June 3, 1861
Col. George A. Porterfield’s command of raw Virginia state troops was entrusted with the defense of the northwestern part of the state betwseen the Ohio River and the Allegheny Mountains. When Porterfield took charge of the recruits in early May, he found them to be undisciplined and lacking experienced officers, cannon, and reliable ammunition. He had been able to do very little to improve the situation when he learned on June 2, 1861, that 3,0000 of Gen. George B. Mc Clellan’s Union soldiers were marching to confront his command. Porterfield had the camp wagons packed and prepared to retreat should he be attacked. That night was stormy and the soldiers on picket duty guarding the 800 Confederates encamped at Philippi left their posts without permission or replacements to seek shelter from the drenching rain.
The stormy weather did not stop the two columns of McClellan’s men from marching all night over torturous mountain roads and converging at Philippi at dawn. The sleeping Virginians were abruptly awakened by artillery shells exploding in their camp; they arose in confusion and hurriedly fled. Porterfield attempted no defense but managed to get most of his men on the road to the town of Beverly, where he hoped to be reinforced. The action was over quickly, and the Union soldiers, who did not pursue the retreating Rebs, had casualties of only two wounded. The Confederates had only 15 casualties and lost no men as prisoners.
The whole affair was rather insignifacant and should hardly have been worth report, but the Northern papers played it up as a great victory, referring to it as the “Philippi Races.” Even though McClellan was not with the Union forces at Philippi, this action, the first Northern victory, helped him make a name for himself early in the war. A Confederate inquiry praised Porterfield for his coolness in the retreat, but he received a mild reprimand for failing to take precautions against a surprise attack and was relieved of command.
Fascinating Fact: Being Virginia state troops, the Rebel soldiers at Philippi were not directed by Confederate authorities, but by the governor through the commander of all Virginia troops, Gen. Robert E. Lee.