at the Second Session Thirty Eighth Congress, "Rosecrans's Testimony," p. 358 - 359, Official Records, Ser..1, Vol II, p. 206

9. John Beatty, The Citizen Soldier; or, Memoirs of a Volunteer, p. 25

10. J. Warren Keifer, The Battle of Rich Mountain and Some Incidents, p. 13

11. Official Records, Ser..1, Vol II, p.217

12. Ibid., p. 206

13. McClellan, Report on the Organization and Campaigns of the Army of the Potomac, p. 30

14. Official Records, Ser..1, Vol II, p. 217

15. Ibid., p. 206 - 207

16. Ibid., p. 217

17. Report of the Joint Committe on the Conduct of the War,Thirty at the Second Session Thirty Eighth Congress, "Rosecrans's Testimony," p. 361

18. Online, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn82016187/1883-02-22/ed-1/seq-1/

Ole Miss

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Dec 9, 2017
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What an enjoyable read. Clearly well reserached and written account about a little know battle and its participants. What I find remarkable about this story is Rosecrans contiuned efforts to shape his side of the story as one would expect him to let it alone. But he could not stop.
His relationship with McClellan was frosty as his with Grant. McClellan and Grant were polar opposites in their military actions and yet Rosecrans quarreled with both men.

Moe Daoust

Jun 11, 2018
What an enjoyable read. Clearly well reserached and written account about a little know battle and its participants. What I find remarkable about this story is Rosecrans contiuned efforts to shape his side of the story as one would expect him to let it alone. But he could not stop.
His relationship with McClellan was frosty as his with Grant. McClellan and Grant were polar opposites in their military actions and yet Rosecrans quarreled with both men.
So glad you enjoyed it David. You may also want to give my "Antietam: A Perspective" a read.

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