Rich Mountain is famous as the scene where the first decisive battle was fought in West Virginia, between Gen. McClellan and Gen. Garnett.
Rich Mountain range, as it is sometimes called, is in Randolph county, sixty miles from Glenville, one hundred miles from Parkersburg, and twelve miles from Beverly, the county seat of Randolph County. It is long, narrow, and high; and, except the summit, whereon is Mr. Harts farm, it is covered with timber densely, save a narrow strip on one side, which is thickly covered with laurel. The Parkersburg and Staunton Pike winds round the mountain, and passes, by the heads of ravines, directly over its top. The soil is black and rich, differing from that of all adjacent mountains, and it is from this circumstance that its name is derived.
The topographical formation of the mountain top is admirably adapted for the erection of strong military defences; and on this account Gen. Garnett had selected it as a stronghold for his army. He had erected formidable fortifications, rendering an attack fatal to the assailing party, on the road leading up the mountain, which was deemed the only route by which the enemy could possibly reach his position. Gen. McClellan was advancing with an army of five thousand men from Clarksburg, on the Parkersburg and Staunton Turnpike, intending to attack Garnett early in the morning where his works crossed the road, not deeming any other route up the mountain practicable. Had he carried his plan into execution, subsequent examination showed that no earthly power could have saved him and his army from certain defeat. The mountain was steep in front of the fortifications; reconnoisance, except in force, was impossible; and McClellans knowledge, had rendered his defences impervious to any power that man could bring against him.
Mr. Hart, whose farm is on the mountain, was a Union man, knew the ground occupied by Garnett, and had carefully examined his fortifications on the road coming up the mountain. Hearing that McClellan was advancing, and fearing that he might attempt to scale the works at the road, he sent his little son, Joseph Hart, in the night, to meet McClellan and inform him of the situation of affairs on the mountain. Joseph, being but a boy, got through the rebel lines without difficulty, and travelling the rest of the night and part of the following day, reached the advanced guard of the Union army, informed them of the object of his coming, and was taken, under guard, to the Generals quarters. Young as he was, the Federal commander looked upon him with suspicion. He questioned him closely. Joseph related in simple language all his father had told him of Garnetts position, the number of his force, the character of his works, and the impossibility of successfully attacking him on the mountain in the direction he proposed. The General listened attentively to his simple story, occasionally interrupting him with: “Tell the truth, my boy.” At each interruption Joseph earnestly but quietly would reply: “I am telling you the truth, General.” “But,” says the latter, “do you know, if you are not, you will be shot as a spy?” “I am willing to be shot if all I say is not true,” gently responded Joseph. “Well,” says the General, after being satisfied of the entire honesty of his little visitor, “if I cannot go up the mountain by the road, in what way am I to go up?” Joseph, who now saw that he was believed, from the manner of his interrogator, said there was a way up the other side, leaving the turnpike just at the foot, and going round the base to where the laurel was. There was no road there, and the mountain was very steep; but he had been up there; there were but few trees standing, and none fallen down to be in the way. The laurel was very thick up the side of the mountain, and the top matted together so closely that a man could walk on the tops. The last statement of Joseph once more awakened a slight suspicion of Gen. McClellan, who said sharply, “Do you say men can walk on the tops of the laurel?” “Yes sir,” said Joseph. “Do you think my army can go up the mountain, over the tops of the laurel?” “No, sir,” promptly answered Joseph; “but I have done so, and a man might, if he would walk slowly and had nothing to carry.” “But, my boy, dont you see, I have a great many men, and horses, and cannon to take up, and how do you think we could get up over that laurel?” “The trees are small; they are so small you can cut them down, without making any noise, with knives and hatchets; and they will not know on the top of the mountain what you are doing or when you are coming,” promptly and respectfully answered Joseph, who was now really to be the leader of the little army that was to decide the political destiny of West Virginia.
The Federal commander was satisfied with this; and although he had marched all day, and intended that night to take the easy way up the mountain by the road, he immediately changed his plan of attack, and suddenly the army of the Union were moving away in the direction pointed out by Joseph Hart. When they came to the foot of the mountain, they left the smooth and easy track of the turnpike, and with difficulty wound round the broad base of the mountain, through ravines and ugly gorges, to the point indicated by the little guide. Here the army halted. McClellan and some of his staff, with Joseph, proceeded to examine the nature of the ground, and the superincumbent laurel covering the mountain from its base to its summit. All was precisely as Joseph had described it in the chiefs tent on the Staunton Pike; and the quick eye of the hero of Rich Mountain saw at a glance the feasibility of the attack. It was past midnight when the army reached the foot of the mountain. Though floating clouds his the stars, the night was not entirely dark, and more than a thousand knives and hatchets were soon busy clearing away the marvellous laurel. Silence reigned throughout the lines, save the sharp click of the small blades and the rustle of the falling laurel. Before daybreak the narrow and precipitous way was cleared, and the work of ascending commenced. The horses were tied at the foot of the mountain. The artillery horses were taken from the carriages. One by one the cannon were taken up the rough and steep side of the mountain by hand, and left within a shot distance of the top, in such a situation as to be readily moved forward when the moment of attack should arrive. The main army then commenced the march up by companies, many falling down, but suddenly recovering their places. The ascent was a slow and tedious one. The way was winding and a full mile. But before daybreak all was ready, and the Yankee cannon were booming upon and over the enemys works, nearly in his rear, at an unexpected moment, and from an entirely unexpected quarter. They were thunder struck, as well as struck by shell and canister. They did the best they could by a feeble resistance, and fled precipitately down the mountain, pursued by the Federals to Cheat River, where the brave Garnett was killed. Two hundred fell on the mountain, and are buried by the side of the turnpike, with no other sigh of the field of interment than a long indentation made by the sinking down of the earth in the line where the bodies lie.