As June began, a Federal force commanded by Colonel Benjamin F. Kelley occupied Grafton, a key western Virginia town where the Virginia Railroad joined the Baltimore & Ohio line to Parkersburg. A second force under Colonel James B. Steedman was coming up to reinforce Kelley from Clarksburg, and a third force under Brigadier General Thomas A. Morris was coming up as well from the northwest. A small Confederate force led by Colonel George A. Porterfield had abandoned Grafton and was withdrawing to the small village of Philippi, 15 miles south.
Virginia Governor John Letcher had assigned Porterfield to defend Grafton, but Porterfield’s force had dwindled from 1,500 to just 773 effectives, and the combined Federal units approaching them numbered about 3,000. The Federal advance featured forced night marches over steep hills, ravines, and roads turned to mud by heavy rain. The region’s narrow valleys often channeled the runoff, turning streams into nearly 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.
Kelley had been planning an attack on Porterfield’s Confederates via a flanking maneuver. Morris, the ranking Federal field commander, arrived at Grafton with his vanguard on the 1st and consulted with Kelley on his attack plan. Morris agreed to attack, and devised a two-pronged maneuver in which one 1,500-man column would assault the Confederates head-on while another 1,500 went around Porterfield’s flank to cut off his line of retreat. The strategy was good, but whether raw recruits could pull it off was questionable.
On the morning of the 2nd, the flanking column, led by Kelley, boarded a train and headed east to trick the Confederates into thinking they were going to attack Harpers Ferry. The train stopped at Thornton, and from there the Federals began a 22-mile march around Porterfield’s flank at Philippi. The deception failed, as pro-Confederate residents of Grafton hurried south to warn Porterfield that the Federals were about to attack him with overwhelming numbers.
Porterfield gathered his officers in a council of war to discuss their options. Nearly every officer advised retreat. Porterfield prepared orders to fall back to Beverly, 35 miles south, but there was heavy rain, making such a movement very difficult. Porterfield did not expect the Federals to be able to move upon him in such bad weather and decided to wait until the rains stopped. Scouts assured Porterfield that no forces could possibly approach, and so Porterfield did not deploy pickets to monitor the perimeter around Philippi.
The two Federal columns moved through the night to get into attack positions. Kelley’s flanking column moved south from Thornton, on the same side of the Tygart Valley River at Philippi, and was to move on the town from the south. The second column, led by Colonel Ebenezer Dumont, moved south on the Beverly-Fairmont Turnpike to attack the Confederates head-on. Dumont’s column was in position to attack by 4 a.m. on the 3rd. But Kelley’s force had gotten lost and ended up north of Philippi instead of south.
The battle was supposed to have begun when Colonel Kelley fired a shot from his pistol. But a local Confederate sympathizer, Mrs. Thomas Humphreys, saw the Federals approaching and sent her 12-year-old son Oliver out on horseback to warn the Confederates. When Federal soldiers stopped the boy, his mother fired a pistol at them. Colonel Frederick Lander, commanding the Federal cannon on Talbot Hill, thought that the shot had come from Kelley and ordered the artillerymen to open fire. The battle began prematurely.
The Federals caught the Confederates by complete surprise nonetheless. The shells landed among the Confederate tents and sent many of the troops in a panicked retreat. Dumont’s Federals crossed the covered bridge leading into Philippi and began firing on the few Confederates opting to stay and fight. They too quickly fell back. Porterfield tried to rally his men, but when that failed, he directed them to fall back to Beverly as he had planned the night before.
Lander rode his horse down Talbot Hill to join the fight, and he soon met up with Kelley. Kelley could not cut the Confederate line of retreat because his men were out of position, but he and Lander directed the troops to pursue the enemy. Kelley became one of the two Federal casualties in the battle when a Confederate shot him while retreating. The soldier was captured and made a prisoner of war. The Confederates suffered 15 casualties, including Private James E. Hanger, who became the first one of the first soldiers to undergo a field amputation when his leg was removed. Hanger made himself a wooden leg while recuperating, and later went on to patent the “Hanger Limb” for other wartime amputees. After the war, Hanger founded what became known as the Hanger Orthopedic Group, one of the main manufacturers of artificial limbs in the U.S.
This was the first organized land battle of the war, and though it was just a minor engagement, it cleared the Kanawha Valley of organized Confederate resistance and secured the B&O line for the Federals. The northern press, starving for military success, 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.”
Much of the praise for the Federal victory went not to the commanders on the scene but to Major General George B. McClellan, the overall department commander who directed the Federal advance into western Virginia from his Cincinnati headquarters. McClellan took full credit for the success and began garnering a reputation as a great commander, despite having no direct involvement in the strategy or execution of the attack. But the victory played into his overarching strategy to protect Unionists in western Virginia, secure the B&O line, and open a route through the Alleghenies into eastern Virginia.
The residents of Philippi, most of whom were secessionists, had fled with their valuables prior to the engagement. When the Federals entered the town, they ransacked many homes, tore down secessionist flags, and destroyed the presses of the secessionist newspaper Barbour Jeffersonian. A journalist from the Cincinnati Times noted: “The village bears more than any other I have seen, the ruinous effect of the war. Many of the houses have been sacked and maliciously damaged. Not the half of them are now occupied, the inhabitants having fled. It was a rabid secession town, and the women yet lean strongly that way.”
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