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(A copyrighted publication of West Virginia Archives and History)

The Beginning -- Philippi, 1861

By Ruth Woods Dayton

Volume 13, Number 4 (July 1952), pp. 254-266

Shut in by the hills of north central Virginia, the village of Philippi, eighteen-year-old seat of Barbour County sprawled pleasantly along the eastern side of the winding Tygarts River. Its life revolved around the square brick courthouse. Surrounded by a two-acre plot of grass, the small building, with its cupola belfry, green shutters, and dignified white columns, stood sedately aloof from the dusty street. Behind its doors, earnest young lawyers strove to appear old and experienced as they nervously vied with each in zeal and oratory, while outside, the court-day crowd stood around the town pump and argued the cases without benefit of lawyers or judge.

The little office buildings of the lawyers and doctors were more often than not erected on their owners' premises. The large town lots provided ample space, not only for residence, but for shop, store, or other business building. It went without saying there would also be room for a log barn and smoke house, as well as space for a vegetable garden, fruit trees, and grape arbor.

Philippi, in common with other small villages, had its school and its simple frame churches, its bank and tavern, its shops of cobbler, harness-maker, blacksmith, and carpenter. Scattered along its principal street, actually the Beverly and Fairmont Turnpike, were the general stores. They were easily identified, even from a distance, by the hitching rack in front, where a row of horses stamped monotonously at the flies. These stores were amazing places, whose cluttered interiors were presided over by proprietors long since grown oblivious to the combined aroma of their motley contents: fish in brine, dust, "onion sets," brown sugar, wood smoke, unbleached muslin, cheese, leather, kerosene, stale tobacco, and the ever-present town loafers and their dogs. Inventory-taking undreamed of, nothing was ever discarded. Dingy boxes on the shelves still held the faded gloves and fancy bonnets of several previous seasons. If a proprietor himself idly wondered now and then what the boxes contained, he never quite got around to examining them. Here the villagers not only came to purchase everything from plows to peppermints, but to accumulate a bit of news and gossip, making a trip to the store not without profit, even though the purchase were a small one.

On the southern outskirts of the town was the tanner, approached by a spongy tanbark path, welcome to the bare feet of the loitering boy who stopped to watch the activities of the busy place. To him, of even greater enticement, was the towering gristmill that stood on the river bank at the opposite end of the town. Here was action and noise in abundance, as the floors and heavy beams, forever powdered with flour dust, creaked and shook under the powerful vibration of the grinding buhrs. A boy could spend tireless hours watching, and then if the miller were not too observant, could go out and dangle his bare feet in the dangerously deep water of the mill race -- fitting climax to an altogether satisfying afternoon.

Such was Philippi before 1861, seriously minded and quiet, neither rich nor poor, getting up early in the morning, working on week days, and going to church on Sunday. Its household contained many children, whose mothers, as a rule already married at sixteen, were considered dignified matrons at twenty. Unbelievably calm and unharassed, these women miraculously possessed unlimited knowledge of sewing, knitting, and home-making, and as a matter of course assumed the duties of family schoolteacher in the intervals when no teacher was available. They were capable and experienced nurses when illness threatened, and had many well-tried remedies written down in the back of the large cook book. It was something of an encyclopedia, and a priceless family treasure which not only told how to prepare a perfect sponge cake, but also gave directions for treating "fever on the lungs," and explained as well, what to do for hog cholera.

It was a town where children addressed their father as "Sir," and where young men wrote formal notes in the third persons to "Miss Mary" or "Miss Sallie," presenting compliments and requesting her company to play croquet, to attend Lodge, or a surprise party. Such notes, with one corner turned down, were dispatched by the hand of younger brothers, who, it was hoped -- would be discreet.

The pride of the community was the massive two-lane covered toll bridge that crossed the river a short distance north of the gristmill. Erected by local workmen in 1852, it was truly an architectural masterpiece. Its builder, Lemuel Chenoweth, of the village of Beverly, thirty miles south, had gained great renown when in 1849, he had demonstrated his model to the Board of Public Works in Richmond. His more cosmopolitan competitors, with their brightly painted models, felt humorously superior to this countryman who had ridden more than a hundred miles over the mountains with his little bridge of unpainted hickory wood wrapped in newspapers, and strapped across his saddle. When Mr. Chenoweth, however, calmly placed his sturdy bridge across two chairs and stood upon it to show its strength, it was not only a dramatic test, but one that could not be met by his competitors. When he rode home with the contract in his pocket, he also took with him the well-earned respect of the other engineers.

Choosing his friend, Emmett O'Brien, a well-known stone mason, to supervise the building of the piers, Mr. Chenoweth, without benefit of blueprint, but solely from his carefully worked-out mental plan, proceeded with a trial construction of the bridge in a meadow by the river. The huge logs of yellow poplar, cut near the site, were entirely hand-hewn, and the enormous 312-foot long two-span structure of four arches each, was fitted together with wooden pins -- the only iron works being a few necessary bolts made by Amacy Kittle, the local ironsmith. The workmen boasted that there wasn't "a single nail in her." After the bridge was completed and thoroughly inspected, it was pronounced perfect, and unbelievable as it may sound, no alterations were required. It was then taken apart and carefully reconstructed on the wide stone piers, where it stands to this day, despite a century of continuous use.

This monarch of the river was not alone the pride of Philippi, but the wonder of the whole region, and was a great boon to travelers on the turnpike, who had grown weary of the tedious and uncertain ferry. To the small boys of the community the bridge was an undiminishing joy, for having avidly watched every moment of its construction, it had somehow become their personal property. A novelty that never paled was the race to the bridge when a distant drove of cattle was sighted -- there to clamber up the broad curving arches, and to perch in choking dust and thrilling safety high above the backs of the bawling, crowding animals. Although skillfully herded through by the reassuring calls of the drovers, and the vigilance of their hard-working dogs, there was always the chance that a steer might suddenly turn, and, with lowered horns, charge one of the dogs, and gallop off in unpredictable mutiny. One of the men would then ride in pursuit, while the others strove to prevent the remaining animals from a similar stampede. It was very exciting, and occasionally it took a delightfully long time to get the recalcitrant back into the drove. It gave a boy something to talk about for days. It was almost as exciting as when the ice went out of the river in the spring. Then one stood on the bank shivering, speechless, and overcome with awe to see the unshakable strength of the great bridge unmoved while the heavy cakes of ice piled higher and higher against the stone piers.

Suddenly in the spring of 1861 everything was changed. With the approach of war the citizens of this quiet community became abruptly aware that no longer could their bridge be regarded as an object of pride and convenience, but its very presence, lying as it did at the gateway to the south, became a menace to the safety of the village, for official eyes were now turned toward Philippi. Generals of the North and of the South recognized the importance of this bridge so necessary to each, and for all of its giant's strength and size, its very life was in jeopardy -- helpless against so small a thing as a match.

The Ordinance of Secession had been adopted by the Richmond Convention on April 17th, but Virginia, a border state, was far from unified in sentiment. Its people were almost equally divided, with the Secessionists having a small majority. Already bitterness and enmity had arisen between families and friends whose differing convictions could not be reconciled. Rumor, uncertainty and confusion were everywhere, as Lincoln's call for volunteers found Philippi preparing for war. Men worked frantically to secure and conceal food for their families before leaving to join the army. Extra barrels of flour were hidden in attics and outbuildings, hams and sugar, under floors and stair treads. Grim-faced women, feeling years older than their youthful husbands so filled with war fever and eagerness to be off, went dry-eyed and silent about their duties. Bewildered and excited children got in everyone's way, as they clamored to help bury the silverware in the flower bed, and hide keepsakes under the hearthstones. Barefoot boys no longer ran down the dusty street to see the cattle go through the bridge. All of that seemed childish and long ago. Instead, they stood soberly staring, lost in envy and admiration as newly enlisted older brothers, with the Confederate flag flying from the cupola above them, lined up in self-conscious rows on the courthouse square -- and longed for the day when they too could enlist. Such a wish was ardently expressed by one small patriot who wrote to his uncle on May 27, 1861: "The soldiers came here on the election day more than I ever saw in my life before, they were five hundred seventy of them, and they have been coming in here every day since. The Barbour Greys left here Saturday and I was sorry to see them start, but I knew they went to fight for liberty and everyone of us. I would be glad to learn to shoot but I think I am to [sic] small to learn to shoot, but if I life I intend to learn to shoot. They are expecting a fight at Grafton every hour tin the day. I would volunteer if I was old enough and I would fight with all my might . . . ."

It had been three weeks previously that Colonel George A. Porterfield, assigned to Confederate command of state forces in northwestern Virginia, was ordered to Grafton, twenty miles north of Philippi, to take charge of enlistments and troops in that area. Confronted with a discouraging condition, he found that the people of western Virginia were not enthusiastic to take up arms for the Confederacy -- volunteers were few and equipment insufficient. Of the companies organized at nearby towns, only two were equipped with guns, and all lacked ammunition. While thus occupied Porterfield learned that well-armed Federal troops were approaching from the direction of Wheeling, near the Pennsylvania border. Fully aware of his inadequacy to risk an encounter, he had no choice but to withdraw. Before doing so, however, he partially burned certain Baltimore and Ohio Railroad bridges, necessary to the maintenance of the Federal military lifeline between Washington and the west. This attempt to destroy communications resulted in no irreparable damage, and, though of small significance in the light of subsequent major military action, served at the moment to focus on this locality widespread and instant attention as the first threatening move in the forthcoming conflict.

Major General George B. McClellan, newly appointed to Federal Command of the Department of the Ohio and a portion of western Virginia, had dispatched troops to Grafton from various directions with Brigadier General T. A. Morris of the Indiana volunteers in command. Summoning Colonel B. F. Kelley from his recruiting post in Wheeling, General Morris ordered him to Grafton to take command of an attacking party to pursue Porterfield and, if possible, capture him. Porterfield in the meantime had withdrawn to Philippi, where he expected to receive reinforcements and ammunition. The first expectation was realized by the presence of a company of volunteers from Upshur County, as well as a Company of cavalry from Rockbridge County, but he was no better off, as the arms and ammunition sent from Richmond to the supply base at Beverly, thirty miles south of Philippi, had not arrived. Nevertheless he decided to make camp and await developments.

Unaware of the weakness of Porterfield's forces, and his inability to conduct any sort of offensive action, or to make even a creditable defense, Colonel Kelley had a carefully prepared plan of attack which was approved by General Morris in Grafton on June 1st. Relying on the element of surprise, and a pincer movement from north and south, the plan was to pocket Porterfield between two converging columns. Apprehensive that spies were informed of the intended march, the attack was postponed for a day, and much care taken to create the impression that preparations were being made for an advance on Harpers Ferry to the east. This illusion was further carried out by dividing the regiments into two sections, and dispatching each by separate trains to different destinations.

Kelley, leaving first, started east the morning of June 2nd, with six companies of his own First Virginia Regiment, nine of the Ninth Indiana under Colonel R. H. Milroy, and six of the Sixteenth Ohio under Colonel J. Irvine.

Disembarking at the small village of Thornton, his column turned southward and proceeded on foot over a rough and seldom used back road. This road, on the same side of the river as Philippi, twisted its narrow way among the hills through the villages of Tacy and Nestorville finally to divide into two forks, one of which coming down the hill past a cemetery, entered Philippi at the northern end of the town near the bridge and the Confederate camp; the other, still rougher and less known, emerged into the Beverly and Fairmont Pike beyond the tannery and the town's southern boundary -- Kelley's objective.

The second section, leaving Grafton under Colonel Ebenezer Dumont, consisted of his Seventh Indiana Regiment. He was ordered to detrain at Webster, four miles southwest of Grafton, and there to unite with the Sixth Indiana Regiment under Colonel T. T. Crittenden, and the Fourteenth Ohio Regiment with two pieces of artillery under Colonel J. B. Steedman.

All assembled, the combined regiments as a unit under general command of Colonel F. W. Lander moved forward in the darkness along the Beverly and Fairmont pike. His more direct route requiring less time, Dumont's train had not left Grafton until 8:30 in the evening, many hours after the departure of Kelley. Rain had begun to fall about dusk and continued steadily and heavily all night.

Sloshing through the slippery mud of the steep and unfamiliar road, swearing under their breath as they stumbled over rocks and stepped into "chuck-holes," the men were pushed forward with the greatest possible speed. No talking was allowed, but at the rest periods the officers passed along the lines, cheering the men and encouraging them with confident talk of victory -- perhaps bolstering their own courage as well, for their intelligence had reported Porterfield with twice the number of men he actually had, and it was too much to hope he could be taken completely by surprise. On the contrary, he might even then be preparing an ambush.

As a matter of fact, Porterfield was doing nothing at all. According to the story of one of his men, as early as the afternoon before, two young women -- Miss McCleod and Miss Johnson from the village of Pruntytown, near Grafton -- learning of the proposed attack, had taken a circuitous route, and undetected, had managed to ride to Philippi with the alarming warning that forty-five hundred men were marching on the town and would reach there in the night. The news spread quickly, and the Confederate camp was soon tense with excitement, while the whole town was thrown into the gravest apprehension.

Although the report of the Federal strength was greatly exaggerated, Porterfield's force, numbering less than a thousand, with one hundred eight cavalry, was entirely inadequate to meet the situation. His men, even his field officers, were the rawest and most inexperience of recruits, while such arms as they had consisted of an assortment of pistols, shotguns, and old flintlock muskets for which there were no cartridges, but only loose powder and shot. Burning bridges, unopposed, was a very different matter from withstanding an attack under these conditions. Porterfield held a conference with his officers, and it was agreed their only hope of avoiding capture was a prompt withdrawal southward to Beverly, where he hoped to find the arms that had failed to reach him at Philippi. He ordered his men ready to march at a moment's notice. Hours passed, and still the order to move was not give. Rumor circulated that midnight would be the hour, but midnight passed, while the restless men, young and frightened, waited sleeplessly in the darkness, listening to the pouring rain. Porterfield, still hesitating, had made no effort to warn or reinforce his outpost pickets, nor even to ascertain whether they were on duty. Actually they were not, having taken shelter from the rain.

Such incredible delay in issuing withdrawal orders may have been based on an optimistic hope that rain would stope the enemy and cause him to give up the whole idea. The enemy had no such thought, but was plodding steadily forward to an attack scheduled to take place between four and four-thirty o'clock the morning of June 3rd.

Winding down a steep hillside to the covered bridge, the pike by which Lander approached Philippi commanded a clear view of the town lying on the opposite bank of the river, as well as the enemy camp in a meadow near the bridge. It was on this hill1 the two pieces of artillery to be mounted in support of the column as it advanced over the bridge into the town, while Kelley supposedly skirting the town, was to converge simultaneously from the opposite direction and block the pike at the southern end.

Daylight came. Porterfield's pickets, taken by surprise, had given to warning of enemy approach. The first intimation was received when shots from the Federal battery on the hill began falling into the Confederate camp and the village street. Porterfield's untrained men, already overwrought by a night of nervous tension, believing they were trapped, became completely demoralized. In spits of Porterfield's personal coolness and his efforts to rally them into a semblance of disciplined order, they fled in the utmost confusion. Discarding their equipment, and even their guns, they ran through the muddy streets in uncontrollable panic -- many on foot, some on horses -- all in made haste to escape down the pike toward the south. Fortunately for them, through some failure still unexplained, the southern road which was to have been blocked remained ahead of them open and unobstructed, while Kelley mistakenly approached the northern end of the town.

Colonel Lander remained near the battery on the hill so long as his impetuous nature would permit, but as his first regiment reached the bridge, he could stay no longer, and without attempting to go by the road, dashed down through the heavy underbrush of the steep hillside in a feat of horsemanship so spectacular that Leslie's Weekly gave an illustrated account of it shortly afterward. Colonel Kelley, who was to command after the columns united, was eager to be in the midst of the action, and riding in advance of his column, entered the town at the moment Colonel Lander came through the bridge. Joining him, they led their men through the village in pursuit of the fleeing Confederates until Colonel Kelley, critically wounded, fell from his horse. The condition of the Federal troops, exhausted after marching all night in rain-soaked clothing and sodden shoes, precluded any pursuit farther than a short distance beyond the town, although Colonel Lander galloped ahead and captured personally the soldier who shot Kelley.

The official reports of the engagement, which is credited with being the first land battle of the Civil War, estimated from fifteen to forty Confederates killed, many arms, wagons, horses, and medical supplies captured, and some prisoners taken. The Federals lost no men killed, and Colonel Kelley was the most seriously wounded.

Numerous reasons have been advanced as to why Kelley's plan to block the road and prevent Porterfield's escape failed to materialize. Some say it was a natural mistake to confuse the two forks leading into the pike, and by choosing the first instead of the second, to enter the town at the northern, instead of the southern outskirts; others say a treacherous guide purposely led them on the wrong road in order to give the Confederates a chance to escape. One theory, substantiated by a soldier's account, was that Kelley divided his force, sending Colonel Milroy in advance to by-pass the town, while he took the first cut-off in order to make his entry near that of Colonel Lander. Colonel Milroy, with more distance to cover, may either have become confused as to the route, gotten lost, or may not have been allowed sufficient time to reach his designated location at the hour scheduled for the attack. Still another explanation is that of a Confederate soldier in the engagement -- James Edward Hanger -- who years later was told by the Federal artillery gunner, Sergeant Fahrion, that the reason Kelley's men failed to intercept the Confederate flight was because the attack had begun prematurely, due to a mistaken signal. Fahrion's signal to commence action was to be a shot at four-thirty, and, consequently, hearing a shot at four-twenty, he began firing. However, the shot was not the signal, but was fired by a woman who lived on the outskirts of Philippi. She had watched from her window the passing soldiers, and barely waiting for them to get out of sight, had started her young son on foot to give warning to the town. The boy was captured almost at once by stragglers who carried him along as their prisoner, and it was at them the frantic mother fired the shot heard by the battery commander.

Whatever the true explanation may be, the Federals did not arrive to block the pell-mell flight of their enemy and to prevent a Confederate debacle which became known even in official records as the "Philippi Races," a spectacle which brought public ridicule, and to General Porterfield severe censure and a transfer of command.

In Philippi, now occupied by Federal troops, nothing was normal. The soldiers were everywhere -- billeted in churches, the mill, barns, vacant homes, and buildings, with the courthouse in use as a hospital. Officers found quarters in private homes, where tired women, endlessly engaged in preparing meals for them, were glad enough of the extra money, not knowing what days of hardship might lie ahead. Soldiers took what they pleased of the depleted stock of the little stores, and paid what they pleased, or not at all. The bridge and the roads were all guarded, the small fires of the sentries glowed in the chill of the night -- constant reminders that no one was free.

Occurring as the first skirmish of the war, the "Races" had been too easily won against a foe who had appeared in an ignominious light, and it is not surprising that the victors, though, for the most part, new and untried themselves, should exhibit an attitude of arrogance and contempt toward all "Secesh." Families of Confederate soldiers and sympathizers were suffering many trials, not only at the hands of the swaggering soldiers, but from certain of the townspeople, who, though not too loudly pro-Union before, now grew vehemently so, and, supported by the presence of the soldiers, felt free to abuse and supported by the presence of the soldiers, felt free to abuse and make threats. Some Confederate wives were able to secure passes through the lines, and with their children joined the army wagon trains that took them farther south. Others, who were less successfully, sought refuge in the countryside, away from the town, terrified by a wild rumor that thousands of Federal troops in Ohio had been ordered southward to destroy all property of Confederate sympathizers and to make an example of the people in this locality. One woman, the wife of a Confederate captain, therefore a conspicuous target for annoyances, left with friends a few pieces of her most cherished possession, followed the advice of a Federal officer, and packing such necessities as could be taken down river by rowboat, abandoned her comfortable home in the town and with her six young children, moved into a small log house on her husband's farm along the river below Philippi. There she hoped to be unnoticed and unmolested. Still under surveillance, however, her premises were frequently searched for cattle, horses, grain, food and clothing, or for any evidence of information or messages being sent through the lines to or from husband or relatives. Barns and haystacks were mysteriously burned. Bad news and unfavorable rumors were carefully relayed by specially sent passers-by in the hope of securing some revealing word or expression -- but such women learned to dissemble to a convincing degree. Sinking the wagon in the river, driving the one cow deep into the woods, trying to grow a crop and provide her children with food, she, like many another Confederate wife, lived cut off from friends and relatives, receiving no news, dreading what she failed to hear, more than the distorted tales she was told -- waiting for an occasional message or smuggled letter. Her vacated home in Philippi suffered the fate of similarly abandoned houses, and was at the mercy of soldiers and civilians. Keys meant nothing; breaking a window or forcing a door was easy. The houses were occupied, damaged, left open to wind and weather; shutters, porch railings, and fences were ripped off and used for kindling; ornaments and furnishings were carried away or put up for sale. With money depreciating, absent Confederate soldiers were helpless against real or self-styled creditors, who made the most of disrupted conditions.

Time passed, and the maintenance of an army of occupation became more burdensome. Even the Union sympathizers who had welcomed the army's arrival were beginning to grow weary of the soldiers, and to long for the day when they would be gone. Food was growing scarce. Few people now had a cow or horse, chickens had disappeared, hams no longer hung in the attic and smokehouse, contents of flour and sugar barrels diminished. Young boys grew quiet and did not laugh so often. Their mothers talked to them in a grown-up way. They were the men of the family now. Little children learned to be wary and say "I don't know," when ingratiating soldiers asked questions about where their mamma kept the flour.

Christmas passed without happiness. Columns of men, not too warmly clad, still tramped through the village streets, now deep rutted from the heavy army wagons, and frozen in hard ridges. The Battle of Rich Mountain had occurred; the engagement at Corrick's Ford; and the decisive action at Carnifex Ferry. A few of the wounded had come home to stay, bringing with them the keepsakes of others who would never come.

Lonely women skimped and saved, shutting their minds to fear, praying, shedding their tears at night when none would know, bitterly recalling the early and confident assurances that it would all be over in a few months -- seeing again the faces of marching soldiers, their look of buoyancy lost, now settled into a weary grimness -- feeling hope give way before the growing certainty that it was only the beginning.

1. Now the site of Broaddus College.


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