Battle of Philippi (1861)

June 3, 1861

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

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Prelude to the Battle

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 to remain in the Union.

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, the Rebels 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. 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.

Kelly Plans to Attack at Philippi

Kelley devised a two-prong 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 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 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, 1862 — Clash 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 Rebels 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 got lost 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.

Aftermath of the Battle

During the thirty-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. It was the first significant land battle of the American Civil War. It was also the first time in history that an army used the railroad to deploy troops for battle. 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.

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Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Battle of Philippi (1861)
  • Coverage June 3, 1861
  • Author
  • Keywords Battle of Philippi, Civil War
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date July 27, 2021
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 4, 2021
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