September 15, 1862 – As part of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia fought at South Mountain, another portion led by Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson forced the largest Federal surrender of the war.
About 12,500 troops guarded the Federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in northwestern Virginia. On the night of September 14, Jackson began bombarding the Federals with artillery positioned on the heights above them, and General A.P. Hill led one of Jackson’s divisions to Bolivar Heights. In addition, Confederates led by General Lafayette McLaws held Maryland Heights east of town, and Brigadier General John G. Walker’s Confederates held Loudoun Heights south of town.
The Confederate defeat at South Mountain earlier that day meant Jackson had to hurry if he wanted to capture the vital position. He contacted McLaws on the morning of the 15th:
“So soon as you get your batteries all planted, let me know, as I desire, after yourself, Walker, and myself have our batteries ready to open, to send in a flag of truce, for the purpose of getting out the non-combatants, should the commanding officer refuse to surrender. Should we have to attack, let the work be done thoroughly; fire on the houses when necessary. The citizens can keep out of harm’s way from your artillery. Demolish the place if it is occupied by the enemy, and does not surrender.”
Confederate artillery opened as Hill’s 3,000 men lined up on Bolivar Heights. Colonel Dixon Miles, commanding the Federal garrison, conferred with his officers and decided to surrender before the attack began, but an artillery shell nearly tore his leg off before he could notify the Confederates; he died the next day. Federals raised the white flag at 7:20 a.m., and Brigadier General Julius White surrendered the vital Federal garrison.
The Confederates captured all 12,500 men, 73 artillery pieces, 13,000 sorely needed small arms, and tons of valuable equipment and livestock in the largest Federal capitulation of the war. In addition to those surrendered, the Federals sustained 217 casualties (44 killed and 173 wounded), while the Confederates lost 286 (39 killed and 247 wounded).
Federal officials posthumously charged Miles with drunkenness and ineptitude for his feeble defense of Harpers Ferry. He had failed to secure Maryland Heights, and he had released Confederate prisoners without considering they could have told their officers all about the Federal defenses. Some of his men accused him of treason, and some even alleged that a Federal cavalryman had fired the shell that killed him.
When Jackson rode into town in his customary threadbare uniform, a Federal prisoner said, “Boys, he’s not much for looks, but if we’d had him we wouldn’t have been caught in this trap!” Jackson wrote Lee:
“Through God’s blessing, Harpers Ferry and its garrison are to be surrendered. As Hill’s troops have borne the heaviest part of the engagement, he will be left in command until the prisoners and public property shall be disposed of, unless you direct otherwise. The other forces can move off this evening so soon as they get their rations. To what place shall they move?”
When Lee learned of Jackson’s victory, he canceled plans to return to Virginia and instead ordered Jackson to hurry and join the rest of the army to make a stand at Sharpsburg, a small hamlet 17 miles away. Jackson left Hill to conduct the surrender and rushed to Sharpsburg. Meanwhile, Lee positioned his forces on a ridge overlooking Antietam Creek, with the Federal Army of the Potomac closing in on them.
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