On April 12, 1861, an Oberlin College student named Martin M. Andrews turned 22 years old. While the day would prove to be memorable as birthdays usually are, it would not be celebratory. Early in the morning that same day, Confederate forces of South Carolina attacked a Unites States Army garrison at Fort Sumter, initiating the Civil War. Three days later, President Lincoln issued a call for 75,000 volunteers. In Oberlin, where “the most intensely patriotic feeling was aroused”, more than 100 men signed up to join the local military company. They were to be the first of many men from Oberlin and the surrounding area to fight for their country during the Civil War.1
The Oberlin men who joined what would become Company ‘C’ of the 7th Ohio Volunteer Infantry participated in many of the major and famous campaigns of the war. However, their very first taste of war, the Battle of Kessler’s Cross Lanes in what is now West Virginia, is not well known. It took place in a corner of the country not widely regarded as a major theater of the war. The body count at Kessler’s Cross Lanes was far less than those of greater and more costly battles that would follow. Nevertheless, it provided the men of Company ‘C’ seasoning for what was to follow.
Company C and the Formation of the 7th OVI
A majority of the enlistees were students at Oberlin College, like Martin M. Andrews, while others were farmers from the surrounding area. They were also fervently religious and well hewed in abolitionist sentiment. Theodore Wilder, a private who joined the company, said of the men “Patriotism and the doctrine of Anti-Slavery very naturally found a place in the category of their principles”.2 Giles Waldo Shurtleff, a tutor at Oberlin College, was elected Captain. In late April, Shurtleff and his men went to Camp Taylor, in Cleveland, where they were mustered into service of the United States as Company ‘C’ of the 7th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. On May 5th the company went by train to Camp Dennison, near Cincinnati. Once they arrived, Company ‘C’ began to drill with the other companies of the regiment under their commander, Colonel Erastus B. Tyler. Here they learned the art of soldiering and performed guard duty.3
During the summer of 1861, the Union army enjoyed success throughout western Virginia. General McClellan had defeated Confederate forces at Rich Mountain in July, making him a national hero, and General William Rosecrans successfully pushed Confederate forces out of the Kanawha Valley near Charleston. There was strong Unionist sentiment throughout the western part of Virginia. A convention was planned in August to meet in Wheeling to enact an ordinance for a separation from the Commonwealth of Virginia. In response to this, Confederate authorities in Richmond rallied to push Union forces out of western Virginia and bring it under control before the convention could take place. To accomplish this, the Confederate plan was to use General Robert E. Lee’s forces against Rosecrans in the northeast section of the region. Meanwhile, the Confederate Generals John B. Floyd and Henry A. Wise were to push against Union Generals Jacob Dolson Cox and Rosecrans southwest of there.4 Rosecrans and Cox sought to block Floyd and Wise in the Kanawha Valley, an “important corridor of commerce” for cities along the river, and a likely Confederate invasion path towards the Ohio Valley.5
The 7th OVI in Western Virginia
By August the 7th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment found itself in the rugged mountain terrain of western Virginia. They had left Camp Dennison, near Cincinnati, on June 26th by rail and found themselves in Clarksburg, western Virginia the next day.6 The commander of the 7th OVI, Colonel Erastus B. Tyler had orders to meet up with the forces under Brigadier General Jacob Dolson Cox, then at Gauley Bridge along the Gauley River, some 20 miles ‘upriver’ from Charleston. Because of his pre-war occupation as a fur-trapper in the region, Tyler and his regiment were selected to lead the expedition to Gauley Bridge.7
A few days later on August 10th, General Cox learned of a Confederate push into his region. Estimates of Floyd’s and Wise’s combined strength were around 12,000 men. Cox, knowing his own numbers to be far less than that and knowing the logistical importance of his position, had to come up with a plan. He knew he was on his own for at least two weeks until General Rosecrans could come to his aid from the north.8 General Cox had under his command the 11th, 12th and 21st Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiments, as well as the 2nd Kentucky Infantry. To check any advance by the Confederates, Cox spread his brigade to vital points along the Gauley River. Two regiments were posted at Gauley Bridge, eight companies were thrown out as skirmishers to detect enemy advancements, and a regiment was posted along the river itself to discourage attacks on steamboats and lines of communication.9 (see map below)
On August 13th, Colonel Tyler received orders from General Rosecrans to march for Kessler’s Cross Lanes, a small village crossroads just a few miles north of the Gauley River and about twenty miles east of Gauley Bridge. On August 15th, the 7th OVI reached its destination. The regiment was posted in front of Cox’s brigade, along with the 13th and 23rd Ohio regiments. These units acted as an advanced guard and kept communications open between Rosecrans and Cox. Colonel Tyler’s main objective was to guard all crossings of the Gauley River against the approaching Confederates.10 Kessler’s Cross Lanes was strategically important. Judson Cross, a lieutenant in Company C, wrote “it commanded three important ferries over that wild, rapid mountain stream, the Gauley River.”11
General Rosecrans wanted Tyler to scout the enemy’s position, to strike them whenever he could and, if attacked, to hold his position along the Gauley crossings as long as possible. Aside from being on picket duty, Tyler’s green soldiers in the 7th OVI were drilled daily. Private Daniel S. Judson of Company ‘C’ wrote in his journal, “The col. is very serious we should be prefecture in our drill. Especially in skirmishing." There was an ever present threat of Confederate attack. The men were told to sleep with their rifles close by and began to sense the dangers of serving in the field. Private Judson noted none of the men got much sleep during the nights camped at Kessler’s Cross Lanes. Cold nights, hard ground and fear all contributed to keeping the men awake. Though no large scale attack came, there was skirmishing among the pickets and gunfire was exchanged. During the night of August 19th Colonel Tyler learned that a captain of the 7th OVI’s Company K and five privates were attacked by the Confederates.12
Despite the advantage of holding Kessler’s Cross Lanes, Cox perceived a threat on his line at Gauley Bridge by General Wise. General Wise was intent to set up his own camp a few miles away at a location known as “Hawks Nest”, apart from his colleague and rival General Floyd. Cox saw this as an aggressive movement on his front and ordered Tyler to bring the 7th OVI to Twenty Mile Creek, six miles from Gauley Bridge, “where it was important to guard a road passing to my rear, and to meet any attempt to turn my flank if the attack should be determinedly made by the whole force of the enemy.” Tyler received his orders around 10pm on August 20th. An hour later, the regiment was on the move.13
That night, the road to Twenty Mile Creek was in terrible condition. It was full of mud holes and flooded over by the Gauley River in a number of places. Men in the 7th OVI wrote afterward that it was the worst march they had ever made in their short military careers. The march was made doubly difficult by being started so late, just after the men had laid down to rest after being on duty all day long. Despite the hardships, the 7th OVI managed to cover the 18 miles to Twenty Mile Creek in about 7 hours, arriving at their destination around 6am on the morning of the 21st.
Unfortunately for General Cox, his ordered movement of the 7th OVI was made under a false assumption. In fact, there was no true threat to Cox’s position at Gauley Bridge. Instead, Floyd moved from Hawks Nest and on August 22nd crossed the Gauley River at Carnifex Ferry, a few miles south of Kessler’s Cross Lanes and posted his men on a high bank of the river.14 By this point, Cox had become satisfied there was no threat on his front. Not being aware of Floyd’s crossing at Carnifex Ferry on the 22nd, he ordered Tyler back to Kessler’s Cross Lanes to secure it before the Confederates could seize the crossroads. Cox’s orders to Tyler contained one caveat, and that was for Tyler to march back to Kessler’s Cross Lanes as soon as his troops were rested. Instead of moving on the 22nd, Tyler waited and rested his men. When Cox found out Tyler had not moved by the afternoon of the 23rd, he was shocked to say the least. An officer present noted Cox was “much excited” having heard of this and sent orders for Tyler to move first thing on the morning of the 24th. Cox was adamant the position at Kessler’s Cross Lanes be secured against Floyd.15
Despite Cox’s urging for a movement in the morning, orders within the regiment to move were not issued until after breakfast. The regiment didn’t get under way until noon. Again the men faced tough marching. The condition of the roads had improved, but the regiment was ordered to march at the double quick towards their objective. The march was held up as the 7th OVI waded across the meandering and serpentine Laurel Creek eighteen times. Tyler’s men marched until 5pm when they came upon Floyd’s pickets at a creek ford about a mile from Kessler’s Cross Lanes. The presence of the enemy seems to have tested Tyler’s nerve. Around nightfall, after some light skirmishing with Floyd’s pickets, he ordered the 7th OVI back a few miles to the base of Panther Mountain where they bivouacked.16
The countermarch to Panther Mountain elicited some grumbling by the men. Private Daniel S. Judson noted in his journal “Went back three miles amid much fault finding and the like.” The men were obviously tired, but were also probably spoiling for a fight. General Cox also expressed his displeasure at the countermarch. Despite local information putting the Confederate strength around 7,000, Cox complained that Tyler performed no adequate reconnaissance of the enemy before withdrawing. As a result, Tyler’s understanding of the true nature of the Confederate position was less than adequate. Cox sent another set of orders which reached Tyler at the base of Panther Mountain early on the 25th. He urged Tyler to advance on the enemy. Tyler was ordered to “make a dash at them” and to keep his unit together if a retreat became necessary. Though Cox didn’t believe the enemy’s strength to be near 7,000 he conceded the need to advance with caution. At this point Cox still did not ascertain that Floyd had crossed with the bulk of his forces. We know this because his orders to Tyler were to “give them such a check as to stop their crossing”. Cox ordered Tyler to fall back if the enemy’s numbers were too great, but barring that, the primary objective was to gain Kessler’s Cross Lanes.17
Prelude to the Battle
On the morning of August 25th, the regiment moved towards Kessler’s Cross Lanes again. The exact time of their departure is disputed. 1st Lt. George L. Wood of Company ‘H’ remembered their movement as starting at 9am, while Tyler wrote in his Official Report the regiment moved at 6am. Before they moved, the men were distributed extra cartridges and caps, a sure sign that a fight was at hand. After a few miles on the march, the 7th OVI came again to the ford along the creek where they had met Floyd’s pickets the evening before. The regiment moved across the ford and marched another mile when Tyler ordered Co. ‘C’ into ambush while the rest of the companies went forward. Tyler intended to use Co. ‘C’ as the defensive line if the rest of the regiment had to fall back.
While the rest of the regiment moved forward, the men of Co. ‘C’ waited with thoughts of impending battle going through their heads. Not all men were so anxious as to not be able to rest. Private Judson noted that more than a few men fell asleep and were snoring loudly. Judson, already unnerved by the prospect of going into battle for the first time, wrote of the afternoon, “I was not a little disturbed and annoyed by those who could lie down and sleep. Sleep accompanied by much music of the nasal organs is bad enough at all times but unendurable at such [a time] as this.”18
Meanwhile, after many hours of cautious movement, the 7th OVI reached Kessler’s Cross Lanes by 5pm. There had been light skirmishing with elements of Floyd’s cavalry videttes during the days’ advance, but no serious fighting occurred. By the time Tyler reached Kessler’s Cross Lanes, there was no sign of the enemy save for deposits of abandoned meat and corn. Once the regiment was again consolidated, Co. ‘C’ was assigned with Co. ‘H’ to a small wooded hill in the south of town while other companies performed reconnaissance duties throughout the area.19
During the next few hours there was sporadic gunfire as the pickets of the 7th OVI felt and probed for the enemy in the woods. Darkness began to fall and while no men were wounded, a rumor went through the ranks that one man of the 7th OVI was shot, found by Confederates who bayoneted him and left him to die in the woods. Reports from locals with Union sympathies came to Tyler and his staff, telling them Floyd had crossed Carnifex Ferry a few days prior with a force of around 6,000. They said his force was still out there and urged caution. There was a feeling amongst some of Tyler’s staff, however, that the light resistance the 7th OVI encountered was merely the rear guard of Floyd as his main force re-crossed the Gauley River. Those faithful to this belief surmised that Floyd had considered the 7th OVI to be the vanguard of a much larger army. In his after action report, Tyler himself wasn’t clear on what he believed to be his disposition in regard to the enemy. He must have felt some danger, because a bulk of his force was on picket duty at one time or another the night of the 25th. Co. ‘A’ was posted on the road leading to Summerville, northeast of their position. Co. ‘C’ was placed on a road leading more northerly to Elk River. Co. ‘E’ was posted on another road which led roughly southwest to a minor ferry crossing on the Gauley River. Co. ‘K’ was posted on the road that led directly to Carnifex Ferry, south of the regiment’s position.20 The remainder of the regiments bivouacked along the road to Gauley Bridge, just southwest of where Co. ‘C’ was posted.
The scattering of his men suggests that Tyler was not quite sure where Floyd had gone and that he had no concrete ideas on what Floyd’s intentions might be. It is unclear why Tyler spread his forces out in such a manner. Cox felt Tyler’s position at Kessler’s Cross Lanes to be unsound. In an after battle report, Cox said that Tyler’s placement of his men was “improper” and that his “outpost duty [was] so completely neglected”.21 It seems as though Tyler was trying to prevent against any and all avenues of a potential threat, which effectively weakened his regiment in the process.
The Battle of Kessler's Cross Lanes
The men of the 7th slept little that night, if at all. Though it was still August, the men shivered through the cold mountain night, made more miserable by Tyler’s ban on fires. Many were up before sunrise and, ignoring Tyler’s ban on fires, took to cooking some of the beef and corn the Confederates had left behind. Some crackers had also been obtained by the regiment for sustenance. As the kindling started to do its work on the fires, the sky slowly began to lighten, and then a shot rang out, then another. A spattering of musket fire was coming from the direction of Co. ‘K’, on the road to Carnifex Ferry. The men at Kessler’s Cross Lanes waited and listened. As the firing grew in quicker succession and intensity, their ears told them the firing was not the usual spattering of a probe against their outpost, but an assault on their position. The men of the 7th OVI were about to get their first taste of combat. In his journal, Private M. M. Andrews of Co. ‘C’ wrote that after hearing the opening shots “The long roll was sounded. Every man left his untasted[sic] breakfast, and at the command ‘Fall In’, took his place in the ranks-Floyd’s army was upon us”.22
Following the command to ‘Fall In’, the companies along the road to Gauley Bridge rallied around Col. Tyler in front of a slight elevation near the town church. As they did this, Co. ‘K’ popped out of the woods near Carnifex Ferry and moved in a long skirmish line. Behind Co. ‘K’ suddenly appeared masses of Confederate columns. Their advance had followed Company K down the road towards the bulk of the regiment, a little over half a mile away. After clearing the woods, the Confederates deviated to their right, into a field and onto a small ridge where they formed into lines of battle. The Confederates were now perpendicular to Tyler’s left flank, about 600 yards away. In front of the bewildered Company K, another column of Confederates was seen advancing up the road. They were augmented by cavalry. Artillery was being dragged into place on a slight rise behind them. Company ‘K’ made a vain effort to halt the advancing column, while half of the men formed a skirmish line and the others retreated with some confusion.
Meanwhile Company ‘A’, which had been on picket slightly east of the 7th OVI, fell into its own line of battle. As Company ‘A’ marched towards the advancing Confederates pushing on Company ‘K’, a line of Confederates appeared on high ground to their left. They were unseen up to that point by the company. With barely any time to react, Company ‘A’ fell back to the cross roads where the rest of the regiment was beginning to march.23
Company ‘C’ also formed into a line and advanced towards the crossroads to assist the retreating Company ‘K’. It was at this point that Lt. Col. Creighton, Major Casement and Sergeant-Major King formed up Companies ‘A’ and ‘C’ and began an advance towards the Confederates deploying on the Ferry Road. Some skirmishers of ‘K’ company joined them. Col. Tyler went back to the balance of the regiment to deal with the Confederates that had surprised Company ‘A’, and which were beginning to build their strength on the Summerville Road. Creighton had only advanced his ad-hoc unit down the Ferry Road a quarter of a mile when the Confederates perpendicular to Tyler’s whole force showed themselves on high ground. With his left flank suddenly in jeopardy, Creighton ordered the remnants of his own Co. ‘K’ to stay on the road and commence firing at the Confederates in their immediate front. Creighton began to march Companies ‘A’ and ‘C’ toward a hill, just west of the Ferry Road, while Major Casement rode back for reinforcements.24
Between the companies ‘A’ and ‘C’ and the hill they were ordered to take, was a tall rail fence. As the men began to climb it, the Confederates to their rear loosed a volley. The wood fence splintered, and some men fell.25 Once over the fence ‘A’ and ‘C’ companies started to climb the hill, when the Confederates on the Ferry Road fired on them. A few of the Confederate bullets found their mark while others whistled through the air or slammed into the ground.26 At this point, midway up the hill, the two companies stopped, turned around and loosed a volley of their own on the Confederates manning the heights across the ferry road. They turned and resumed their marched to the top of the hill, where they reloaded and fired again.27
Meanwhile, the Confederates had begun to threaten the 7th’s right flank as well. As Col. Tyler got back to the bulk of his regiment from the crossroads, he posted his men along the Gauley Bridge road and on a hill just north of the road to contest the Confederates along the Summerville Road. Tyler could see the enemy advancing towards the crossroads and ordered his men to open fire. As the firing commenced, Tyler’s force was being shot at by another line of Confederates from a cluster of woods just across the Gauley Road. Tyler’s force, already surprised and outnumbered, was beginning to bend from the strain.28 The strain became so great that when Major Casement came to Col. Tyler to request reinforcements to assist ‘A’ and ‘C’ companies, Tyler was unable to oblige.29
On the hill Captains Crane and Shurteleff, of Companies ‘A’ and ‘C’, had formed their men into firing lines. Company ‘C’ mostly concentrated its fire on the Confederates across the Ferry Road from them. Company ‘K’ was beginning to fall back from this advance. The Confederates kept on coming, down from the heights opposite them and across fields to their right. Company ‘A’ manned a more wooded part of the hill and poured fire into the far right line of the Confederates that were threatening Tyler’s main force along the road to Gauley Bridge. The volley unleashed by Capt. Crane’s Company ‘A’ was so severe that it actually checked the Confederate advance momentarily.30
Back at Col. Tyler’s command, the situation was slowly getting worse. After the Confederates on his right began to come out of the woods and appear in greater and greater numbers along the road to Gauley Bridge, Tyler began to move his men towards the crest of the hill behind them. To add to this, the Confederates along the Summerville Road were beginning to pour an enfilading fire into Tyler’s left. As they did this, Captain Dyer of Company ‘D’ fell with a bullet through his chest. With Companies ‘A’, ‘C’ and ‘K’ locked in battle to his front, Tyler had no reinforcements to offer anyone. The regiment was surrounded on three sides now.31
Just how long the men of companies ‘A’ and ‘C’ fought on the hill is not quite clear. Sgt. E.W. Morey of Co. ‘C’ said that he had only fired 8 or 10 rounds while on top the hill.32 This translates to roughly anywhere from 3 to 6 minutes. Capt. W.A. Howe noted “we did not linger long” on the side of the hill, before they reached the crest.33 Pvt. Mark. M. Andrews of Company ‘C’ said they kept up the fight on the hill for twenty minutes.34 In his official report to General Cox, Colonel Tyler wrote the entire engagement went on for “three-quarters of an hour”.35 However long the battle lasted, many witnesses agree that the men on the hill fought well and under terrible rifle fire. 1st Lt. Judson N. Cross soon fell as a Confederate ball shattered the upper bone in his left arm. Seeing Company ‘K’ in full flight before them, Captains Crane and Shurtleff conferred with each other and gave the order to retreat. The retreat off the hill of Companies ‘A’ and ‘C’ was relatively disciplined given the chaos around them.
As they crossed through some woods on their way to Tyler’s main position along the Gauley Bridge road, Company ‘A’ came across a Confederate regiment which had probably regrouped for another attack on Tyler, or was preparing to do so when Capt. Crane’s force happened upon them. The Confederates probably didn’t expect to see a Union force approach them from this particular direction. Capt. Crane took advantage of the Confederates’ hesitation and ordered a charge. The result was one of the few highlights the 7th OVI could claim out of the battle: they captured the Confederate color guard of the regiment, and Cpl. L.R. Davis stuffed the colors under his blouse.36
By this point the 7th OVI was in full flight from the battlefield. The most logical place to fall back was Gauley Bridge, many miles distant, where General Cox had his headquarters. Companies broke up in the retreat and men found themselves being pursued by Confederate cavalry and infantry. In all 96 men of the 7th OVI were taken prisoner. Of those, 33 were from Company C. Among them was Captain Giles Shurtleff who corresponded with the Lorain County News from his Louisiana prison until his release a year later. Total regimental losses included 1 man killed (Captain Dyer) and 20 wounded.37 From Company C, Pvt. Collins and Pvt. Jenkins were both mortally wounded and died a few days after the battle. Company C also lost 5 men wounded who were immediately captured by the Confederates.38 The regiment was dispersed for such a long time that Colonel Tyler feared his losses were much greater. However, Major Casement had led about 400 men, almost half the regiment’s strength, down the Gauley River to Charleston. They arrived there on August 28th. News of their well-being elated Colonel Tyler.39
Despite his failure to provide a secure position for the regiment before the battle, Tyler was not harshly criticized by General Cox. Instead Cox’s writings suggest more of a fatherly tone, saying “his [Tyler’s] unfortunate affair was treated as a lesson from which it was expected he would profit.” Tyler was not above reproach from his own officers under his command. Cox related that Tyler’s officers “did not conceal their opinion that he had failed in his duty as commander, and he was never afterward quite comfortable among them.”40 The embarrassing loss at Kessler’s Cross Lanes left Colonel Tyler and the 7th OVI wanting a chance to redeem themselves. In a way they did, as the winter wore on, the 7th OVI performed various guard and skirmish duties in western Virginia. Shots were exchanged with the Confederates, but nothing on a grand scale. For full redemption they would have to wait until the Spring of 1862.