Robert Garnett set his men to work immediately upon assuming command of what he dubbed the Army of the Northwest. He drilled the raw recruits and ordered them to dig earthworks at their two defensive positions at Rich Mountain and Laurel Hill. Garnett established his headquarters at the latter place, believing it a less defensible position than at Rich Mountain. He had 4,000 men with him to defend the Beverly-Fairmont Turnpike, a north-south running road that connected two crucial supply routes: the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike and the B&O Railroad.
Garnett’s raw troops, like the rest of the warring countries at that point, still believed the war might be a short affair. Garnett’s 1st Georgia Infantry reflected the supposed pomp and circumstance of war in 1861. The one thousand Georgians brought an impressive musician corps, wore elegant uniforms bought from abroad, ate on fancy silverware, and had slaves waiting on them. The Georgians came “rather for a gay holiday than for real war,” said one Virginian.
Despite the green nature of Garnett’s troops, they awaited the enemy with grim determination. “We are anxious to meet the foe, for we have them to whip, and the sooner we do it, the sooner we will be able to return to the dear loved ones at home,” wrote John Pendleton of the 23rd Virginia Infantry.
Thomas Morris’s Ohioans and Indianans reached Belington at the base of Laurel Hill on July 7. There, they looked up at Garnett’s line of defenses. “He was well fortified, having earthworks thrown up, with heavy guns mounted,” wrote a Union soldier of the 6th Indiana. In response to the Federal approach, Garnett sent the fancies of the 1st Georgia forward and checked the enemy advance.
Following that brief action, the fighting at Laurel Hill settled down into sporadic skirmishing.
“The whistling of musket balls and the peculiar note of the Minnie projectiles as they rush madly past on their errand of death is a frightful sound to the recruit who for the first time hears it,” wrote one participant. While not firing at each other, some of the soldiers resorted to taunting the enemy. One soldier of the 7th Indiana Infantry read aloud from a fake newspaper an article recounting the death of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
By July 10, Morris seized a hill that was a part of Garnett’s defenses. The Federals placed artillery there and began shelling the enemy. “They shot cannon balls, case shot and canister at us for near ten hours,” remembered one Confederate on the receiving end.
Thomas Morris was accomplishing his mission thus far in the campaign; Robert Garnett remained convinced that the main enemy attack would fall on Laurel Hill. He could not have been more wrong.