Civil War at 150: Egos led the way in W.Va.'s Battle of Carnifex Ferry

West Virginia State Archives
Union Gen. William S. Rosecrans led a force of Ohio and Indiana troops, including two future U.S. presidents, to war during the Battle of Carnifex Ferry.
West Virginia State Archives
Gen. John B. Floyd spent more time feuding with fellow Confederate Gen. Henry Wise than he did fighting Rosecrans at Carnifex Ferry.
Courtesy photo
Union troops attack a Confederate position during a previous re-enactment of the Sept. 10, 1861, Battle of Carnifex Ferry.
See re-enactment schedule here. SUMMERSVILLE, W.Va. -- One hundred fifty years ago Saturday, it was difficult for Confederate Gen. John B. Floyd to decide which development upset him the most.A column of 5,000 federal troops led by Gen. William S. Rosecrans was approaching his Nicholas County position from Summersville, eight miles to the northeast. Meanwhile, 15 miles to the south, at Hawks Nest, his archrival, fellow Confederate Gen. Henry A. Wise, was balking at sending the additional reinforcements Floyd felt he needed to even the odds for the impending conflict.Floyd and a force of about 2,000 Confederate soldiers, many of them newly recruited and poorly equipped, were dug in at Camp Gauley, a hastily fortified encampment perched on the north rim of the Gauley River canyon.The camp overlooked the Meadow River's confluence with the Gauley, near the point where the Carnifex family operated a two-flatboat ferry. In August, the flatboats were sunk by Union troops. Floyd's soldiers later re-floated the boats, but on Aug. 22, four men drowned when one of the wooden vessels capsized during its maiden crossing under military management.As Floyd awaited word from his scouts on the whereabouts of either Wise's reinforcements or Rosecrans' troops, men from Company B of the 51st Virginia Infantry were hard at work on the Gauley, putting the finishing touches to a pontoon footbridge to augment the inefficient and unsafe ferry. The soldiers toiling on the bridge could not know it at the time, but their work would save scores of their comrades' lives that night.While Floyd faced an almost certain fight with Rosecrans, who in civilian life operated Coal River's lock and dam system, he and Wise had already had their share of conflict. Both men were former governors of Virginia, and received their commissions due to their political -- rather than tactical -- acuity. Neither of the newly minted generals had military experience, although Floyd served as U.S. secretary of war under President James Buchanan until 1860.But Floyd's former Cabinet position carried little weight with his contemporaries."I had conceived an idea that a man who had been Secretary of war knew everything pertaining to military matters," wrote Gen. Henry Heth, a West Point graduate who served under Floyd at Carnifex Ferry. "But I soon discovered that my chief was as incapacitated for the work he had undertaken as I would have been to lead an Italian opera."Bad blood between Floyd and Wise became apparent after an Aug. 6 meeting between the two generals in White Sulphur Springs. There, Floyd essentially implied that Wise, who achieved a victory over a larger Union force at the mouth of Putnam County's Scary Creek in July, was a coward for later vacating the Kanawha Valley with his hungry, poorly equipped troops in anticipation of a second Union attack.Tensions between the two generals were so strong that, on Aug. 19, Wise vacated a camp that Floyd, the newly appointed commander of Confederate troops in the Kanawha Valley, had established on Sewell Mountain the previous day to set up his own encampment at Hawks Nest."Both Floyd and Wise wanted to be top dog in what is now West Virginia," said Terry Lowry, a Civil War historian, state archives employee and author of "September Blood: The Battle of Carnifex Ferry." "The two couldn't stand each other," Lowry said, "and they made their feelings fairly clear right from the beginning."Wise wrote to Gen. Robert E. Lee, then camped on Valley Mountain near present-day Snowshoe Mountain Resort, asking that he and Floyd be allowed to operate independently in and around the Kanawha Valley. Lee wrote back that the two generals should work together, since Union forces could easily destroy two small armies operating in the region, while one large army would be formidable.
Floyd took his complaints about Wise directly to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, writing that there was "great disorganization amongst the men under Gen. Wise's command," and offering to do all in his power to "remedy the evil."Both Lee and Wise objected to Floyd's decision to block Rosecrans' progress by controlling the Gauley River crossing at Carnifex Ferry from a position on the north side of the river, instead of the south side. On the south side, they argued, a withdrawal would not require a ferry crossing, dramatically slowing a retreat and leaving troops vulnerable to enemy fire. Also, roads leading to Charleston and Lewisburg were accessible from the south side of the ferry crossing.Floyd ignored their warnings, and built Camp Gauley on the Henry Patteson farm on a high bluff overlooking the ferry crossing as well as Pillow Rock and other notorious Gauley River rapids now traveled by kayakers and rafting clients. In fields behind Patteson's farmhouse, Floyd's troops built a 350-foot-long earthen parapet flanked by breastworks of logs and ringed by trenches.Floyd's ultimate strategy, according to Lowry, was to push the Union forces out of the Kanawha Valley, and then move northward up the Ohio River to Wheeling, where he would put an end to meetings designed to form a Union-supporting government of Virginia or create a separate state.Sometime in the early afternoon of Sept. 10, 1861, Rosecrans' column of Ohio and Indiana troops, still uncertain of Floyd's position, which happened to be only one mile away, stopped to rest near Kessler's Cross Lanes.
It was there, on Aug. 26, that Floyd's troops surprised about 800 members of the 7th Ohio Volunteer Infantry while they were eating breakfast, giving the encounter, known as the Battle of Knives and Forks, its name. The Union force was routed, leaving two men dead and more than 100 wounded, many of them recently enlisted Oberlin College students.
As most of Rosecrans' men rested, a party from the 10th Ohio Infantry was sent forward along the road leading to the ferry to look for Floyd's force. Shortly after 3 p.m., the Ohioans spotted Confederate trenches and fortifications, and about the same time -- approximately 3:15 p.m. -- Floyd's troops opened fire with small arms and artillery."Rosecrans had little time to assess the situation," Lowry said.The Union general, who suspected Floyd's force was much larger than it really was, ordered artillery and two brigades of troops to the front. Rosecrans rode along with the advancing troops, encouraging the soldiers while exposing himself to enemy fire.Floyd, according to Lowry's book, watched the battle unfold from the top of a 5-foot-high chestnut stump at the rear of an artillery battery. Within the first 15 minutes of combat, a musketball passed through his right arm, missing his bones. A Confederate surgeon dressed his wound, and he returned to his position. Later in the afternoon, a second Union bullet ripped through the lapel of his coat but failed to strike him.Among the Union troops attacking Camp Gauley were two future U.S. presidents, both members of the 23rd Ohio Infantry. At the time of the battle, Rutherford B. Hayes was a major, commanding four companies of troops, including one in which William McKinley, who would serve as commander in chief during the Spanish-American War, was a private.While attempting to flank the Confederate position, "We worked down and up a steep, rocky mountain covered with a laurel thicket," Hayes wrote in a letter home. "I got close enough at dark to get two men wounded and four others struck in their garments.  . . .  It was a very noisy but not very dangerous affair."After reaching the Gauley River and coming under fire from Confederate batteries, troops from the 23rd Ohio headed back up the canyon wall toward their lines, with McKinley in close proximity to Hayes.On the way up the slope, a rustling was heard in nearby brush, and Hayes drew his revolver, only to see his former law partner, Leopold Markbreit, emerging from the thicket. Markbreit, unbeknownst to Hayes, had abandoned Hayes' Cincinnati law office several weeks earlier to join the 28th Ohio Infantry, which also had been attached to Rosecrans' force.McKinley later said that he would never forget the delight with which Hayes greeted his law partner, or Markbreit's pleasure at being forgiven "for having run away from the law office."As darkness approached, Hayes and McKinley returned to the Union lines on the fringe of the Patteson farm. At one point, McKinley wrote, they walked past the 10th Ohio's position, "with their dead and wounded. The sighs and groans were pitiable."Rosecrans called off the attack at dusk, and began making plans to resume the siege on the Confederate stronghold again at daybreak.But during the night, Floyd, correctly assuming that replacements would not arrive by morning, ordered a retreat, which somehow went undetected by the Union troops."He was lucky he had an engineer, Lt. Col. Augustus Forsberg, on his staff," Lowry said. The Swedish-born Forsberg designed not only the breastworks and entrenchments that allowed the Confederates to survive the attack without fatalities, but the pontoon footbridge that allowed Floyd's force to make a speedy retreat. The bridge was completed only a few hours before the retreat was ordered.Floyd's troops demolished the ferry and the footbridge after their crossing, and marched on to Big Sewell Mountain and Meadow Bluff.A total of 27 Union troops were killed in the battle, while another 103 were wounded. No Confederate troops were killed in action, although one man died during the retreat, and nine, including Floyd, were wounded.While the battle is considered a Union win, "both sides had good arguments for claiming it as a victory," Lowry said. "Rosecrans won the battleground and the ferry, but Floyd held up an army much bigger than his, suffered no fatalities, and managed to retreat down a steep, mile-long wagon road in the middle of the night without being seen or heard."But by forcing Floyd's army out of the Kanawha Valley, Rosecrans "prevented Floyd from following through with his grandiose plan of breaking up the West Virginia statehood movement," Lowry said.For McKinley, the Battle of Carnifex Ferry "was our first real fight," he later wrote. "It gave us confidence in ourselves, and faith in our commander. We learned that we could fight and whip the rebels on their own ground."The Patteson farmhouse, still scarred by small-arms fire and at least one cannonball, now serves as the museum at Carnifex Ferry Battlefield State Park.Reach Rick Steelhammer at or 304-348-5169.
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