George McClellan was in his headquarters in Beverly on July 14 when news reached him of Garnett’s death. He had taken over the home of Bushrod Crawford, a secessionist who had fled south, for his quarters.
McClellan brought with him on his campaign spoils of wire—a telegraph system that he established shortly after making his headquarters in the Southerner’s home.
News raced from the wires in Beverly to their eventual destination in Washington City. “I have the honor to inform you that the army under my command has gained a decisive victory,” one of his dispatches read. Quickly, as was the magic of the telegraph, news of the Federal victories in western Virginia spread across the country. George McClellan became a Northern sensation overnight, and the first hero of the war.
Where all was elation in the North, the Southern view of the campaigns in western Virginia was despair. Garnett’s army slowly limped its way into Monterey, the objective Garnett had defined for his force when he vacated his positions atop Laurel Hill. The 1st Georgia Infantry, the jewel of the Army of the Northwest, had lost its luster, as had all of those Confederate units who realized what war was truly like.
Upon reaching Monterey, the bedraggled rebels found their new, temporary commander, Henry Rootes Jackson. “The annals of warfare might be searched in vain to find a more pitiable picture of suffering, destitution, and demoralization than they presented at the close of their memorable retreat.” Many of the participants of that retreat probably would have preferred to forget it.
Meanwhile, Confederate reinforcements began to move into the area. Unlike their counterparts that took part in the first part of the western Virginia campaign, these troops had been trained for weeks before moving to the front. “We may be killed,” said one of them, “but never will be whipped.” Nearly two weeks after the fighting at Rich Mountain, approximately 11,000 troops had been gathered under their new commander, the one-armed William Loring. And the thus far untested Robert E. Lee was on his way.
George McClellan did not plan to sit idle following his victories. He quickly began planning a move on Staunton and ordered his soldiers to Huttonsville along the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike almost immediately. Federals ascended the crest of Cheat Mountain by July 16 and began to entrench. But before McClellan could move much farther, the Union situation around Washington deteriorated after the defeat at Bull Run. The North turned to its first hero of the war, George McClellan, to rectify the situation around the nation’s capital the day after the loss outside of Washington.
As for the political western Virginia, McClellan did not ignore that. He told Francis Pierpont, the provisional governor of the Restored State of Virginia, that now was “the vital necessity of establishing civil authority of the Govt in the counties protected by our troops,” namely the northwestern portion of modern West Virginia.
By this point in one of the war’s first campaigns, President Lincoln had already legitimized Francis Pierpont and his government, and steps were being taken to form a new state out of the Union-protected counties. While the campaign for Rich Mountain, Laurel Hill, and the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike did not achieve statehood for West Virginia alone, it was an important step towards that end, and the Union victories early on gave Unionists security to cultivate such a movement. The first campaign in western Virginia was a springboard for George McClellan into the national spotlight, but while he would eventually fall, Pierpont’s government only continued to rise as the war in western Virginia and the nation dragged on.