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Famous retreat from Philippi. From the Times-dispatch, November 4, 1906.

One of the Early battles of the war fought under serious Disadvantages.

Confederates unprepared-strange views of General McClellan and his idea of Uncivilized warfare.

by John A. McNEEL.
At this time and place the very first collision of arms between the Northern and Southern forces on Virginia soil occurred. Here the first blood on Virginia soil of the four years of the great civil war was spilled. The writer has never seen an accurate and full account of the first meeting of the two armies in Virginia, that were afterwards to engage in the death struggle of the next four years, and now, after the lapse of more than forty-five years, takes upon himself the duty of writing an impartial account of the occurrence of an event that was considered a great victory for the North and a greater defeat for the South.

In order to form a correct opinion of the facts related, we must, first, locate the town of Philippi, describe and give the attendant circumstances of each army, as well as discuss the peculiar political conditions that existed in Virginia at that time. Under the alarming political conditions of the country, the Hon. John Letcher, as Governor of Virginia, by proclamation, convened the Legislature of Virginia in extraordinary session on the 7th day of January, 1861.

This Legislature, almost immediately on its assembling, passed an act calling for a State convention to express the sovereign will of the people of Virginia upon their Federal relations.

By this act the members to the convention were to be elected on the 4th day of February, proximo, and to meet in convention on the 13th day of the same month, in the city of Richmond. [281] The members were elected, and the convention met at the time and place appointed, the whole number of the members being one hundred and fifty-two.

Remarkable body.

As the list of the names of this convention will show, it was a very remarkable body of men, and in every respect worthy of the trust that the people of Virginia had confided in them.

The political sentiments of the Virginia Convention of 1861, on its assembling, were strongly Union, and this was the true reflection of the feelings of the people of Virginia at that time; but events were occurring outside of the State of Virginia, over which the Virginia people had no control, that were calculated to destroy the peace of the country.

By this last remark special reference is made to the increased manufacture of arms and munitions of war by the Northern States, and the threatening attitude of the National Government towards the seceded States.

Abraham Lincoln had been elected President of the United States in the fall of 1860, and on the 4th of March, 1861, was inducted into office. His inaugural address on this occasion greatly excited the Virginia people, and the convention appointed three eminent men to confer with Mr. Lincoln at Washington in regard to his intentions towards the seceded States.

To this commission no satisfactory reply had been made, when events that were occurring at Fort Sumter, S. C., engrossed the public attention.

On the 12th day of April, 1861, the garrison at Fort Sumter surrendered to General Beauregard, commanding the Confederate forces.

Lincolns proclamation.

Three days after this event—viz., on the 15th day of April— Mr. Lincoln issued his first warlike proclamation, calling upon all of the States that had not seceded to furnish 75,000 troops to coerce the seceded States.

Under this proclamation Virginia was to furnish three regiments of the 75,000 men. [282]

The answer to this call for troops to coerce the Southern States, on the part of Virginia, through her assembled convention, was given two days afterwards, on the 17th day of April, by the passage of the ‘ordinance of secession.’

The vote in convention stood 88 ‘for’ and 55 ‘against’ secession.

The convention, after the passage of the ordinance of secession, adopted a resolution agreeing to submit the ordinance to the popular vote of the State on the fourth Thursday of May following, and after conditionally adopting the Provisional Constitution of the seceded States, which condition depended upon the ‘ratification’ or ‘rejection’ of the secession ordinance, adjourned to meet on the 1st day of June, proximo.

Two days after the passage of this ordinance Mr. Lincoln issued his second war proclamation, the tenor of which was an open declaration of war against the seceded States, a blockade of the seaports of these States, and declaring any act on the part of these States on the high seas to be piracy.

Such was the status of political affairs in Virginia in April, 1861.

Prior to this time the conservative leaders of the State of thought and action had earnestly hoped and, nay, even fervently prayed that all national troubles might be amicably settled.

So thoroughly were people of Virginia of this opinion that practically no preparations for war had been made, and when the events that have just been narrated occurred in such rapid succession, and ‘the pen naturally yielded to the sword,’ and the whole country was precipitated into war, the State of Virginia was totally unprepared for war, and many a volunteer company, when the first call was made by the Governor, started to the border of the State without a single gun.

And while this was literally true of Virginia, it was not the case with the Northern or Western States. Even after the John Brown raid on Harper's Ferry there had been an increased manufacture of arms and munitions of war in these States, and when the spring of 1861 dawned the Northern people were ready for the war. Their time, as the record now shows, was not taken up in discussing ‘peace resolutions’ or ‘peace measures,’ but, with dogged persistence, had been preparing for [283] war. In support of this last statement of facts the writer offers as evidence the correspondence between Gen. George B. Mc-Clellan, as commander-in-chief of Ohio volunteers, with his headquarters at Cincinnati, and Gen. Winfield Scott, as commander-in-chief of the Federal army, with his headquarters at Washington City. (See ‘War of Rebellion,’ Vol. LI., Series I., Part I., Supplement).

McClellans plans.

On the 23d day of April, 1861, from Columbus, Ohio (see page 333 of above history), General McClellan writes General Scott a long letter, informing General Scott that he (McClellan) had been appointed by the Governor of Ohio as commanderin-chief of Ohio volunteers, and as such commanding the Ohio Valley.

This correspondence is kept up at a brisk rate until the 29th day of May, the greater part of which is from General McClellan. During these thirty-six days General McClellan discloses all of his war plans on the border States of Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.

McClellan intimates to General Scott that he wanted to control all the territory from Cumberland, Md., to Memphis, Tenn. His plans were of an immediate invasion. General Scott opposed this, thinking that the best way to coerce the States was to take the Ohio and Mississippi rivers by a system of gunboats, and blockade the seaports of all the Southern States effectually, and not invade at that time the Southern States and thereby ‘evade the useless effusion of blood,’ as he puts it. So much to the credit of General Scott.

In the correspondence referred to General McClellan manifests how anxious he was personally to invade Virginia and the means he was then using to discover the political feelings of the border Southern States.

In this correspondence General McClellan has written the story of his own life and no biographer at this day can alter or change what General McClellan has fixed. He questions the propriety of the use of some of the means he was using to ascertain the domestic relations of the Southern States, and in one of these letters (see page 384) he uses the following language in [284] description of the political condition of the counties of Western Tennessee:

‘I am told that there is much excitement among the negroes there, who, in their private talks, have gone so far as to select their white wives.’

And still, General McClellan was devoting all his talent and energy (as the correspondence shows) to bring about the very state of affairs that would enable these poor, deluded negroes to accomplish their unrighteous purposes. And since General McClellan planned and executed the first formidable invasion of Virginia, it is meet to give more than a passing notice to his character.

General McClellan was born and reared in the North, and was educated at West Point Military Academy. He had seen service as a soldier in the Mexican war, and was in the United States army in 1861, at which time he was in the prime of life

From his letters to General Scott and the War Department he shows a wonderful knowledge of the art of war. He does not hesitate at the use of any means that would subserve his purpose, and the only standard set up by him was ‘success.’ The record shows that immediately after his appointment as major-general he established the large camps just in the rear of Cincinnati, and named them Forts Harrison and Dennison, and with the help of Governors Dennison of Ohio, Yates of Illinois and Morton of Indiana, that he assembled at these two forts more than forty full regiments that were thoroughly drilled and in every way equipped to take the field by the 27th day of May, when the invasion of Virginia from the Ohio frontier began; and this vast preparation that had been made since the 23d day of April is a clear proof of the wonderful power of General McClellan as an organizer of troops.

These troops were conveyed over the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, some from Wheeling, but the greater part from Parkersburg, and at the little town of Philippi, the county seat of Barbour county, twelve miles south of the Parkersburg branch of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, on the third day of June, 1861, is where the van of General McClellan's vast army first struck the Provisional forces of Virginia, under Colonel Porterfield. [285]

General McClellan (from his letters) knew all about the ‘weak rebel force,’ as he called the Virginia troops, and of their lack of arms and otherwise unfortunate condition he was going to take advantage.

His instructions.

In a letter of May 29th, of general instruction, to General T. A. Morris, of the Indiana volunteers, who had command of eight full regiments of the van of General McClellan's army, General McClellan uses the following language (see page 394): ‘If traitors fall into your hands, deal summarily with them. In aggravated cases bring them before a court martial; in ordinary cases either keep them under guard or send them to the Columbus penitentiary, as circumstances may render expedient.’ Such was the animus that accompanied this vast army with which General McClellan invaded the northwestern part of Virginia, and so great and so aggressive was this army of invasion that a part of it reached the top of Cheat Mountain, between Randolph and Pocahontas counties, a distance of more than one hundred and fifty miles from Parkersburg, before the Confederates could bring a sufficient force against it to stop it. So much for the plans and movements of the Federal army.

And now before locating the town of Philippi and describing the Confederate forces, the writer desires to say he has before him three diaries that were kept by two enlisted soldiers and one by a Presbyterian minister, who accompanied this Provisional Army as a volunteer chaplain.

The minister is still living, in the person of the Rev. William T. Price, D. D., of the new town of Marlinton, of Pocahontas county, W. Va., on the Greenbrier division of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad. In the spring of 1861 Dr. Price was a young preacher, supplying the congregations of McDowell and Williamsville Churches, in Highland county, Va., and when Captain Felix H. Hull, of that county, with his company of volunteers, was ordered to Grafton by Governor Letcher Mr. Price desired to accompany the soldiers, and at his special request the two congregations voted him a leave of absence to go to Grafton.

At this time he was the only preacher to accompany any of [286] the volunteer companies as a chaplain. Dr. Price kept a faithful diary, beginning on the 18th day of May, 1861, until about the 20th of June, recording every day each day's events. Of the two soldiers referred to who kept diaries of the ‘On to Grafton’ campaign, one was a Mr. Osborne Wilsero, and the other a Mr. Charles Lewis Campbell. Both of these gentlemen were members of Captain Hull's company, as both were born and reared in Highland county, Va. These gentlemen were still living at the last account, one a citizen of his native county, in Virginia, and the other a citizen of the State of California. The three diaries referred to have been compiled and published in booklet form by Dr. Price, for which act alone the name of Dr. Price should be held in grateful remembrance by Virginia people.

Circumstances of disaster.

The writer further desires to say that he has in his possession letters that were written at the time of this Philippi disaster by intelligent Southern men, detailing all the attendant circumstances, and with all this record of facts, in connection with his individual knowledge, which peculiar environments allowed him to obtain at the time, he feels amply able to tell the story from a Southern standpoint.

Prior to the passage of the ordinance of secession by the convention, the Legislature of Virginia passed an act providing for the raising of 20,000 troops for the protection of the State against armed invasion, and after the adjournment of the convention Governor Letcher began ordering the volunteer companies to various points on the border of the State. In Northwestern Virginia the order was for all volunteer companies to rendezvous at Grafton, and hence the cry arose among the young soldiers, ‘On to Grafton.’ The town of Grafton, then, as now, was in Taylor county, Va., (now West Virginia), on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and at the junction of what was then the Parkersburg branch of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.

The town of Grafton in 1861 was a new railroad town, and owed its existence entirely to the building of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, the main line of which, a distance of 379 miles, between the cities of Baltimore and Wheeling, had been completed [287] in the year of 1853. The ‘Parkersburg branch,’ a distance of 101 miles from Grafton to Parkersburg, had been completed about two years later. And, in passing, the writer desires to say that when General McClellan heard that Governor Letcher had ordered the State troops to rendezvous at Grafton it greatly excited him.

At that time the people of the State of Ohio looked upon the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad as their own special property, and were exceedingly jealous of the exercise of any rights over this corporation, and the subsequent events show that the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was one of the most effectual means in the hands of the Lincoln government for the subjugation of the Southern States.

Porterfield given command.

Colonel Geo. A. Porterfield, from the Virginia Military Institute was sent by Governor Letcher to take command of all State troops at Grafton. On Friday, the 31st day of May, Dr. Price makes this entry: ‘I met Colonel Porterfield, and was invited to take tea with him at his quarters, and I found him a very intelligent and affable gentleman.’ * * ‘Colonel Porterfield spoke rather despondently of the unprepared condition of Virginia to meet invasion successfully. He regretted very much the lack of order, preparation and discipline among the troops now at the front, but he hoped all might come right after while.’ 0n the 30th day of May, Mr. Wilson makes this entry: ‘Our head officer is a tall, slender young man, with red, curly hair, no whiskers, dark eyes, and good looking, especially his face. He was in company with another officer, whose uniform is a blue coat, blue pants, stick cap. His complexion fair, light hair and eyes, rather heavy beard.’

Such is the personal description of Colonel Porterfield by two of the writers of the diaries at that time.

From Staunton, Va., to Grafton, over the turnpike roads, it is a distance of 143 miles. The first 112 miles is over the ‘Staunton and Parkersburg pike,’ when you reach Beverley, that was the county seat of Randolph county. There you take Philippi pike, and you reach Philippi, the county seat of Barbour county, at a distance of thirty-one miles, and from Philippi to [288] Grafton, over the Fitterman pike it is eighteen miles to Grafton. All of these roads were made by the State of Virginia prior to the year of 1861, under what was known as the ‘internal improvement system of Virginia,’ and were broad, well-graded turnpikes.

The State troops that were included in Governor Letcher's order to rendezvous at Grafton were known as the ‘Provisional Army,’ and this title had been acquired by the fact that Virginia, through her convention, had adopted conditionally the ‘Provisional Constitution’ of the seceded States. The following is a list of the companies and their captains that were ordered to Grafton, and were in the Philippi route or retreat:

One company of cavalry from Greenbrier county, under Capt. Robert Moorman.

Two companies from Pocahontas county—one company of cavalry, under Capt. Andrew McNeil, and one company of infantry, under Capt. Daniel Stofer.

One company of cavalry from Bath county, under Capt. Arch Richards.

One company of cavalry from Rockbridge county, Capt. John Rice McNutt.

One company of cavalry from Augusta county, under Capt Frank Sterrett.

One company of infantry, under Capt. Felix Hull, from Highland county.

Two companies of infantry from Pendleton county—one under Captain Anderson and the other under Captain Moorman:

Two companies from Barbour county—one under Captain Reger and the other under a Captain Strums.

One company from Upshur county, under Captain Higginbotham.

And all other volunteer forces as far west as the city of Wheeling were required to report at Grafton, but the diaries show that probably not more than half of the companies that have been enumerated did reach Grafton. The record shows that a few hundred of Colonel Porterfield's forces did reach Grafton from the 25th to the 28th days of May, when a report came from Ohio of this big army of McClellan's coming on the [289] Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, when Colonel Porterfield ordered a retreat to Philippi. This retreat was made in good order.

Asleep when attacked.

Colonel Porterfield remained at Philippi until the 3d morning of June, when, just at the break of day, the Federals opened on him and his little army with all the artillery that was available on this occasion.

The Confederates were all asleep apparently when the artillery began to fire. To oppose McClellan's vast host Colonel Porterfield had probably, all told, twelve hundred men, that were poorly armed and equipped for service.

The attacking army was fully 10,000 men, that were armed and equipped in the very best possible condition, under the comnand of General T. A. Morris, of the Indiana volunteers. The attack of infantry was led by Col. B. F. Kelly in person, and had it not been for the timely shooting of Colonel Kelly by John W. Sheffee, a member of Capt. Hull's company, in the streets of Philippi, as the Colonel was leading the charge on the routed Virginians, a greater part of the latter would have been captured.

Captain Hull's company was in the rear of the Virginians, and young Sheffee took dead aim at Colonel Kelly, and when the gun cracked he, with great glee, came jumping forward to his companions, and exclaimed, ‘Sergeant, I have done it!’ ‘Done what?’ ‘I flopped that big fellow from his horse that was coming after us so savage.’ Sheffee was a green mountain boy, but knew how to shoot, and when Colonel Kelly came wallop to the ground all effort to pursue the Virginians just then stopped, and this break in the charge gave them time to get together and defend themselves.

This Col. B. F. Kelly is the same man who became a major-general in the Federal army, and was captured the last winter of the war in Cumberland City, Md., by Jesse McNeil. Major-General George Crook was captured at the same time by Mc-Neil.


Tells of the attack.

From Dr. Price's diary the following explanation is given or the attack on Philippi:

Saturday was the first day of June, 1861. On the second clay of June there was an open-air preaching service for the Virginia soldiers in Philippi. At the conclusion of the service two young ladies, a Miss Mollie Kerr and a Miss Mollie McLeod. rode hurriedly into Philippi on horseback, and asked at once to be shown to Col. Porterfield's headquarters. These young ladies by some means had come in possession of the plans of the Northern generals, and knew when the attack was to be made on the Virginians.

The homes of these young ladies were down near Fairmount, and on Saturday by some means they had discovered the plans of the Federals, and under trying circumstances on Sunday had come to Philippi to tell Col. Porterfield that the plan was either to attack him Sunday night or Monday morning. Col. Porterfield at once gave the order to be ready to march at 5 o'clock P. M., and Dr. Price here narrates:

When the troops were promptly in marching order Sunday evening, June 2, 1861, instructions were given to eat supper and await further orders. The officers in charge of the pickets and scouts were directed to bring all in by midnight, and if it was not raining the march to Beverley would begin. The scouts reported at 12 o'clock and the pickets were withdrawn, and so from midnight on neither videttes nor pickets were on duty.

It was raining in torrents, and Captain Sterrett, of the Churchville Cavalry, had supposed, from the character of the instructions received by him, that it was his duty to await further orders, and so did Captain Stofer, officer in charge of the pickets.

In the meantime the Union troops were advancing unobserved and unmolested, and prepared for the attack at dawn. The first intimation the Virginians had of the Union men's approach was the firing of artillery from an eminence beyond the bridge on the opposite side of the river from the cavalry camp.

It appeared that the Unionist had adopted this plan of assault; [291] Philippi was to be approached at the north end by two divisions, while a flanking detachment was to enter by the southern road simultaneously, cutting off all retreat.

Brought about confusion.

It seemed to have been intended that the attack should be brought on by the infantry upon the sleeping soldiers, followed up by the artillery opening on the cavalry camp at the northern limits of the town. Had this plan of battle been carried out, the Virginians would have all been slain or captured. Through a very manifest Providence interposing, as the writer views it, confusion was brought upon the designs of the Unionists by the assault opening with the artillery. This gave the sleeping Virginians time to leave town before the infantry could cut off retreat.

The flanking party of the Unionists came into position just as the last of the Virginians were passing out of the town on the southern road.

On the part of the Virginians not a life was reported as lost. Two or three were seriously wounded—Leroy Dangerfield, of the Bath Cavalry, and Private Hanger, of the Churchville Cavalry.

The Unionists had their commanding officer, Col. B. F. Kelley, severely wounded near the southern extremity of the town, and as soon as that occurred all pursuit seemed to have ceased.

Such is Dr. Price's account of the Philippi disaster. It is well to note that he was not an eye-witness, but was some miles in the rear, but near enough to hear the firing of the guns, and in a little while the fleeing Virginians came rushing by. On the 3rd of June, 1861, Mr. Wilson makes the note that he was waked — up at 3 o'clock that morning, and put on guard duty, and just at daylight he saw the flash of the artillery fire directed at the cavalry camp when all was thrown into confusion and retreat ordered.

The artillery was charged with solid shot, and Young Hanger's leg was cut off with a cannon ball. Mr. Hanger survived [292] this, and is still living, and since the Civil War has been the manufacturer of wooden limbs. Leroy Dangerfield got well of his wound, and made a brilliant record as a Confederate soldier in the Eleventh Virginia Cavalry, captain of a company. Captain Dangerfield died a few years ago.

Virginians' heavy losses.

The record shows that the Virginians lost all of their baggage and camp equipage, and fully one-half of their arms, and the little army was scattered to the four winds, but, after many privations, got together again, and presented another front on ‘Laurel Hill,’ where they were again outflanked and put to flight. Prior to the Philippi disaster the whole of western Virginia was in a greatly excited condition, and the mental suffering was intense; but now the sufferings became real, and war, with all of its horrors, was spread over the country.

All of Northwestern Virginia, as far south as Randolph county, had to be abandoned to the Federals, and this was very disheartening to the Southern sympathizers.

The bold dash of the Federals, under General McClellan, into Northwest Virginia, led to the assembling of a mighty army under General Robert E. Lee in Greenbrier and Pocahontas counties the summer of 1861, but General Lee and General Mc-Clellan never confronted each other in Western Virginia as commanders of opposing armies. General Lee did not reach Huntersville until the 3d day of August, 1861 (see Recollections and Letters of R. E. Lee, by Robert E. Lee, Jr., page 38, and did not reach his headquarters at Valley Mountain until three days later (see same book).

General McClellan at this time was in command of the Army of the Potomac, which he assumed on the 27th day of July (see History of the War of Rebellion, referred to, page 428); when General McClellan issues his first order as commanderinchief of that army.

The great battle of Bull Run, or First Manassas, had been fought on the 21st day of July 1861, and the Confederates had gained a signal victory, and General McDowell's defeated and [293] disorganized army was hurled back to Washington, and Mr. Lincoln and his Cabinet had sent to Randolph county with all haste for General McClellan, and when he reached Washington he was hailed as Napoleon, and Mr. Lincoln would jocularly tell his dishearted friends to ‘wait and see what little Mac would do.’ Poor Lincoln! He never seemed to have realized what sorrow, what bloodshed, and what suffering he was causing the country by his acts, and the levity with which he was accustomed to treat all question's touching the war must ever render his character contemptible in that respect.

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