September 14, 1862 – Three Confederate forces converged on the Federal garrison at Harpers Ferry, at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers.
Harpers Ferry had been the site of one of the Federals’ largest arsenals, but Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson had sent most of the weapons-making machinery south when he took the place in 1861. Now Jackson was coming to take the town again as he led one of the three forces approaching on the 11th.
Colonel Dixon Miles, commanding the Federal garrison at Harpers Ferry, was largely unaware that the Confederates were descending upon him. Scouting parties had reported seeing a Confederate force in the area, but, as Miles reported to his superiors, “I cannot learn he has any disposition to advance this way.”
That night, General Lafayette McLaws’s 8,000 Confederates arrived at Brownsville Gap, six miles northeast of Harpers Ferry in Pleasant Valley. Their target was Maryland Heights, the high ground east of the town. Brigadier General John G. Walker’s Confederate division advanced toward Loudoun Heights, the eminence south of Harpers Ferry (east of the Shenandoah River where it merged with the Potomac).
Jackson’s Confederates, slated to advance on the town from the north, took a detour around Martinsburg and were crossing the Potomac at Williamsport. Brigadier General Julius White, commanding 2,500 Federals at Martinsburg, learned from scouts that the town could not be held if Jackson decided to attack. He therefore loaded all the supplies he could onto trains and wagons and made for Harpers Ferry. Jackson dispatched General A.P. Hill’s division to probe Martinsburg.
By next morning, Miles estimated that about 10,000 Confederates were approaching him, which he felt confident to drive off since his force numbered about 12,000. He wrote, “I expect this will be the last you hear of me until this affair is over. All are cheerful and hopeful. Good-bye.” But Miles only expected McLaws’s division to threaten him; he was still unaware of Walker’s division and Jackson’s main force coming his way.
As McLaws’s Confederates approached, his men sealed off all eastern escape routes to Washington. By nightfall, McLaws’s advance units had ascended Maryland Heights. Walker was poised to take Loudoun Heights the next day, and Jackson accomplished his mission according to Special Orders No. 191, which was to “take possession of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, capture such of them as may be at Martinsburg.” Jackson sent A.P. Hill’s division ahead to gain a foothold north of Harpers Ferry before the rest of Jackson’s Confederates arrived.
By the 13th, about 23,000 Confederates had Harpers Ferry surrounded. McLaws drove the Federals off Maryland Heights and down into the town below after a six-hour fight. Meanwhile, Walker secured Loudoun Heights to the south, and Jackson’s main force soon came up to take School House Ridge north of town. White’s Federals retreating from Martinsburg arrived at Harpers Ferry to join the garrison, but there was little they could do at that point.
The arsenal sat on low ground surrounded by bluffs, making it extremely vulnerable to attack. Jackson once said he would rather “take the place 40 times than undertake to defend it once.” White outranked Miles, but he left Miles in command because of the latter’s knowledge of the positions. Miles refused to surrender, even though he had made little effort to secure the high ground outside the town. This virtually assured his defeat.
That night, Miles dispatched a small cavalry force to break through the Confederate lines and deliver a message to McClellan stating that the garrison could not hold out longer than 48 hours. Captain Charles Russell and nine men of the 9th Maryland Cavalry accomplished this mission, evading the Confederates and reaching the Federal lines by morning.
Jackson spent the next day positioning artillery to fire down into Harpers Ferry. McLaws had to dispatch some of his men to fend off the Federals at South Mountain, but the Confederate grip on the town remained tight nonetheless. Miles did nothing to try regaining Maryland Heights, even though McLaws’s force there had been severely depleted.
Still, the pressure was on the Confederates because Lee had ordered them to either capture Harpers Ferry by the 12th or return to the main army. They were two days behind schedule, with the rest of the army fighting a desperate holding action at South Mountain to the east.
A.P. Hill’s Confederates took positions on Bolivar Heights that night, in preparation for an assault the next day. Jackson’s guns opened fire on the garrison, but despite the noise, the cannon did little damage. Federal Colonel Benjamin F. “Grimes” Davis discovered an unguarded road out of town and led about 1,300 cavalrymen of the 8th New York and 12th Illinois out. Not only did they escape, but they captured 97 Confederate supply wagons.
Even with these heroics, the Confederate hold on Harpers Ferry would not slacken, and it was only a matter of time before the Federals would be compelled to surrender.
Bailey, Ronald H., The Bloodiest Day: The Battle of Antietam (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 23-24, 39, 43-45, 56-59; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 17300, 17309, 17318, 17344; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 211; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 206-08; Krick, Robert K., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 340-41; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: C.B. Richardson, 1866; revised version New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 477