Chapter XIII - Colonel Porterfield's Retreat

History of Hampshire County West Virginia From Its Earliest Settlement to the Present
By Hu Maxwell and H. L. Swisher
Morgantown, West Virginia; A. Brown Boughner Printer; 1897

PART 1 State History
Pages 166-173

It has been seen what success attended the efforts of the Southern Confederacy to beat up recruits in West Virginia. It has also been pointed out what other purpose prompted the early occupation of this state by the southern forces. It now remains to relate the first clash of arms west of the Alleghanies. Colonel Porterfield at Grafton was doing all in his power to collect a rebel army at that point, and was sending urgent appeals to Richmond for arms and ammunition, when the government of the United States set in motion its army recently organized in Ohio and Indiana. Up to this time, May, 1861, no heavy fighting had been done, and the war had only commenced. A synopsis of the chief events up to that time will show that the occupation of West Virginia by McClellan's army was the principal movement made by the government up to that time.

  • April 17, 1861, ordinance of secession adopted by the Richmond convention.
  • April 18, United States armory at Harper's Ferry seized by the confederates, after having been set on fire and abandoned by the union troops.
  • April, 19, A mob in Baltimore attacked union troops on their way to the defense of Washington.
  • April 20, General Butler's command arrived at Annapolis, ready to march upon Baltimore.
  • April 23, General Robert E. Lee was appointed to the command of the land and naval forces of Virginia.
  • April 27, Stonewall Jackson, of Clarksburg, was sent to Harper's Ferry to command the Virginia troops in that vicinity.
  • May 1, The governor of Virginia called for volunteers to make war upon the United States.
  • May 3, An additional call for volunteers was made by the governor of Virginia, and sent to all the commanding officers in Western Virginia.
  • May 4, Colonel G. A. Porterfield was assigned to the command of the state forces in northwestern Virginia, by the government at Richmond.
  • May 5, The Virginia troops abandoned Alexandria.
  • May 9, Fight between the confederate batteries of Glouster point, Virginia, and the United States steamer "Yankee."
  • May 13, General Butler and United States troops occupied Baltimore.
  • May 13, General McClellan was appointed to the command of the Ohio, including West Virginia.
  • May 14, Seizure of a train of cars at Harper's Ferry by the Virginia troops.
  • May 15, General Joseph E. Johnston, of the confederate army, appointed to the command of the troops near Harper's Ferry.
  • May 18, Fight at Sewell's Point.
  • May 24, United States troops crossed the Potomac near Washington and took possession of Alexandria and Arlington Heights.
  • May 26 to 30, Colonel Kelley with troops from Wheeling, and McClellan's army from Ohio and Indiana moved upon Grafton.

The first order from McClellan to Kelley was, that he should fortify the hills about Wheeling. This was on May 26, 1861. This appears to have been thought necessary as a precaution against an advance on the part of the confederates; but McClellan did not know how weak they were in West Virginia at that time. Colonel Porterfield could not get together men and ammunition enough to encourage him to hold Grafton, much less to advance to the Ohio river. It is true that on the day that Virginia passed the ordinance of secession, Governor Letcher made an effort to hold Wheeling, but it signally failed. He wrote to Mayor Sweeney of that city to seize the post office, the custom house, and all government property in that city, hold them in the name of the state of Virginia. Mayor Sweeney replied: "I have seized upon the custom house, the post office and all public buildings and documents, in the name of Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, whose property they are."

Colonel Kelley, when he received the order to fortify the hills about Wheeling, replied that he did not believe such a step was necessary, but that the proper thing to do was to advance to Grafton and drive the rebels out of the country. McClellan accepted the suggestion, and ordered Kelley to move to Grafton with the force under his orders. These troops had enlisted at Wheeling and had been drilled for service. They were armed with guns sent from Massachusetts. They carried their ammunition in their pockets, as they had not yet been fully equipped with the accoutrements of war. They were full of enthusiasm, and were much gratified when the orders came for an advance. While Kelley's troops were setting out from Wheeling an independent movement was in progress at Morgantown to drive the confederates out of Grafton. A number of companies had been organized on the Monongahela, and they assembled at Morgantown, where they were joined by three companies from Pennsylvania, and were about to set out for Grafton on their own responsibility, to drive Colonel Porterfield out, when they learned that Colonel Kelley had already advanced from Wheeling, and that the confederates had retreated. Colonel Porterfield learned of the advance from Wheeling and saw that he would be attacked before his looked for reinforcements and arms could arrive. The poorly-equipped force under his command would be unable to successfully resist an attack, and he prepared to retreat southward. He ordered two railroad bridges burned, between Fairmont and Mannington, hoping thereby to delay the arrival of the Wheeling troops.

At daybreak on May 27 Colonel Kelley's troops left Wheeling on board the cars for Grafton. When they reached Mannington they stopped long enough to rebuild the burnt bridges, which delayed them only a short time. While there Kelley received a telegram from McClellan informing him that troops from Ohio and Indiana were on their way to his assistance. When the Wheeling troops reached Grafton the town had been deserted by the confederates, who had retreated to Philippi, about twenty-five miles south of Grafton. Colonel Kelley at once planned pursuit. On June 1 a considerable number of soldiers from Ohio and Indiana had arrived. Colonel R. H. Milroy, Colonel Irvine and General Thomas A. Morris were in command of the troops from beyond the Ohio. They were the van of General McClellan's advance into West Virginia. When General Morris arrived at Grafton he assumed command of all the forces in that vicinity. Colonel Kelley's plan of pursuit of Colonel Porterfield was laid before General Morris and was approved by him, and preparations were immediately commenced for carrying it into execution. It appears that Colonel Porterfield did not expect pursuit. He had established his camp at Philippi and was waiting for reinforcements and supplies which failed to arrive. Since assuming command of the confederate forces in West Virginia he had met one disappointment after another. He had come to fill a want not extensively felt by the people of that part of the state. His force at Philippi was stated at the time to number two thousand, but it is not believed to have been so large. General Morris and Colonel Kelley prepared to attack him with three thousand men, advancing at night by two routes to fall upon him by surprise.

Colonel Kelley was to march about six miles east from Grafton on the morning of June 2, and from that point march across the mountains during the afternoon and night, and so regulate his movements as to reach Philippi at four o'clock the next morning. Colonel Dumont, who had charge of the other column, was ordered to repair to Webster, a small town on the Parkersburg branch of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, four miles west from Grafton, and to march from that point toward Philippi so that he would appear before the town exactly at four o'clock on the morning of June 3. Colonel Kelley's task was the more difficult, for he followed roads that were very poor. General Morris suspected that spies in and about Grafton would discover the movement and would carry the news to Colonel Porterfield at Philippi, and that he would hurriedly retreat, either toward Beverly or eastward to St. George, on Cheat river. Colonel Kelley was therefore ordered, in case he received positive intelligence that the rebels had retreated eastward, to follow as fast as possible and endeavor to intercept them; at the same time he was to notify Colonel Dumont of the retreat of the enemy and of the movement to intercept them.

Colonel Kelley left Grafton in the morning. It was generally supposed he was on his way to Harper's Ferry. Colonel Dumont's column left Grafton after dark on the evening of June 2. The march that night was through rain and in pitch darkness. This delayed Dumont's division, and it seemed that it would not be able to reach Philippi by the appointed time; but the men marched the last five miles in an hour and a quarter, and so well was everything managed that Kelley's and Dumont's forces arrived before Philippi within fifteen minutes of each other. The confederates had not learned of the advance and were off their guard. The pickets fired a few shots and fled. The union artillery opened on the camp and the utmost confusion prevailed. Colonel Porterfield ordered a retreat, and succeeded in saying the most of his men, but lost a considerable portion of the small supply of arms he had. He abandoned his camp and stores. This action was called the "Philippi Races," because of the haste with which the confederates fled and the union forces pursued. Colonel Kelley while leading the pursuit was shot through the breast and was supposed to be mortally wounded, but he subsequently recovered and took an active part in the war until near its close, when he and General Crook were surprised and taken prisoner at Cumberland, Maryland. General McClellan, who had not yet crossed the Ohio, was much encouraged by this victory, small as it appears in comparison with the momentous events later in the war. The loyal people of West Virginia were also much encouraged, and the southern sympathizers were correspondingly depressed.

Colonel Porterfield's cup of disappointment was full when, five days after his retreat from Philippi, he learned that he had been superseded by General Robert S. Garnett, who was on his way from Richmond to assume command of the confederate forces in West Virginia. Colonel Porterfield had retreated to Huttonville, in Randolph county, above Beverly, and there turned his command over to his successor. A court of inquiry was held to examine Colonel Porterfield's conduct. He was censured by the Richmond people who had sent him into West Virginia, had neglected him, had failed to supply him with arms or the adequate means of defense, and when he suffered defeat, they threw the blame on him when the most of it belonged to themselves. Little more than one month elapsed from that time before the confederate authorities had occasion to understand more fully the situation beyond the Alleghanies; and the general who took Colonel Porterfield's place, with seven or eight times his force of men and arms, conducted a far more disastrous retreat, and was killed while bringing off his broken troops from a lost battle.

Previous to General McClellan's coming into West Virginia, he issued a proclamation to the people, in which he stated the purpose of his coming, and why troops were about to be sent across the Ohio river. This proclamation was written in Cincinnati, May 26, 1861, and sent by telegraph to Wheeling and Parkersburg, there to be printed and circulated. The people were told that the army was about to cross the Ohio as friends to all who were loyal to the government of the United States; to prevent the destruction of property by the rebels; to preserve order; to cooperate with loyal Virginians in their efforts to free the state from the confederates; and to punish all attempts at insurrection among slaves, should they rise against their masters. This last statement was no doubt meant to anVy the fears of many that as soon as a union army was upon the soil, there would be a slave insurrection, which, of all things, was most dreaded by those who lived among slaves. On the same day General McClellan issued an address to his soldiers, informing them that they were about to cross the Ohio, and acquainting them with the duties to be performed. He told them they were to act in concert with the loyal Virginians in putting down the rebellion. He enjoined the strictest discipline and warned them against interfering with the rights or property of the loyal Virginians. Pie called on them to show mercy to those captured in arms, for many of them were misguided. He stated that, when the confederates had been driven from northwestern Virginia, the loyal people of that part of the state would be able to organize and arm, and would be competent to take care of themselves; and then the services of the troops from Ohio and Indiana would be no longer needed, and they could return to their homes. He little understood what the next four years would bring forth.

Three weeks had not elapsed after Colonel Porterfield retreated from Philippi before General McClellan saw that something more was necessary before Western Virginia would be pacified. The confederates had been largely reinforced at Huttonville, and had advanced northward within twelve miles of Philippi and had fortified their camp. Philippi was at that time occupied by General Morris, and a collision between his forces and those of the confederates was likely to occur at any time. General McClellan thought it advisable to be nearer the scene of operations, and on June 22, 1861, he crossed the Ohio with his staff and proceeded to Grafton where he established his headquarters. He had at this time about twenty thousand soldiers in West Virginia, stationed from Wheeling to Grafton, from Parkersburg to the same place, and in the country round about.

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