West Virginia’s 921,000-acre Monongahela National Forest is probably best known for the forests, streams, and trails that wind through its mountainous terrain. Yet tucked among the thickets of rhododendron and spruce are small pockets of history, often hiding in plain sight. One such pocket includes an interesting piece of the American Civil War and offers insight into the battles that shaped the cultural and geographical boundaries of the Mountain State.
A Brief History of History
West Virginia owes her statehood to the Civil War. There was a simmering cultural and political disconnect between eastern and western Virginia that boiled over when Virginia seceded from the Union in April 1861. Politicians scrambled to form a pro-Union state government while the generals scrambled to secure key infrastructure. The first major military campaign of the Civil War was fought in West Virginia with each side vying for control of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and the Parkersburg-Staunton Turnpike. The B&O was a lifeline of supplies and troops from the midwestern states to Washington, D.C.; the turnpike connected the Ohio River to the Shenandoah Valley. Possession of these routes was essential for success in the eastern theater of war.
By the summer of 1861, after a series of Union victories at Philippi, Rich Mountain, and Corrick’s Ford at Parsons, federal troops had pushed the Confederates back to the Greenbrier Valley. Each side built a fort at a defensible location straddling the Parkersburg-Staunton Turnpike, which is marked today by U.S. Route 250. On Cheat Mountain, near Cheat Bridge, Union forces from Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan constructed Cheat Summit Fort. Meanwhile, on the high ridge southeast of Bartow, Confederate soldiers from Virginia and Georgia built Camp Allegheny. On a clear day, each side could look out across the Greenbrier Valley and see the smoke from their respective enemy’s campfires.
From these fortified positions, the Confederates struck first. In September 1861, Confederates launched a complex attack against Cheat Summit Fort. The thick, virgin red spruce forests on Cheat Mountain impeded communication between the attacking forces and the effort was aborted when the Confederates lost the element of surprise.
By December, it was the Union’s turn to attack Camp Allegheny. Once again, the difficult terrain gave the defenders an advantage. What was supposed to be a well-timed, two-pronged Union attack to overwhelm the Confederates with their superior numbers turned into a staggered one-two punch. The disorganized attack allowed the Confederates to regroup and focus on one Union force at a time. Federal troops actually made it inside Camp Allegheny but were eventually beaten back. After each side suffered about 140 casualties, the Union retreated to Cheat Summit Fort.
Following both failed attacks, the Union and Confederate forces settled in for a long, cold winter. Cheat Summit Fort and Camp Allegheny have the distinction of being the highest elevation encampments occupied during the Civil War. Soldiers’ diaries record snow, freezing rain, and conditions “harsh as the North Pole.” The soldiers built crude cabins inside each fort’s defenses and stripped the forests for firewood. Frostbite, trench foot, and disease put more men out of action than combat. Many veterans called it the “severest campaign” of the war. Despite the hardship and lives lost, or more likely because of it, each side abandoned their fortifications come spring in April 1862. By then, the Civil War had progressed beyond western Virginia, but the marks of these battles would remain on the land—and on the maps—forever.
Today, both Cheat Summit Fort and Camp Allegheny are National Historic Landmarks. Our public land on the Monongahela National Forest protects these encampments and the Forest Service provides excellent brochures, signs, and interpretation at each site.
A Historic Outing
On the December 13 anniversary of the Union attack at Camp Allegheny, I found myself staring at a view that has remained remarkably unchanged over the 159 years since that historic battle. My wife and I traveled to this corner of West Virginia from Charleston to experience a small part of the “severe campaign” for ourselves. Route 250 largely follows the original route of the Parkersburg-Staunton Turnpike that was critically important in 1861. But here, near Camp Allegheny, the highway had been slightly diverted, leaving a sunken and rutted dirt road to mark the original route.
Shooting for historical accuracy, we spent the previous night in a primitive tarp shelter among the pines to protect us from the roaring wind. It was a challenge to cook our simple root-vegetable stew over the campfire—just as the soldiers did. Our breakfast the next morning was easier: just a pot of coffee and some rock-solid hardtack that I baked at home by following a traditional Civil War recipe. It’s highly recommended to soften the hardtack in your coffee to avoid breaking your teeth.
Searching along the ancient ridge, we discovered trenches and fighting holes with a commanding view of the old turnpike below. As we explored the fortifications of Camp Allegheny, I was reminded of Union veteran Ambrose Bierce’s account of a trip he took to revisit the site years after the battle. In his essay, “Bivouac of the Dead,” he observed “long lines of old Confederate fortifications, skillfully designed and so well preserved that an hour’s work by a brigade would put them into serviceable shape for the next civil war.” However, the old cabins did not fare as well in the intervening years. All that remains are stone piles, probably just remnants of chimneys and hearths, neatly lined up with military precision.
Fueled by all that coffee-soaked hardtack, we continued west on the Parkersburg-Staunton Turnpike to see the Union position at Cheat Summit Fort, where the day’s attack originated. Unfortunately for historical context, prevailing conditions here have not lent themselves to battlefield preservation. The forest has reclaimed many of the fortifications, although the outermost wall and trench defenses are still apparent. Like many places across West Virginia, part of Cheat Summit Fort was strip-mined for coal before it was preserved as public land. Despite these changes and the relentless passage of time, you can still appreciate the harsh conditions and rugged landscape that made living and fighting atop Cheat Mountain so difficult.
Approaching my wife’s limit for historical detours in one day, we set our sights for home. Had we continued west along the Parkersburg-Staunton Turnpike, we would have ended up at the Ohio River. There, on a promontory with a sweeping view of the river, lies Fort Boreman, yet another small Civil War site. Fort Boreman was a very strategic location, guarding the western end of the Parkersburg-Staunton Turnpike, the B&O railroad, and a crucial ferry across the Ohio River. The fort was named after Arthur Boreman, West Virginia’s first governor.
A Final Lesson
The influx of federal troops into northwestern Virginia in the summer of 1861 provided pro-Union politicians like Arthur Boreman the security they needed to advance their goal of forming a new state. On June 20, 1863, West Virginia officially entered the Union via presidential proclamation and helped continue the fight against the Confederacy. West Virginia remains the only U.S. state to be created in this way.
When looking at the bizarre and iconic shape of our state today, the reason that the border stops on the eastern edge of Pocahontas County instead of continuing into Highland County, Virginia, is because of a little-known battle that occurred in December 1861. When Union forces failed to dislodge the defenders from Camp Allegheny, they kept the eastern end of a key road—and the land through which it passed—in Confederate hands for years following the battle. You see, your high school teacher was right—history does matter.
While we didn’t see any ghosts guarding their long-lost fortifications, a cold night and a windy day exploring the battlefields certainly increased my connection with the souls that lived and fought in this rugged landscape so many years ago. Without key Union victories in the opening campaign of the Civil War, West Virginia and “montani semper liberi” might never have existed. And without preservation and public lands, much of our history might be lost and forgotten, hiding among the spruce.
Matt Kearns is a native West Virginian, Coast Guard veteran, and avid outdoorsman. He lives in Charleston with one loving wife and two indifferent cats.