Philippi: The first land battle of the Civil War --- June 2 and 3, 1861


West Virginia Hillbilly
May 27, 1961

     Through the night Union men were marching to Philippi for their first taste of battle. And the rains poured down. It rained hard and then when the men thought it couldn't rain any harder, it proved it could.
     It began to rain about the time Colonel Ebenezer Dumont and the men left Grafton on the train at six o'clock on the night of June 2nd. A few drops fell as they marched to the railroad at Grafton and when they arrived in Webster, after a four mile ride, it was raining hard.
     Lieutenant Ricketts of Company B, Seventh Indiana Volunteers Regiment, with forty men, was designated to lead the march southward over the Beverly- Fairmont Pike to Philippi. As Captain Ricketts started to form his company Colonel Dumont rode up carrying a large lantern with a red light and handed it to the Lieutenant, ordering him to carry it. The Lieutenant politely protested that it would serve as a signal to the enemy and added that "I don't want a record as the first man killed." The Colonel insisted saying that he wanted to be able to see his advance guard all the time so that it would not get too far ahead of his column. And orders being orders, Lieutenant Ricketts carried the lantern and only blew it out when dawn came. The remainder of the Seventh Indiana followed the guard with its red light bobbing through the darkness and storm.
     The rain continued throughout the night, pouring rain that washed mud down from the hills onto the highway, making every mile of this, their first march, seem three or four miles. But Dumont drove them on. There was no talking except in under-tones and at every rest stop Colonel Dumont made a pep talk. The men followed the line of marching by touching the man in front of him, or the one at his side.
Kelley on the March
     Meanwhile Colonel Kelley, too, was on the march. Provision had been made for a guide to take his forces over the narrow road which led from the North-western Turnpike south toward Philippi. His men had been on the march since early morning and, according to plan, they were to stop during the afternoon, cook a hot meal, get some rest, then leave the spot in time to reach Philippi at four in the morning.
     The guide was Jacob Baker of Barbour County and Jacob got himself, the Colonel, and his army lost so Kelley later stated.
     Some place along the way Jacob took a side road and the men found themselves at a small village, Moatsville, on the Tygart's Valley River, several miles off their proposed line of march. Kelley would later say that he believed Baker led them astray on purpose. The Colonel was probably wrong for Moatsville was on their line of march.
     By the time the Colonel found his way back to what he thought was his original route it was almost dusk and there had been no rest stop and the rain came pouring down. Colonel Kelley stopped his men for a rest in the rain and some friendly neighbors brought them some food.
     Colonel Kelley's First Virginia Regiment was about the most adequately [sic] equipped regiment that ever marched toward battle. In later years the Colonel said that there was only one piece of military clothing in his entire regiment, that being a semi-military coat which Colonel Kelly wore over a brocaded vest. His men wore jeans or other work clothes and many, he said, were armed only with knives or clubs. They had no military accounterments such as knapsacks, cartridge cases, tents, blankets or anything else. Only a small minority had guns of any kind.
Mud!
     The road on which they were to finish their march was sodden with rain and the mud was getting deeper all the time, and marching harder. Many of the men were rapidly becoming exhausted.
     Colonel Milroy with two companies left Colonel Kelley's march when they reached the West Union road and proceeded toward Cross Roads, a village near the Morgantown Pike east of Philippi. He was to go west from that point to the Beverly road and then north to a position on the highway just outside of Philippi at the Big Rock where he would presumably stop the retreating Confederates. And then occurred a series of comic opera affairs.
     A few miles out of Philippi Colonel Dumont. had decided that he had better speed up if he was going to make Talbott Hill by the designated hour. So he double-quickened his regiments for the rest of the way and they made it on time, but not until another woman had gotten into the act.
Mrs. Humphreys and Her Gun
     Near the top of Talbott Hill on the northern side lived the family of Thomas Humphreys. The Humphreys had a son, Newton, who had enlisted in the Barbour Grays, and as such was among the soldiers stationed in the town below. Mrs. Humphreys, hearing the soldiers marching past, saddled a horse on which she planned to send a much younger son to Philippi to warn them of the approaching enemy.
     The Union soldiers, seeing what she was attempting to do took the lad off the horse and Mrs. Humphreys began to gather up rocks and firewood with which she belabored the soldiers. Finally she succeeded in getting the boy back in the saddle a second time. The soldiers took him off. Mrs. Humphreys, however, was a spirited woman and no Damn Yankee was going to get the best of her! So into the house she ran and when she came out she was carrying a loaded pistol which she discharged at the men. But her aim was poor and no one was hurt, but her action did have a surprising result.
Pistol Shot Signal
     It will be remembered that the signal to be given when all three units were in their designated position was to be a pistol shot. Just over the hill, over-looking the town, Colonel Lander had set up Colonel Steedman's two six-pounders, and then awaited the signal. Colonel Lander heard the pistol shot and ordered firing, believing the shot to have been the predetermined signal. But the pistol shot he heard was that fired by Mrs. Humphreys. As the smoke from the six-pounders cleared away the Colonel realized that neither Colonel Kelley or Colonel Milroy were in position. From the hilltop he could see Colonel Kelley advancing in the distance but Milroy was conspicuously absent.
     Colonel Milroy had goofed. He was to become an expert goofer, probably one of the best in the Union Army. In fact, it is to be suspected that Milroy had been goofing all his life, for after finishing college he mad a tour through Vermont teaching fencing (the kind done with swords, not rails) to farmers in the rural areas!
     Colonel Milroy, too, had a guide to direct him on his march to Cross Roads and then to the Big Rock, but he still managed to goof. From Cross Roads they had only to follow the road toward the west to arrive on the Beverly Pike and then only a short distance to his planned positiOn. But Colonel Milroy didn't go far enough, and, of course, he blamed the guide. He got almost to the pike when he saw a road running behind a hill and so he decided that was the way he should go. He was only about a five minute ride from the Pike but he followed this old road and, instead of being at the Big Rock to cut off retreat, he ended up on a high hill in Philippi overlooking the courthouse, a good mile and one-half from where he should have been. At the Big Rock the last of the retreating Confederates were disappearing up the Beverly road and skirmishers were covering the retreat.
     Mrs. Humphreys pistol shot and the subsequent firing of the cannon had awakened the town. Captain Henry Sturm and his Barbour Mountain Guards had been up early and were the first company out on the Beverly road. They were well out on the Pike when the first cannon shot was fired and they immediately turned and started back. Captain Sturm demanded where they were going and some yelled back that they were going after those guns, that they needed cannons. They kept on toward the town until other officers and civilians persuaded them that they were holding up the retreat and that the guns were on top of Talbott Hill and Union forces were matching into the town.
In Night Clothes
     Captain Higgenbotham and his Upshur Grays piled out of the Shaw home, dressing as they went, and theirs was the only company to get out with all their baggage except, of course, those tents. They wouldn't have been much good anyway, for Lander's first shot, aimed at the camp in the valley, sheered off the tops of a whole row of tents.
     Following the cannon shots Colonel Dumont double-quickened his men down the Beverly Pike from the top of the Talbott Hill to capture the Philippi covered bridge. They didn't have any trouble there for the enemy who had guarded it was already heading for Beverly.
     The bridge was to have been Colonel Kelley's target but after the Indiana men "took" the bridge, Colonel Dumont lined his troops up in marching order and waited for Colonel Kelley and his (W) Virginia troops to move in.
     Out of every street, alley and path poured the Confederate troops, dressing as they went. The Union soldiers yelled "Shirtail retreat" and charged them with being cowards. Actually the men were only obeying Colonel Porterfield's orders which were that every man would be on his own until he reached the Big Rock.
     Colonel Porterfield later told of that morning. He saw company in blue stand-ing in formation at the intersection of the Beverly Pike and the West Union road just east of the "captured" bridge. He said he had a company with a similar uniform (the Hardy Blues) and he thought that it might be his own men so he rode toward them, coming to within a short distance of them before he saw that they were Union troops. Colonel Porterfield turned his horse and rode slowly back up the street to keep from being recognized. He was joined by Robert Johnston of Clarksburg, acting adjutant, and a past auditor of the Commonwealth of Virginia, and together they formed the last of the command to move out of the town toward Beverly.
     Another event excited the over-weary Union men. Colonel Lander, who seems to have been highly excitable, after a few rounds were fired from the cannon, jumped into his saddle and rode down through the woods on Talbott Hill to the covered bridge and dashed up the Main street, making, what the Union men said, was probably the most spectacular ride ever seen. The Colonel on his horse continued his rashing [sic] ride, presumably expecting to capture the retreating army single handed, and caught up with Colonel Kelly just after the latter had received a bullet in his chest fired by a fleeing Confederate. Lander dashed in, captured the retreating man after he had thrown down his gun, and held him as prisoner of war. General Kelley's men wanted to hang him but Colonel Lander claimed that he was taken by him, Lander, and that it was he who prevented the proposed hanging. Others said that Colonel Kelley heard the soldiers talking and told them that they were not going to hang the man, that he, Kelley, had been wounded in battle and that they had no right to do so.
"Old Ben" Kelley Killed
     The wounded Colonel Kelley, blood flowing from his chest, was carried to the Ashenfelter home near-by and laid on the porch. Mrs. Henry Barron, wife of the host of the Barbour House, loaned a blanket in which to wrap him, and he was cared for in Philippi for a few days and was then removed to Grafton. In spite of his "death" which General McClellan reported, and was chronicled in headlines of the Northern newspapers, he was back in the saddle again in three weeks, with a brigadier general's commission.
On To Beverly
     Meantime Colonel Porterfield had assembled his troops in marching order as he had planned the previous night and was moving toward Beverly. He left his supply wagon or wagons behind knowing that it would impede their muddy march south for thirty miles over the Beverly-Fairmont Pike and Laurel Hill Mountain. The wagons were, of course, captured "together with many valuable stores and guns" according to the "Young General's" press releases. These valuable stores included the rusty flint-locks and muskets which couldn't be fired, and most important of all, the doctor's medical kit. General Porterfield had all his companies with him with the exception of Captain Jenkins' Lighthorse Cavalry which was still out on the Clarksburg road.
     While the news stories, assisted by General McClellan and his telegraph, told of the Union troops following rapidly after the retreating Confederates and news of their capture was expected momentarily, actually only a very few Union troops went beyond Philippi. These weary men had marched all night and, when they got to the top of Talbott Hill, they had about had it. However, the order to double-quick down the hill and take the bridge, and their march up the town's main street, had given them their second wind. But when it came to marching any more deep fatigue set in and they actually did not reach the Big Rock. They had been without food, they were soaked to the skin, and they could not take any more marching in the knee-deep mud which covered the Pike.
That Man Lander
     Philippi residents reported that the sound of the cannon being fired on Talbott Hill sounded about like that of an old smooth-bore musket being fired on the town's main street. Four miles away, where Captain Jenkins was patrolling the Clarksburg road, they heard no sound at all. But at Beverly, thirty miles away with a mountain between them and Philippi, and in Tucker County, also east of Laurel Hill, the firing was heard plenty. At Beverly Major David Goff heard the battle sounds, mustered his men who had come there to enlist, and started to the rescue of Colonel Porterfield. The Beverly men got as far as Belington where they met the retreating army and, after hearing Colonel Porterfield's story, Major Goff and his men turned around and joined the retreat to the Randolph County town.
     Back in Philippi Colonel Lander took French leave. The author of the Seventh Indiana Regimental history, The Seventh Indiana Infantry in the War for the Union, described what happened:
     Those of my three-months comrades who served in the Philippi campaign can hardly have forgotten the captain, major, colonel or what-not who served as a volunteer aide on General Morris' staff, and who, when artillery opened fire from the heights upon the fleeing rebels, frantically rushed his horse down the rugged hill, across the bridge and up through Philippi's streets and there we lost him. Without allowing his horse a breathing spell until he got to Webster, he hastened off to Washington as fast as steam could bear him, on a two-fold mission: to claim a bride (Miss Davenport, an actress of that day) and a brigadier's star -- in each of which he was successful.
     One of his missions also must have been getting off telegrams to General McClellan and to the eastern newspapers before going on to Washington. The New York Daily Tribune June 4th, carried the following headlines:
A BATTLE AT PHILIPPI, VA.
Surprise and Rout of the Rebels
A Camp of Two Thousand Put
to Flight
Fifteen Killed
Large Quantities of Arms, etc.,
Captured
Colonel Kelley of the Virginia
Unionists Killed
     The story was datelined Cincinnati, Monday, June 3rd. It told of the two marching armies and the rainstorm, of the number of arms, horses, ammunition, provisions and camp equipment captured, and that the Federal troops were in "hot pursuit" of the Rebels and "it is possible that many prisoners will be taken" and that "Colonel Kelley was mortally wounded and has since died." Several "others of the Federal troops were slightly wounded." On the following day the same paper announced that Colonel Kelley was not dead and that hopes were entertained for his recovery.
     Harper's Magazine and the Washington Leslie's Weekly had sent artist-reporters to accompany the Union troops on their first campaign.
     The first casualty of the Philippi affair occurred a few miles north of that town during the all-night march of Colonel Dumont's forces. Charles Denger, Company 1, Seventh Indiana Regiment, while crossing a small stream on a foot-log, lost his balance and as he fell, accidentally discharged his gun and wounded his leg. He was taken to the near-by home of Simon Switzer and a physician was summoned. But the young man was dead when the physician arrived from hemorrhage coming from the wound.
     Colonel Kelley suffered a chest wound but fortunately it was not so bad as it first seemed. There was a great amount of hemorrhage but he was far from being "mortally wounded" as General McClellan and the newspapers reported.
The Amputees
     J. E. Hanger, a young student at Washington College in Lexington, Virginia, had come to Philippi a few days before to join the Churchville Cavalry in which two of his brothers were serving, and another young confederate, Captain Fauntleroy Daingerfield, were the two known casualties for the retreating army.
     Maxwell, in his History of Barbour County, records the name of a Federal soldier, who was wounded near the eastern edge of Philippi by Confederate soldiers stationed in the woods at the Big Rock and serving as snipers covering the Confederate retreat. And so, today, these are the only known casualties for both sides of the armies in the "Battle" of Philippi.
Who Won the Battle?
     General McClellan said he did. Colonel Lander also claimed a great deal of the Glory. "Old Ben" was supposedly dead or dying so he made no claim. He wouldn't have anyhow.
     As one studies the orders issued by General McClellan it is evident that all he told Colonel Kelley to do was to capture Colonel Porterfield and his force of "two thousand" men. If Colonel Porterfield had retreated then he was to follow him and either capture the forces or "drive them across the mountains to Staunton." There was nothing said of a battle -- capture was all he asked for.
     Colonel Dumont then, upon arriving in Grafton and learning from Colonel Kelley that he planned to leave Grafton on the morning of June 1st and advance on Philippi, decided he would make a production of it. With the approval of General Morris he talked Colonel Kelley into postponing his march for a day and added a third column under his own command. Instead of two forces, three would be required to be in position at Philippi at four o'clock on the morning of June 3rd.
If...
     Had Colonel Dumont kept out of it Colonel Kelley might indeed have effected the capture of Colonel Porterfield and his army. There would have been less chance of a leak in Grafton as to his destination. Nor would Colonel Porterfield have expected an attack from the east or south. With a more stable officer than Robert Milroy the so-called "battle" might never have taken place. The third column under Colonel Dumont which was the only one of the three to be in place on time, was absolutely unnecessary.
     Colonel Kelley's original plan was to march in from the east and was made to take care of the covered bridge at Philippi. The West Union road crossed the bridge there and Colonel Kelley following it would cut off retreat on the part of the Confederates to Buckhannon, Clarksburg or north on the Beverly Pike to Grafton. This was rather silly in itself. All three roads led to towns either already occupied by troops or strongly Union in sympathy. After all, Colonel Porterfield was not about to retreat toward the enemy. The proposed cut-off of the army at the Big Rock was good business for that was their only possible line of retreat but they needed a better man than the "Gray Eagle", as Milroy liked to be called.
     Colonel Dumont added the third column and then came the rain. But the Colonel was in the right place at the right time. Colonel Kelley was on the wrong road and not at his position. Milroy was on the wrong road and arrived at the wrong place at the wrong time. And the Union troops did not capture the enemy, nor did they follow orders to chase him over the mountains to Staunton. They did "capture" Philippi (population about three hundred) with their troops which numbered more than four thousand, and a few days later another two thousand were added to the forces already stationed there.
One Day Postponement
     Colonel Dumont did help Colonel Porterfield by postponing the attack one day. Porterfield knew by the 1st of June, that Union forces were massing at Clarksburg and at Grafton, and that the First and part of the Second (W) Virginia Regiments were there, supplemented by Irvine's troops. By Sunday afternoon he had a full report of the activities of the troops, their destination and the routes they would travel, so he had an extra day and that made all the difference. He thus had time to get his troops ready for retreat if the enemy came. He planned an orderly retreat, and in the morning the men obeyed his orders, formed at the Big Rock as instructed, and marched away and lived to fight another day.
     Porterfield accomplished his objective -- the formation of his men in orderly retreat while Colonel Dumont, Colonel Kelley and Colonel Milroy did nothing but capture Philippi, although their objective had been plainly set forth -- +capture of the army, or if the Rebels had already retreated follow them up. None of these objectives were accomplished. So it would seem that Colonel Porterfield won the 'battle' of Philippi by accomplishing what he set out to do -- an orderly retreat.
     Who profited most by the battle of Philippi? There can be no doubt that George Brinton McClellan made the headlines and at a time when Mr. Lincoln and his cabinet were in daily dread of a Confederate invasion of Washington and were a poor out [sic] at organizing an army for the defense of the city. So, General McClellan's name was blazoned in numerous headlines. He was the hero of the day and many believed, and some still believe, that he was actually present at the Philippi action. And so the General, at his telegraph key in Camp Dennison, Ohio, mounted the first rung of that sometimes rickety ladder to fame.
     Many years later when the men who had worn the blue and the gray at Philippi on June 3rd met for reunions one of the favorite topics would be the discussion of the affair there in 1861. All agreed on one thing -- it would have been impossible to have fought a battle in the town that day, even if Colonel Porterfield and his little army had stayed. Colonel Porterfield had some rusty muskets and flint-locks but with no ammunition to fit them. Colonel Kelley's troops lacked guns. Colonel Dumont's command was equipped with rifles and the proper ammunition. But they could not have engaged in battle for they had marched all night in drenching rain. They too, had no cartridge cases, and so used their pockets to carry the paper-wrapped ammunition which, being wet, was useless. The veterans generally agreed that, if there had been a battle, it would have been man-to-man, using fists, rocks, clubs and the butts of their rifles.
     And for what this is worth, the Battle of Philippi took place on the birthday of Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America, who was born June 3rd, 1803.
The Barbour Lighthorse Cavalry
Captain William Kester Jenkins, who was the oldest commissioned cavalry officer in the Commonwealth of Virginia, had been commissioned in 1858 to organize his Lighthorse Cavalry, had been out on the Clarksburg road all night while the armies were marching. He had gone out before Colonel Porterfield had called his captains' meeting and Captain Jenkins did not know what time he was to report back. Since his position was one where the cannonading was not heard, he gathered his men and started back to Philippi in the morning.
     As he neared the town residents along the road told him that the Confederate forces had retreated and the town was full of Yankees.
     Some of his men, when he announced that they would join Colonel Porterfield in Beverly, decided they would go to their homes for dry clothing, or to make arrangements for protection of their families and for farm work to be done. Four members of the cavalry decided they'd rather be Yankees and so left the troop. Captain Jenkins, since he could not get through Philippi, followed old trails, got lost once, but finally, two days after the Philippi affair reported to Colonel Porterfield who was now at Huttonsville.
     Colonel Porterfield was not in a good humor. In fact he may have been looking for a "whipping boy." He was smarting under the things that had been said about him because he had retreated. Those who were doing the talking knew nothing of the problems which had beset him and he was in a touchy mood. When Captain Jenkins told him that some of his men were missing the Colonel flared. The Colonel accused the Captain of having an "abolitionist company" and a quarrel ensued. The Colonel demanded that he see the Captain's commission and the Captain laid it down on his table. Colonel Porterfield picked up the commission and wrote Captain Jenkins' discharge across the face of it. The Captain, white-faced, turned and walked out, and returned to Philippi where he was promptly arrested by Union troops. He signed the military oath and returned to his farm home on Elk Creek where he spent the remainder of the war years. And the Colonel lost a good regiment of cavalry which he needed badly, even if the troop was equipped only with forty sabres and one horse pistol.
     Several of Jenkins' cavalrymen entered the service at Beverly or Huttonsville with the organization of the Thirty-first and Twenty-fifth Virginia Volunteer Infantry Regiments, or served in Hansbroughs' or Regers' battalions. Others joined cavalry companies attached to other regiments, and a few enlisted under the "old flag." And it all came about because of two over-tired, angry men who, as a team, could have accomplished much.