PHILIPPI, W.Va. -- When the first shot of the first land battle of the Civil War was fired 150 years ago today, neither a Union nor a Confederate soldier pulled the trigger.
A middle-aged Barbour County woman named Matilda Humphreys set the Battle of Philippi in motion on June 3, 1861, when she fired a pistol at a group of federal troops who forced her 12-year-old son, Oliver, off the family horse and onto the ground.
Oliver's older brother, Lorenzo, was among nearly 750 Confederate soldiers camped in town. He had enlisted in the Barbour Grays, later Company H of the 31st Virginia Infantry, two weeks earlier,
When Matilda Humphreys saw Union troops marching past her home on the outskirts of Philippi, she sent Oliver to warn his brother of their arrival.
The Union troops who forced Oliver Humphreys off his horse were part of a federal force of nearly 3,000 men. They had marched through the night in a driving rain to reach Philippi, a small town with large secessionist sympathies.
At the Barbour County Courthouse in the center of town, a palmetto tree flag had flown since February to show support for South Carolina, the first state to secede from the Union.
Col. Ebenezer Dumont, an Indiana lawyer and Mexican-American War veteran, was in charge of the column of Ohio and Indiana soldiers who marched past the Humphreys home. Col. Benjamin Franklin Kelley of Philadelphia, a freight agent in Wheeling for the B&O Railroad several years earlier, led the second column. It included the 1st Virginia (U.S.) Infantry, comprised mainly of recruits from the Northern Panhandle, as well as companies from regiments formed in Ohio and Indiana.
Departing from Grafton on June 2, 1861, Dumont's soldiers rode a train about four miles south, to the small community of Webster. They disembarked and began a soggy, nightlong march to Philippi, about 11 miles away.
Kelley and his troops were dropped off at a siding at Thornton, six miles east of Grafton, where they marched over back roads to approach Philippi from the rear.
The Civil War's first march to combat was under way, following the world's first use of the railroad to deploy multiple forces in attacking an enemy objective.
The plan was for both Union forces, each consisting of about 1,500 men, to arrive at opposite ends of Philippi at 4 a.m. on June 3, to surprise and trap the Confederate force camped there.
"It was not a bad-looking plan on paper, but in reality, it ended up being much more difficult to pull off than anyone anticipated," said Danny Franke, a theology professor at Alderson-Broaddus College and a coordinator of Civil War history events around Philippi.
Among the Confederate troops in Philippi was a squad led by Col. William J. Willey, who had burned two wooden trestle bridges on the B&O line between Mannington and Farmington on May 25. (Although a Confederate officer, Willey was the half-brother of Waitman Willey, a Morgantown lawyer who voted against secession as a delegate to the Virginia Convention, and later became a U.S. senator representing the Restored State of Virginia.)
Upon learning of the May 25 raid, Union Gen. Winfield Scott ordered Gen. George McClellan, then stationed in Ohio, to move troops into western Virginia to protect the vital east-west rail line. That set in motion the attack on Philippi, where a Confederate force led by Col. George Porterfield, a Berkeley County native and another Mexican-American War veteran, was camped.
On the eve of the Union attack, Porterfield knew that a federal force was approaching Philippi, but decided no army would march in such a driving rain, according to Hunter Lesser, author of "Rebels at the Gate: Lee and McClellan on the Front Line of a Nation Divided."
Porterfield waited to send a scouting party to pinpoint the Union force's position until the following morning.
Dumont's column, led by Col. Frederick Lander, a former explorer and surveyor in the western United States, arrived on Talbott Hill overlooking Philippi -- at the present-day site of Alderson-Broaddus College -- before the planned 4 a.m. attack time.
Lander's soldiers readied two six-pounder cannons from the 1st Ohio Light Artillery on the hill, and waited for Kelley's force to announce its arrival with a single gunshot.
As daylight broke, though, Kelley had yet to signal his arrival. Lander and the artillerymen on Talbott Hill could see Confederate soldiers stir around Philippi's homes, tents and the covered bridge over the Tygart Valley River, where they had spent the rainy night.
"Lander was anxious to open up before the Confederates were aware they were about to be attacked," said Lesser.
When Matilda Humphreys' pistol shot sounded, Lander might have thought it was Kelley's signal -- or he might have thought it a good-enough reason to begin the attack and maintain the element of surprise.
The first artillery volley struck near a small group of tents used by the Confederates, while Dumont's column, led by Lander in a galloping downhill ride, stormed down Talbott Hill toward the covered bridge. The other Union column, led by Kelley, could be seen closing in on the town from the east.
The Confederate force was taken completely by surprise.