We are anxious to meet the foe, for we have them to whip, and
the sooner we do it, the sooner we will be able to return to the
dear loved ones at home.
- A letter home from Laurel Hill by John B. Pendleton, 23rd
Virginia Infantry, C.S.A.
BELINGTON - Four gravestones stand sentry at the head of a sunken
mass grave. A whitewashed rail fence surrounds it and a Confederate
flag flutters over it.
Four gravestones — erected by a recent Union government
— mark this mass Confederate grave at the Laurel Hill
It's a short hike through a hayfield to get here, although somebody
has close-clipped a grassy walking trail through the waving
seedheads. There's nothing but mountains, and woods, and quiet.
It's as if time stopped here in 1861, right after these dead
Confederates lost one of the very first land battles of the Civil
That makes Laurel Hill - a low knob overlooking the cattle farms
of Barbour County - a very rare jewel indeed: a Civil War
battlefield unspoiled by tourism.
"It's like stepping back in time," said Hunter Lesser,
an Elkins archaeologist and historic consultant who served as
technical adviser for The Conservation Fund's "The Civil War
Lesser wrote the book on the battle of Laurel Hill. His
"Rebels at the Gate" became a History Book Club main
selection in 2004. He has been involved with several nationwide
historical groups, including the Civil War Preservation Trust and
the National Park Service.
Now, he's supporting local groups in their effort to get greater
recognition - and possibly more tourist traffic - for a string of
battlefields across rural West Virginia, starting with the very
first land battle of the Civil War: the famed "Philippi
"People are really impressed by how well preserved some of
these sites are," Lesser said. "Last fall, I spent a
couple of days with a fellow who's doing a survey for the American
Battlefield Protection Program," an arm of the National Park
"He'd never seen these battlefields before. He was just
amazed at the preservation of the sites we have here, and the
outstanding scenic quality."
The Smithsonian Institution's Smithsonian Associates tours have
already come more than once, Lesser said.
"The whole 'First Campaign' tour starts at Philippi and goes
southeast to the Virginia line, at Camp Allegheny," he said.
"That's only 400 feet lower than Spruce Knob, the highest point
in the state. So you go from this scenic, pastoral farmland,
eventually up into the high Alleghenies. People seem to really like
Civil War buffs have seen all the other sites, Lesser said.
Laurel Hill and its sister battlefields are something new.
"You can only go to Antietam or Gettysburg or Shiloh so many
times," he said.
'The gates to the northwestern country'
Every West Virginia schoolchild learns about the "Philippi
Races," so named because that's how fast the rebels ran away
from that first land battle of the war.
But present-day West Virginia was Virginia back then. It was
Confederate country, and the rebels didn't give it up without at
least a little bit more of a fight.
Confederate Gen. Robert Garnett had 5,000 troops, trying to hold
back 20,000 Union soldiers, Lesser said.
"He identified two key passes - one at Rich Mountain,"
about 20 miles south of Philippi, "and one at Laurel Hill.
"He called them 'the gates to the northwestern
Union Gen. George McClellan did indeed attack Laurel Hill - but
it was just a diversion. He sent a brigade to skirmish with the
rebels for five days while he took the bulk of his army and captured
Garnett realized he would soon be cut off, because his supply
line ran through Beverly, just five miles west of the Rich Mountain
"General Garnett tried to flee south," Lesser said.
"He believed he was cut off. Actually, he could have made it.
... He circled north and got into the Cheat River valley in Tucker
"He ended up being killed on a riverbank, right in
present-day Parsons, at a place called Corrick's Ford."
Garnett was the first general killed in the Civil War.
[Fendall] Whitlock of our company died a few days since. We
buried him on the side of a mountain ...
- Last letter home by John B. Pendleton, killed in action at
It is believed that fewer than a dozen Confederate soldiers died
at Laurel Hill. They were buried in a common grave. But only four of
them have headstones, courtesy of the federal government: John H.
Blake, 19; Charles H. Goff, 19; Robert Oney, 21; and Fendall C.
"Those were the only ones with documentation acceptable to
the government - without disinterring and DNA testing," said
Lynne Snyder of the Belington Convention and Visitor's Bureau.
Snyder is part of a group that has applied for National Register
of Historic Places designation for the Laurel Hill battlefield.
Measured in casualties, Laurel Hill wasn't much of a battle.
"But if you measure battlefields by their political effect,
it's an important battlefield indeed," Lesser said.
For one thing, Laurel Hill and its sister battles - the first
campaign of the Civil War - gave rise to Gen. George McClellan.
"McClellan was a master of PR," Lesser said. "He
had a secret weapon: the telegraph.
"He set up a telegraph at Beverly and sent a series of
dramatic press releases to Washington. President Lincoln was a
visitor to the telegraph office, so he was often getting these
McClellan apparently spared no flourish in trumpeting his
accomplishments in present-day West Virginia, Lesser said.
"McClellan was an overnight sensation ...
"This was about a week before the first great battle:
Impressed with McClellan's apparent genius at Laurel Hill and its
sister battles, Lincoln called him from Beverly to command the Union
army at Manassas.
Unfortunately, "McClellan's underlings had actually taken
the initiative here" in present-day West Virginia, Lesser said.
"He was a good organizer, but not a good battlefield
Union forces were expected to stomp the Confederacy at Manassas,
ending the Civil War before it could even start.
But under McClellan, "it wound up being a Confederate
victory," Lesser said.
"McClellan's rise actually prolonged the Civil War quite a
There was one other big result of the Civil War's first campaign,
Lesser said: the state of West Virginia.
"The Union presence here in western Virginia gave the
Wheeling delegates the presence they needed," he said.
"By 1861, there was a Union government here and a
Confederate government in Richmond. Two years later, West Virginia
was made a state."
Tourists spend $3 million a year at Mo. battlefield
Local groups have done a little sprucing up around Laurel Hill.
With a $230,000 federal grant, the Belington Convention and Visitors
Bureau and the Laurel Hill Reenactment Foundation bought 50 acres of
the battlefield site, installed interpretive signs at the graveyard
and other places of interest, and dug a well.
The well will provide water for the 1,000 to 3,000 people who
usually show up each July for the annual re-enactment of the Laurel
Local groups have applied for funding for a visitors center. But
they don't plan to do too much development.
"We want to try and maintain it as pristine as
possible," Snyder said. "We don't want to commercialize it
to the point where it's a bunch of hamburger stands."
Relatively small battlefields have become major tourist
One month after the battle at Laurel Hill, Gen. Nathaniel Lyon
became the first Union general to die. That battlefield, at Wilson's
Creek in Missouri, now has a National Park Service interpretive
center with a movie and driving tour. Tourists spend $3.1 million a
year there, according to a 2006 study of the economic benefits of
battlefield parks commissioned by The Civil War Preservation Trust.
Not all people who live around Laurel Hill agree with the plan to
make it a historic site and a tourist destination, Snyder said. Some
fear a historic designation would interfere with their freedom to do
what they want with their property, she said.
Before the "First Campaign" sites can become a real
tourist destination, Lesser said, "We have to have more
citizens aware of the fact that heritage tourism is a viable form of
economic development. It will eventually create jobs and
opportunities for people who live around battlefields and camps.
It's not going to happen overnight, of course."
But the sites of the Civil War's first land battles - still
almost exactly as the soldiers found them in 1861 - make a strong
historic trail, Lesser said.
"Together, they make a compelling package," he said.
To contact (Charleston Gazette) staff writer Tara Tuckwiller, use e-mail or call