Maryland colonel's reputation in limbo

Profile: Did Col. Dixon S. Miles, roundly castigated by Horace Greeley after the First Battle of Bull Run as a traitor, plot with the Confederates to deliver the garrison at Harper's Ferry into their hands?

August 25, 2002|By Robert M. Duff | Robert M. Duff,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Where the Potomac and the Shenandoah rivers meet, cleaving the Blue Ridge, lies Harper's Ferry. In 1859, it was a thriving community, a transportation hub and site of a federal armory. That year the town was catapulted onto the world stage by John Brown's unsuccessful raid on the armory. This was the opening curtain of the Civil War.

In May 1862, Union Col. Dixon Stansbury Miles was assigned as commander of the Union garrison at Harper's Ferry. His primary duty was to guard the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and its bridges, and to give the Union control of this gateway to the west and the south.

Miles was a prominent player in the acts and omissions that led to the surrender of Harper's Ferry - and thus the deadly drama of Antietam. The little-known, but controversial, role Miles played is variously characterized by the damning words "incompetence, treachery, betrayal, treason," even "murder."

In his book The American Conflict, Horace Greeley described his view of Miles at the First Battle of Manassas as follows:

"Col. D.S. Miles, a Marylander, commanding the 5th [reserve] division, was drunk throughout the action, and playing the buffoon; riding about to attract observation, with two hats on his head, one within the other. As, however, he was pretty certainly a traitor, and was not ordered to advance, it is hardly probable that his drunkenness did any serious damage, save as it disgusted and disheartened those whose lives were in his hands."

Greeley was not an eyewitness to the battle, and his demeaning characterization of Miles stirred its own controversy.

Career destroyed

According to Paul Teeter's book A Matter of Hours, these charges had the effect of "destroying forever whatever chance Miles had for high command during the rest of the Civil War."

In Six Years of Hell, Chester G. Hearn recounts that even though Miles had nearly 40 years of career army service, "no longer did Washington trust the gray-haired colonel with an important infantry division.

"In March 1862, the War Department sent him to Harper's Ferry with little more than a regiment to guard the tracks of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. ... The Railroad Brigade [was] comprised mostly of militia and green troops with short enlistments."

Many volunteers were young men seeking adventure, not a military career. They fully expected to be mustered out at the end of their enlistment.

Their commander at Harper's Ferry came from a long line of Maryland gentry with a strong military background and pronounced Southern leanings. Orphaned at age 4, Miles was raised by his uncle and namesake, Maj. Dixon Stansbury.

At the ancestral home, Stansbury's Prospect, war stories were often told by the family, proud of its military history. They would easily fill a youngster's head with wonder, and perhaps inspiration.

So it was no surprise that, with the help of influential backers, Miles was accepted to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1819.

On July 1, 1824, he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army and began a career of four decades that would end at Harper's Ferry.

It remains a mystery whether Miles consciously decided to deliver the town to the Confederate forces. Any assessment of that question must be made in the context of the curious combination of events in September 1862.

In late August, Company B of the 12th Virginia Cavalry burned a Winchester and Harper's Ferry train. Col. Benjamin F. Davis' 8th New York Cavalry captured the Virginians and their commander, Lt. Milton Rouse, Sept. 5 and took them to Harper's Ferry.

Davis and Rouse waited for some time to speak with Miles. When Rouse complained loudly of pain from a thigh wound, Davis finally sent him with a surgeon to the base hospital. Rouse, known for his derring-do, promptly escaped, but was recaptured the next day.

Miles then met privately with Rouse for about an hour. Lt. Henry Martin Binney, Miles' aide, joined the two during the last portion of the interview. The Harper's Ferry Commission report quotes Binney:

"Colonel Miles did everything he could to worm out of him the position of the enemy and what their plans were, but he could get no information of any importance at all from him. There was considerable talk with regard to his parole. There seemed to be quite a feeling of censure against Colonel Miles for it. I reported to Colonel Miles what I heard in that line."

Miles summarily dismissed the concern in light of the then-common practice of prisoner parole. Finally, Miles paroled the young cavalry officer, and Binney returned him to the south through the Union lines on Bolivar Heights.

`Unusual opportunity'

Teeter challenges the motive for that parole in his book:

"There is, of course, no comparison between the normal formal exchange procedures usually employed in such cases and Miles' indefensible action in this instance, sending Rouse home immediately through the front lines.

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