Harper's Ferry surrenders

Outcome: The prelude to Antietam provides "Stonewall" Jackson with a complete victory and results in the war's largest surrender of Union troops.

August 25, 2002|By Kristen Lorek | Kristen Lorek,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Through God's blessing, Harper's Ferry and its garrison are to be surrendered," Maj. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson informed his commander, Gen. Robert E. Lee, after the capitulation of Union forces at Harper's Ferry, which was then in Virginia, on Sept. 15, 1862.

Jackson's capture of Harper's Ferry resulted in the largest surrender of United States troops during the Civil War.

Lee implemented a three-pronged attack to capture the Union arsenal at Harper's Ferry. The Confederacy was now on the offensive, hoping to bring the war away from Richmond, Va., and into Maryland.

Lee required a protected line of communication, and the best supply route was west of the Blue Ridge up the Shenandoah Valley. Food and ammunition were transported north by railway as far as Harper's Ferry, which lay at the confluence of the Shenandoah and the Potomac rivers.

Lee had hoped that the Union garrisons would abandon Harper's Ferry and the nearby railroad town of Martinsburg, but the Union forces did not leave and continued to threaten his supply line from Virginia.

Lee decided to seize both places. By occupying the high ground around Harper's Ferry - Maryland Heights, Loudoun Heights and Bolivar Heights - Lee hoped to force a Union surrender or withdrawal.

On Sept. 10, 1862, Lee ordered Jackson to move at once from his camp at Frederick toward Harper's Ferry.

`Mystery, mystery'

At 3 a.m., Jackson embarked on his mission, and as he left the town of Frederick, he attempted to deceive the townsfolk by inquiring about directions for Chambersburg and other places in Pennsylvania. According to one of his officers, Maj. Henry Kyd Douglas, "his questions only illustrated his well-known motto, `Mystery, mystery is the secret of success.'"

Jackson's column proceeded to cross South Mountain at Turner's Gap and by Sept. 11 Jackson was en route to Martinsburg.

Mary Bedinger Mitchell, who lived in the path of both armies, recalled Jackson's troops as they rapidly marched to their destination:

"I know something of an appearance of a marching army, both Union and Southern. There are always stragglers, of course, but never before or after did I see anything comparable to the demoralized state of the Confederates at this time. Never were want and exhaustion more visibly put before my eyes, and that they could march or fight at all seemed incredible."

But this demoralized army would soon taste victory.

Meanwhile, Union Brig. Gen. Julius White was in command of approximately 2,000 men in Martinsburg. He decided not to await Jackson's attack, but instead marched his men to a more secure position at Harper's Ferry.

Upon his arrival, White relinquished his position of senior Union officer to Col. Dixon Stansbury Miles because of his own lack of military experience. White was not a career military officer; up until a few months earlier he had been a customs collector in Chicago.

12,000 Union troops

There were approximately 12,000 Union troops in Harper's Ferry, most of whom were untrained, volunteer, three-month infantry enlistees who had been assigned to guard the bridges and track of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.

Miles had been given strict orders by his superior, Maj. Gen. John E. Wool: "You will not abandon Harper's Ferry without defending it to the last extremity. ... There must be no abandoning of a post, and shoot the first man that thinks of it."

Miles replied, "I am ready for them."

By Sept. 14, Jackson's troops were strung along School House Ridge and facing the Union left on Bolivar Heights, a ridge about a mile and a half west of Harper's Ferry running from the Potomac to the Shenandoah.

Confederate Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws and his approximately 8,000 troops had already seized Maryland Heights and had in position several artillery pieces.

Col. James A. Walker had taken Loudoun Heights against light resistance and had positioned several artillery pieces on its crest.

From these three positions, the Confederates could fire rounds into the federal garrison at Harper's Ferry.

On the afternoon of Sept. 14, Jackson realized that artillery fire would not be enough to subdue the garrison. So he sent Maj. Gen. Ambrose P. Hill's division along the left bank of the Shenandoah in an effort to turn the Union left on Bolivar Heights.

This maneuver was the key to the Confederate army's success.

The turning point

According to Marsha Starkey, public information officer for Harper's Ferry National Historical Park: "The turning point was probably when Jackson ordered A.P. Hill to maneuver around to the Shenandoah River.

"In the snaking movement, using School House Ridge as a cover, he was able to place artillery and infantry lines across the fields of the Chambers (today, Murphy) Farm, cutting off any chance of escape for the Union garrison."

Jackson had methodically attempted to strangle Harper's Ferry, and if he held the three heights, victory would be guaranteed.

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