BUCKHANNON — This second edition of a regular series will continue to explore Upshur County’s rich history, culture and people honored by the West Virginia Highway Historical Marker Program. The state register lists 20 of these iconic white plaques right here in Upshur County. This second installment focuses on the Battle of Middle Fork Bridge and the events surrounding it.
During the American Civil War, western Virginia was considered strategically important to both armies, as gaps in the Appalachian Mountains connected the East to the Midwest portions of the country; additionally, the thick forests and rugged terrain proved quite defensible, and many troop movements and fort constructions could be concealed from prying eyes. The land which is now West Virginia saw some of the earliest struggles of the Civil War and contributed soldiers to support both Union and Confederate causes.
Prior to the clash at Middle Fork Bridge in July of 1861, Confederate Colonel George A. Porterfield, under orders from Robert E. Lee, seized the town of Grafton on May 24 with about 500 men, and his troops burned railroad bridges to try and slow the movement of Union troops. In response, the federal government sent 20,000 troops under the command of George McClellan. After about 3,000 Union troops had moved into western Virginia, Brigadier General Thomas A. Morris moved to engage the small Confederate force occupying Grafton, though Porterfield’s outnumbered force retreated 17 miles south to Philippi, where they joined up with more volunteer forces and made an encampment. In the pre-dawn hours on June 3, two of Morris’ columns attacked the rebels and drove them out of the city. That skirmish, the Battle of Philippi, is considered the Civil War’s first land battle.
After fleeing Philippi, the Confederate forces retreated south towards Beverly and constructed a fortification, known as Camp Garnett after Brigadier General Robert Selden Garnett, at Rich Mountain. Meanwhile, McClellan arrived in Grafton on June 23 to coordinate a larger attack against the enemy. He moved three divisions south from Clarksburg and ordered Morris’ brigade from Philippi to join him.
One of the divisions sent southward was the 3rd Ohio Infantry Regiment, commanded by Brigadier General Newton Schleich. On July 6, Schleich sent out advance scouts from Company A of the 3rd Ohio, commanded by Captain Orris A. Lawson. The scouts encountered Confederate pickets of Lieutenant Colonel John M. Heck’s brigade at Middle Fork Bridge, near the Randolph County line. The Union scouts were surrounded by the rebel pickets, but after a heated skirmish, they cut their way out, losing one man and having five more wounded. Col. Heck would later write that three of his men were wounded in the encounter. Later that day, a larger contingent of Federals, comprising the 9th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry, returned and drove the Confederates away, capturing the bridge. The next day, July 7, Col. Heck sent two companies commanded by Major Nathan Tyler to recapture the bridge, but their attack was repulsed. There were no Union casualties reported from this second encounter, and overall Confederate losses are believed to number less than 10.
Though the Battle of Middle Fork Bridge is but a footnote in the overall history of the Civil War, this minor clash in Upshur County would prove to play a part in the larger campaign, and indeed, in the history of the state. The Confederate failure to hold the bridge aided in the Federal advance toward Rich Mountain, where they won an important battle on July 11, 1861. This Union victory helped to secure Federal control of western Virginia and contributed to the establishment of the state of West Virginia in 1863.
Though the original covered bridge over the Middle Fork River no longer exists, the US Army T-5 Victor A. Osburn Memorial Bridge stands in the same place. It, along with the plaque for the battle can be found by following County Rt. 151 east toward Ellamore, turning left on Midvale and Lantz Rd. [County Rt. 5/21] and following it for 1.3 miles.