160 Years Ago Today: Action at Philippi

The “Battle” of Philippi was fought on Monday, June 3, 1861 between Union forces commanded by Brig. Gen. Thomas A. Morris and Confederate forces commanded by Col. George A. Porterfield in Philippi, Virginia during the American Civil War. The engagement, which was the first land action of the Civil War in Virginia, was a Union victory that encouraged Western Virginians to secede and form their own pro-Union state. It resulted in less than 13 total casualties.

By the time Virginia voters ratified the decision of its secession convention on May 23, 1861, Richmond had already been proclaimed the Confederate capital and militia units were mobilizing. As commander of the Department of the Ohio, Union Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan invaded western Virginia under the pretext of protecting unionists there. Western counties would later vote to secede from Virginia and form the state of West Virginia.

McClellan sent 3,000 volunteer troops into western Virginia under the overall command of Brig. Gen. Thomas A. Morris. Opposing them were approximately 800 poorly trained and equipped militia commanded by Col. George A. Porterfield gathered at the town of Grafton. Porterfield retreated to Philippi as the Union army advanced. Morris divided his force into two columns, which converged on Philippi and the Confederates camped there.

Before dawn on June 3rd, the Confederates were sheltering from the rain in their tents and were almost taken completely by surprise, if not for a local woman firing her pistol at the Union troops. They broke and ran with Morris’ men in hot pursuit, leading Northern journalists to call the fight the “Races at Philippi”.

Col. Benjamin Franklin Kelley, who would later become commander of the Department of West Virginia and a major general, commanded the Union 1st Virginia Infantry Regiment and was seriously wounded in the fight, though his men captured the abandoned Confederate baggage train. Kelley was one of the first Union officers wounded in the war.

Confederate forces lost approximately eight killed or wounded in their ignominious defeat. Union casualties amounted to five wounded. Though a minor skirmish, the Union victory at Philippi was consequential in three ways: it made Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan famous, which ultimately catapulted him to command of the Military Division of the Potomac on July 26, it encouraged Unionists in western Virginia to form their own state government, and it encouraged the first Union advance on Richmond that ultimately ended in failure at the First Battle of Bull Run.

Read primary sources from this exciting moment in American history:

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