June 3, 1861 – Federals won a minor victory that cleared Confederates out of the Kanawha Valley of western Virginia and secured the railroad line between Washington and the West.
On June 2, Colonel George A. Porterfield’s Confederates withdrew 15 miles southward from Grafton to the small village of Philippi. Porterfield had learned that Colonel Benjamin F. Kelley’s Federals were approaching, with Brigadier General Thomas A. Morris’s Federal forces just 20 miles northwest. Upon crossing the Ohio River into western Virginia, the Federals’ initial objective was Grafton, 60 miles south of Wheeling, where the Virginia Railroad joined the Baltimore & Ohio line to Parkersburg.
Virginia Governor John Letcher had assigned Porterfield to defend Grafton, but Porterfield’s force had dwindled from 1,500 to just 773 effectives, and he now faced some 3,000 enemy troops. The Federal advance featured forced night marches through steep hills and roads turned to mud by heavy rain. The region’s narrow valleys often channeled the runoff, turning streams into impassable lakes. The Federals made remarkable progress considering they had only been in service for a month and had no experience moving through such harsh terrain.
By the 3rd, two Federal columns of Ohio and Indiana troops led by Morris (directed by overall commander Major General George B. McClellan from his Cincinnati headquarters) had advanced from Grafton, east of Clarksburg on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad line, 30 miles southward. Morris gave the impression that he intended to attack Harpers Ferry, but his true objective was Colonel Porterfield’s Confederate camp at Philippi. In pouring rain at dawn, an artillery round into Porterfield’s sleeping camp signaled a general attack by the five Federal regiments.
The Federals caught the Confederates by complete surprise, sending the demoralized enemy into the woods and mountains. The Confederates inflicted two Federal casualties along the way; one was Colonel Kelley of the Unionist 1st Virginia. The Confederates suffered 15 casualties while losing several battle flags and leaving most of their equipment behind.
Porterfield met with his officers and chose retreat due to shortages on cannon, ammunition, and seasoned officers. A Federal pursuit was unsuccessful due to lack of cavalry; nevertheless a subsequent Confederate report labeled the rout “disgraceful.”
This was just a minor engagement, but it cleared the Kanawha Valley of organized Confederate resistance and secured the B&O line for the Federals. The northern press hailed it as a tremendous victory and dubbed it the “Philippi Races.” The Unionist Wheeling Intelligencer, resentful of elitist eastern Virginians, reported: “The chivalry couldn’t stand. They scattered like rats from a burning barn.”
The Federals ultimately used both main routes of attack through western Virginia: one from Grafton, Philippi, and Beverly; and one from the Ohio River up the Great Kanawha Valley to Charleston. A third route via Harpers Ferry and the Shenandoah Valley would soon develop as well. Federal forces concentrated at Philippi on the 4th, where they rested before continuing along the first route of attack toward Beverly.
Federal success in the northwestern counties of Virginia encouraged the Unionists in the region to resist the rest of the state’s support for the Confederacy. McClellan took full credit for the success and began garnering a reputation as a great commander, despite not directly commanding in the field. Although he seemed to drive Confederate forces out of the region with ease, some of his aides expressed concern that he lacked aggression in following up his victories.
On June 8, Robert S. Garnett received a brigadier general commission and was assigned to replace Colonel Porterfield as commander of the new Confederate Army of the Northwest. Porterfield received a mild reprimand for his role in the “Philippi Races.” He later demanded a court of inquiry to investigate the engagement, which concluded that he had been valiant in combat but did not establish adequate enough defenses to counter a surprise attack.
Garnett hurried to the Alleghenies to bolster defenses; he would command 5,000 men, as militia in seven counties received orders to join him. Garnett was also authorized to recruit volunteers in the region, but because the area was heavily Unionist, Garnett picked up just 23 men.
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