Battle of Carnifex Ferry, 10 September 1861

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The last significant fighting in the Kanawha Valley of West Virginia in 1861 (American Civil War). A Union force under General Jacob Cox had been sent to the Kanawha Valley to counter a Confederate force commanded by General Henry A. Wise, an ex-governor of Virginia at the start of July 1861. That expedition had succeeding in pushing the Confederates out of the lower valley, and into the more mountainous upper regions. There, Wise had been joined by another ex-governor, John B. Floyd, bringing the combined Confederate forces in the valley up to 7,900, nearly twice as many as Cox had. Despite this, a Confederate counterattack had been defeated at Gauley Bridge (3 September), mostly because Floyd and Wise loathed each other and refused to cooperate.

Battlefield of Carnifex Ferry
The Battlefield

West Virginia
West Virginia

Detail of West Virginia
West Virginia: detail

Kanawha Valley
Kanawha Valley

Link to map of West Virginia in 1861: Detail of central area
West Virginia in 1861: clickable map

This lack of cooperation even stopped the two forces camping together. Floyd was camped upstream from Wise, at Carnifex Ferry. This meant that Wise was between Floyd and Cox, but Cox was not the only Union commander operating in the area. The overall command in West Virginia was held by General Rosecrans. Having secured the centre of West Virginia, at the start of September Rosecrans began an overland march towards the head of the Kanawha Valley. His route would bring him out close to Floyd’s position at Carnifex Ferry.

Rosecrans arrived there on the afternoon of 10 September. That morning he had been camped just outside Summersville, perhaps just over ten miles from Carnifex Ferry. At two in the afternoon he had reached a position two miles from Carnifex Ferry, where he briefly paused to pull his army back together after their march, and resumed his march.

Rosecrans now lost control of events. His advance guard soon encountered Floyd’s pickets. When they retreated back into the main camp, the commander of the advance guard misinterpreted this move as a full retreat, and advanced into the attack. Rosecrans had not choice but to throw in extra troops as they became available. After a short sharp fight Rosecrans pulled his men back and began to prepare for a properly organised attack the next day.

Floyd did not wait to be attacked. Rosecrans’s attack had revealed that his camp was not as well sited as he had thought. Floyd had also been wounded himself during the fighting. Overnight he retreated across the river, finally joining with Wise. They were soon joined by Robert E. Lee, but the autumn weather now intervened, making further campaigning increasingly difficult. After another futile attack on the Federal camp at Gauley Bridge, Lee returned to Richmond. The Confederate force was slowly forced out of the valley, until on 12 November Floyd began a retreat that took him back into Virginia. West Virginia was to be plagued by guerrilla warfare, but no more conventional military action.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (17 January 2007), Battle of Carnifex Ferry, 10 September 1861 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_carnifex_ferry.html

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