The West Virginia Review
The Battle of Carnifex Ferry
by Roy Bird Cook
The Battle of Carnifex Ferry
The battle of Carnifex Ferry, fought on Tuesday, September 10, 1861, in the opening days of the Civil War, may be said to have had a profound influence upon subsequent political and military history in West(ern) Virginia. The little town of Summersville, resting on the old Weston and Gauley Turnpike, was then, as now, the county capital of Nicholas County. Formed in 1818, this county embraced 656 square miles in 1860 and had a population of 4,627, of which only 76 were foreign-born. There were in the county only 154 slaves, and the citizens were only mildly interested in politics and knew nothing of war.
Benjamin W. Byrne rode over to Richmond, sat in the noted Virginia Convention, voted against secession, and came home. Life went on as usual. But slowly the Confederate troops from the northeast and south were closing in on the regions along the "laughing" Gauley River. The Federals from the west were doing likewise. The old state highways controlled the entire military situation. General Henry A. Wise (Confederate) and General Jacob D. Cox (Federal) paraded up and down the valley of the Great Kanawha, while General George McClellan and General W. S. Rosecrans (Federal) operated in the region around Grafton, Weston, and present Elkins.
The James River and Kanawha Turnpike (Midland Trail) wound over Sewell and Gauley mountains, down to and along the Great Kanawha. The Northwestern reached over from Winchester to Parkersburg and was joined on the south by the Staunton and Parkersburg, which intersected the Gauley Road at Weston. These were all joined by the Weston and Gauley Turnpike through Bulltown, Sutton, and Summersville to Gauley Bridge. At the apex of the triangle near Gauley Bridge two or three important crossroads tied up the larger turnpikes. The "Sunday" road left the" "Midland Trail" about present Hico, and the Saturday road left east of Ansted. These converged on Meadow River, followed to the mouth, and crossed to a junction with the Weston road by a ferry called variously Carnifex, Carnifax, or Carnifix.
This ferry operated eight miles southwest of Summersville. Together with Hughes and Brock's ferry, it was, for many miles, practically the only crossing along this rugged stream, which in its lower reaches plunges down from 1,558 feet at Hughes ferry to 677 feet at Gauley Bridge. The site is a beautiful pool, at an elevation of 1,182 feet. At the time of the Civil War it was 370 feet in width, and was crossed by means of two flatboats. The road from the crossing wound along the base of the cliffs on the north side and left by a circuitous ravine in a plateau that reared its height 318 feet above the level of the river.
On August 12, 1861, General John B. Floyd, former Secretary of War, rode into Lewisburg with troops raised largely in southwestern Virginia, called "Floyd's Brigade." He issued "General Order No. 12," and assumed command of the Army of the Kanawha. He then outranked General Wise, the former commander, and here started the "battle of the ex-governors," which is another story. Wise urged Floyd to hold Carnifex Ferry by all means, but to be sure to stay on the south bank of the river, where he could hold the place with "250 men." It was "utterly unmilitary," he declared, to cross unless with a force that could advance; but "cross it he would, and cross it he did," wrote the old warrior to the Confederate War Department.
In spite of Wise and his advice, Floyd moved on, and on the evening of August 22 crossed the Gauley River. In doing this, however, he lost four men, drowned, and also the ferry boat; but, "I have been enabled after some days' march to cross the Gauley," he wrote to Walker, Secretary of War, "at a point near the village of Summersville, in the county of Nicholas, which we now command. It has heretofore been held by a strong force of the enemy, and constituted an important link in their chain of defenses between the Kanawha River and the forces in the northeast under Rosecrans."
Rosecrans, in the meantime, had not been idle. On August 13 he had ordered Colonel E. B. Tyler, a former fur-trader in the territory, but from Ohio, to occupy Kessler's Cross Lanes with the Seventh Ohio Infantry. On the morning of the twenty-sixth the regiment was at breakfast when Floyd fell upon the camp, killed one, wounded twenty, and captured ninety-six men. The rest, under Major J. S. Casement, escaped over the Elk River and made their way to Charleston. Wise, when he heard of this, called it "the battle of the knives and forks."
But Wise had his own troubles when, a few days later, he failed in an attack on Cox at Gauley Bridge, and on the same day, September 3, Rosecrans started with an expedition to march from Clarksburg, by Weston, to Sutton.
General Robert E. Lee, however, from his headquarters at Valley Mountain, perceived danger, and on September 8 informed Floyd, "Your position seems to be an inviting one," and further stated that he "would recommend recrossing the Gauley." When Floyd heard of the intentions of Rosecrans, he fell back with his command from Cross Lanes to Carnifex Ferry. Not heeding the injunctions of Wise, he proceeded to fortify the plateau, already mentioned, on the north bank of the Gauley.
The defenses constructed consisted of a parapet battery 350 feet long in the front and center, flanked by breastworks laid in a direct line with the front, and curving back to the ends, which rested on the cliffs along the river. On the left a double line of breastworks was constructed. A trench protected the battery epaulment. The interior afforded cover against infantry fire and, to some extent, against artillery fire. Some protection was afforded in front by a deep ravine, but at the right and left there were cleared spaces on slight ridges protected by abatis. The whole was protected by forest trees and much undergrowth. The ferry road at that time ran into the ravine, debouched into a cross ravine, in line with the parapet two hundred yards away. A small by-road led to one side. It was about a mile and one-half down to the site of the ferry.
This fortified camp was officially designated as Camp Gauley, and was located on lands belonging to the Henry Patteson farm. In front stood the Patteson residence, a barn, and some outbuildings. The residence is a frame structure, although some Federals thought it a log house. Some small adjacent tracts of land were cleared, and along the road was a cornfield, the principal open space, later the scene of most of the casualties in the battle that followed.
Here Floyd decided to make a stand against the oncoming Federal column. The day before the battle was one of intense excitement. All kinds of rumors seeped into the Confederate camp, at most of which Floyd scoffed. Colonel Gabriel C. Wharton, with the Fifty-first Virginia Infantry, was assigned to the extreme left of the works, to be supported by Captain John H. Guy's (Goochland Artillery) Battery, and Captain S. Adams Light Artillery, probably attached to the Second Battalion Reserves. The Forty-fifth Virginia Infantry occupied the other end of the works, commanded by Colonel Henry Heth, and also by Lieutenant Colonel William E. Peters, adjutant to Floyd.
It appears that the Fifty-first Militia Regiment was engaged, as Lieutenant Colonel William W. Glass and other officers of this regiment were present. The Fiftieth Virginia Infantry, under Colonel Alexander W. Reynolds, was in camp a mile out the Cross Lanes road, and later defended the center of the fortification. Colonel C. Q. Tompkins, with the Twenty- second Virginia Infantry (First Kanawha), arrived just before the battle, as well as two companies of cavalry under Captain (later Colonel) James M. Corns and Captain A. J. Beckett, later of the Eighth Virginia (Jenkins) Cavalry. Colonel John McCausland, with the Thirty-sixth Virginia Infantry (Second Kanawha), occupied the town of Summersville. In all, Floyd had 1,740 men present and fit for duty, and, according to the report of the U. S. Engineers, he had nine pieces of artillery. This resume represents the disposition of the Confederate forces on the evening of Monday, the ninth.
The town of Sutton, on September 5, 1861, was easily one of the most important military posts in the interior. It was occupied by a force of almost five thousand troops. Camps were on every side. The Camden Hotel was occupied by high officers. And from the old suspension bridge over Elk many Ohio and Illinois boys with sore feet watched others disport in the waters of the river made muddy by incessant rains.
General Rosecrans, from this point, set out to organize his expedition. He selected as his leader for the First Brigade Brigadier General Henry W. Benham, a graduate of West Point and a soldier in the War with Mexico, who had attracted notice on account of his operations at Carrick's Ford in Randolph County. Under his command was placed the Tenth Ohio Infantry, Colonel William H. Lytle; Thirteenth Ohio, Colonel William S. Smith; Twelfth Ohio, Colonel John W. Lowe; First Ohio Independent Battery, Captain James R. McMullen; Captain William West's company, First Virginia Cavalry; and Captain George Gilmor's company, Virginia Cavalry.
Colonel R. L. McCook was assigned to the Second Brigade, composed of the Ninth Ohio Infantry; Lieutenant Colonel Charles Sondershoff; Twenty- eighth Ohio, Colonel August Moor; Forty- seventh Ohio, Colonel Frederick Poschner (a native of Hungary, one of the heroes of '48, and former officer in the Prussian Army); and Captain Frederick Schambeck's company of Chicago Dragoons, Illinois Cavalry. Company B of the Forty-seventh was left to reinforce the post at Sutton.
Colonel E. P. Scammon was assigned to the Third Brigade, composed of the Twenty- third Ohio Infantry, Lieutenant Colonel Stanley Mathews; Thirtieth Ohio, Colonel Hugh Ewing; and Captain O. A. Mack's company, Fourth Artillery, U. S. Army.
The various brigade commanders were ordered by Rosecrans to organize their brigades and select their staffs. Captain William Schneider, of the Thirteenth Ohio, with two rifled six-pound guns, was to support other artillery, and Stewart's detachment of Indiana ("Hoosier") Cavalry was ordered attached to headquarters, subject to orders from the general commanding. This organization made up the column now to move on into Nicholas County and open up the Weston and Gauley road and effect a junction with General Cox's army at Gauley Bridge.
The Federal expedition moved out of Sutton with a squadron of cavalry in front. Then came the pioneers, followed by General Benham with the First Brigade. Then came McCook with the Second Brigade, and Scammon with the Third Brigade. It was a sight the old highway had never seen before and will never see again. A wagon train trailed out for five miles, with ammunition wagons heavily laden, creaking along in the hundreds of mudholes.
The poor Ohio boys in the infantry, who knew nothing of army life, swore at the fellows from Indiana and Illinois, who had horses. The stubborn mules trudged along, dragging batteries which now and then got mired. The season had been one of intense rainfall. Shoes, packs, and the like cluttered the wayside. But late in the forenoon of Monday, the ninth, the expedition moved from Birch River and that night went into camp eight miles from Summersville, on Muddlety Creek, on the site of a former Confederate outpost.
The news of Floyd's location came into camp. Eight miles away, in Summersville, was John McCausland, the energetic young Confederate officer from Virginia Military Institute, with the Thirty-sixth Virginia Infantry recruited along the Great Kanawha. The day before he reported to Floyd, "I have ordered the wagons at the mill to load and leave for your camp with meal and other supplies."
Rosecrans moved forward on the morning of the tenth, about four o'clock. The advance guard reached Summersville about 8:45. McCausland had discreetly withdrawn ahead of the column back tc "Camp Gauley." The route then led on southwest by present Gad and Sparks to Kessler's Cross Lanes. Near McKee's Creek Crossing was a road that led to Hughes Ferry on Gauley River, at the mouth of Salmon Run. Colonel McCook, with a squad of Chicago Dragoons, rode down to the river and was fired upon by a Confederate detachment. The Tenth Ohio then came to the rescue, and the ferry boat was secured and the march resumed.
One mile from Kessler's Cross Lanes the command paused for a rest of short duration. Benham's Brigade, with the Tenth Ohio, under Lytle's leadership, was then ordered to move down the road leading from Cross Lanes to Carnifex Ferry. Rosecrans cautioned him not to bring on an engagement. It is clear that as yet the exact location or situation of Floyd was not known.
Meanwhile, Rosecrans found a steep hill to the right, ascended it, and with his field glass viewed the scene before him. Far in front stood the remainder of the First Brigade, drawn up in line of battle, facing the direction the brave Colonel Lytle and his "fighting Irish" had taken. On a slope to the left stood McCook's Brigade, and on the right, a little higher up, was Scammon's Brigade. In the distance could be distinguished the heights beyond the Gauley River, and here and there a pasture field, a field of corn, and a couple of farm houses, the remainder enshrouded in forest.
On down the road moved the advance of Benham's Brigade. Suddenly there came a musket shot, followed by a straggling fire. It developed that contact had been made with a detachment of the Fiftieth Virginia Infantry, under Colonel Reynolds, camped along the road to the ferry. The Confederates retired to the main camp, while Rosecrans, in ignorance of the true situation, ordered Benham to send Lytle with the Tenth Ohio on down the road, make a reconnaissance of the position, and support the movement with the First Brigade. Lytle by this time was a mile ahead of the main troops, with companies A, B, C, and E.
Suddenly the Federal advance found itself face to face with the Confederate line not three hundred yards away. Woods were on both sides, except for a cornfield along one side for part of the distance. A perfect storm of lead came pouring in on the Federal line, and the battle was on in earnest.
It was then about 3:15 in the afternoon. Benham from the front sent back a courier asking for the remainder of the Tenth, the Thirteenth (Colonel Smith), and the Twelfth (Colonel Lowe) to move forward at once. An observer recorded that "the angry peals of musketry, sharp as peals of thunder, grew fiercer, till the sound became one tremendous roar." Captain Mack's Battery and the First Ohio Battery, under McMullen, moved down the road, and soon four mountain howitzers added to the noise from their positions in the road by the cornfield. Fortunately for both sides, neither artillery nor infantry fired with much accuracy.
In the heaviest of this assault Colonel Lytle dashed forward, leading an advance with fixed bayonets, in an attempt to flank the Confederate lines. As his troops emerged from the woods he received a severe wound in his leg, and the same shot mortally wounded his horse. The animal dashed on over the Confederate parapet and fell dead inside. Lytle's gun and equipment fell into the hands of the Confederate surgeon, Dr. S. C. Gleaves. Lytle was carried into the Patteson home, which had been vacated by the owners, who had sought refuge inside the Confederate lines. The house was struck by missiles from both sides, but Lytle survived the episode, recovered, and later became a distinguished brigadier general.
In the advance, Fitzgibbons, state colorbearer, when his right hand was shot off, grasped the flag in his left and with a shout, "Never mind me, boys; save the flag," fell mortally wounded. Sergeant O'Conner, national color-bearer, next carried it, and he, too, was shot down. It remained for Captain Stephen McGroaty to carry the colors from the field. The line fell back, formed again, and kept up a brisk fire to save the wounded. The Tenth lost nine killed and fifty wounded.
The Thirteenth Ohio now came in on the left of the road. "A brigade consisting of the Twenty-eighth Ohio, eight companies of the Thirteenth Ohio, and four of the Twenty-third Ohio (under Major Rutherford B. Hays), and two of the Twelfth Ohio regiments, was extemporized by General Rosecrans," reported Colonel W. S. Smith, "and I was placed in command and ordered to carry the works on the right by assault. I formed the command as above constituted in the ravine (Pierson Hollow), and was then ordered by General Rosecrans to await further orders. We remained in this position about one hour, when General Rosecrans ordered me to move forward to the attack. I reached the head of my column and started out just at dusk. Before we could march up it became dark and impossible to see, so I then ordered them out."
"In the meantime, at the beginning of the action," reported Colonel Smith, "my section of two rifled cannon, under command of Captain Schneider and supported by his Company E, 13th, took position in road about four hundred yards from the works. The guns were then moved to the right and in full view seventy-five rounds of solid shot and fifteen of shells were fired, which did much damage to the Confederate lines, tearing up logs and rails."
As Smith moved forward on the flanking attempt, Colonel Lowe, with eight companies of the Twelfth, moved into the woods on the left of the road, expecting to form on the right of Smith's column. The plan was being carried out well, with Lowe leading the men with cheers and a waving sword. He was, however, struck in the forehead by a musket ball, and died in a few minutes. It is said that he had gone into action stating that he would not come out alive. He had been rather unjustly criticized for failure of troop movement in the battle of Scary Creek, in the Great Kanawha Valley. His body was returned to Xenia, Ohio.
McMullen's Battery was next moved back of the cornfield, and began playing on the Confederate batteries with some effect.
Rosecrans, at 3:45, took position with his staff on a hill on the right of the "ferry road," under fire, and directed the movements so far as he could. Down at the front a mere boy, Corporal Sullivan of Company E, Thirteenth, aroused his comrades by going through the midst of a galling fire from the Confederates, ran clear across the lines, and brought back water for the wounded men. Adjutant Hartsuff brought up McCook's Brigade, which, with Scammon's, was then in the old camp ground of the Fiftieth Virginia Infantry. Scammon, at four o'clock, was ordered to form in line of battle on a hill fronting on the right of the Confederate line. It was formed in two lines, the Twenty-third in front, a detachment of three companies of the Thirtieth, under Colonel Ewing, in the rear, and Mack's Battery a little in advance of the infantry. Large numbers of wounded were being brought back. The news of the death of Lowe and uncertainty of the fate of Lytle brought much uneasiness. The woods were full of men separated from their commands.
A general advance was now started. McCook - one of the noted "fighting McCooks" - dashed madly along the lines in a blaze of enthusiasm. Citizen's dress and an old slouch hat made him particularly conspicuous. Colonel Porschner, the colorful leader of the Forty-seventh, objected because his regiment was not put in action. His regiment was designated a part of the storming party, but did not go into action at all. The Thirtieth had left Companies D, F, G, and I at Sutton, and C and E at Big Birch; but the remainder the next morning secured a stand of colors inscribed "Floyd's Brigade; the price of liberty is the blood of the brave." Four companies of McCook's own regiment (Ninth) were sent far up on the Confederate left, where they charged up almost to the parapet wall before being recalled by the bugle. They lost two killed and eight wounded.
The evening was coming to a close. The flank movement of Smith had penetrated to the Confederate lines on the right. Colonel Moor, with the Twenty-eighth and four companies of the Thirteenth, had joined Smith, losing in the movement two killed and twenty-nine wounded. Major Rutherford B. Hayes commanded four companies of the Twenty-third in the movement. The future President of the United States wrote home: "We worked down and up a steep, rocky mountain, covered with a laurel thicket. I got close enough just at dark to get two men wounded and four others struck in their garments. . . . It was a very noisy but not dangerous affair." The rest of his regiment was under fire in the rear, in reserve.
In Company E was a private from Poland, Ohio, named William McKinley, destined, as the President, to command the sons and grandsons of the men fighting around him, in the Spanish-American War.
By this time, seven o'clock, it was so dark that nothing could be seen. The men had been without rest or sleep since four in the morning, and had marched eighteen miles. Rosecrans ordered the troops to fall back. In an attempt to extricate the flanking column the Thirteenth and Twenty- eighth got separated in the woods, in the shape of the letter u, and fired on each other. By nine o'clock some semblance of order was reached by the various units. Colonel Ewing, with the Thirtieth, stood guard only a few hundred yards from the Confederate lines. Dr. Horace R. Wirz, assistant surgeon, reported that the total Federal loss was 17 men killed and 141 wounded, in an action that embodied five partial assaults on the Confederate position, lasting about four hours.
It is now well to look at the accounts of the Confederate side, naturally somewhat more simplified, as they were on the defensive. Colonel A. W. Reynolds, of the Fiftieth Infantry, gives the best report. He says:
On the morning of the 10th, in obedience to orders from Brigadier General Floyd, I moved my regiment from our temporary camp, which was about one mile in advance of the main camp at Gauley, and took post in the center of the line of log breastworks, and on the left of the earthworks and the battery of four guns. The regiment formed in line behind the breastworks at 2:30 P.M. Within a few minutes after I was informed of the rapid approach of the enemy. At 3:00 P.M. a heavy column moved forward to attack us, which was gallantly repulsed by the right wing after a sharp exchange of fire lasting about twenty-five minutes, the enemy then taking shelter behind some houses and haystacks beyond the range of our fire, and from which position they continued to fire on us with the Enfield rifles. At 3:30 P.M. the enemy, having placed their artillery in position, opened upon my line a terrific fire of shells, grape, shrapnel, round shot. and with a rifle cannon, which was continued with little intermission until 5 P.M. At about 5 P.M. a heavy column (supposed to be an entire brigade) advanced to assault our center. Our fire was reserved until the enemy approached to within one hundred yards, when a well- directed fire from our whole line checked their advance. After a contest of forty-five minutes the enemy (notwithstanding the efforts of the officers to rally them) broke and ran. About 6:00 P.M. a third attempt was made to force our center, which met with the same result as the preceding, our regiment awaiting the approach coolly and routing them completely. In the early part of the battle the fire of the enemy's artillery was high. They attempted to enfilade my line, which they failed to do in consequence of their guns being disabled, by the fire from the battery in the earthwork. At 7:10 the firing ceased and the enemy retired from the field.
Floyd, as soon as it was clear that the Federals had retired, wrote a letter to General Wise, which he dispatched at eight o'clock in the evening by Major Glass and a Mr. Carr, who had arrived at the camp at Dogwood Gap, east of present Ansted, about one in the morning. "The enemy has attacked me in strong force," he wrote, "but I still hold my position; but I think they will renew the attack in the morning with perhaps increased force." Floyd having received a wound in the arm, his name was signed by the adjutant. Major Glass rode Captain (W. E.) Peters' horse, and later noted: "My young friends, Adjutant Peter Otey, Captain William H. Cook, and Captain Samuel Henry, also had the misfortune to lose their baggage, tents, and beds, all from neglect of the SERVANTS."
Such was the idea of war on the part of young men from Bedford and Amherst. On the other hand, Peter Otey, "finding one of his men wounded, gallantly picked him up and walked off with him in the face of the enemy." Dr. Gleaves secured the fine equipment of the unfortunate Colonel Lytle, and the next morning Colonel Smith, whose flanking attempt failed, acquired Floyd's trunk and twenty-five wounded men captured from Tyler at Cross Lanes. In the night Floyd reconsidered his expressed view of holding "Camp Gauley." He complained bitterly over the failure of the Fourteenth North Carolina and Third and Thirteenth Georgia regiments to arrive, and decided not to wait for any help from Wise. His retreat was really remarkable.
The artillery was moved down to the ferry, a distance of more than a mile, over the most wretched of roads, cliffs on all sides, and in darkness. Pine flares spread a feeble light here and there; commands became separated; horses slipped and fell on the rocks. A log pontoon bridge had previously been constructed, about four feet wide, and across this part of his troops were moved. One gun and a caisson fell into the river. Others moved over in the ferry boat. After the troops had crossed, the "laughing Gauley" carried away the logs of the bridge; the bottom of the ferry boat was knocked out; and a rear guard took up post at the mouth of Meadow River. The movement continued with a pause at Dogwood Gap, to wait for Wise to come up, and then a more permanent camp was made at Big Sewell Mountain.
Back at Camp Gauley the Federals, under Colonel Ewing, moved in at six o'clock on the morning of the eleventh.
It was not until the sixteenth that Floyd noted that the Federals had "moved a large force of infantry and cannon across the river," where in the night, in a few hours, he had moved his command. To Richmond he reported that the "assault was made with spirit and determination, with small arms, grape and round shot from howitzers, and rifled cannon. There was scarcely an intermission in the conflict until night." The retreat, reported Adjutant Peters, was made "without losing a man."
Floyd considered the battle a decisive affair, as far as the troops of the Army of the Kanawha were concerned. The Confederate Secretary of War conveyed congratulations on the "brilliant affair," and Floyd, from Camp Sewell, wrote to President Jefferson Davis that the "same superintending Providence that seems to have protected our arms everywhere shielded us again at this fight with Rosecrans."