Ferocious for a Fight: The Philippi Races with the 14th O.V.I.
The ardor of the 90-day volunteers to mix it up with the Confederates was plainly evident to Private Isaac Ruth Sherwood of the 14th Ohio in early June 1861. Describing his comrades as “ferocious for a fight” as they moved into western Virginia, the regiment was met by a detachment of Union Home Guards who greeted the arriving Federals with a salute. “Our boys thought themselves attacked by secessionists and the guard stationed upon the engine returned fire. The entire regiment immediately jumped out of the cars, expecting a battle of course. The Home Guard broke and ran which saved their lives,” Sherwood noted.
The subsequent “battle” of Philippi which occurred on June 3, 1861 would hardly qualify as a skirmish in later years. About 3,000 Federals under General George McClellan including three regiments of Indiana troops, two of Unionists Virginians, and the 14th Ohio conducted an overnight march to attack the Confederate camps around Philippi. Two columns were to converge on the town and upon the firing of a single shot, the Federal artillery was to open up. However, Mrs. Thomas Humphreys, a local secessionist, opened fire on the Federals with her pistol when they captured her son which was misinterpreted as the signal to fire. Alerted to the danger, the 800 Confederates in town quickly left with just a few shots exchanged. Total casualties numbered about 30.
Sherwood’s account of the “epic triumph” at Philippi was among those stories which raised George McClellan’s profile with the general public and within a few months led to his transfer to command the Army of the Potomac. Sherwood himself, a former editor of the Williams County Leader who was then serving as a Williams County judge, later joined the 111th Ohio and rose to the rank of brigadier general by the end of the war.
Webster, Taylor County, Virginia
June 4, 1861
Six companies of the 14th Regiment left Clarksburg on Sunday afternoon. A detachment of 15 men from Captain Fisher’s company under command of Charles Greenwood also came with us. Nothing unusual occurred during our stay in Clarksburg. We stood on our arms all one night expecting an attack from the Rebel forces but they did not come. About daylight, the rear of the 14th arrived. The Parkersburg Home Guard (Union men) fired a salute as the train reached the depot. Our boys thought themselves attacked by secessionists and the guard stationed upon the engine returned fire. The entire regiment immediately jumped out of the cars, expecting a battle of course. The Home Guard broke and ran which saved their lives.
We reached this place which is four miles from Grafton on Sunday evening and camped until 9 p.m. upon the spot where the Rebel forces camped four days before. We learned from Union men here that their forces numbered 1,200 men and that since arriving at Philippi they have been reinforced to 2,100. About sunset, the 6th Indiana regiment arrived and a little later the 7th Indiana, each with 800 men. Notwithstanding the heavy rain, we were ordered to march at 9 o’clock for Philippi twelve miles distant. I started with the regiment (seven companies going), but was sent back to camp along with several others about 11 p.m. I have since learned that our men are scattered all along the line of march. Those of us who were with the advance guard were half sick and in no condition for a forced march. I arrived back in camp about midnight, was halted by the guard, and taken in kindly by Captain Barber of the Fulton County Volunteers and well provided for. Had it not been for the “raw meat disorder” I should have been all right.
Yesterday morning, a messenger arrived from Philippi announcing the retreat of the Rebels. Of course, they did not offer resistance, but ran like scared sheep at the first fire of our artillery. The Rebels did not occupy a strong position. Had not our boys been so ferocious for a fight, their retreat would have been cut off. About 4,000 men were sent against them: 600 of our regiment and 600 of the 6th Indiana left this place together. The plan was to surround their camp and then open on them with our two pieces of artillery. The signal for the opening fire of the artillery was to be the firing of a gun. An old secessionist woman fived five shots at the artillery as they were passing a house. The fire was opened- 13 rounds were fired, only one of which took effect, shooting off the leg of a young Rebel from eastern Virginia. The other shots went too high. This was about 4 a.m. and 15 minutes later the whole Rebel camp would have been surrounded. As it was, nearly all escaped.
A few rounds were fired by the infantry upon their retreat. Many of the secessionists wheeled and fired before running, but a great majority of them were too badly scared to shoot. Nobody was killed on our side and only 30 secessionists. About 30 horses were captured, 500 guns, three secession flags, all their camp equipage, provisions, stores, and about five men taken prisoner. They fled towards the mountains. Philippi is a small town of about 500 inhabitants and is a secession hole. It is greatly to be regretted that the fire was opened so soon, but nobody was to blame.
One of Colonel Steedman’s spies who went from Clarksburg to report the strength of the Rebel army at Philippi returned here yesterday. He had passed the picket guard at Philippi and was near the camp when discovered. He was fired on and his horse shot out from under him. He had been three days in the woods hotly pursued but succeeded in making his escape. The guide who was with him was taken and it is said, hung.
Our bread is now gone and we receive rations in flour which is cooked as well as circumstances will allow. Those who are not sick are in the best of spirits and eager for a fight. It is said by outsiders that the 14th Ohio is the most determined and fearless set of men ever seen in these regions. Not a murmur is heard in the ranks. They only talk fight, and so long as they have strength to keep body and soul together they will fight.
Governor Letcher’s proclamation ordering us to leave the state in 24 hours has reached here, but as we are not under his immediate command, it is not at all probable that we shall march. We don’t fear Governor Letcher or his imps. “Let them come on.”
This is a rough and romantic country made up of high elevations and deep woody glens, the best country in the world for skulking traitors to hide themselves and a very country to march an army through. The majority of the people are for the Union, but a large minority are a set of desperadoes urged to acts of desperation by the powers that be.
June 5, 1861
Last night the teams arrived with the guns and plunder taken from the Rebel troops at Philippi. The number of guns taken is now ascertained to be about 600, most of which are cap lock muskets. This town is on the road direct from Philippi to Grafton. Several of the horses equipped for mounting were also sent through to Grafton. I noticed one or two blooded horses, one an iron gray equipped with a brass mounted saddle, plated trappings. He had evidently carried one of the FFVs, one of the timid and chivalrous sons of eastern Virginia.
In yesterday’s letter, I spoke of one of Colonel Steedman’s spies who was taken by the Rebels being hung by them at Philippi. The Union troops reached Philippi just in time to save him. He had been tried and convicted of treason against the state of Virginia and was to be hung that morning. He was liberated and reached here last night. I had a long talk with him. He is a German and belongs to the Clarksburg Home Guards; his name is Henry Myer. The jail at Philippi was full of Union men awaiting their punishment at the hands of the Rebels. The Union cannon announced their happy deliverance.
Letters from Private Isaac Ruth Sherwood, Co. C, 14th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Williams County Leader (Ohio), June 13, 1861, pg. 2
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