The Fall of Harpers Ferry

About 12,500 troops guarded the Federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in northwestern Virginia. On the night of September 14, Confederate Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson began bombarding the Federals with artillery positioned on the heights above them, and Major General A.P. Hill led one of Jackson’s divisions to Bolivar Heights. In addition, Confederates led by Major 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 that 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.”

A tremendous Confederate artillery barrage 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. However, an artillery shell nearly tore his leg off before he could notify the Confederates, and 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.

A military commission later concluded, “Colonel Miles’s incapacity, amounting to almost imbecility, led to the shameful surrender of this important post.” Major General John E. Wool, Miles’s superior, was admonished for putting such an inept officer at such an important post, as was Major General George B. McClellan for failing to rescue the garrison with his Federal Army of the Potomac.

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 McClellan’s Potomac army closing in on them.


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