On this day: Battle of Philippi

by Gerelyn Hollingsworth

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On this day, 150 years ago, the first land battle of the Civil War was fought at Philippi, Virginia. Two Union columns, totalling 3000 men, marched all night in a rain storm to take the town, where 800 Confederate recruits were sleeping.

The skirmish at Philippi (pronounced FILL-uh-pea) presaged what lay ahead for the Confederacy. They should have taken a lesson from the rout, but of course they did not.

Two soldiers who were present that cold morning are remembered still. Both were eighteen-year-old boys. One was Ambrose Bierce, and the other was James E. Hanger.

Hanger had enlisted in the Confederate cavalry the day before. His leg was hit by a ricocheting 6-pound solid shot in the attack, and he was left behind when the other Confederate soldiers ran away. A Union doctor amputated his leg above the knee, the first battlefield amputation of the Civil War.

When Hanger went home after a prisoner exchange, he fashioned an artificial limb for himself. His prosthesis, made with barrel staves and leather, was so good that the state of Virginia commissioned him to make limbs for other amputees. The company Hanger started 150 years ago is still in business, traded on the New York Stock Exchange.

From Wiki: "Notable Hanger patients include: Jeremy Campbell, winner of two gold medals in the 2008 Paralympic Games, . . . Retired Staff Sgt. Heath Calhoun, veteran of the Iraq War, . . . and Aron Ralston a mountain climber who became famous in May 2003 when he amputated his lower right arm with a dull knife in order to free himself from a fallen boulder."

Ambrose Bierce fought for the Union at Philippi and described his experience in "On a Mountain". He mentions Hanger's leg.

"We had been in action, too; had shot off a Confederate leg at Philippi, 'the first battle of the war,' and had lost as many as a dozen men at Laurel Hill and Carrick's Ford, whither the enemy had fled in trying, Heaven knows why, to get away from us."

For an excellent account of June 3, 1861, see "The First Civil War Battle: Philippi," by Gerald D. Swick.

"The 'first land battle of the Civil War' lasted perhaps 30 minutes. Both sides inflated the number of enemy troops and casualties, but fewer than a dozen men were wounded, and there were no fatalities. Northerners proclaimed it a rout, 'the Philippi races.' Southerners said most of Porterfield's men left in good order, in accordance with his plans. Both were partially correct."

"Small though the skirmish on the Tygart was, it contained nearly all the elements that would determine the war's outcome, including the North's effective use of rail transit."

"Tenacity, terrain and frequently daring leadership would keep the dream of a Southern Confederacy alive for four bloody years, but its epitaph was already written at Philippi: Too few trying to defend too much with too little, fighting against a people in whom the bonds of Union had become too strong to sever." Page 5.

For a good summary, see the Encyclopedia of the American Civil War: A Political, Social, and Military History, by David Stephen Heidler, Jeanne T. Heidler, and David J. Coles, W. W. Norton, 2002. The article ends with this: "Most importantly, the Union success at Philippi gave confidence to politicians from the western section of Virginia to begin the process that eventually would lead to the establishment of West Virginia as the thirty-fifth state".

The rout at Philippi was relegated to a footnote in History of the United States for Catholic Schools, by Charles Hallan McCarthy, American Book Company, 1919. (It's interesting to scroll through this textbook that was standard in many parochial schools in the twenties and thirties to see what was expected of sixth and seventh graders in those days. See, e.g., Chapter XXXIV, "Wilson's Administration", and note the Questions at the end of the chapter. The Appendix includes The Constitution of the United States.)

Click here for the Wikipedia article on the Battle of Philippi.

Click here for "Philippi", in Civil War Sites: The Official Guide to Battlefields, Monuments, and More, by Sarah Richards, Civil War Preservation Trust, 2003.

Click here for the Wikipedia article on Philippi, West Virginia. On that page, about halfway down, is a picture of the town as it looked in 1861.

Click here for the Wikipedia article on James E. Hanger. In a quotation, he describes what happened to him at Philippi.

Click here for the Wikipedia article on Ambrose Bierce.

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