Civil War’s first land battle to be reenacted in West Virginia

Civil War, Battle of Philippi, West VirginiaToday is the 150th anniversary of the first land battle of the Civil War.

After the April 12 attack on Fort Sumter kicked off the Civil War, there was a lull while both sides got ready. Some scattered skirmishes took place that had few casualties and no importance, but on 3 June 1861, the town of Philippi, in what’s now West Virginia, became the scene for the first big fight.

Philippi stood next to an important bridge and railroad line desired by both armies. The Confederates had made it there first with 800-1000 raw recruits, many of whom were unarmed. A Union force of 3,000 regular soldiers went after them. They came upon Philippi early in the morning in a pincer movement in the hope of surrounding the rebels. One of the pincers made it to the bridge first and found the rebel pickets asleep in their tents, hiding out from the cold rain. The Union force opened fire on the main camp and the rebels retreated after only a few minutes.

At this point they should have been cut off by the second pincer, but this Union column hadn’t made it to the right spot in time and most of the rebels got away. Only four Union soldiers were wounded and there were 26 rebel casualties.This early victory helped the career of Maj. Gen. George McClellan, the regional Union commander. After a few more little victories he became commander of all Union armies. Western Virginia, with its rugged mountains and small farms, had few slaves and the population was mostly Unionist or neutral, while the rest of Virginia depended heavily on the slave economy and therefore supported the South. West Virginia separated from the rest of Virginia and became a Union state in 1863, right in the middle of the war.

Philippi is commemorating the battle with five days of events, including a reenactment of the battle, talks, living history demonstrations, traditional music and crafts, and even a reenactment of a battlefield amputation. If anyone is going to this last event, please send me a photo to post on Gadling!

The Philippi reenactment starts a long series of events sponsored by the West Virginia Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission.

While the Philippi Races can claim to be the first land battle of the Civil War, the Boonville Races, more properly known as the Battle of Boonville, Missouri, was the first significant battle of the war. This equally easy Union victory on June 17 secured the Missouri River and went a long way to securing the entire state for the North.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]