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Hancock County, West Virginia and the Start of the Civil War

Virginia, the home state of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, was notably divided during the Civil War. The growing factions were evident in the state’s most northern reaches. In May 1861, pro-Unionists in Hancock County, VA(now West Virginia), decided to organize a company of men to help fulfill President Abraham Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers. The enlistments were for only three months, but those men quickly cemented their place in history by fighting in the first military land engagement of the Civil War, which catapulted Union General George B. McClellan to the national stage.

On May 17, 1861, Captain B.W. Chapman, a resident of Hancock County, recruited 54 other men to fight in the Civil War. In total, there were thirteen officers and forty-two privates who joined the First Virginia Volunteer Infantry. There were even two musicians included in the group, J.F. McClintock and Samuel Halstead. A few days later, the men traveled to Wheeling, Virginia, where the regiment was organized by using men from Hancock, Brooke, Ohio, and Marshall counties. The men were placed under the command of Colonel Benjamin Franklin Kelley.  [1]

Benjamin Franklin Kelley

Benjamin Franklin Kelley

On May 26, Gen. George B. McClellan received word that Confederate forces had destroyed two bridges on the Baltimore and Ohio railroad located near Farmington, WV. McClellan quickly ordered troops under his command to advance upon the enemy in order to restore the bridges and secure Western Virginia. His order to Colonel Benjamin Franklin Kelley, the commander of the Hancock County men, read:

Headquarters Department of the Ohio
Cincinnati, May 26, 1861.

Col. B.F. Kelley, First Regiment Virginia Volunteers:

COLONEL: I have telegraphed you this evening, instructing you to
make a forward movement on Fairmont. The principal reason for this
order was the burning of the bridges, which caused me to anticipate, by
some two or three days, the more carefully prepared measures I had
contemplated, with the intention of not only securing the Baltimore and
Ohio Railroad, but also of driving all the armed secessionists out of
Western Virginia.
In you present movement you will be careful to run no unnecessary
risk, for it is absolutely necessary that we should not meet even with a
partial check at the outset. If you find yourself in front of any hostile
force that, either by superiority of numbers, position, or artillery, is
likely to render an attack doubtful, you will remain in observation, and
at once send for assistance, which can be promptly rendered to any
desirable extent. The chief object of your advance is to prevent any
further destruction of the railroad. You will not move on Grafton
without restoring the bridges in your rear, unless you receive positive
information that Colonel Steedman’s command has actually reached
Grafton, or a neighboring point, where you can without doubt unite
with him.
Colonel Steedman occupies Parkersburg to-morrow morning with two
regiments, and will then proceed to take possession of the line of the
Baltimore and Ohio Railroad as far towards Grafton as he can with
safety.
You will exercise the utmost vigilance in preserving the discipline
of your men, see that the property and rights of the inhabitants are in
every respect carefully protected, and use every effort to conciliate the
people and strengthen the Union feeling. You will at once make a
requisition upon the chief quartermaster of this department for such
supplies as may be necessary for your command. In the mean time,
make the best use you can of the means now in your possession.
Colonel Irvine will be under your orders.

With every confidence that you will leave nothing undone to carry
out the very delicate and important duty with which you are intrusted,
I am, colonel, very respectfully,

Geo. B. McClellan,
Major-General, U.S. Army, Commanding Deppartment[2]

On May 27, at 5:00 a.m.,  the men of the First Virginia Infantry, who were stationed at Camp Carlisle on Wheeling Island, began their march to Fairmont. They went through Benwood, WV and then to Camp Buffalo.  They were joined by other regiments from Ohio and Indiana, and eventually the entire force was placed under the command of Brigadier General Thomas A. Morris of the Indiana Militia. The first death of the regiment occurred at the camp. Frederick Fowell, of Company G, was killed by accidental gun fire. The accident also wounded another soldier.[3]

The day after the accident, Confederate forces under the command of Colonel George A. Porterfield moved from Grafton to Philippi, WV. Col. Kelley and his men had made it to Mannington, WV, approximately twenty miles west of Fairmont. [4] By June 1, the Union force had pushed forward and took possession of Fairmont and Grafton. That night, Brig.-Gen. Morris arrived and convened with Kelley, who had proposed a plan to capture Philippi. Morris decided to delay the attack until the morning of June 3. The plan was to send a detachment from Grafton, under the command of Kelley, east along the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, then south toward Philippi along the east bank of the Tygart Valley River, finally stopping before the town in order to strike on the morning of June 3. Simultaneously, another detachment, under the command of Colonel Ebenezer Dumont, moved from Grafton south along the west bank of the Tygart Valley River toward the town. In total, the Union force was approximately 2,000 strong.[5]

Battle of Philippi

Battle of Philippi

On the night of June 2, the two detachments marched through the darkness, heavy rain, and mud to reach their destinations. Col. Dumont’s forces reached their desired location on time, but Kelley was delayed in his movements. Dumont wanted to retain the element of surprise so he decided to attack the city without Kelley’s immediate support. First, his forces fired their cannons at the town and then took charge. They were able to capture the bridge that led into the town. The 600 Confederate forces under the command of Col. Porterfield at Philippi began to retreat immediately. Just then, Col. Kelley’s command, including the Hancock County troops, arrived and began chasing the rebels. During the pursuit, Kelley was shot in the right side of his chest. Many of his men feared that he was mortally wounded, but he eventually recovered. The Union forces captured the town with ease.[6]

In their retreat, the Confederate left behind a significant amount of ammunition, blankets, baggage, and wagons. The Union did not lose any men, but two were wounded. However, the Confederacy had approximately sixteen to forty men killed. [7]  The Union was able to push the Confederates even further out of Western Virginia. It was the first victory for McClellan, which garnered him national attention. It later contributed to his promotion to commander of the entire U.S. Army. The Confederate retreat was so swift that newspapers dubbed it the “Philippi Races.”[8] After the battle, Confederate Col. Porterfield faced a court of inquiry for his failure to hold Philippi. It was determined that he failed to properly secure the town, but “a superior force of the enemy” prevented him from stopping the retreat.[9] The Battle of Philippi holds a prominent place in Civil War history because it was the first land engagement of the war, AND it was the first instance of the war where someone had their leg amputated, Private Jim Hanger.[10]As for the Hancock County troops, only two men were wounded during the first 3 month enlistment period from May 17 to August 17. Pvt. A.H. Vance was injured by a railroad car, and on July 4, Pvt. Samuel Troup was accidentally wounded.[11]

Depiction of the Battle of Philippi

Depiction of the Battle of Philippi

[1] J.H. Newton, ed., History of the Pan-Handle: Being Historical Collections of the Counties of Ohio, Brooke, Marshall, and Hancock, West Virginia (Wheeling, WV: J.A. Caldwell, 1879), 426.

[2]  The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, series 1, vol. 2, 45-46. (this source will subsequently be abbreviated “O.R.”)

[3] C.J. Rawling, History of the First Regiment Virginia Infantry: A Narrative of the Military Movements in the Mountains of Virginia, in the Shenandoah Valley and East of the Blue Ridge During the War of the Rebellion, of the First Regiment Virginia Infantry Volunteers, Three Months’
and Three Years’ Service 
(Philadelphia: J.b. Lippincott Company, 1887), chapter 4.

[4] O.R., I, ii,45.

[5] O.R., I, ii, 66-67.

[6] Bud Hannings, Everyday of the Civil War: A Chronological Encyclopedia (Jefferson: McFarland Press, 2010), 47-48.

[7] O.R., I, ii, 68.

[8] Clayton Newell, Lee vs. McClellan: The First Campaign (Washington,D.C.: Regnery History, 1996).

[9] O.R., I, ii, 73.

[10] Webb Garrison, Curiosities of the Civil War: Stranges Stories, Infamous Characters, and Bizarre Events  (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1994), 404.

[11] Rawling, History of the First Regiment Virginia Infantry, appendix A. 

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One thought on “Hancock County, West Virginia and the Start of the Civil War

  1. Vanessa Gallo on said:

    So proud of you for living your dream of being a historian. You obviously are very good at what you do. Very interesting read!

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