The First Battle of the Civil War? The Battle of Philippi

Sketch of Col. Frederick Lander during the Philippi Races.

Sketch of Col. Frederick Lander during the Philippi Races.

When asking about the first battle of the Civil War, the expected answer is First Manassas/Bull Run on July 21, 1861. Thus I was stumped by a student last year whose answer was instead the Battle of Philippi. I was teaching at a West Virginia state college at the time, very close to Philippi where the battle occurred, but, being a transplant to the state, was surprised by the answer. Because it was a smaller engagement, it does not usually hold any real standing in the eyes of historians, but it technically was the first land engagement of the Civil War, occurring on June 3, 1861.

The 1861 Western Virginia campaign occurred when that region was still part of Virginia, but was already thinking about breaking away due to their closer ties with Pennsylvania and Ohio. Within the western portion of the state lay mineral deposits useful for the production of arms and ammunition and transportation networks between Virginia and the mid-west. To secure these for the Union, George B. McClellan invaded western Virginia as commander of the Department of the Ohio against the three Confederate forces there.

Philippi was not of great military importance, but the juncture of the Parkersburg-Grafton Railroad and the Baltimore & Ohio lay 25 miles north at Grafton, connecting the eastern states and the mid-west. Robert E. Lee, then in command of all military forces in Virginia, ordered Colonel George Porterfield to recruit a Confederate force in the western counties to hold the rail lines at Grafton. Porterfield was largely unsuccessful due to the Union loyalties and resentment against the Richmond government, only pulling together a small force of poorly trained and ill-equipped men. To help defend his position, Porterfield burned several bridges in order to slow enemy movements. With Virginia's definitive vote for secession and Porterfield's destruction of roadways, McClellan received the green light to move troops and supplies into western Virginia to occupy the area and protect Unionist civilians.


On the night of June 2-3, 1861, two Union forces marched through the rain to converge on Philippi: Colonel Benjamin Kelley from the northeast with 1,600 men and Colonel Ebenezer Dumont from the northwest with 1,400 men. Porterfield's smaller force could not match the Union troops and the Colonel planned to move his force higher into the mountains for safety on the morning of the 3rd. The Union forces pushed through the night, however, and surprised the still-asleep Confederates. After a brief stand, Porterfield's men ran, giving the twenty minute engagement the nickname "the Philippi Races."

The entire campaign consisted of eight small engagements that are rarely of interest to anyone outside of West Virginia. Despite the low-profile of the campaign, these battles secured western Virginia for the Union and prevented the Confederates from occupying the area for the rest of the war. This military occupation by Union forces assisted in the political process to split the western counties from Virginia and create a new state in 1863. The success of the campaign also placed McClellan in the view of army superiors and after the July defeat at Manassas, McClellan rose to command the Army of the Potomac.

The covered bridge at Philippi still stands as a monument to the battle.

The covered bridge at Philippi still stands as a monument to the battle.

While not the more famous battle of Manassas, the Battle of Philippi is considered by some the "first land battle of the Civil War." It may not have the same significance to the overall military strategy of the war as the larger battle the following month, but Philippi was a "first" and did hold significance for the later secession of West Virginia from Virginia and the rise of George McClellan to commander of the Army of the Potomac, both of which were very significant to the story of the war. Like Philippi, there are dozens of less-known battles and engagements that turned the war into what we know; while the large, well-know battles will always hold the most recognition (and rightly so), there are many more stories to delve into to complete the full picture of the Civil War.


Further Reading:

Lesser, W. Hunter. Rebels at the Gate: Lee and McClellan on the Front Line of a Nation Divided. Sourcebooks, 2005. 

Kathleen Logothetis Thompson graduated from Siena College in May 2010 with a B.A. in History and a Certificate in Revolutionary Era Studies.  She earned her M.A. in History from West Virginia University in May 2012.  Her thesis “A Question of Life or Death: Suicide and Survival in the Union Army” examines wartime suicide among Union soldiers, its causes, and the reasons that army saw a relatively low suicide rate.  She is currently pursuing her PhD at West Virginia University with research on mental trauma in the Civil War.  In addition, Kathleen has been a seasonal interpreter at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park since 2010 and has worked on various other publications and projects.