Friday, June 3, 2011

Battle of Philippi

The town of Philippi
Today, 150 years ago, McClellan’s army from the Department of the Ohio attacked Confederate forces at what today is Philippi, West Virginia. McClellan had ordered his troops to advance into northwest Virginia on May 26th. His goal was to occupy the pro-Union area, and possibly launch a campaign to capture Richmond. The Confederate commander in the area was George A. Porterfield. Porterfield had 800 fresh recruits in Philippi, to oppose McClellan’s 3000 troops.

Colonel Benjamin Kelley, commander of the Union 1st Virginia, led the attack. He led 1,600 men around by a back road to attack the rear of the town. Colonel Ebenezer Durmont would take 1,400 men and march directly at the front of the town. By this plan the Federals hoped to surround and capture or destroy the Confederates.

The Union columns arrived near Philippi before dawn on June 3. The night had been rainy, and the Confederates had heard rumors of the attack. But they believed the attack would not be launched in the weather, and so they decided not to retreat. They even neglected to set pickets to watch for an enemy advance.

Union Artillery
The Confederates were rudely awakened by the sound of Union artillery firing into the town. They fled after firing a few shots, and ran South as fast as they could to escape the Union. Kelley’s column was unable to block their escape because he had taken the wrong road. Kelley was shot as he pursued the fleeing Confederates, but a Union Colonel personally captured the man who had shot him.

The Federals march through the Town
This battle was relatively bloodless: the Federals lost 4 men and the South 26. Interestingly, one of the Confederate casualties was a college student James Hanger. His leg was amputated because of the wound, and when he went home he made an artificial leg. He was then commissioned by the Virginia Legislature to make his “Hanger Limb” for his fellow amputees. He founded what is now the Hanger Orthopedic Group, which remains a market leader in the manufacturing of artificial legs to this day.

This was the first land skirmish or battle of the war, and it caused McClellan to be a national hero. Even though McClellan was not on the spot and did not command the attack personally, he was still given credit for the battle. The battle was greatly exaggerated by the press, and became the “Philippi Races.” Because without him his army won what would later not even be a significant skirmish, McClellan was given the command of all the Northern armies after the battle of Bull Run.

A bridge used by both sides in the battle


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