The Coal River Valley in the Civil War


by Katie Parry

The History Press

Here is an interview with Michael Graham, author of the new book The Coal River Valley in the Civil War: West Virginia Mountains, 1861 (The History Press, 2014).  This new book expertly describes and analyzes this little known series of Civil War operations in southern West Virginia and brings to life many of the key figures involved in these small but important events.

Q: You are known for writing a number of great books about World War II, especially the US Marine Corps.  Your book Mantle of Heroism: Tarawa and the Struggle for the Gilberts, November 1943 (Presidio, 1993), won the Military Book Club Main Selection award.  You were the principal writer for the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) series Faces of Victory (Addax, 1995) volume Pacific: The Fall of the Rising Sun and contributed to Europe: Liberating a Continent.  What attracted you to West Virginia's Coal River Valley in the Civil War as a subject?

Mike Graham: I am a Boone County, West Virginia, native.  I was born in Madison, the county seat and center of the Coal River Valley, and was raised there for the most part.  I went to Scott High School in Madison and Marshall University.  The region has a rich history and was named for Daniel Boone, the famous frontiersman who lived there.  In the Civil War, my mom and dad's sides were mixed Union and Confederate -- brothers against brothers and such.  Hearing all these stories from a young age, I acquired an interest in the region's history.  Later writing for the local newspaper, the Coal Valley News, I spent innumerable hours driving throughout the valley and got to know the famous local history and genealogy expert, "Sig" Olafson, who wrote about the region.  Sig was born in the 1800s and was ancient when I knew him and would say things like, "At the fork in the road, look to the left and up on the hill is where Jimmy so-and-so fought off bushwhackers in '64, or down in this or that bottom is where Captain so-and-so swore in his rangers."  Sig knew more about the valley's history than any one person could ever have written about, and I was fortunate he shared what he knew and some of it stuck.

Q: What made you decide to write this book about the Civil War operations in the Coal River Valley?

MG: When I was growing up in the area, in the 1960s and 1970s, the war in the Coal River Valley was not much talked about openly. The schools did not teach it.  Certainly, little was written about it. The subject was taboo, and it was unusual to hear much about it. It was still too sensitive to discuss—even over a hundred years later.  The more I learned over the decades from my own reading and research and oral traditions, and fitting together all the lost pieces, I simply felt that this was a history whose time had come and that needed to be published.

Q: What was the situation of the Confederate and Union forces before the operations in the Coal River Valley commenced in 1861?

MG: Union Major General George B. McClellan had invaded West Virginia in the summer and Brig. Gen. Jacob D. Cox, leading a brigade as part of McClellan's West Virginia campaign, had captured Charleston in July 1861 after defeating Confederate Brig. Gen. Henry A. Wise's defense of the Kanawha Valley at Scary Creek.  All of Cox's army except Col. James V. Guthrie's 1st Kentucky Infantry defending Charleston was concentrated at Gauley Bridge.  When Cox learned that a Confederate militia regiment was organizing at Boone Court House south of the Kanawha River, he reinforced Guthrie with several companies of the 26th Ohio and 4th (West) Virginia Infantry regiments.  He directed Guthrie to attack and, as he put it, "beat up the rebels."  A look at any map shows how Cox's line of communications was extremely vulnerable to Confederate troops massing south of Charleston at Boone Court House.  Cox had to act.

Q: What was the geography the Union and Confederate forces faced in the Coal River Valley?

MG: The southwestern part of West Virginia south of Charleston is extremely rugged land and includes the state’s rich southern coalfields.  The region is actually a plateau that over the eons has been deeply eroded by river action.  The result is innumerable narrow, winding valleys and hollows and narrow, sharp-crested ridges, with very steep slopes and ravines.  High ground is commonly more than 1,000 feet, and the populations were largely confined to the narrow valley floors and riverside floodplains.  That is the case even today.  During the Civil War, the region was a wilderness.  The slopes were all overgrown with original hardwood forest and there were few roads in the region and even these were rudimentary.  This made control of the natural passes and gaps in the mountain chains a strategic objective of both sides.  That's why places like what is today Racine (then Mouth of Short Creek), Madison (then Boone Court House), Walnut Gap and Kanawha Gap became the focus of military attention, because these were the only practical avenues through the mountainous terrain which was the biggest natural obstacle to the movement of the forces of both sides and their ability to control territory.

Q: During the afternoon of August 31, the Rebels launched a bold attack against General Cox's forces at present day Danville.  How did this failed assault affect affairs?

MG: With Cox's line of communications with Charleston and Ohio beyond under strain, Guthrie dispatched Lieut. Col. David Enyart into the Coal River Valley on a raid at the end of August 1861. A 550-man battalion-sized force of companies from the 26th Ohio, 1st Kentucky, and 4th (West) Virginia infantry regiments and Simmonds' battery of the 1st Kentucky Light Artillery marched to secure Cox's southern flank and rear. The bold plan was jeopardized when Southern scouts forewarned Confederate colonel Ezekiel S. Miller at Boone Court House. Forewarned by this intelligence, Miller called on Logan County's Confederate militia to reinforce his force of Boone Confederates. The Union troops under Enyart marched to the crossroads county seat of Boone County for what would come to be known as the Battle of Boone Court House. As the Union raiding force emerged from the gap over Newport Mountain in the Rock Creek mountain range on August 31, Miller launched a pre-emptive attack on the Federals as they emerged from the mountains two miles from Boone Court House at the plains of Little Coal River, Red House (Boone), but were repulsed. There are few historical details but the official records indicate that it was a sharp encounter. In fact, the Federals roughly handled the Rebel militia, who retreated back to Boone Court House bloodied for the effort, and this action set the stage for the Battle of Boone Court House the next day. When the Rebel attack failed, Enyart turned the raid into an all out attack. On the Rebel side, Miller moved his entire force of about 225 militia to the south side of the Little Coal River to await the coming attack. In reality, his attack and repulse at Newport made Enyart's attack easier because it weakened the Rebel strength and morale.

Q: Your book describes many heroic acts of both Union and Confederate troops. Did any of those stories impact you more than the others?

MG: Captain Samuel C. Rook of the 26th Ohio Regiment made an impression. He had landed at Vera Cruz with Winfield Scott in the Mexican War, and he led a company at Boone Court House. Although Captain Joseph T. Wheeler, 1st Kentucky, ordered the Federal force to charge at a critical moment in the battle, it is not widely known today but Rook is the one who actually led the charge across the Little Coal River. Although Wheeler got most of the historical credit, at the time he and Rook were briefly both early war heroes. My book corrects that somewhat.

Q: Describe the Battle of Boone Court House on September 1, 1861.

MG: During the night of August 31, 200 Union militia reinforcements arrived at Red House, now Danville, and reinforced the 550 Federal troops already there.  The next morning, September 1, the Federals now numbering 750 troops converged on the town of Boone Court House from the west and north. After 30 minutes of firing at each other across the river, the Federals attacked the Rebel center at the ford. Ordered by the 1st Kentucky's Capt. Joseph T. Wheeler but led by Capt. Samuel C. Rook, 26th Ohio, Rook's Charge carried across the river and broke the Rebel line, driving the Confederate defenders back through the streets of the town. The Rebels believed they faced a largely superior force that numbered 1,200 men and began withdrawing toward Logan Court House 40 miles away on the Guyandotte River, thus concluding the Battle of Boone Court House. In this opening event in the Coal River Valley campaign, the Confederates lost an estimated 55 killed, wounded, and captured including political prisoners and captured slaves. The Union lost 11 known total, including two dead and nine wounded. At the time, the action was noted among the important battles and strategic moments thus far in the war. Newspapers in Europe and even Australia carried the news of the battle.

Q: At what point did Confederate colonel Ezekiel Miller realize the threat to his command?  And what did he do about it?

MG: Actually, Ezekiel Miller foresaw exactly what unfolded.  His scouts were very active and kept him well informed of the Union troop movements.  He just did not fathom the ferocity of the Union attack.  And when it came, the onslaught was more than the outnumbered and poorly equipped Rebel militia could withstand.  That was the case throughout the 30 days or so of the Coal River Valley operations in August-September 1861.  In these actions, the Confederates were militarily outnumbered roughly 1,600 to 500, or about 4 to 1, in terms of the number of troops that were actually engaged in the battles at Boone Court House, Coal River, Pond Fork and Kanawha Gap altogether.

Q: Since you were born and raised in the area where these events occurred, you know the place well.  How do the battlegrounds today compare to 1861?

MG: Today, a century and half after the war’s end, virtually no evidence of the events remains visible in the Coal River Valley—or statues, monuments, markers or plaques.  These events were isolated from the Civil War’s larger theaters and the story never gained much lasting attention, and it became one of the least known.  The men from this region who fought to preserve the Union or to establish the Confederacy and the roles they played in the Civil War have been largely forgotten.  Hopefully this book will have a positive effect on that situation.  As the book helps illustrate and explain, Boone Court House, Coal River, Pond Fork and Kanawha Gap were all connected and very important to how the war developed in southern West Virginia.

Q: Speak more about the Confederate defenders holding the Coal River line.  Who were they?  Did they have a chance?

MG: They were local militia raised and organized in Boone and Logan Counties for the most part, probably with some Wyoming County men mixed in.  They were part of General Alfred A. Beckley's brigade of General Henry A. Wise's small army in the Kanawha Valley.  Based at Boone Court House, they were waiting to receive the Union attack, but their numbers were small.  They were brave and defiant and certainly spirited, but they probably never had much of a chance.  They did not know it but they were simply too weak and poorly equipped and armed and were basically overpowered.  When Rook's Charge carried the Little Coal and he drove the Confederate militia back into the town itself, the Rebels lost any real opportunity for holding their position and they disengaged.  That proved the smart thing to do, though, because it prevented Enyart from fully succeeding.  Had the Rebels stayed and slugged it out further in the town, they would have been surrounded and destroyed.  In getting away, they were able to reorganize at Logan Court House and take the field again a few weeks later at Kanawha Gap when their naive enthusiasm that preceded the earlier encounter at Boone Court House was gone.

Q: In your description of the Union attack at Boone Court House, you describe how Rook's company charged, breaking the Confederate defenses.  What effect did this have on the battle?

MG: The evidence is clear that the key event of the battle was when Rook's Charge did not stop at the river.  He led the Federals as they plunged into the Little Coal and began to ford the river while under Rebel fire. The Rebel militia, defending their county and homes, held their ground in the path of the oncoming Federals until they began giving way believing that they faced 1,200 Federals charging.  The Federals who stormed ashore carried the south bank of the river and cleaned out the town, collecting prisoners.  From a tactical perspective, this attack ended the fight.  In historical retrospect, Captain Rook's courage and leadership might have merited the Congressional Medal of Honor.


A life-long student of military history, Michael B. Graham, PhD, has written or contributed to many books, including Liberating a Continent: The European Theater, Vol. 1, and Fall of the Rising Sun: The Pacific Theater, Vol. 2, in The Faces of Victory: The United States in World War II (Addax Publishing, 1995). He authored Mantle of Heroism: Tarawa and the Struggle for the Gilberts. November 1943 (Presidio Press, 1993), the October 1993 Main Selection/Book-of-the-Month of the Military Book Club.