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Confused First Flight - January '98 America's Civil War Feature

Originally published by America's Civil War magazine. Published Online: September 23, 1998 
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Return To The Killing Ground
Return To The Killing Ground

By David Mallinson

At Philippi, in western Virginia, one overly optimistic young colonel confidentlyawaited reinforcements as Union columns converged on his tiny force from alldirections in the first full-fledged battle of the Civil War.

On the morning of May 14, 1861, Confederate Colonel George A. Porterfield of Charles Town, Virginia, stepped off the train from Harpers Ferry at Grafton. He had been ordered to the town by General Robert E. Lee, who assured Porterfield that he would be greeted by 5,000 Virginians who were rushing to enlist in the Confederate Army and by trained militia from nearby counties. With these troops, and the arms and supplies furnished by the War Department in Richmond, he was to capture and hold the railroad north to Wheeling and southwest to Parkersburg, both important points on the Ohio River.

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But as Porterfield stepped from the train, he made the reluctant discovery that the Confederate force at Grafton now amounted to one man–himself. Lee's prediction of rapid recruiting was a matter of wishful thinking. Many Virginians west of the mountains had voted for the state's secession from the Union early in May. However, almost as many had opposed it. Political opinions made for good arguments, but few of the partisans wanted to settle those arguments with a gun. Membership in the state militia had been a lark during the militiamen's rowdy muster days at the county seat. Now that they were being called for service that might include war, their enthusiasm disappeared. Many companies didn't bother to show up.

Friendly informants at Grafton told Porterfield there was a Confederate encampment at Philippi, 16 miles south on the Beverly-Fairmount Pike. Porterfield paused in Grafton just long enough to write a letter to General Lee, telling him of his predicament and saying he would leave immediately for Philippi. Again he asked for more troops and ammunition.

Porterfield still expected to kind a force of armed soldiers. Instead, when he reached Philippi, he found an unarmed, untrained mass of men milling about the small town. There were a few officers, who he later charged were as ignorant as the men in the most ordinary duties of the soldier, trying to teach the rudiments of drill. The arms and ammunition he had been promised had finally reached them. But these supplies consisted of 1,000 cartridges of various unusable sizes and 400 rusted rifles that were useless because the percussion caps were too small for the muskets. And to make matters even worse, a small group of students from the Virginia Military Institute, some no more than 16 years old, arrived to take over the drilling of the troops.

The main body of Porterfield's troops consisted of a company of cavalry from Upshur County that proudly displayed military tents but had no arms, one company of Barbour cavalry with arms that consisted of 40 sabers and one pistol, a company of Pocahontas County cavalry and one of Barbour militia with no arms and no tents. Porterfield was compelled to send home, due to the lack of arms, both the Barbour and Pocahontas companies. He kept the Upshur cavalry, probably for the bold military display that the cavalry's tents made. Later, Porterfield reported that on the day of battle his forces numbered 600 infantry and 173 cavalry. This was the force with which he was supposed to hold the railroad from Grafton to Wheeling and Parkersburg–205 miles of militarily vital track.

Porterfield did the best he could. On May 24, he marched about 400 men north to Grafton and occupied Fetterman. Again he appealed for reinforcements from Harpers Ferry. The following day he occupied Grafton, still hoping for more troops to arrive from the east. Instead of reinforcements, however, he received a wire from Governor John Letcher of Virginia ordering him to seize a train at Grafton and proceed to Wheeling, where he was to capture the town and a large supply of Federal arms stored there.

Since Wheeling was strongly pro-Union and Colonel Benjamin F. Kelley occupied it with the 1st Virginia (Union) Regiment, and since Colonel James Irvine with the 16th Ohio Infantry was just across the Ohio River at Bellaire, Porterfield disregarded the governor's orders. He did, however, send a group of men to burn two important bridges on the branches of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad northwest and west of Grafton. Considering this an act of war, which he had been waiting for, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, who was stationed at Camp Dennison, near Cincinnati, issued his first military commands and mounted the first rung of his ladder to fame.

On May 26, McClellan ordered Kelley and Irvine to repair bridges and then move toward Grafton. At the same time, Brig. Gen. Thomas A. Morris was ordered to move to Grafton from Indianapolis with the 9th Indiana Brigade. Colonel James B. Steedman was ordered to Parkersburg with the 14th and 18th Ohio Volunteers. The 6th Indiana Infantry, under Colonel Thomas T. Crittenden, and the 7th Indiana Volunteers, under Colonel Ebenezer Dumont, were to follow Steedman. Dumont was to join Morris at Grafton.

Steedman duly occupied Parkersburg but was not anxious to make any further move until McClellan's aide- de-camp arrived with orders to move by train to Clarksburg, repair the damaged bridges, and exercise due care en route. Steedman moved out of Parkersburg on May 27. The distance of 80 miles to Clarksburg took him four days and three nights to cover with the appropriate "due care."

The bridge repair did not require much time, but Steedman was certain there was a large Confederate force awaiting him around each turn; since there were 28 tunnels on the rail line, his stops accordingly were frequent. At one of these stops Steedman waited for 24 hours, expecting to hear the Rebel yell at any moment.

Finally, with a force of 200 men, he arrived in Clarksburg late on May 30 after a train from town met him and transported him to safety. His main force did not arrive until two days later. Crittenden arrived the next day and Dumont went on to Grafton.

Meanwhile, Porterfield had learned that the Federal troops were on the move, and when Kelley reached Mannington, 40 miles away from Grafton, the colonel wired Richmond that he was moving back to Philippi, where he expected reinforcements and supplies. Here he planned to whip his forces into shape and, with the promised men and arms, attack and capture the railroad when it seemed more advisable.

Kelley arrived in Grafton on May 30 and, knowing that troops were on their way from the west, made immediate plans to follow Porterfield and capture his small force by cutting off their only route of retreat, the Beverly-Fairmount Pike, at a point just south of Philippi. He would move his men by train to Thornton, march south through Knottsville and Nestorville, then turn west and approach the town from the east. One section, commanded by Colonel R.H. Milroy, would take a position at a mile south of the town. The remainder of the force, under Kelley's command, would enter town near the covered bridge that spanned the Tygart River. Retreat on the roads to Clarksburg or to Grafton would thus be cut off by Kelley at Philippi and by the Federal forces in the two other towns.

On June 1, Morris, whom McClellan had placed in command of the western Virginia forces, arrived in Grafton, where Dumont soon joined him. Kelley showed Morris his plan, which he intended to put into effect on June 2. Morris disagreed, wanting to use Kelley's forces in Grafton and Clarksburg, and proposed that the attack be delayed a day in order to issue necessary commands. He added a second column, commanded by Dumont, to leave Grafton and be joined at Webster by troops from Clarksburg. From there they were to march south on the pike and occupy Talbott's Hill, which overlooked the town of Philippi on the west side of the river, at the same time that Milroy blocked the pike and Kelley entered the town. They were to go into action at 4 o'clock on the morning of June 3.

The attack schedule was carefully followed. Morris decided to split his force into two columns of 1,500 men each. Kelley, with six companies of the 1st Virginians; Milroy, with nine companies of the 9th Indiana; and Irvine, with six companies of the 16th Ohio, moved by way of Thornton. Late on the evening of June 2, Dumont, with five companies of the 7th Indiana, moved out by train and was joined at Webster by Steedman, with five companies of the 14th Ohio and two light artillery smoothbore 6-pounder cannons, and by Crittenden, with six companies of the 6th Indiana Infantry. Colonel F.W. Lander, McClellan's aide-de-camp, accompanied them, the officers being mounted on horseback at Webster. Before they arrived at Webster a rain began, light at first but increasing to a steady downpour that lasted throughout the night.

Although two pro-Southern young ladies rode their horses to Philippi the previous afternoon to warn Porterfield that the Yankees were planning an attack, the Confederate commander failed to withdraw or even post an adequate guard. Now, after loading a few wagons with what supplies they could carry, Porterfield assembled his officers on the night of June 2 and announced that if they were attacked they would retreat toward Beverly, 40 miles south, where–eternal optimist that he was–he expected to find reinforcements.

Believing that an army would be hard pressed to march in the heavy rain that was then falling, Porterfield let his officers sleep the night away. In fact, the entire Confederate camp retired for a good night's sleep–in their quarters in the courthouse, in private homes, in vacant buildings and, in the case of the Upshur cavalry, in their proud new tents. Unknown to Porterfield, the guards he had placed left their posts without permission or replacement and came back into town seeking shelter from the rain. Thus, Philippi was entirely unguarded, with Union forces already on the way.

Dumont's forces traveled a macadamized road and, in spite of the rain, arrived at Talbott's Hill, overlooking the sleeping town, shortly before 4 o'clock. Kelley had a longer march; the rain had turned the roads to mud and he was late. The plan had been that the 6-pounders would be placed on top of the hill but that all fire would be withheld until Milroy occupied his position on the pike and Kelley was ready to enter the main part of town. The signal to open fire was to be a pistol shot. Lander himself supervised the placing of the cannons and waited in the rain for the signal. But something went wrong.

Living near the top of the hill was Mrs. Thomas Humphreys, a Confederate sympathizer. Awakened by the passing soldiers, she saddled a horse and attempted to send her son into town to spread the alarm. After soldiers prevented this, she ran into the house, returned with a pistol and fired at the soldiers. Out of sight on top of the hill, the cannoneers, mistaking Mrs. Humphreys' shot for the signal to open fire, let loose a broadside on the town. The Battle of Philippi had begun. Kelley and Milroy, still at a distance, were too late to reach their stations in time.

In Philippi itself, all was confusion. The Confederates had no artillery, and after firing only a few resistance shots they fled southward on the road to Beverly. When Milroy arrived, he found he had crossed Talbott's Hill too far north and his position was already occupied by the last remnants of the retreating Rebel army.

Kelley and his forces entered town as planned near the covered bridge, which had already been taken by Dumont's men. Kelley then turned south and followed the path of the retreating Confederates. On the outskirts of town he saw a soldier trying to make his escape and fired at him. The soldier returned the fire and shot Kelley in the chest. The soldier was captured by Lander and surrendered as a prisoner of war. Kelley, at first believed to be mortally wounded, was taken to a nearby tavern that had served as Porterfield's headquarters, then to a home in the town. He recovered to serve the Union with variable distinction for the remainder of the war.

Newspapers of the day soon carried headlines of the battle, which they termed "the Philippi Races," and of the "death" of Colonel Kelley. Casualties, according to the press, were high. In fact, there were only three casualties, Kelley and two Confederate college boys. One of these, Captain Fauntleroy Daingerfield, one of the Virginia Military Institute students sent to drill the troops, lost a leg in the first wartime amputation made by a Confederate doctor. Daingerfield's knee was shattered by a Minie bullet, and he was carried away by a Confederate cavalryman. Porterfield had Dr. John T. Huff, his staff surgeon, ride to Beverly to make arrangements in advance to care for the boy. But Huff lost his medical kit in the retreat and the following day, June 4, performed the amputation using a butcher knife and a carpenter's saw.

The other Confederate casualty, James E. Hanger, had been a student at Washington College at Lexington and had arrived at Philippi on June 1 to join the Churchville cavalry, in which two of his brothers were serving. He was wounded by the first shell fired by Federal artillery at the battle. In 1914, Hanger wrote: "The first two shots were canisters and were directed at the Cavalry tents; the third shot was a six-pound solid shot aimed at the stable in which the Churchville Cavalry company had slept. This shot struck the ground, ricocheted, entered the stable and struck me." He was captured and, like Daingerfield, had to have his leg amputated, the first amputation performed by a Union doctor.

While he was recuperating near Philippi, Hanger designed and built, mainly from barrel staves, an artificial leg. After two months as a prisoner of war, he was exchanged at Norfolk, Va. Following his exchange, he was commissioned by the Confederate government to make artificial limbs for other soldiers, and he continued to do so after the war, founding a firm known as the J.E. Hanger Company, which remains the largest factory in the world for the manufacture of artificial limbs and braces.

Colonels Lander, Dumont, Steedman, Milroy, Irvine and Crittenden blithely watched the retreating Rebel columns. They made no attempt to follow, since their soldiers had traveled by railroad and had no horses and were tired from the dreary, rainy march. Had they followed the Confederates, they could have cleared the entire Tygart Valley, perhaps without a single loss. But by staying in Philippi they set a pattern of delay after victory that McClellan and his subordinates were to follow throughout his military career.

When news of the defeat reached Richmond, there were quick and sharp repercussions. Porterfield was relieved of command and formally censured. Colonel Robert S. Garnett, Lee's adjutant general, was commissioned a brigadier general and hastily dispatched to assume command of the troops of northwestern Virginia.

A court of inquiry demanded by Porterfield to examine the circumstances of the retreat from Philippi was convened in Beverly at noon on June 20. Colonel William B. Taliaferro, 23rd Virginia; Lt. Col. John Pegram, 20th Virginia; and Captain Julius A. de Lagnel, Garnett's chief of artillery, made up the board to report the facts and rule thereon.

The examination into the facts and questioning of witnesses continued for two days. The court subsequently found:

#1. That the commanding officer, having received information deemed by him sufficient to prepare for an early retreat, erred in permitting himself to be influenced by the weather, so far as to delay the execution of his plan.

#2 That the commanding officer did order disposition to be made to prevent surprise, but a misunderstanding as to the time at which the scouts were to be called in, and as to the want of proper vigilance on the part of the infantry pickets, caused a surprise, which distinct and definite instructions, properly executed, would have avoided.

#3. That the commanding officer erred in not advancing and strengthening his picket guard beyond the usual limits, under the circumstances.

#4. That the commanding officer exhibited upon the occasion, decisive coolness, self-possession and personal courage, and exerted himself, as far as possible, to effect a retreat in good order."

Garnett felt the opinions of the court necessitated further proceedings and recommended a court-martial be convened to look into Porterfield's conduct. Lee, however, did not agree with Garnett's recommendation, and upon reviewing the proceedings, remarked: "The position at Philippi was seriously threatened by a superior force of the enemy, distant only four hours' march; Colonel Porterfield was aware of the danger of his position and prudently prepared to vacate it. His desire to prevent the occupation of the town by the enemy was worthy of all praise, and had he promptly sent back his baggage and ineffective men and arranged his plan of defense and taken proper measures to secure information of the advance of the enemy, he might safely have retained his position and either given battle or retired, as circumstances might dictate.

"It does not appear from the record of the court that any plan of defense was formed; but it does appear that the troops retired without his orders, and that the instructions to the advance guard were either misconceived or not executed. To these circumstances must be attributed the disaster that followed, and they call for heavy censure of all concerned. The commanding general remarks with pleasure upon the coolness, self-possession, courage, and energy displayed by Colonel Porterfield at the moment of attack; but he cannot exonerate him from blame in not taking proper precautionary measures beforehand. Yet, in consideration of all the circumstances, he does not think it necessary to do more than express the opinion of the court in the hope that the sad effect produced by the want of forethought and vigilance, as exhibited in this case, will be a lesson to be remembered by the army throughout the war."

Porterfield was relegated to staff positions until May 1862, when he was not re-elected colonel of the 25th Virginia under the Reorganization Act. The next month he was captured and paroled by the Union, ending his military career. After the war he was a successful Charleston banker.

A month later, under the active command of McClellan, Union forces swept up the valley for the battles of Belington and Rich Mountain and the taking of Beverly. Never again would Confederates hold the pike or the railroad. In the four bloody years that followed, the Rebels made many foraging raids into the section, and cavalry leaders William E. Jones and John D. Imboden briefly visited the county in a spectacular raid in May 1863. On June 20, 1863, however, the Tygart Valley section was included in the new state of West Virginia, born of war and loyal to the Union. In losing one minor skirmish, the Confederacy had succeeded in losing an entire portion of its most important state.

First-time contributor David Mallinson writes from Meriden, Conn. For further reading, see Stan Cohen's The Civil War in West Virginia: A Pictorial History, or Boyd Stutler's West Virginia in the Civil War.

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