Western Virginia Campaign "The Phillippi Races" May 26 - July 13, 1861
As it existed in 1860, the area of the state of Virginia that was west of the Allegheny Mountains was composed of rugged mountain ranges and deep, narrow valleys. Referred to as Western Virginia, the area was vastly different geographically, culturally, and economically from the rest of the state. When Virginia seceded in April 1861, the people of the western part of the state, who felt themselves more closely allied to Pennsylvania and Ohio than the rest of Virginia, immediately began holding Unionist meetings and calling for the secession of their region from the rest of the state.
With the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad traversing Western Virginia and the Ohio River flowing along the western border, the area was of extreme strategic importance to the Union war effort. There were only 1,500 undisciplined Confederate troops in western Virginia, and they were destroying the railroad's bridges. On May 26, 1861, Union Gen. George B. McClellan, commander of the Department of the Ohio, ordered 3,000 of his troops to invade the state with the mission of protecting the railroads as well as the Unionist citizens of the area. One column of soldiers crossed the Ohio River at Parkersburg and moved eastward toward Grafton; another column crossed at Wheeling and moved southeast down the rail line that intersected with the Baltimore & Ohio at Grafton. On June 1, the two Union forces united at the rail junction. Learning that the Rebels had withdrawn to Phillippi, 25 miles southeast of Grafton, the Yankees set out in pursuit. At dawn on June 3, Union soldiers marched into Phillippi from the north as the Confederates beat a hasty retreat out of town toward Beverly, 30 miles to the southeast.
The skirmish was exaggerated by the Northern press as a great victory for the Union, its first in the war. The Rebels had few casualties, but many of their supplies were captured. The "Phillippi Races" encouraged the Unionists in Western Virginia and was a good omen for the rest of the campaign.
Fascinating Fact: The Yankees made the night march to Phillippi in a driving rainstorm over rugged mountain roads. A Confederate officer in the town commented, "Hell, any army marching tonight must be made up of a set of damned fools!"
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