At the start of the American Civil War, not all southern states were entirely in favour of seceding from the Union. In the upper south in particular there were strongly pro-Union regions. West Virginia was one of these regions. It was a mountainous region with strong links to Ohio and Pennsylvania, and a long standing grudge against ‘tidewater’ Virginia. Geographically, it was isolated from the rest of Virginia by a series of mountain ranges, but was relatively open to the north.
As the rest of Virginia moved towards secession from the Union, western Virginia moved towards secession from Virginia. At the meeting on 17 April that voted for secession only 5 of 31 north western delegates voted for secession. Over the next couple of months, the drive towards the creation of a new state gained momentum, finally producing a convention of its own on 11 June.
By the time this convention met, Union forces were already in the proposed new state. West Virginia was strategically crucial for the Union. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, one of the main links between Washington and the West ran though the north of the state. It had already been blocked twice, once at Harper’s Ferry and again at Grafton in western Virginia.
Few Federal forces were available for any campaign in western Virginia. However, in Ohio there were plenty of spare troops – the state had raised far more regiments that President Lincoln had requested and so had troops to spare. She also had commanders to spare – George McClellan, William Rosecrans and Jacob Cox were all then in Ohio. General Winfield Scott, then the General-in-Chief of the United States Army, sent McClellan a thinly veiled order to do something about the situation at Grafton.
McClellan soon got three separate forces moving towards Grafton. The first to arrive was a West Virginian regiment under Colonel B.F. Kelley. The Confederate force at Grafton was just under 1,000 strong, about size of a full strength regiment at the beginning of the war, and so faced with the approach of an equally strong force their commander, Colonel G.A. Porterfield, withdrew south to Philippi.
At Grafton, Kelley was soon joined by a force from Ohio and another from Indianapolis. The commander of the Indiana troops, Brigadier-General Thomas A. Morris, was the senior officer and took command of the expedition. He now had 3,000 men, although all of them were inexperienced volunteers. His plan was somewhat over-ambitious for the circumstances. Two columns of 1,500 men would make an overnight march from separate points on the railroad, meeting at Philippi, where it was hoped that they would surround the Confederate camp and capture the entire enemy force.
The night march went better than Morris had any right to expect, but the planned pincer attack did not come off. Porterfield’s first knowledge of the Federal attack came when their artillery opened fire, but he did not loose his head. Instead he managed to organise a rapid retreat, escaping with all but fifteen of his men. On the Federal side there was only one casualty – Colonel Kelley was wounded by a pistol shot. Porterfield withdrew another twenty five miles, to Beverly, where he could block the block the passes between West Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley, and where he could receive reinforcements from Robert E. Lee in Virginia. In the north the battle was known as the ‘Philippi Races’ because of the speed of the Confederate withdrawal, although for some time it was not realised that no prisoners had been taken.
The victory at Philippi gave a great deal of encouragement to the movement for statehood. The convention that met on 11 July finally adopted the ordinance that would lead to the creation of the State of West Virginia on 20 August. By then Union soldiers had won another victory at Rich Mountain (12 July). By the time the secession referendum was held on 24 October, even Robert E. Lee had been defeated, at Cheat Mountain on 10 September.