The Western Virginia Incursion Begins

Major General George B. McClellan, commanding the Federal Department of the Ohio, had troops poised to cross the Ohio River and enter western Virginia as soon as the state seceded from the Union. Confederate forces under Colonel George A. Porterfield set their sights on Grafton, a key western Virginia stop on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad line. A small force of Unionist western Virginians led by newspaper editor-turned-captain George Latham held Grafton, but it soon became apparent that they would be no match for any force Porterfield might bring against them. Thus, Latham led his Grafton Guards to Wheeling, just across the Ohio from McClellan’s Federals.

Porterfield’s Confederates marched into Grafton on the 25th. Porterfield notified his superiors that the town was surrounded by hills and would therefore be difficult to hold if Federals decided to come back and fire artillery down on him. Porterfield added that Unionist sentiment was very strong in the area, and if the civilians joined the Federals in an attack, he would be badly outnumbered unless he could be reinforced. Porterfield ordered the destruction of railroad bridges at Mannington and Farmington, 35 miles west of Grafton, in hopes that this might slow any Federal advance from Wheeling.

Word of Porterfield’s move quickly reached McClellan at his Cincinnati headquarters, and he responded by ordering his Federals to cross the Ohio and enter western Virginia. He also issued a proclamation “To the Union Men of Western Virginia,” which read in part:

“The General Government has long enough endured the machinations of a few factious rebels in your midst… (and) cannot close its ears to the demand you have made for assistance. I have ordered troops to cross the river. They come as your friends and brothers—as enemies only to the armed rebels who are preying upon you. Your homes, your families and your property are safe under our protection… Notwithstanding all that has been said by the traitors to induce you to believe that our advent among you will be signalized by interference with your slaves understand one thing clearly—not only will we abstain from all such interference but we will on the contrary with an iron hand crush any attempt at insurrection on their part… Sever the connection that binds you to traitors. Proclaim to the world that the faith and loyalty so long boasted by the Old Dominion are still preserved in Western Virginia, and that you remain true to the Stars and Stripes.”

McClellan issued a second proclamation, this one to his troops:

“You are ordered to cross the frontier and enter upon the soil of Virginia. Your mission is to restore peace and confidence, to protect the majesty of the law, and to rescue our brethren from the grasp of armed traitors… remember that your only foes are the armed traitors, and show mercy even to them when they are in your power, for many of them are misguided… you can then return to your homes with the proud satisfaction of having preserved a gallant people from destruction.”

The incursion’s objectives were to embolden Unionists in the region and protect the B&O Railroad, which was a vital link between Washington and the western states. It consisted of two columns. One column under Colonel Benjamin F. Kelley entered Wheeling and joined forces with Latham’s Grafton Guards, which were renamed Company B of the 2nd Virginia (U.S.) Infantry. One column under Brigadier General Thomas A. Morris entered Parkersburg, southwest of Wheeling. Kelley and Morris were to join forces before confronting Porterfield’s Confederates at Grafton.

Kelley’s troops entered Wheeling at dawn on the 27th, to the cheers of the overwhelmingly Unionist citizenry. They filed onto train cars and went down the B&O line to Mannington, 70 miles southeast. They stopped twice to repair bridges along the way. Morris’s troops (under direct command of Colonel James B. Steedman) entered Parkersburg the same day and moved east on the southern branch of the B&O. They had many more bridges to repair, and therefore only moved 30 miles. Kelley was not supposed to move on Grafton without Steedman, but Steedman was much farther from the target than Kelley by the end of the 27th.

At Grafton, Porterfield received word that up to 3,000 Federals were moving toward him from the west. He informed General Joseph E. Johnston at Harpers Ferry of the situation and requested reinforcements. But Johnston had none to send. The next day, a small Confederate force skirmished with part of Kelley’s force west of Mannington, as the rest of Kelley’s Federals continued their advance to Farmington. They had to stop there to repair the bridge, but they would soon be within striking distance of Porterfield’s main force.

Porterfield believed that he was outnumbered, and with the town encircled by hills, cliffs, and ridges, it was virtually indefensible. Moreover, he was surrounded by hostile Unionist civilians who “would have united with our enemies upon their appearance.” Therefore, Porterfield ordered his force to withdraw to Philippi, 15 miles south. The town, situated on the Tygart Valley River, was much more defensible, and the citizenry more friendly.

Kelley had orders to wait for Steedman before advancing on Grafton, but when he learned that the Confederates had abandoned the town, he proceeded on his own. Kelley’s Federals entered Grafton unopposed on the 30th. By this time, Steedman’s Federals, still repairing bridge and rail damage, had only made it to Clarksburg, 20 miles west of Grafton. A third force of three Indiana regiments, led by General Morris himself, was also coming up from Parkersburg.

Even without Steedman’s help, Kelley began planning to attack Porterfield’s Confederates at Philippi. His initial plan was to move around the Confederates by night and cut off their line of retreat. The plan was solid, but it would be difficult for green soldiers to execute. By month’s end, Kelley was poised to attack, with two Federal forces under Steedman and Morris coming up to reinforce him.


  • Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), The Coming Fury. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1961.
  • Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. Kindle Edition 2008, 1889.
  • Davis, William C., First Blood: Fort Sumter to Bull Run. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
  • McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press (Kindle Edition), 1988.
  • United States War Department, War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 1 – Vol. 2. Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1880-1902.
  • United States War Department, War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 2 – Vol. 1. Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1880-1902.

Leave a Reply