Philippi – The First Land Battle

Monday, June 3, 1861

The two-pronged Union advance against Confederate-held Philippi relied upon timing for it to be fully realized. One column, commanded by Col. Dumont, had marched down the Beverly-Fairmont Road (modern-day US 250) to the heights overlooking the town.

At the front of Dumont’s column were two artillery pieces, which were placed at the crest of Talbot Hill. The artillery was left in the command of General McClellan’s aide-de-camp, Col. Lander, who arrived from Parkersburg just in time to join the advance. The infantry marched farther down the road that wound around to the covered bridge leading to Philippi, waiting for a signal shot from Col. Kelley’s pistol.

But where was he? Col. Benjamin Kelley, commanding the other column, was marching south from Thornton on back roads with the help of a local guide, who lead them the wrong way at a fork in the road. Kelley, thinking that their guide might be playing both sides, sent the 9th Indiana down what he suspected might be the correct road: the road leading a mile south of town, Philippi’s back door, to cut off the Rebel retreat.

Meanwhile, Col. Lander and the artillerymen on Talbot Hill could saw the Confederate camp, commanded by Col. Porterfield, along the river through the pre-dawn haze. Both columns were to be in position by 4am. The appointed time had come and gone and still no signal shot from Kelley.

While Lander readied his pieces, the infantry under Col. Dumont marched past the house of Mrs. Humphreys. Her son, Newton, had just joined with Porterfield’s Rebels. She looked out of her bedroom window and could see the shiny “US” stamped upon the belt buckles of the troops. Then, with the instinct only a mother might have, she roused her 12 year old son, Oliver, out of bed, mounted him upon a horse with a message to Col. Porterfield that the Yankees were upon them.

Figuring out the source of all this commotion was easy. The Union troops quickly grabbed the reigns of Oliver’s horse and dismounted him. Mrs. Humphreys, watching from her porch, flew into a fit of rage, throwing firewood, rocks and whatever else she could get her hands on, at the offending Federal soldiers. They released her boy, but when she tried to put the poor lad back on the horse, the soldiers stopped her once more.

Having expended all her impromptu ammunition, this one-woman army fell back into her house, regrouped and returned to the front door with a pistol blazing.

Though the shot missed, it caught the attention of Col. Lander at the artillery position who had been waiting for such a sound. This was it, thought Lander and he ordered the two cannons to open fire upon the Rebel camp. The shots sailed across the river and plowed into, around and through the white tents of the Confederates. Through this bombardment, a Rebel private, James E. Hanger, caught a ricocheting solid shot in his leg.

The deep booming of the guns caught the Confederate Col. Porterfield by surprise, but also Col. Kelley who was supposed to signal them to fire. He discovered that he was not south of town as he was supposed to be, but a mile north. The 9th Indiana, who Kelley sent off in the suspected correct direction had also gotten lost.

Kelley’s men (and the 9th Indiana in particular) were to wait at Big Rock, a well-known landmark just south of Philippi, but with Kelley well north of town and the 9th Indiana nearly a mile and a half away from Big Rock, the idea of bagging the Confederates quickly slipped away.

Slipping away, or rather, running away, was exactly what the Confederates had in mind. The retreat to Beverly, 35 miles south, that was planned for later that day would have to be moved up a bit.

The Union troops under Dumont crossed the covered bridge into town. Col. Lander, unable to keep himself out of the fight, mounted his horse and descended the steep Talbott Hill at a gallop. Though his men were a mile from the fray, Col. Kelley raced to the battle, meeting Lander after his harrowing ride.

The Union troops established a small line of battle on the eastern side of the river as most of the Confederates fled south from the town.

Kelley and Lander lead the men through the street, after the retreating Rebels. Some of the Rebels were returning fire and Kelley was hit in the chest, and fell from his horse. Union troops surrounded him and captured the Rebel who shot him. The soldiers wanted to kill him on the spot, but Lander ordered them to continue on after the fleeing enemy. The captured man was a prisoner of war.

Porterfield tried to rally his men at Big Rock, but though the retreat was orderly enough, he could not stop it. Besides, in the panic, most of the green troops left behind their guns and ammunition.

Several other Union troops were shot, while two Confederates were wounded. Though reports from both sides would assert that anywhere from ten to a hundred men were slain, there were no deaths during the battle.

The Rebels had gotten away. The Federals, worn out from the all-night marches did not pursue the skedaddling foe. By nightfall, Porterfield and his men would be 35 miles away in Beverly. Kelley referred to the whole affair as “the Philippi Races.”

Later that day, the war’s first field amputation was performed upon Confederate Private James E. Hanger. His leg was amputated seven inches below the hip. He became a prisoner of war and recuperated in a farmhouse near Philippi. During his stay, he fashioned himself a wooden leg. Hanger would be exchanged in August and spent the rest of the war making wooden legs for other Confederates. After the war, he patented the “Hanger Limb” and opened the J.E. Hanger company, which grew into a multi-national corporation before his death in 1919.1



  1. I drew this account from two sources, which, in turn, drew mostly from the Official Records and local sources. Rebels at the Gate by Lesser and Lee Vs. McClellan by Newell were the main choices. These were augmented by The Baltimore and Ohio in the Civil War by Summers. []

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  1. also this day lincoln and the usa loses a great ally and friend-stephen douglas

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