An Uneasy Hold on Harpers Ferry

Major General Robert E. Lee, acting on authority granted by Governor John Letcher as commander of the Virginia militia, called for more volunteers and ordered a concentration of forces under Colonel Thomas J. Jackson at Harpers Ferry. Within the first week of May, Jackson had over 1,000 volunteers under his command, which later became known as the Army of the Shenandoah.

Harpers Ferry was located in northwestern Virginia at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, and the vital Baltimore & Ohio Railroad ran through the town, making it a very strategic point from a military aspect. However, it would be very difficult for Jackson to hold this town if attacked because it was surrounded by hills and bluffs. As such, Jackson was directed to relocate all machinery from the arsenal and rifle factory to Winchester and Strasburg, where it could be used to make arms and ammunition for the Confederacy. Jackson asked Lee to send an additional 10,000 troops and more artillery in order to control the heights overlooking the town from the Maryland side.

Jackson warned that losing Harpers Ferry would be to lose “the northwestern part of the State.” Federal troops were already controlling the B&O line east of Harpers Ferry, so supplies could only come from the west. That line was tenuous at best since western Virginians were predominantly Unionist in sentiment. Jackson reported that at Grafton, “the cars have been broken open by the Republicans, upon the suspicion that they contained arms.” Jackson stated that once his force was armed and ready, “I design aiming it at Grafton.” Jackson believed that holding Harpers Ferry and Grafton was vital in maintaining control of the B&O line in northwestern Virginia.

Lee agreed to send more arms to Jackson, but he was concerned about offending Maryland by placing troops on her soil. Lee told Jackson that it was “advisable not to intrude upon the soil of Maryland unless compelled by the necessities of war.” Jackson disagreed, writing that Federal control of the Maryland heights would force him to evacuate Harpers Ferry because “if this place is attacked, we may expect the enemy to make free use of rifled cannon.” To prevent this, Jackson reported that he had already secured the heights with 500 men.

When Lee received Jackson’s message, he replied: “I fear you have been premature in occupying the heights of Maryland with so strong a force near you. The true policy is to act on the defensive, and not to invite an attack.” Lee advised Jackson to “withdraw until the proper time (i.e., when a Federal attack appeared imminent).” Jackson did not take Lee’s advice and kept his force on the heights.

As reinforcements arrived at Harpers Ferry, Jackson extended his defensive line, from Point of Rocks and Berlin to Martinsburg and Shepherdstown. He reported having 4,500 men in his command, of which 3,000 were armed. He asked for 5,000 more muskets, as well as artillery and other supplies. Lee questioned why Jackson needed 8,000 muskets for 4,500 men and explained that supplies were limited. Lee assured Jackson that more troops were on the way; in the meantime, Jackson must “abstain from all provocation for attack as long as possible.”

The B&O Railroad may have been needed to keep his soldiers supplied, but Jackson did not appreciate how the trains interfered with his routine. Near mid-May, Jackson lodged an official complaint to the railroad, alleging that his men had “their repose disturbed” by coal trains passing through Harpers Ferry to Washington and the West at night. B&O officials responded by restricting freight travel to the day, but then Jackson complained that such runs disturbed his men’s training. The Confederates had previously allowed the B&O to continue normal operations to avoid alienating Maryland. But Jackson seized several freight cars and sent them to Winchester and Strasburg. He now demanded that the B&O only send trains past his positions between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.

This was settled on the 15th, when Brigadier General Joseph E. Johnston received orders to supersede Jackson in command at Harpers Ferry. With this point being so vital, a general was needed to command rather than a colonel, and Johnston was one of the highest-ranking officers in the Confederate Army. These orders came from the Confederate War Department, and under the terms of the military alliance between the Confederacy and Virginia, they bypassed Lee as commander of the Virginia militia. In addition, Johnston to was transfer all troops stationed at Lynchburg to Harpers Ferry.

Reinforcements began arriving at Harpers Ferry on the 19th. Among these were some of the first troops coming up from the Deep South. A Confederate staff officer wrote that the men were “unprovided, unequipped, unsupplied with ammunition and provisions… The utter confusion and ignorance presiding in the councils of the authorities… is without parallel.”

Johnston reached Harpers Ferry on the afternoon of the 23rd to take command. He met with Jackson (the two had been acquaintances at West Point) and presented him with the War Department order. Johnston then asked Jackson to circulate an order announcing that Johnston was now in command. Jackson replied that he did not “feel at liberty to transfer his command to another without further instructions from Governor Letcher or General Lee.” Major W.H.C. Whiting, one of Johnston’s staff officers and a former schoolmate of Jackson’s, assured Jackson that the Confederate president’s orders overrode the Virginia governor’s, and soon enough a wire from Lee arrived endorsing the command change. This made it official, and Jackson obeyed.

Johnston and Whiting inspected the Harpers Ferry defenses on the 25th. Surrounded by high ground, Johnston concluded that he could not hold the place if a Federal force equal his size attacked. By this time, that seemed likely. Major General Irvin McDowell was raising a Federal army at Alexandria to the south; Major General Robert Patterson had just received orders to move his Federal force out of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, to take back the Harpers Ferry arsenal; and a force under Major General George B. McClellan was threatening to move on the arsenal from western Virginia. By month’s end, Johnston’s grip on the vital Harpers Ferry arsenal was tenuous at best.


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