Skirmish at Gauley Bridge, 3 September 1861

A minor battle during the military campaign that secured Union occupation of West Virginia at the start of the American Civil War. One key Union advantage was that they had control of the Ohio River, which forms the north and western borders of the state. This allowed them to mount expeditions in different parts of the state with great ease. Thus when General McClellan learnt that there was a Confederate force under General Henry A. Wise in the Kanawha Valley in the south of the state, he was able to dispatch an expedition to the junction of the Kanawha and Ohio rivers with orders to occupy the lower reaches of the valley.

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

Command of this expedition was given to General Jacob Cox. He was given a force 3,000 strong. Wise had slightly more men, beginning the campaign with 3,500 and finishing it with 4,000, but from the start he acted very defensively. When Cox began to move on 11 July, Wise was based at Tyler Mountain, west of Charleston, the main town in the valley. On 24 July Cox managed to get behind Wise’s position, and the Confederate force fled back into Charleston, and then on the same night abandoned the town and pulled back further into the mountains.

On 25 July Cox occupied Charleston. He could easily have stopped there. Both McClellan, and after his promotion Rosecrans, ordered Cox not to risk a frontal assault on Wise if he stood and fought. However, Wise showed no sign being will to make a stand, being perfectly aware that another much larger Union army was not too far to his north, and could appear behind him at any moment. Cox thus decided to move on towards Gauley Bridge. This position was occupied without any serious opposition. Cox was ordered to fortify his camp at Gauley Bridge and make it his base of operations while he waited for Rosecrans to arrive with the main army.

Cox was now faced with a potential crisis. Another former governor of Virginia, John B. Floyd, had arrived in the Kanawha Valley with 1,200 men. To make things worse, the Kanawha Valley was a pro-Confederate area and provided Wise with 2,000 militiamen. This gave him a combined force of 7,800 men. Luckily for Cox, Wise and Floyd carried a pre-war hatred into their wartime service, and continued to feud when they should have been cooperating. Cox never had to deal with their combined forces.

Wise was able to cooperate with the militia, giving him an effective force of 6,600 men. With this force he now attempted to attack Cox’s camp at Gauley Bridge. However, he negated his numerical advantage by splitting his force in two. Wise led his men in a direct assault along the turnpike road, while the militia were sent along the other bank of the river. This effectively removed them from the fight. They were able to reach the river bank opposite Cox’s camp, but once there could do very little other than fire a few artillery shells into the camp. Meanwhile, Wise had been met east of the camp, and his attack repulsed. Once the main attack had failed, the militia also withdrew.

This defeat, and the inability of the Confederate commanders to work together, effectively ended any chance they had had of success in the Kanawha Valley. General Rosecrans had already begun his march overland towards the northern end of the valley. On 10 September his advance guard clashed with Floyd at Carnifex Ferry, forcing him to retreat, and finally unite with Wise.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (17 January 2007), Skirmish at Gauley Bridge, 3 September 1861 ,

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