On September 10, 1861, the Battle of Carnifex Ferry took place in the opening months of the Civil War at Nicholas County, Virginia (now West Virginia). The Union Army, under the direction of Brig. Gen. William S. Rosecrans sought to stop the advancing Confederate Army, under the direction of Gen. John B. Floyd. The battle took place near Summersville at an important crossing of the Gauley River and resulted in a strategic Union victory. The battle was an impetus to the movement that helped portions of Western Virginia break away to become the 35th state of West Virginia. Two future U.S. presidents, Rutherford B. Hayes, and William McKinley were among the soldiers who fought at Carnifex Ferry.
Events leading up to the Battle of Carnifex Ferry had been unfolding for weeks. Confederate troops had advanced into the Kanawha Valley and launched an attack at Kessler’s Cross Lanes (just over a mile from the ferry crossing) on August 26th. Proceeding to Carnifex Ferry, they drove Henry Patterson and his family from their farmhouse which overlooked the Gauley River. Some 2000 Confederate forces then set up a defensive position on the Patterson farm and along the steep cliffs overlooking the ferry.
In order to take control of the area, Rosecrans assembled a large army of 7,000 to push the Confederates southward. As the Federals advanced, the leading brigade encountered Floyd’s pickets about 3:30 p.m. on the afternoon of September 10th at the ferry.
Rutherford B. Hayes, 38, and William McKinley, 18, both served in the Ohio 23rd Infantry. For many soldiers in the Ohio 23rd, this was their first battle experience (the unit mustered in just three months earlier). During the battle, the 23rd found themselves caught in a friendly fire incident while trying to flank the Confederate line. In the confusion and fleeting daylight, they started firing on their own men, killing two and wounding 30. The Patterson home was also caught in the crossfire from both armies and riddled with bullets. The structure still stands today at the Carnifex Ferry Battlefield State Park.
Fighting continued until dark, at which point the Confederates withdrew and the Union soldiers settled in for the night, prepared to resume the battle at daylight. During the night, Floyd, realizing that he was outnumbered and facing heavy Union artillery, decided to retreat his army across the ferry to the south side of the Gauley River and continue eastward to Meadow Bluff near Lewisburg. The Federals, exhausted from their march to Carnifex Ferry and the ensuing battle and facing adverse weather, decided against pursuit.
The conflict resulted in Union losses of 17 dead and 141 wounded. Confederate losses totaled 30 wounded with an unknown number of deaths. The Battle of Carnifex Ferry allowed the Federals to secure the Kanawha Valley and its tributaries which gave protection to those who favored secession from Virginia. Six weeks after the battle, residents of areas controlled by Union forces voted to form their own state, and in 1863, West Virginia joined the Union.
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