- The Washington Times - Friday, June 13, 2003

At the beginning of the Civil War, George Alexander Porterfield was the type of man the Confederacy sought. Thirty-eight years old, the farmer from Jefferson County, Va., was a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute, a veteran of the Mexican War, a committed secessionist.

His military expertise was so highly regarded by Virginia Gov. John Letcher and his military adviser, Robert E. Lee, that in early May 1861, they sent him from Harpers Ferry to the important rail junction of the B&O; and Northwestern railroads at Grafton. He had the difficult assignment of holding the northwestern part of the state. His humiliating defeat on June 3 at the Battle of Philippi, however, cast a shadow on his career, leading to the loss of his first command and his resignation a year later.

Porterfield was born Nov. 24, 1822, and grew up on the family farm in Berkeley County (now West Virginia). He was educated at home and doubtless heard tales of how his Scotch-Irish ancestors had helped settle the lower Shenandoah Valley and fought against King George III in the Revolutionary War. In 1841, the 18-year-old enrolled at VMI in Lexington. After graduation, he taught school in Richmond for two years.

The start of the Mexican War in 1846 gave young Porterfield the chance to put his military education to use. He and two chums from VMI, Edward Carrington and Carlton Munford, quickly formed the first company of Virginia volunteers. Their outfit, the Richmond Rangers, was designated Company G, 1st Virginia Volunteers. Carrington was the captain, and Porterfield served as first lieutenant.

Porterfield became adjutant of the regiment soon after the Virginians arrived in Mexico, but he did not stay in that job very long. In October 1847, while in Buena Vista, he became assistant adjutant general of his division and served in that position until the end of the war.

After the war, he assisted professor Alexander Dallas Bache for a time in the U.S. Coast Survey. He would marry Emily Cornelia Terrill from Bath County, Va., and in April 1861, he was farming in Jefferson County.

At the outbreak of war, Porterfield became aide to Brig. Gen. Kenton Harper, commander of the Virginia militia at Harpers Ferry. On May 4, however, Maj. Gen. Robert E. Lee ordered the new colonel to report to Grafton, where he would call upon the militias of 11 counties to rendezvous at Parkersburg. Lee assured him that arms and supplies for his new command would be forthcoming and that some of the leading residents of the region would assist him.

On May 14, Porterfield arrived by train in Grafton. He asked a railroad worker where the Southern troops were, and to his surprise was told to go two miles north to Fetterman — and that the colonel should leave town quickly because, “There’s a power of folks around Grafton that’s all stirred up against you fellows.”

Reaching the militia camps, Porterfield discovered just a few companies of ill-supplied recruits. “I found myself alone in a country hostile to the South, without an officer of any experience to help me, then or afterwards; without money or supplies of any kind, or the means of getting anything to aid in organizing a military force.”

He busied himself recruiting throughout the area and establishing a training camp at nearby Philippi. Meanwhile, Union forces from Ohio, Indiana and Northern Virginia under Gen. George B. McClellan were marshaling near Wheeling to descend on the colonel’s ragtag Rebels.

A more immediate threat was a company of Home Guards in Grafton that one Confederate later sarcastically nicknamed Latham’s Crazy Wildcats. Capt. George R. Latham was a young newspaper publisher, lawyer and dedicated Unionist. At the beginning of the war, he promptly enlisted a company of 100 locals and had threatened to hang all Southern sympathizers.

On May 22, Porterfield heard that Latham was away in Wheeling. He quickly dispatched two companies of infantry and one of cavalry to march into town and round up the leaderless Yankees. However, his troopers backed off in a tense confrontation with the tough mountaineers outside Latham’s office.

When Latham got back, he secretly marched his company out of town to link with the Federals at Wheeling. On May 25, Porterfield’s troops occupied Grafton. Over the next few days, the colonel’s men burned a few bridges along the B&O; toward Wheeling and along the Northwestern Railroad’s route to Parkersburg, but a raid eastward against the huge B&O; bridge at Rowlesburg failed.

Gen. McClellan reacted at once to the Confederate attacks. On May 27, telegraph messages ordering units to proceed by rail toward Grafton from Parkersburg and Wheeling poured out of his headquarters in Cincinnati. With the help of a “secesh” B&O; telegrapher, however, Porterfield intercepted these orders. The next day, the graybacks escaped the trap of “Little Mac” by retreating 18 miles south to safer surroundings in Philippi.

Once there, the colonel received some reinforcements that upped his force to about 800 men, mostly infantry, many poorly armed with only a few cartridges each for their antiquated weapons. A minister recalled talking to the anxious commander on May 31: “Colonel Porterfield spoke rather despondently of the unprepared condition of Virginia to meet the invasion successfully. He regretted very much the lack of order, preparation, and discipline among the troops.”

On Sunday June 2, two young girls rode into Philippi and told the colonel that Union forces would attack his camp either that night or the next morning, which confirmed another report he had received. He called his officers together and suggested that the command stay and fight. Instead, it was the consensus to retreat south to Beverly.

Nevertheless, the colonel was determined to find out what the Yankees were up to before ordering the withdrawal. That evening, he sent scouts to look for the enemy on the Grafton Road, and pickets were posted near the town. Heavy rains and a misunderstanding of orders, however, caused both groups to neglect their duties, and they returned to Philippi to find shelter. The green soldiers never thought to tell their leader.

About daybreak, Porterfield and his men were awakened as Union artillery opened up on the vulnerable camp. The colonel later wrote, “This fire gave the alarm and caused the cavalry to stampede through the town. The infantry retreated in better order.” For a time it looked as if the Federals would be able to overtake the fleeing graybacks, but the wounding of Col. Benjamin F. Kelley, commander of the pursuing Union column, caused the Yanks to slow. The Rebels continued to Beverly.

Although Porterfield lost just a few supplies and his casualties consisted of a handful of wounded men, the ignominious defeat was dubbed by Northern newsmen as “The Philippi Races,” and there was a clamor for the colonel’s replacement. On June 13, Gen. Lee sent Brig. Gen. Robert S. Garnett to take command.

At Porterfield’s request, a court of inquiry convened “to examine into the circumstances of the retreat.” After listening to the testimony of officers involved in the debacle, Col. William Taliaferro, Lt. Col. John Pegram and Capt. Julius A. deLagnel admonished Porterfield for allowing his command to be surprised, but also praised him for his “personal courage” during the retreat. Reading the court’s opinion, Garnett recommended that the colonel be court-martialed “when the exigencies of the service permit it to be done.”

As a result, Garnett stationed Porterfield in Beverly rather than having him lead the 25th Virginia Infantry to fortify the pass over nearby Rich Mountain. On July 11, the Northerners overran those defenses and captured most of the men. Garnett himself was killed a few days later while fighting a rear-guard action.

Porterfield eventually joined the staff of Maj. Gen. William W. Loring and continued serving in the Alleghenies. In December 1861, Loring’s division marched east to reinforce Stonewall Jackson, then beginning a winter campaign toward the Potomac. On Jan. 1, 1862, in what probably was the second-biggest mistake of his military career, Porterfield turned down a verbal request by Jackson to join his staff because, he later wrote, “I liked Loring and declined to leave him.”

That winter, friction between Loring and Jackson led to Loring’s command being broken up. A short time later, Porterfield joined Brig. Gen. Edward “Old Allegheny” Johnson and his Army of the Northwest near Staunton. In April, Johnson gave Porterfield the command of a small brigade, but disappointed over losing an election for the colonelcy of the 25th, Porterfield resigned.

When Porterfield returned home, the Federals arrested him. Soon paroled, the colonel put away his sword for good and resumed farming, but, as was the case with almost everyone else in Jefferson County, the war years brought him hardship and sorrow. His young son, Philip, was killed by a playmate in an accident, local Unionists vandalized his home, and his wife lost three brothers in the war.

After the war, he had a long, successful career in banking and insurance and helped establish the Bank of Charlestown, W.Va. The other interests of this veteran of two wars included writing to his old comrades and membership in Aztec Club of 1847, the society of officers who had fought in the Mexican War.

Porterfield was 96 when he died in Charlestown on Feb. 27, 1919. He rests today at Martinsburg’s Green Hill Cemetery.

Steve French is a teacher in Martinsburg, W.Va., and a member of the Harpers Ferry Civil War Round Table.

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