September 13, 1862: The Battle of Charleston Begins

Joseph A. J. Lightburn

On September 13, 1862, Charleston residents awoke to the sound of artillery. It was part of a Confederate push to take control of the region after 5,000 Union troops had been transferred from the Kanawha Valley to defend Washington. This left the remaining Union forces, led Joseph A. J. Lightburn, badly outnumbered.


The Battle of Charleston began in the East End near the site of the current capitol. By late morning, Union troops had withdrawn to the downtown area, where they torched a number of buildings to keep them out of enemy hands. The retreating Federals then cut the cables on an Elk River suspension bridge to slow pursuing Confederates.

Despite suffering a crushing defeat, Lightburn was able to maintain a continual skirmish line along his 50-mile retreat to Point Pleasant, while keeping his wagon supply train from falling into enemy hands. Unionist townsfolk and liberated local slaves joined in “Lightburn’s Retreat,” filling the Kanawha River with boats of all kinds and clogging the roads. The Confederate occupation of Charleston lasted scarcely six weeks before Federals reoccupied the valley for the rest of the war.