The 'Hero Of Philippi'

BACK TRACKS

July 21, 1991|By Carleton Jones

It's a general rule that "political generals" always end up getting shafted. Despite possible exceptions like Washington and Eisenhower, our military politicos seem to run off the track as often as they stay on it.

One only has to think of John Charles Fremont, George B. McClellan, Ben Butler, Douglas MacArthur and others to recognize the unlucky breed. One who seemed to avoid the fate until the very last was Ben Kelley, the "hero of Philippi."

Never heard of Philippi or Ben? You should have if you claim to be a Civil War buff of finished expertise.

Philippi was the first official land clash of any size between Southern and Union forces in the Civil War. (There was another Philippi back in 42 B.C., when the future Emperor Augustus Caesar socked it to Brutus and Cassius, but we won't go into that.)

Philippi was the masterpiece, if inadvertent, of Benjamin Franklin Kelley, a New Hampshire village lad who moved south to what would become West Virginia in the 1830s. There he set up shop as a merchant. In 1851, when the railroad really began rolling toward the Mississippi, Kelley was picked as a freight agent of the Baltimore & Ohio line.

Ten years later we find him a powerful leader of the Republican Party in West Virginia and an ardent supporter of Abraham Lincoln. He was also by now the head of the first West Virginia regiment. He was a craggy-faced, goateed old man of 54 with a reputation guaranteed to scare any young recruit.

Kelley stumbled into history when on June 3, 1861, his 3,000-man unit surprised a 1,000-man force of green Confederate troopers at the town of Philippi, then a mere hamlet in what is now northwestern West Virginia.

The underarmed rebel force, under Col. George Porterfield, was totally surprised when cannon shells began landing. It was a rout perhaps unequaled in the war, and was known as the "Philippi races" because the rebel troops plunged eastward in panic. Only one other Union soldier was injured besides the general, who took a ball in the chest but managed to survive. About 15 casualties resulted on the rebel side.

The victorious engagement, which cheered the North, was a full week ahead of Big Bethel, a southern Virginia clash with serious bloodshed, and a good six weeks before the Union rout at Bull Run.

Kelley would continue as one of the pillars of West Virginia defense for four years. He was also part of the Union pursuit after Gettysburg, and his command figured in major clashes, including the battle of Romney, along the western Potomac frontier.

Destiny finally caught up with him in November 1864 when the federal forces suffered a setback in the loss of a Union depot at New Creek, W.Va. Gen. Philip Sheridan, the North's great right arm in the Northern Virginia campaign, and also Kelley's boss, severely criticized him for his ineffective handling of the Union pursuit of the rebels involved.

Kelley was retired as a major general in June 1865.

In later life he made his home at Swan Meadows in Oakland, Md., where he undoubtedly was treated as the first citizen and a personal monument of the town. For three decades, a grateful Republican Party handed him a series of federal jobs: collector of internal revenue for West Virginia, superintendent of the Hot Springs, Ark., Indian reservation, and examiner of pensions in Washington, D.C. He died in 1891 at age 84 in Oakland, his Philippi bullet still in his chest.

"It is said that from the beginning to the end of the war in all of the battles that he fought he was never defeated," The Sun wrote in his obituary.

Ironically, he is buried in Arlington Cemetery near his angry nemesis, Philip Sheridan. *

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