While military operations unfolded in the corridor between Washington, D.C., and Manassas, Union forces also launched successful efforts deep in the western counties of Virginia and along the coastline of North Carolina. Field fortifications were used by both sides as the Federals achieved limited but important victories in these two regions.
The first sustained, deep penetration of Confederate territory began in northwestern Virginia in June 1861. Situated across the Ohio River from free territory, this area was a vulnerable shoulder of the Confederacy. Union troops entered it initially to protect the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and then enlarged their presence on Virginia soil to the degree that they were engaging in an invasion. Within the first year of the war, they would secure the first large section of Confederate territory liberated from the secessionists.
George McClellan gained his first public fame by commanding the troops that initially crossed the Ohio. Acting on reports that the railroad bridges were being destroyed by Confederate troops, he rushed several regiments into Virginia on May 27 and easily chased the Rebels away from the railroad. Col. Benjamin F. Kelley, who had recently organized a Union regiment at Wheeling, planned and led a strike against those Confederates who had fallen back to Philippi, thirty miles from the railroad at Grafton. The resulting engagement on June 3 sent the Confederates fleeing southward.
McClellan believed that the best line of advance into western Virginia was not here but farther south, along the Great Kanawha River Valley. Charleston and Gauley Bridge were key locations along that route. Yet he felt it was necessary to postpone an advance along that line in order to personally take charge of the growing Union concentration already operating along the line of the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike, which connected Grafton and Philippi. This pike was the major road through the northern portion of the Virginia mountains. It started at Staunton in the middle range of the Shenandoah Valley and ran to McDowell, then crossed Alleghany Mountain and Cheat Mountain and headed northward up the valley of Tygart's River