August 31, 2020 by Jenny Ashcraft
On September 10, 1861, the Battleof Carnifex Ferry took place in the opening months of the Civil War at NicholasCounty, Virginia (now West Virginia). The Union Army, under the direction of Brig.Gen. WilliamS. Rosecrans sought to stop the advancing Confederate Army, under thedirection of Gen. John B. Floyd.The battle took place near Summersville at an important crossing of the GauleyRiver and resulted in a strategic Union victory. The battle was an impetus tothe movement that helped portions of Western Virginia break away to become the35th state of West Virginia. Two future U.S. presidents, RutherfordB. Hayes, and William McKinley were among the soldiers who fought at CarnifexFerry.
Events leading up to the Battle of Carnifex Ferry had beenunfolding for weeks. Confederate troops had advanced into the KanawhaValley and launched an attack at Kessler’s Cross Lanes (just over a milefrom the ferry crossing) on August 26th. Proceeding to CarnifexFerry, they drove Henry Patterson and his family from their farmhouse whichoverlooked the Gauley River. Some 2000 Confederate forces then set up adefensive position on the Patterson farm and along the steep cliffs overlookingthe ferry.
In order to take control of the area, Rosecrans assembled alarge armyof 7,000 to push the Confederates southward. As the Federals advanced, theleading brigade encountered Floyd’s pickets about 3:30 p.m. on the afternoon ofSeptember10th at the ferry.
Rutherford B.Hayes, 38, and WilliamMcKinley, 18, both served in the Ohio 23rdInfantry. For many soldiers in the Ohio23rd, this was their first battle experience (the unit mustered injust three months earlier). During the battle, the 23rd found themselves caughtin a friendly fire incident while trying to flank the Confederate line. In theconfusion and fleeting daylight, they started firing on their own men, killingtwo and wounding 30. The Patterson home was also caught in the crossfire fromboth armies and riddled with bullets. The structure still stands today at theCarnifex Ferry Battlefield State Park.
Fighting continued until dark, at which point theConfederates withdrew and the Union soldiers settled in for the night, preparedto resume the battle at daylight. During the night, Floyd,realizing that he was outnumbered and facing heavy Union artillery, decided to retreathis army across the ferry to the south side of the Gauley River and continueeastward to Meadow Bluffnear Lewisburg. The Federals, exhausted from their march to Carnifex Ferry andthe ensuing battle and facing adverse weather, decided against pursuit.
The conflict resulted in Union losses of 17 dead and 141wounded. Confederate losses totaled 30 wounded with an unknown number ofdeaths. The Battle of Carnifex Ferry allowed the Federals to secure the KanawhaValley and its tributaries which gave protection to those who favored secessionfrom Virginia. Six weeks after the battle, residents of areas controlled byUnion forces voted to form their own state, and in 1863, WestVirginia joined the Union.
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