Sunday, June 2, 1861
As Federal troops arrived by rail in Grafton, western Virginia, two young girls from Fairmont kept vigil and a count of the train cars filled with Union soldiers as they rolled past their town. Abbie Kerr and Mollie MacLeod had done the math and concluded, right or wrong, that 5,000 enemy troops were headed to Grafton and probably to Philippi where Confederate Col. Porterfield’s small band of Rebels had encamped after vacating Grafton on May 28.
Before dawn, the two girls, who waisted no time, mounted horses and flew fearless through the darkness and rain for Philippi. As if these two were western Virginia’s own William Dawes and Paul Revere, they spread the word that all was not well. Through the morning went their cry of alarm that Union troops would soon be upon them.1
Their arrival set the town to panic. Philippi’s townsmen tossed whatever they could carry into wagons and quickly headed for safer ground. Col. Porterfield ordered his roughly 800 raw recruits to be ready to move out.2
Meanwhile, in Grafton, Union Col. Kelley’s plan of attack had been augmented by General Morris, who had arrived the day before. It had become a two-pronged attack and would require a bit of skill and luck to pull off.
Each of the 1,500-strong columns would proceed towards Phillipi on either side of the Tygart Valley River. Col. Dumont of the 7th Indiana would head the force that would fall directly upon the town (12 miles down the Beverly-Fairmont Road, modern day US 250). Kelley’s men would take a scenic, round about approach that was nearly double in length to that of Dumont’s. The plan was for Dumont to attack at dawn just as Kelley’s men cut off the Rebel’s retreat. Both columns were to halt outside the town and await the signal shot fired from Kelley’s pistol to begin the assault.
To make up for the time and distance, at 9am, Kelley’s men boarded a train east, openly advertising that they were headed for Harpers Ferry. It was a ruse. Six miles past Grafton, they detrained at Thornton and waited until nightfall to begin their 22 mile march south to Grafton.3
In Parkersburg, western Virginia, along the banks of the Ohio River, the 6th Indiana, who had two days before saluted Major Anderson, had arrived in town and were “lounging about an uninviting, black and greasy-looking depot waiting for a train.”
“One would have thought, from appearances then, in 1861,” wrote a soldier years later, “that all the oil going East passed through Parkersburg.” With a bit of prodding from General McClellan’s aide-de-camp, Col. Lander, the 6th made their way from the Ohio River 100 miles to the town of Webster, three miles down the road from Grafton.
The 6th, along with the 7th Indiana, parts of the 14th Ohio and two artillery pieces would make up Col. Dumont’s column for the direct march upon Philippi. As soon as the 6th had painstakingly put up their tents for the first time of the War, the order to fall in was given. The march was on.4
With night upon Col. Kelley’s column (made up of the 1st Virginia, 9th Indiana and part of the 16th Ohio) in Thornton, he was already moving south through the mud and rain, along back roads and paths hardly ever used.5
Rain had been falling all day and into the night when Confederate General Porterfield finally called a council of war. The Yankees were most assuredly about to attack, should the Rebels make a stand? Porterfield left the room for a moment and his officers almost unanimously called for a retreat. When he returned, they broke the news.
It was assumed by all that Porterfield would call a retreat to Beverly, 35 long miles away, but the weather was wretched. He felt that neither army could move through such weather. Even seasoned troops would have trouble marching through such a storm, what to speak of men so green. No orders for movement were issued. Perhaps in the morning they would be, if the weather held.
For the time being, Porterfield ordered several cavalry scouts to be posted on roads out of town, but by midnight they were as convinced as their Colonel that no Union army could march through these torrents and downpours.6
But the Union soldiers were indeed marching through torrents and downpours. Dumont on the west side of the river, Kelley on the east. If all went according to plan, by dawn, Philippi and Porterfield’s rebels would be surrounded and defeated.
However, in war, things rarely go according to plan.
- See what I did there? [↩]
- This accounting is from Rebels at the Gates by Lesser. He quotes sources, which can be trusted. Also, it’s noted in the Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p73 that intelligence was brought to Porterfield from time to time. [↩]
- Lee Vs. McClellan; The First Campaign by Clayton R. Newell. [↩]
- The Spirit of 1861: History of the Sixth Indiana Regiment by Andrew J. Grayson, 1875. [↩]
- Rebels at the Gates by Lesser. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p72-74. [↩]