Brigadier General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding Confederate forces at Harpers Ferry in northwestern Virginia, had sent messages to his superiors explaining that his position was not defensible. The town was surrounded by bluffs and hills that “perfectly suited the enemy’s views” if the Federals decided to rain fire down upon Johnston’s men. Major General Robert E. Lee, commander of Virginia forces, responded to Johnston’s messages on the 1st.
Lee acknowledged that the problems with defending Harpers Ferry “have been felt from the beginning of its occupation… Every effort has been made to remove them, and will be continued.” But he could not consent to relinquishing Harpers Ferry because “its abandonment would be depressing to the South.” Lee suggested that Johnston post a detachment at Martinsburg and strengthen his outposts at Williamsport and Shepherdstown.
Johnston countered that Federal troops in western Virginia under Major General George B. McClellan could link with Major General Robert Patterson’s Federals at Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, and easily overrun his Confederates. While this might depress the South as Lee had stated, Johnston asked, “wouldn’t the loss of five or six thousand men be more so?” Any Confederate retreat would become a rout, and before his men were “captured or destroyed,” Johnston asked if he could “transfer them to some point where they may still be useful?” He proposed withdrawing 30 miles to Winchester.
Lee replied: “The importance of the subject has induced me to lay it before the President, that he may be informed of your views. He places great value upon the retention of the command of the Shenandoah Valley, and the position at Harper’s Ferry. The evacuation of the latter would interrupt our communication with Maryland, and injure our cause in that State…”
As Johnston awaited word from President Jefferson Davis, the 11th Indiana Zouaves led by Colonel Lew Wallace (future author of Ben-Hur) moved from Grafton in western Virginia to Cumberland, Maryland. This was the vanguard of McClellan’s Federal force in western Virginia, but it was now poised to reinforce Patterson at Chambersburg, and as such, Wallace wrote Patterson “with an earnest expression of the hope that you will not forget me when you advance upon Harpers Ferry and Richmond, if such be your aim.”
Patterson asked Wallace to repair bridges on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad to open a supply line from Wheeling in western Virginia. Patterson then issued orders for his Army of the Shenandoah to move out of Chambersburg and advance on Harpers Ferry. Patterson moved very cautiously, unaware that Johnston was about to receive authorization to abandon the town. On the 13th, Confederate Adjutant General Samuel Cooper wrote Johnston on behalf of President Davis:
“You will consider yourself authorized, whenever the position of the enemy shall convince you that he is about to turn your position, to destroy every thing at Harper’s Ferry which could serve the purposes of the enemy, and retire upon the railroad toward Winchester… Should you not be sustained by the population of ‘the Valley,’ so as to enable you to turn upon the enemy before reaching Winchester, you will continue to retire slowly to the Manassas road, in some of the passes of which, it is hoped, you will be able to make an effective stand, even against a very superior force… Should you move so far as to make a junction with General Beauregard, the enemy would be free immediately to occupy the Valley of Virginia, and to pass to the rear of Manassas Junction…”
That same day, Johnston received word that Wallace’s 11th Indiana had captured Romney, a village 43 miles west of Winchester. Wallace had decided to move on Romney and drive out Confederates who were “oppressing loyal citizens.” Wallace reported that his force had covered “eighty-seven miles in all, forty-six of which was on foot, over a continuous succession of mountains, made in twenty-four hours, without rest, and varied by a brisk engagement made, too, without leaving a man behind, and, what’s more, my men are ready to repeat it to-morrow.”
Johnston responded to this news by detaching a force under Colonel A.P. Hill to secure Winchester and try to slow the Federals if they moved east from Romney. Johnston then began preparing to evacuate Harpers Ferry and follow Hill to Winchester. The Confederates were to take all the supplies they could and destroy those they could not. The next morning, troops blew up the bridges spanning the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, along with key buildings in town. The force then marched out, with the smoldering ruins of Harpers Ferry behind them. The two-month Confederate hold on the town was over.
Word quickly reached Patterson at Chambersburg that Harpers Ferry had been abandoned, but Patterson thought that Johnston was hiding troops on Maryland Heights, ready to attack if he came too close. An officer reported that “there may be a deep-laid plot to deceive us.” Therefore Patterson, a 69-year-old veteran of the War of 1812, continued exercising extreme caution that bordered on timidity. He notified Scott: “Design no pursuit; cannot make it.”
Patterson ordered a token force to occupy Williamsport, Maryland, across the river from Harpers Ferry. When Johnston learned of this movement, he ordered his forces to fall back to Bunker Hill, between Martinsburg and Winchester. Patterson informed Scott of the situation and received a cautionary response. Patterson, wrote Scott, “must sustain no reverse; but this is not enough, a check or drawn battle would be a victory to the enemy, filling his heart with joy, his ranks with men, and his magazines with voluntary contributions.”
Patterson finally ordered a cautious crossing of the Potomac and found Harpers Ferry abandoned. He triumphantly reported: “Harper’s Ferry has been retaken without firing a gun.” Rather than sending congratulations, Scott ordered Patterson to send a portion of his force to Washington. Scott and the Lincoln administration worried that if Patterson advanced any further into the Shenandoah Valley, it might drive Johnston east to join forces with General P.G.T. Beauregard’s Army of the Potomac, and their combined force might attack the capital.
When Patterson asked Scott for permission to occupy Harpers Ferry without acknowledging the troop transfer order, Scott testily replied: “We are pressed here. Send the troops that I had twice called for without delay.” When rumors reached Patterson that Johnston planned to move on the Martinsburg turnpike and position his forces between the Federals and Winchester, Patterson withdrew back across the Potomac. He notified Scott: “General Johnston with a large force is at Martinsburg, marching on Williamsport.”
By the 18th, Patterson’s army was at Hagerstown reiterating that Johnston was advancing toward Williamsport with 15,000 men. In reality, Johnston remained 15 miles south of Martinsburg at Bunker Hill with just 6,500 men in four brigades. Johnston had neither the manpower nor the ammunition to take on Patterson’s 14,000 men.
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