Friday, June 03, 2011

150 Years Ago: The Philippi Races

On June 3, 1861, Union troops attacked and routed a much smaller Confederate force at Philippi, Virginia.  It was a small skirmish that had a big impact on the opening days of the Civil War.

Union Major General George McClellan was conducting the first real campaign of the war.  McClellan commanded the Department of the Ohio.  From his headquarters in Cincinnati, Ohio, he quickly realized the importance of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad that linked his command to Washington.

McClellan sent troops into western Virginia to secure the railroad there.  There was a small Confederate force of about 800 men under Colonel George Porterfield at Grafton, Virginia, a small village at the site of the junction of two lines of the B & O Railroad.  As the Union troops neared Grafton, the Confederates withdrew south to Philippi.

After a brief pause to regroup, two columns under Colonel Benjamin Kelley marched all night in a driving rain fifteen miles south to Philippi to launch a predawn surprise attack on the Confederate force.   This was a tremendous accomplishment for raw recruits on almost nonexistent roads over mountainous terrain in terrible weather, but the two columns, some 3000 men, converged on Philippi before dawn.

A pistol shot was to be the signal to attack.  The poorly armed, badly outnumbered Confederates were huddled in their tents to escape the terrible weather.  They had not set up picket lines to guard the perimeter of their camp.

Most of the population of this section of Virginia was pro-Unionist, but one of the Confederate sympathizers, Mrs. Thomas Humphreys, saw the Union troops advancing and sent her son on horseback to warn the encampment.  She watched as Union pickets captured the boy and fired her pistol at them.  Her shots launched the attack prematurely.

It didn't matter; the attack was still effective.  The Union troops opened up with their artillery, which awakened the sleeping Confederates.  They fled south, leaving their equipment and, in most cases, their clothes behind.  The Federal infantry followed in hot pursuit and the whole affair became known as "the Philippi races;" a shameful disgrace in the South and a big morale boost in the North.

Kelley was badly wounded while pursuing the Confederates.  Porterfield was soon relieved of command, replaced by Brigadier General Robert Garnett.

Though he was not there and didn't play any part in the skirmish, McClellan was given all the credit for the victory.  He was quickly becoming the first hero of the war in the North and would soon be called to Washington to replace Winfield Scott as General-in-Chief of the U.S. Army.

The rout emboldened the pro-Unionists of the region.  Soon they would break away, seceding from the secessionists, creating a brand-new state in the Federal Union, West Virginia.

This encounter would see the first (but certainly not the last) battlefield amputations of the war.  One of these, James Hanger, lost a leg.  He recovered and was sent home where he made an artificial leg for himself out of barrel staves and a hinge.  It worked well enough that the Virginia legislature commissioned him to make them for other veterans.  After the war, he patented the "Hanger Limb" and founded what is now Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics.

Also on this date, Stephen Douglas died in Chicago.

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