After Confederates fired on Fort Sumter in April 1861, no one was sure what would happen next. When Virginia seceded in May, a young Union general named George B. McClellan invaded northwestern Virginia. Few remember this minor campaign, but it launched him to national fame and notoriety.
When 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 northwestern 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 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.
Skirmish at Philippi
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. The Confederates broke and ran with Morris’ men in hot pursuit, leading Northern journalists to call the fight the “Races at Philippi”.