Philippi: First Organized ‘Battle’ of the Civil War

Photo by Michael Kleen

A historic covered bridge, used as a barracks for Union troops, still stands at the scene of an early Civil War skirmish.

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The Battle of Philippi was fought on June 3, 1861 between Union forces commanded by Brig. Gen. Thomas A. Morris and Confederate forces commanded by Col. George A. Porterfield in Philippi, West Virginia during the American Civil War. The skirmish, which was the first in Virginia, was a Union victory that encouraged Western Virginians to secede and form their own pro-Union state. It resulted in 30 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 26 killed or wounded in their ignominious defeat. Union casualties amounted to four killed or 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.

Fought between Northern and Southern states from 1861 to 1865, the American Civil War erupted over questions of slavery, the legality of secession, and the primacy of the Federal government. It ended with Northern victory and restoration of the Union. Nearly 850,000 people died in the conflict, the bloodiest war in U.S. history. Most of the war’s battles were fought in the South, devastating its economy and leaving generational scars.

During the war, Philippi’s population practically deserted the town, and their houses and belongings were repeatedly stolen and vandalized by passing soldiers. The Philippi Covered Bridge, built over the Tygart River in 1852 and which played a role in the battle, still stands. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.

Blue and Gray Park in Philippi contains a few interpretive signs and a display of several historical flags to fly over the town, including the “Palmetto Flag” of secession. For 30 years, Philippi has held an annual “Blue and Gray Reunion” and reenactment of the 1861 skirmish.

Blue and Gray Park is located at the intersection of N. Main Street and Barbour County Highway, on the west bank of the Tygart Valley River, in Philippi, West Virginia. A covered bridge spans the river. The park is open from dawn to dusk and has a fairly large parking lot (almost as big as the park itself).

Author: Michael Kleen

Michael Kleen is an author, raconteur, and occasional traveler. He has a M.A. in History and M.S. in Education. He enjoys studying military history, folklore, and philosophy.

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