Over the last month, I’ve spent several weekends exploring the early war battlefields in West Virginia. So it is time for some trip reports! Philippi is a good start point. As everyone knows the town is the answer for the Civil War trivia question, “Where was the first land battle of the war?” But the battle featured several other “firsts” and quite a number of notables.
Philippi is the seat of Barbour County, situated on the Tygart Valley River. The Beverly-Fairmont Turnpike passed through the town, using a wooden bridge to span the river. That bridge, built in 1852 by Lemuel Chenowith, made Philippi an important point, strategically speaking.
The strategic setting which lead to the battle is well covered in other articles on the web, so I’ll direct the reader in that direction to avoid repetition. Colonel George Porterfield, commanding the small number of poorly equipped Confederates in the region, had fallen back to Philippi in reaction to Federal advances along the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. On the Federal side, General George McClellan’s key subordinate, and fellow railroad man, General Thomas Morris drew upon a plan from Colonel Benjamin F. Kelley. Kelley, another railroad man and a commander of Virginia unionists, opted for the maneuver favored most by inexperienced commanders of inexperienced troops – the double envelopment. Advancing on both sides of the Tygart Valley River, Kelley’s plan called for a convergence at Philippi to cut off Porterfield’s line of retreat.
In Philippi, the Confederates believed a rainstorm would prevent any Federal activities, and relaxed their pickets. Marching through the weather, the Federal columns made the schedule. Just before dawn, the Federal column on the west side of the river reached the heights overlooking Philippi and positioned artillery. That’s about when all semblance of a plan fell through. The agreed upon “signal” that all were in position and ready to attack was the sound of a pistol shot. A local Confederate sympathizer, Mrs. Thomas Humphreys, sent her son to warn Porterfield of the Federal presence. When her son was detained by the Federals, Mrs. Humphreys provided the “signal” before the infantry was in place.
Thus alerted to the Federal presence, Porterfield’s men woke, made a brief stand, then fled to the south. The Federals could not organize a proper pursuit, and the Confederates finally reformed south of town and continued their retreat in a more orderly manner. Not much in the way of a formal, pitched battle, but none the less the town of Philippi could lay claim to the “first” of the war. In terms of casualties, those of both sides numbered around 30. A light affair considering others which would occur over the next four years.
Several other “firsts” of note. As part of the first leg of their advance, portions of the Federal forces used the B&O. Thus the battle is the first in which troops used the railroad to move towards combat. And of course the battle was the first Union victory (if you don’t count activities at Pensacola and some minor naval affairs). Among many who first “saw the elephant” at Philippi was a soldier in the 9th Indiana Infantry – Ambrose Bierce.
Two of the Confederate casualties received amputations, the first such due to combat wounds in the war (and countless more would follow). However, one of those amputees, James E. Hanger, was later dissatisfied with the false leg he received. After some work, he developed a better fitting and functioning prosthesis. Hanger went into business supplying the prosthetic legs to the Confederacy, and post-war continued to develop and refine the product. The company remains one of the industry leaders today.
But for a perhaps a few inches one way or the other, Philippi may have witnessed another Civil War first. Colonel Kelley was badly wounded in the chest during the pursuit. Although considered mortal, Kelley recovered and received a post-dated promotion to Brigadier-General. Had the wound indeed been mortal, Kelley would have been the first commander killed in the field during the war. Instead that grim honor would befall another officer later in the campaign.
Within the operational perspective of the Civil War, the victory at Philippi gave the Federals a firm hold on western Virginia. Further victories during the summer would further establish Federal control and eventually lead to the separate state of West Virginia. Newspaper accounts gave high praise to McClellan (who was not even on the field!) and Colonel Frederick Lander, who had made a remarkable ride downhill during the battle.
Lander would go on to lead important commands during the first year of the war, but die of pneumonia in March 1862. McClellan’s star, as you likely know, would rise much further.
Today a visitor will find Philippi retains much of its old character, mostly thanks to the wooden bridge still spanning the Tyart Valley River. A small park on the west end of the bridge allows visitors to take in the bridge, and includes an marker detailing the order of battle. On the east side, a Vietnam Veterans Memorial Park contains another marker discussing the Confederate retreat. A small museum, inside a post-war railroad station, on that side houses artifacts from the Civil War (both from the battle and other notable local activities). To visit the Federal artillery position, a marker on the campus of Alderson-Broaddus College indicates the area where cannon fired on the Confederate camp.
All told, six markers in the town interpret the battle. You will find it listed on my Battlefields by Markers page.
And one additional note. Guidebooks report at least one marker in town at the church were James Hanger’s amputation occurred. I did not locate the marker, so it awaits another marker hunter.