New River Campaign

May 10 - 23, 1862

Giles Courthouse, Princeton, and Lewisburg

          In the winter of 1861-62, Union General William Rosecrans created a plan along with President Lincoln to capture Southwestern Virginia, with its salt works and lead mines, as part of a grand and unworkable plan to "liberate" the Unionists of East Tennessee.  John C. Fremont took command of the Mountain District in early 1862 and was charged with executing the plan.  Jacob D. Cox's division would advance up the New River to strike the vulnerable Virginia and Tennessee Railroad bridge at Central Depot.  George Crook would advance through Lewisburg to the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad near Salem.  These troops would link up with Yankees under James Garfield near the Big Sandy River in eastern Kentucky along with the rest of Fremont's men, who were to advance from the mountains to Staunton in the Shenandoah Valley.  The whole force was to move into East Tennessee.

    Cox's two brigades began their march south from Fayetteville in April and successfully clashed with Confederates at the Clark House north of Princeton on May 1st.  Pursuing vigorously, the Yankees entered Princeton that day, finding the town in flames.  This was done in order to deny the invaders the supplies stored there, and was on the orders of Col. Jenifer of the 8th Va. Cavalry, which fell back toward Wytheville.  Although a controversial decision, the burning probably prevented the Yankees from remaining long in the area.  For over a week, along with some sugar, coffee, beans, and rice, the Union troops' rations included only one cracker.

1862 Union Plan for the Conquest of Western Virginia

The lead mines were near Wytheville, and not surprisingly, the salt works were at Saltville.  Jeffersonville is now Tazewell, Giles CH is now Pearisburg, and the Narrows are just north of town where the New River cuts through the mountains.  Central Depot is now Radford.  Raleigh CH is now Beckley.  Modern Roanoke is just east of Salem, and although the state boundary is shown, West Virginia did not yet exist.


Confederate Response and Campaign Summary

     Southwest Virginia was weakly held after John Floyd and his brigade were transferred to Fort Donelson, Tennessee not long after Carnifix Ferry.  Col. Gabriel Wharton's 800 man 51st Virginia was at Wytheville, and a 1,500 man brigade under Henry Heth was at Dublin near the New River.  When Col. Rutherford B Hayes advanced his Ohio regiment through the Narrows of the New River and camped at Giles Courthouse, Heth attacked and routed the Union force.  

    Assistance was on the way.  After Gen. Marshall in Abingdon was no longer bothered by Garfield along the Big Sandy, he advanced with his 2,000 man brigade from Abingdon and Jeffersonville toward Cox's lines of communication, forcing him back to Princeton.  He had planned for Wharton and Heth to join him in converging on Princeton, bringing overwhelming strength on Cox at Princeton and hopefully cutting off his retreat.  Wharton was late, however, and Heth turned back after receiving a false report of Union victory, but after a small skirmish at Princeton, Cox would withdraw to Raleigh CH. 

    Crook's column was now vulnerable and withdrew to the west side of Lewisburg after hearing the bad news from the New River and from Fremont's column, which had turned back after a clash at McDowell.  Heth, reinforced with the remnants of Floyd's men from Fort Donelson, moved northeast to block Crook's line of retreat, and narrowly missed doing just that.  Heth then faced Crook across the streets of Lewisburg.

    Let's take a look at these fights individually.



Giles Court House

  May 10, 1862

From Rear of the Union Position  (as seen here through the Christmas tree sap encrusted rear window of a Ford F-150)

    On May 6th, future President Rutherford B. Hayes took his 23rd Ohio regiment forward from Princeton through the formidable, but as of yet undefended, Narrows of the New River, and encamped just beyond Giles Courthouse, now Pearisburg.  Twenty three miles from the main body at Princeton, the important railroad bridge at Central Depot, defended by Henry Heth, was around twenty miles away. 

    Hayes had placed his 600 man command south of town on this ridge, an extension off the much larger Angel Rest Mountain on the right of the picture.  The Union force was made of nine companies of Hayes' 23rd Ohio to the right of the road, and some cavalry on the left.

Confederate Attack

    This is the view from near Hayes' line, probably from just in front of it.  Heth's 1,800 men approached Hayes along this road early on May 10th and bombarded the Union position, to which the artillery-less Federals had no response.  The Confederate infantry approached to with 150 yards and began firing, which was enough to convince the 2nd (W)Va. Cavalry to flee.  Flanked on both sides, Hayes fell back to another position.  Col. George Patton of the 22nd Va., an ancestor to a more famous man of the same name, was wounded as the Confederates routed the Yankees from this later position, and the Northerners unsuccessfully tried to burn a bridge behind them.


    The Narrows, with barely enough room for a road between the mountain and the New River, was the next logical place for the Yankees to make a stand.  But when Heth brought up some guns, Hayes was wounded, and the Federals fell back again.

    At the cost of 2 killed and 4 wounded, Heth had inflicted 20 killed and 50 wounded on the Federals.  Cox's advance was stopped, and now the Confederates plotted his destruction.



  May 16-17, 1862

Front of Confederate Position

    The Confederates were converging on Princeton.  So while sending the 37th Ohio south to screen Wharton's advance, Cox moved to strike Heth first.  But when on the afternoon of May 16th Marshall clashed with Union forces four miles west of Princeton, Cox began to fall back to Princeton to protect his line of retreat.  That evening, Cox still only had 1,000 men in Princeton to Marshall's 2,000, which had arrived on the heights south of town, but since Wharton was expected to arrive the next morning, Marshall decided against attacking.  Instead, he remained on this series of hills, called Buzzard's Roost.  That night Cox withdrew - but then changed his mind and returned to Princeton!  Artillery bombardments and skirmishing started that morning, but little else happened.

From Confederate Rear - The Ambush of the Drunken Germans

   South of town, Wharton's 51st Va had somehow gotten ahead of the 37th Ohio, and for some reason left a wagon of medicinal whiskey behind.  The 51st Va. took up position on Marshall's right flank facing Princeton, on the ridge on the left half of the picture facing toward the distance.  Modern Rt. 460 shown here roughly parallels a wartime road along the edge of the ridge on the left.

    At around 10 in the morning, a heavily "medicated" 37th Ohio, a unit of mostly Germans, came loudly marching down the road toward Princeton.  Well warned, the 51st Va. shifted positions down to a fence by the road, ambushing and routing the Yankees, who then found a less direct route into town.  They had suffered 14 killed and 46 wounded.

    Although Wharton had arrived, because he believed a false report of Confederate defeat at Princeton, Heth never did get to Princeton.  So Marshall never attacked, and Cox withdrew north to safety that night.        




May 23, 1862

    Cox's withdrawal from Princeton left Crook's isolated column vulnerable.  Crook and his Yankee brigade had advanced beyond Lewisburg toward Covington, but withdrew to the west side of town after hearing the bad news from the New River and of Fremont's McDowell failure at the hands of Stonewall Jackson.  Heth had been reinforced by the remnants of Floyd's men from Fort Donelson, and he now moved northeast to block Crook's line of retreat.  Heth just missed cutting off Crook and faced him across the streets of Lewisburg.


From Union Side

     Early on the morning of May 23rd, Heth's men moved through the town across this valley with their center based on modern Route 60 or Washington Street.  Crook's men flanked the attacking Confederates and pushed them back across town.

General Lewis Inn

     The modern site of the General Lewis Inn was about the center of the Confederate defensive line.  

From Confederate Side

     This is the view down the hill defended by the Confederates near the General Lewis Inn.  As pressure from Union attacks increased, Confederate troops resorted to rolling cannon balls down hill.  As the Confederate line collapsed, Union cavalry charged up the hill.   Crook feared that there were other Confederate troops nearby and did not pursue far.  After battle, Heth's men returned to the New River to continue protecting the vital railroad bridge. 

    In late June, Crook raided toward the town of Union between Lewisburg and Giles CH, but both the Union and Confederate sides took troops away from the region that summer, with the Union troops participating in the Antietam campaign.  Gen. Loring took over command of Confederate forces in the region and advanced down the New River all the way to Fayettesville, beyond Raleigh CH, but the returning Yankees forced the rebels to pull back.  Both sides had learned the difficulties of supplying an army of any size in this area - miles beyond river or railroad transportation.  From now on, raids would be used instead.  In May 1864, Crook would reach the railroad bridge at Central Depot, after defeating a Confederate force at Cloyds Mountain.  He would further distinguished himself in the '64 Valley Campaign, and after the war came to head the whole army. 

See also:

Gray Forces Defeated in Battle of Lewisburg   A more detailed account.

topo map   The Union position was around Church Street.  The Confederate line was along Holt Lane.


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