Battle of Philippi (June 3, 1861)

Also Known As: Races at Philippi

Updated: January 05, 2017

Generally considered to be the first significant land engagement of the American Civil War, the Battle of Philippi, also known as the "Races at Philippi," was fought on June 3, 1861, in Barbour County, Virginia (now West Virginia).

As the possibility of civil war in the United States evolved during the early months of 1861, Virginia was a divided state. Led by residents of the eastern part of the state, Virginia voted to secede from the Union rather than accede to President Lincoln’s call for each state to provide volunteer soldiers to put down the insurrection that began at Fort Sumter in April. Having little in common with their neighbors to the east, residents of the mountainous area of western Virginia initiated their own movement to secede from Virginia and to remain in the Union.

For much of 1861, Union and Confederate forces struggled for control of western Virginia. The area was of considerable importance because gaps in the Appalachia Mountains connected the East to the Midwest. In early May, General Robert E. Lee, in Richmond, ordered Colonel George A. Porterfield to Grafton to organize an army of volunteers and to seize control of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad as well as turnpikes through the mountains. On May 24, Porterfield occupied the town of Grafton, located on the B&O railroad in northwestern Virginia, with fewer than 500 men. The next day, the Rebels burned two B&O railroad bridges near Farmington.

The Union government countered by sending 20,000 troops into the area under the command of Major General George B. McClellan. McClellan immediately deployed Colonel Benjamin Franklin Kelley and 1,600 Federal soldiers from Wheeling to protect the B&O bridge over the Monongahela River. By May 28, McClellan had ordered a total of approximately 3,000 troops into western Virginia and placed them under the overall command of Brigadier General Thomas A. Morris. Morris set off to engage the small Confederate force occupying Grafton, but as he approached, Porterfield withdrew to Philippi, seventeen miles to the south, where some more volunteers joined his command.

Kelley then devised a two-prong attack against the Confederate forces in Philippi, which Morris approved. The plan called for Kelly to lead one column of 1,600 men across the Tygart River to attack the Confederates at Philippi from the rear. Meanwhile, Colonel Ebenezer Dumont, commanding approximately 1,000 men would attack from the west, catching the Rebels in a pincer movement. On the night of June 2, both Union forces boarded railroad cars for deployment, hoping to deceive enemy spies into thinking that they were evacuating the area. After short trips, the troops disembarked and proceeded on a night march through rainy weather toward Philippi from their respective positions.

Both columns arrived outside of Philippi before dawn on June 3. Due to the heavy rain, the poorly trained Confederates had failed to set pickets on their perimeter and were unaware of the advancing Federals. The Union plan called for a single pistol shot to signal the beginning of the assault. In a twist of fate, a Confederate sympathizer, Mrs. Thomas Humphreys, saw the approaching Federal troops and sent her young son on horseback to warn Porterfield. When Union pickets quickly captured the boy, Mrs. Humphreys fired a pistol at the Union soldiers, inadvertently signaling the battle to begin prematurely.

The sleeping Rebels were so completely surprised that some of them frantically retreated in their bed clothes, prompting northern journalists to refer to the battle as the “Races at Philippi.” Nevertheless, not everything went completely as planned for the Federals. Kelley's approach toward Philippi in the dark was misguided, and his troops attacked from the northeast instead of the southeast, leaving the Confederates an opportunity to retreat. With both Union columns attacking from the north, Porterfield and his 800 men escaped south to Beverly, thirty-five miles away.

During the thirty-minute battle, Kelley and several other Union soldiers were wounded, along with two Confederates. Though reports from both sides would assert that anywhere from ten to one hundred men were slain, there were no fatalities during the battle. The Battle of Philippi did mark several "firsts" in the history of warfare. It was the first significant land battle of the American Civil War. It also was the first time in history that an army used the railroad to deploy troops for battle. After the battle, the Civil War's first amputations were performed to save the lives of two wounded soldiers. One of the amputees, Confederate Private James E. Hanger, fashioned a wooden leg for himself while imprisoned. He later patented the “Hanger Limb” and opened the J.E. Hanger Company, which grew into a multi-national corporation after the war.

The Battle of Philippi inspired more vocal protests in the western part of Virginia against secession. A few days later, at the Second Wheeling Convention, delegates from the western region of the state nullified the Virginia ordinance of secession and adopted "A Declaration of the People of Virginia," calling for the reorganization of the state and named Francis H. Pierpont as governor of the "Restored government of Virginia." Four months later, on October 24, 1861, residents of thirty-nine counties in western Virginia approved the formation of the new state of West Virginia.

Ohio units that participated in the Battle of Philippi included:

Infantry units:

5th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

6th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

9th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

14th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

15th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

Artillery units:

1st Ohio Light Artillery

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"Battle of Philippi," Ohio Civil War Central, 2017, Ohio Civil War Central. 21 Sep 2017 <http://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=681>

APA Style

"Battle of Philippi." (2017) In Ohio Civil War Central, Retrieved September 21, 2017, from Ohio Civil War Central: http://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=681

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Ohio Civil War Central: An Encyclopedia of the American Civil War