160 Years Ago Today: Grafton Occupied by Union Troops

For 36 days following adoption of a secession ordinance in Richmond, the federal government had respected Virginia’s sovereignty, despite the seizing of federal property and facilities by secessionists and hostile exchanges of fire between U.S. Navy ships and Virginia shore batteries. That changed on May 23, 1861, when Virginia voters ratified secession by a large margin. Early the next morning, Union troops occupied parts of northeastern Virginia across the Potomac River from Washington, DC, including Alexandria.

In northwestern Virginia, Provisional Army Col. George A. Porterfield moved to occupy the town of Grafton on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. With enough artillery, arms, and supplies, he could control the strategically important railroad and thwart any federal advance into the area. Unfortunately, Porterfield lacked all the basic military essentials and was facing a hostile populace. That area of Virginia was decidedly pro-Union.

Facing reports of a large troop buildup on the Virginia/Ohio border, Porterfield decided to send scouting parties to destroy local railroad bridges and fell back on Philippi, 15.5 miles south. On May 25, two railroad bridges between Farmington and Mannington and one on the Northwestern Virginia Railroad were destroyed. The next day, Department of Ohio commander Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan ordered the 1st Virginia Infantry Regiment (Union), 14th Ohio Infantry Regiment, and 16th Ohio Infantry Regiment across the Ohio River into Virginia. He wrote:

“You are ordered to cross the frontier and enter upon the soil of Virginia. Your mission is to restore peace and confidence, to protect the majesty of the law, and to rescue our brethren from the grasp of armed traitors. Your are to act in concert with the Virginia troops, and to support their advance. I place under the safeguard of your honor the persons and property of the Virginians. I know that you will respect their feelings and all their rights. Preserve the strictest discipline; remember that each one of your holds in his keeping the honor of Ohio and of the Union.”

The Union troops proceeded by train, repairing the bridges as they went. The 1st Virginia, commanded by Col. Benjamin F. Kelley, pursued several secessionists around Farmington, killing one man, wounding another, and taking about a dozen prisoners, but otherwise were greeted by enthusiastic crowds of Union supporters at nearly every stop. It was important to Maj. Gen. McClellan that this advance be led by ‘loyal’ Virginia troops, since he saw secession as illegal and Porterfield’s command as nothing more than a collection of armed insurgents and traitors.

At approximately 2:30 in the afternoon of Thursday, May 30, 1861, the Virginia and Ohio troops entered Grafton without encountering any resistance. After securing the B&O Railroad from Ohio to Maryland, McClellan’s Army of Occupation prepared to move south to confront Porterfield’s rebel force in Philippi.

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