The Strategic Significance of Western Virginia
In 1861, Confederate General Thomas Jonathan Jackson, later better known as "Stonewall", had a plan to invade what was left of the United States of America. A native of Western Virginia, Jackson was certain that the key to victory for the new Southern Confederacy lay in driving northward from Virginia's northern panhandle at Wheeling toward the Great Lakes and Canada. This would neatly sever the remaining United States east from west, carry the war into the enemy's country, and score a major political coup toward foreign recognition of the CSA.
At the least, Jackson believed that the U.S. forces should not be allowed to control the turnpikes and railroads of the Trans-Allegheny region, lest (as actually happened) the Confederacy find itself threatened in the Shenandoah Valley around Staunton, the very heartland of Virginia. Fortunately for the cause of the Union, other Confederate voices prevailed in Richmond.
Raised in the heart of what is now West Virginia, General Jackson knew that transportation has always been the key to the mountains. The striking geography of the region means that there are a very limited number of ways to move practical quantities of people and goods through the interior. The mountains and forests are staggering obstacles to easy movement. Navigable rivers are scarce, and roads few and far between. Railroads in the area could be counted on the fingers of one hand.
So the Civil War in Western Virginia would come to revolve around the efforts of one side or another to control transportation routes. In the opening days of the war, possession of the Baltimore & Ohio and other railroads galvanized both sides into action. Well into the war, both sides would contend for routes that offered a possible "back door" into the logistically vital (to the Confederate Commissary) Shenandoah Valley.
Both sides had to painfully and repeatedly discover for themselves that the fortification of key points was far from a foolproof way to control the roads, however. Time after time, carefully constructed forts were simply bypassed, or flanked and taken from the rear. Most battles in the region, including Rich Mountain, would fall into this general category.
Both sides also had to discover that logistical considerations could all but negate the best plan of attack. With its greater weight of resources, the Union had a definite material edge in the mountains. Even so, with supplies coming all the way from the Ohio River, the Federals also had difficulty supplying significant numbers of troops. The closer their troops got to the Confederacy, Union Quartermasters discovered, the more their supply problems increased.
For these reasons, in the end the fascinating vision of General Jackson - Western Virginia as a dagger poised to strike deep into the heart of either territory - came to naught. Despite their general control of the region, Union forces never succeeded in conquering the Shenandoah Valley from the west; and Confederate offensives from the east bogged down in a confusion of politics and material shortages.
After initial offensives, the Civil War in Western Virginia degenerated into raids, limited hit-and-run attacks, inconclusive manuvering, and a nasty guerilla conflict that would seethe in the area for generations to come.