The Battle of Philippi — The First Significant Land Battle of the American Civil War

June 3, 1861

The Battle of Philippi was fought between the United States of America and the Confederate States of America on June 3, 1861, during the Civil War. The outcome of the battle was a Union victory. The battle is most well-known for being the first land battle of the Civil War and part of the Western Virginia Campaign.

General Benjamin Franklin Kelley, Civil War

During the Battle of Philippi, Confederate soldiers wounded Colonel Benjamin Franklin Kelley. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Battle of Philippi Quick Facts

  • Also Known As — Philippi Races
  • Date — June 3, 1861
  • Location — Barbour County, Virginia (now West Virginia)
  • Opponents — United States of America (USA) and Confederate States of America (CSA)
  • USA Commanders — Benjamin Franklin Kelley, Ebenezer Dumont, Thomas A. Morris
  • CSA Commanders — George A. Porterfield
  • Winner — United States of America

Battle of Philippi Summary

The Battle of Philippi was the first organized land battle of the Civil War, fought in Western Virginia in 1861. Union forces, led by Major General George B. McClellan, defeated a group of 800 Confederate soldiers who had not yet been organized into regiments. The Union troops used a pincer movement to surround the town and attack, catching the Confederates off guard. The Confederate soldiers retreated and the Union won the battle. This victory helped McClellan gain national recognition and boosted morale for the Union cause. The battle also led to the nullification of Virginia’s Order of Secession and the path to statehood for Western Virginia.

Battle of Philippi History and Overview

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 comply with the request of President Abraham Lincoln 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 started their own movement to secede from Virginia and remain in the Union.

Abraham Lincoln, Portrait, Gardner
President Abraham Lincoln. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Struggle for Control of Western Virginia

During the summer of 1861, Union and Confederate forces struggled for control of western Virginia. The area was of considerable importance because gaps in the Appalachian 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 and turnpikes through the mountains. On May 24, Porterfield occupied the town of Grafton on the B & O Railroad in northwestern Virginia, with fewer than 500 men. The next day, Confederate forces burned two B & O Railroad bridges near Farmington.

The Federal Government countered by sending 20,000 troops into the area under the command of Major General George 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.

Battle of Philippi, 1861, Railroad Battery, B&O Railroad
This illustration depicts a railroad battery, protecting workers on the B & O Railroad. Image Source: The Memorial War Book, 1894.

By May 28, McClellan had ordered roughly 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 more volunteers joined his command.

Kelley Plans to Attack at Philippi

Kelley devised a two-pronged attack against the Confederate forces in Philippi. The plan called for Kelly to lead one column of 1,600 men across the Tygart River to attack the Confederates from the rear. Meanwhile, Colonel Ebenezer Dumont, commanding approximately 1,000 men, would attack from the west, catching the Confederates 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 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.

June 3, 1861 — The Races at Philippi

Both Union columns arrived outside of Philippi before dawn on June 3. The poorly trained Confederates had failed to set pickets on their perimeter and did not detect 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 Confederates were so completely surprised that some of them frantically retreated in their bedclothes, prompting northern journalists to refer to the battle as the “Races at Philippi.” Still, not everything went completely as planned for the Federals. Kelley’s men lost their way in the dark and attacked from the northeast instead of the southeast, allowing 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.

Battle of Philippi, 1861, Illustration
This illustration depicts the Battle of Philippi. Image Source: The Memorial War Book, 1894.

Battle of Philippi Outcome

During the 30-minute battle, the Rebels wounded Kelley and several other Union soldiers. The Yankees wounded two Confederates. Though reports from both sides would assert that anywhere from ten to 100 men died, there were no fatalities during the battle.

The Battle of Philippi marked several firsts in the history of warfare:

  1. It was the first significant land battle of the American Civil War.
  2. It was also the first time in history that an army used the railroad to deploy troops for battle.
  3. After the battle, doctors performed the Civil War’s first amputations to save the lives of two wounded soldiers. One amputee, 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.

Battle of Philippi Significance

  • Though reports from both sides would assert that anywhere from ten to a hundred men were slain, there were no fatalities during the Battle of Philippi.
  • Some historians consider the Battle of Philippi as the first significant land battle of the American Civil War.
  • The Battle of Philippi was the first time in history that an army used the railroad to deploy troops for battle.
  • After the Battle of Philippi, 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 Union victory at the Battle of Philippi contributed to the eventual Confederate withdrawal from western Virginia.
  • A few days after the Battle of Philippi, 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.”

Battle of Philippi Facts

Campaign

Military Forces Engaged

  • USA — Department of the Ohio
  • CSA — Virginia Volunteers

Number of Soldiers Engaged

  • USA — Roughly 3,000
  • CSA — Roughly 800

Casualties

  • USA — Estimated to be 4
  • CSA — Estimated to be 26

Battle of Philippi Timeline

These are the main events and battles of the Western Virginia Campaign that took place around the Battle of Phillipi.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title The Battle of Philippi — The First Significant Land Battle of the American Civil War
  • Date June 3, 1861
  • Author
  • Keywords Battle of Philippi, Philippi Races, Races at Philippi, Western Virginia Campaign, Civil War, When was the Battle of Philippi, Who won the Battle of Philippi
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date July 12, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update January 12, 2024

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