A Brief History
On June 3, 1861, in the first organized land battle (barely a battle in reality) of the American Civil War, the Union Army with 3000 men routed an untrained force of 800 Confederate volunteers in what it now West Virginia at Philippi, a small town that today has only about 3000 residents. Touted as a huge victory for the Union, the “battle” would be fairly inconsequential except for the wounding of 2 Confederate soldiers that both required battlefield amputations, one of which fashioned his own homemade artificial leg that proved so successful the wounded soldier founded a company that is America’s premier manufacturer of artificial limbs.
The Battle of Philippi, or as it was known among the Union troops, “The Philippi Races” in a mocking tribute to the fleeing Confederates, is considered the first “organized” land battle of the Civil War, since the Battle of Fairfax Courthouse on June 1, 1861, was a chance engagement with no planning.
The Union Army, led by Major General George McClellan, forayed into Virginia (what is now West Virginia) with a long term goal of marching on the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. Colonel George Porterfield of the Confederate Army had a rag tag force of poorly armed and virtually untrained men with a mission of recruiting more men in Northwestern Virginia and holding Philippi, the site of a strategic bridge over the Tygart Valley River, a key to a main highway in the area.
Brigadier General Thomas Morris of the Indiana State Militia was in charge of the overall action, with Colonel Benjamin Kelly in charge of the Union attack on Philippi, creating a planned double envelopment of the Confederate forces. The Confederates had failed to properly post pickets and were about to be surprised in their sleep when a Confederate sympathizer woman saw the Union advance and sent her son to warn the Rebels. When her son was captured, the woman fired a pistol at the Union troops. An artillery barrage rudely awakened the Confederates, who got off a meager amount of fire from those that were armed, and the rout quickly followed, with the fleeing Rebels often running without their exterior clothing. Union press made a big story out of the great victory, which in fact was a minor skirmish that had little consequence.
The two Confederate troops that suffered amputations were a VMI cadet and an 18 year old college student named James Hanger. It was Hanger that fashioned his own artificial leg from barrel staves, including a clever knee joint. So successful was his design, that the Virginia State Legislature contracted with him to produce prosthetic limbs for other amputee soldiers. Hanger started a company that became the Hanger Orthopedic Group, (aka, Hanger, Inc.), a company with 682 locations in almost every state (46 to be precise) with 4600 employees and that services a million patients per year (as of 2017). The company also trains therapists and skilled nurses.
As with other wars, the American Civil War had a terrible cost, as many as a million dead Americans and thousands of crippled soldiers on both side, many with one or more limbs amputated. The horrible carnage did result in some medical advances, including prosthetic limbs, a vital necessity when considering the estimated 60,000 men suffering amputations. Thus, the otherwise minor Battle of Philippi did have some lasting good influence on the future, a rare ray of sunshine in an otherwise bleak war.
Question for Students (and others): What other medical advancements do you know of that came as a result of warfare? Please reply in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Cassel, Melissa. Battle of Philippi, Virginia (West Virginia): June 2-3, 1861. Infinity Publishing, 2012.
Ellis, Thomas. Diary of a Civil War Surgeon. Independently published, 2016.
The featured image in this article, a sketch titled “Position of McClellan’s advance on the heights round Philippi [West Virginia, USA]. Gen. Morris Commanding” (June 1861), is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or less.
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