In late summer 1861, Confederates launched counterattacks to reclaim the Kanawha Valley, which Union forces controlled since July, and prevent West Virginia’s separation from Virginia. At Kessler’s Cross Lanes, Confederate Brig. Gen. John B. Floyd defeated and routed a small Union force, after which he retreated to the rim of the Gauley River Canyon, where he established an entrenched encampment with about 2,000 men. The position was based around the Henry Patterson farm, which overlooked Carnifex Ferry.
Union Brig. Gen. William S. Rosecrans, commanding what had formerly been Gen. George B. McClellan’s Department of Ohio before he was called to Washington to lead the Army of the Potomac, was concerned about Confederate infiltration of the Kanawha. In response, he led about 7,000 men to advance against Floyd’s encampment. They marched south from Summersville.
On September 10, Rosecrans attacked Floyd. He attacked piecemeal, instead of concentrating his men for an overwhelming assault, which allowed Floyd to repulse each attack and inflict higher casualties on the Union men. However, during the night, Floyd decided that Rosecrans’ looming artillery posed too much of a threat for his outnumbered force. So, in the cover of darkness, he and his men retreated before Rosecrans even knew they had gone. Floyd refused to take responsibility for the tactical loss, instead blaming his co-commander, Brig. Gen. Henry A. Wise, only one instance of dissension among Confederate leadership.
Although casualties were minimal on both sides, Union victory at Carnifex Ferry and continued control of the Kanawha Valley all but guaranteed the security of the loyal Unionist government at Wheeling, Virginia, a crucial step in the founding of West Virginia.