I’d been driving through the West Virginian countryside for hours, my intended destination being Philippi, a city known for three things: Civil War history, medical firsts, and its lovingly restored 285-foot covered bridge. After I rounded a final curve heading into Philippi, the vista of the long white bridge spanning the broad Tygart River suddenly lay before me. At the Blue and Gray Park, I got out of my car to stand on the quiet riverbank surveying the tidy city, with its prim white church spires and red stone courthouse. And yet it wasn’t always so peaceful here.
"We surprised the rebels, about two thousand strong, at Philippi this morning."
General T.A. Morris
In the first land battle of the Civil War, Union forces took the Confederates completely by surprise in a two-pronged attack after making a 15-mile night march on Philippi during a torrential downpour. The poorly prepared southern troops were driven from the city in considerable disarray. As they fled, Union troops harried them through the countryside in a rout later dubbed "The Philippi Races."
This was a dramatic turn-around after the Confederate victory at Fort Sumter earlier in the year. The rugged and generally less prosperous folk of Virginia’s western counties were not supportive of the state’s decision to secede from the Union. As the Confederate troops fled from Philippi that day, a handful rich slave-holding families fled with them, much to the delight of the less prosperous pro-Union townfolk.
After the battle, General Porterfield, the Southern commander, was relieved of command. A series of Union successes in the western Virginia counties set the stage for their secession from Virginia, forming the loyalist state of West Virginia in 1863. As an interesting aside, General Robert E. Lee’s first offensive of the war took place at Cheat Mountain, where Federal troops held off a much larger Confederate force, an event which led to Lee’s eventual recall to Richmond. Conversely, Major General George McClellan’s success at the Battle of Rich Mountain led to his elevation to commander of the Army of the Potomac. As later events proved, Lee learned a great deal from his failures in West Virginia, but McClellan gained little boldness from his successes.
Although there were few casualties during the Battle of Philippi, the most famous was a Union soldier who was the first amputee of the Civil War. The soldier, J.E. Hanger, was unhappy with the prosthetic leg he later received, and proceeded to design his own artificial limb whittled from barrel staves. It was such a success that Hanger set up a company manufacturing "Hanger Limbs," which, it goes without saying, did a very brisk business in the aftermath of the Civil War. To this day the J.E. Hanger Company remains the world’s largest manufacturer of prosthetic devices.
Like the town itself, the Philippi Bridge has weathered a number of setbacks during its 150-year history. Designed in 1852 by self-educated architect, carpenter, legislator, and inventor Lemuel Chenoweth, the bridge remains the largest and oldest covered bridge in West Virginia, as well as the only covered bridge along a federal highway (US Route 250).
Chenoweth’s design and workmanship were remarkable. It is said that when bidders assembled to demonstrate their models for the proposed covered bridge at Philippi, Chenoweth demonstrated the strength of his hickory wood model by placing it astride two chairs and standing on it. None of his competitors were willing to subject their models to such a test, and thus Chenoweth was awarded the contract. He designed not only the bridge at Philippi but a number of other covered bridges in the area as well, though few of them remain. I had the good fortune to stumble upon two of them during my rambles along West Virginian roads.
Although the bridge was not substantially damaged during the Battle of Philippi, it narrowly escaped being burnt on two separate occasions later during the war. It was modified considerably during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the most significant change being a concrete floor that was added after a young boy fell through the wooden flooring in 1934 and drowned. The historic flood of 1985 demolished over thirty bridges in West Virginia, including a huge iron bridge at Rowlesburg, yet the Philippi Bridge withstood the flood and was back in use as soon as the waters receded. Four years later, gasoline leaking from a nearby gas station ignited and set the bridge afire, destroying the siding and roof but sparing the foundation. A 1.3 million dollar restoration took place, sweeping aside all the modifications and additions to the bridge and restoring it to Chenoweth’s original design with only a few modern safety features, such as (wisely) a sprinkler system.
The first afternoon I set foot in Philippi, I walked across the bridge on its long external pedestrian walkway, pausing midway to look out over the Tygart River. It’s a lovely spot for a town and an even lovelier place for a bridge. Later, driving through the bridge, I surveyed the inside with its complex system of trusses, delighting in the rumbling echo of my tires as I slowly passed through.
On a second visit to Philippi the following afternoon, I stopped at the Barbour County Historical Museum, where I learned more about the town, the bridge, and local history than I had ever imagined possible. It was here that I learned, taking my cue from local historian Evangeline Poling, that the city’s name is pronounced "Philip-pee" and not "Philip-eye" as I had assumed.
At one point during my individual tour of the museum, Mrs. Poling led me over to a glass case and pointed to a group of small, lumpy objects within.
"Can you guess what those are?" she asked.
Dumbly, I shook my head.
"They’re minié balls, taken from the trusses of the bridge when the restoration was done. Been there ever since the Civil War!"
I asked her about the annual Blue and Gray Reunion held each June in Philippi, featuring a re-enactment of "The Philippi Races." With a twinkle in her eye, she recounted the following anecdote:
"The Rebels, in the minority during the original battle, always far outnumber the northerners during the re-enactment. There just always seem to be more Rebels who show up for these things. ‘Course it makes the re-enactment look pretty funny, because this little group of Union men ends up chasing this big group of Rebels out of town every time. But at least they don’t rewrite history!"