In early May 1861 Gen. George B. McClellan sent 20,000 Union soldiers into western Virginia to hold the area for the Union government and to protect the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. Fiftly miles west of the Shenandoah Valley, Gen. Robert S. Garnett and 4,500 Confederate soldiers protected the important supply depot at Beverly with positions on Laurel Mountain to the north and Rich Mountain to the west. On July 5 soldiers from Union Gen. Thomas Morris’s Indiana brigade arrived in front of Laurel Mountain and started skirmishing on the 7th with the Rebel defenders. McClellan arrived on July 9 and began planning for an assault on Laurel Mountain.
On the 11th a Union force under Gen. William S. Rosecrans made a successful attack on Rich Mountain, making Garnett’s Laurel Mountain position untenable. Garnett ordered Laurel evacuated and shortly after midnight his men began marching through the rain toward Beverly. Upon receiving a false report that Beverly had been captured, they retraced their steps and took a different route eastward over Cheat Mountain and into the Cheat River Valley, where they had to ford a succession of four wide streams.
Morris’s brigade closely followed Garnett’s retreat, forcing the Confederates to stop and fight delaying actions at each river crossing. At the second crossing, Carrick’s Ford, Rebel wagons became stuck in the fast-flowing stream, and they lost precious time trying to extricate them. Garnett and the rear guard stayed at Carrick’s Ford to hold up the Union pursuit until the wagons could cross the next stream, about three miles away. A few minutes later Morriss’s Yankees appeared on the other side of the river and began trading shots with the Rebels. Garnett was hit and died within minutes. Leaving Garnett, the rear guard hurried away and after a long, arduous march, the Rebel force successfully got away.
McClellan’s success at Rich and Laurel mountains made him a national hero. He was soon asked to command the North’s mightiest army.
Fascinating Fact: Garnett was the first general to be killed during the Civil War. Before the war was over, 76 more Confederate and 47 Union generals would be killed in battle.