Confederates Descend on Harpers Ferry

Harpers Ferry, at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, had been the site of one of the Federals’ largest arsenals, but Confederate 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 converging on the place on September 11.

The 11,500 Federals at Harpers Ferry and the 2,500 at nearby Martinsburg in northwestern Virginia were vital because they protected both the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, which facilitated supply flow to the west. Major General George B. McClellan, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, had urged General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck to reassign these men to his army because they were isolated and therefore easy targets for capture, but Halleck had refused.

Colonel Dixon Miles, commanding 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, Major 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, which was the southern tip of Elk Mountain in Pleasant Valley and 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).

Gen Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson | Image Credit: Bing public domain

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 the 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 Major General A.P. Hill’s “Light Division” to probe Martinsburg.

By next morning, Miles estimated that about 10,000 Confederates were approaching him, which he felt confident he could drive off since his force was larger. 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.

Even with overwhelming force approaching Miles, his superior, Major General John E. Wool at Baltimore, directed him, “There must be no abandoning of a post, and shoot the first man who thinks of it, whether officer or soldier.” Halleck recognized the danger before Wool, and he sent a desperate message to McClellan “to save the garrison at Harper’s Ferry.”

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 Number 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 General 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 the bulk 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 to regain Maryland Heights, even though McLaws’s force there had been severely depleted.

Still, the pressure was on the Confederates because General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, 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. Miles knew he was surrounded, but he would not allow any of his infantry to try to abandon Harpers Ferry. As he explained, “I am ordered by General Wool to hold this place, and God damn my soul to hell if I don’t hold it against the enemy.”

But Miles did allow the cavalry to attempt a breakout. Colonel Benjamin F. “Grimes” Davis discovered an unguarded road out of town (the same road that John Brown had used to raid Harpers Ferry and lead a slave uprising in 1859) and led about 1,300 cavalrymen of the 8th New York and 12th Illinois out and across the Potomac on a pontoon bridge. Not only did they escape, but they captured 97 Confederate supply wagons as they made their way through Maryland to Greencastle, Pennsylvania.

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 forced to surrender.


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