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June 3, 1861 Battle of Philippi

First land engagement of the Civil War between American and Confederate forces
West Virginia
  George McClellan
  Operations in Western Virginia
  Civil War Firsts

Battle of Philippi
Other names: Philippi Races

First land engagement of the Civil War between Confederate and United States troops
Common misspellings: Phillipi, Phillippi

One of the first goals of the United States Army after the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln was to keep the B&O Railroad running from Baltimore, Maryland to Cincinnati, Ohio. This vital link would be essential to supply men in the West. Its protection west of Harper's Ferry was the responsibility of George McClellan, recently appointed commander of the Department of Ohio, then headquartered in Cincinnati.

A second goal was to show support for the Virginians in the western part of the state. Their support for the Union developed formally at an anti-secession meeting in Monongahela County on April 21, 1861. This was a key pro-Union event because Virginians had just seized the railhead and arsenal at Harper's Ferry and Baltimore was rioting. At the First Wheeling Convention in May, 1861, delegates from many western counties met in support of the Union, unhappy that the eastern Virginians voted for secession. Lincoln promised the delegates Union support, which came in the form of 3 month Ohio and Indiana volunteers. As the recruits formed up in April, 1861 and headed to Wheeling they did not know they would become a part of history - the first land engagement in The Civil War, the battle of Philippi.

B. F. Kelley commanded the Union forces during Philippi, first battle of the Civil War
Brigadier General Benjamin Franklin Kelly
On May 27th, with Brigadier General Thomas A. Morris [US] (a West Point friend of McClellan's) in overall command, Colonel Benjamin Franklin "Old Ben" Kelley and Frederick Lander moved southeast from Wheeling towards Grafton, some 70 miles south of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Kelley had been recruiting in the Wheeling area, and he led these recruits while Lander led men from Ohio and Indiana who had been recruited earlier. Lander and Kelley had been ordered to repair B&O bridges burned by militia and move on Grafton.

Disappointed with his recruiting efforts in western Virgina, Confederate Colonel George Porterfield withdrew south from Grafton when Morris's men approached from Wheeling. Porterfield burned bridges of the B&O Railroad in his wake (it took less than a day to repair them) and established a camp in Philippi. Of the eight companies of recruits he had raised, barely 2 companies had weapons and even fewer had ammunition. Many of the weapons were antiquated flintlocks. Richmond was sending more weapons and ammunition, but they had not yet arrived by early June.

Philippi, then county seat of Barbour County, Virginia, sat astride the Tygart Valley River at the foot of two valleys, one running west from the Tygart, the other running along the river, which runs north and south through town. Lander was ordered to take the B&O Railroad 4 miles west from Grafton to Webster (Road). After disembarking, they moved south to the covered bridge to Philippi. Ordered to attack at midnight, Lander was to prevent the Confederate troops from retreating, but he missed the turn for the River Road, taking a longer mountain road to the valley west of Philippi.

The distinctive two-lane bridge at Philippi crosses the Tygart Valley River
Covered Bridge at Philippi, West Virginia
Following Lander, Union forces under "Old Ben" Kelley were to take the railroad east to Thorton. Kelley's (West) Virginia recruits disembarked and followed a muddy road south to the outskirts of Philippi. Concerned about Rebel spies, Colonel Kelley leaked a cover story from Grafton indicating a move on Harpers Ferry to the east, but Kelley already disposed his troops towards the Rebel camp in Philippi. Unfortunately, the telegraph operator in Grafton supported Virginia, so Porterfield knew of Kelley's plans shortly after they were sent. Two Rebel women also overheard the plans from the Union recruits and rode horseback to the town, cheerfully leaking word of the planned midnight attack. When the attack failed to materialize, Porterfield made plans to leave the next morning.

Neither Kelley nor Lander were ready and the midnight attack took place early in the morning of June 3. As Lander's men reached the Staunton-Parkersburg Road he detached an artillery company with two field pieces and ordered them positioned on the mountain to his left. Lander joined this group to observe the advance of his men on Philippi. From this position the Union officer could see the entire town - the Tygart Valley River, the covered bridge and Porterfield's Confederate camp, on the site of the present-day railroad depot.

Meanwhile, Old Ben Kelley came to town looking for a battle. He had a line of skirmishers followed by infantry ready to back them up at the slightest provocation as he moved into the outskirts of Philippi. Before he could reach the Confederate position he heard the cannon fire. Lander's men reached the Rebels first and Porterfield told his men to keep the men from crossing the bridge.

Watching from the artillery position, Lander saw that his men were stopped on the west side of the covered bridge in Philippi. Lander rode down the steep side of the mountain in an effort to rally his stalled troops. During Lander's ride down the mountain, Kelley's Virginians reached the northern end of the Confederate defense where he detached Colonel R. H. Milroy south to block Porterfield's escape route. When firing opened up, Kelley led his infantry forward. A Confederate bullet caught the colonel and a few steps later he fell from his horse. Those that saw him thought he had been mortally wounded by the Confederate round.

George Porterfield did not want to leave the field of battle and tried desperately to convince his men not to leave. Still, when his men left he followed, still trying to convince them to return to the battle. When he failed, Porterfield joined them on the march south. Union troops did not effectively pursue the Rebels, instead return to their camp and enjoying a southern breakfast.

There were 26 Confederate casualties in the fighting that day. Of the Union causalities, Kelley's was the worst. Kelly did recover and was commissioned a Brigadier General dating back to May 17.

Written about the battle: Out they swarmed, like bees from a molested hive. This way and that the chivalry flew and scarcely knew which way to run.

Additional information:
Battle of Philippi

Trivia: Col. Lander and George McClellan had an earlier relation, sort of. McClellan had refused any assistance to Lander, who was ordered to continue exploring passes for the Union Pacific Railroad when McClellan had come back with a negative report.

Battle of Phillippi

Links appearing on this page:

Abraham Lincoln
April 21
April, 1861
B&O Railroad
First Wheeling Convention
George McClellan
Harper's Ferry
Harpers Ferry
May, 1861
The Civil War
West Point
first land engagement

Civil War Encyclopedia >> Battles

Philippi was last changed on - December 17, 2007
Philippi was added in 2005

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