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Battle of Harpers Ferry
Civil War Encyclopedia >> Battles
Harper's Ferry was a key location for both the North and South because it was a railroad junction on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers, but none of that mattered to General Robert E. Lee in September, 1862. Lee's main concern was a supply route to feed the Army of Northern Virginia, then invading Maryland. Maintaining a bridge across the wide Potomac south from Frederick, Maryland was a logistical problem. Further west, however, the chances were better - he could use the Blue Ridge Mountains to screen his lines of supply and they would be deeper in his territory. Only a small portion of the line would be in rebellious West Virginia, now separate from Lee's home of Virginia but not yet a state. The key to this route was Harper's Ferry.
Lee knew the town - it was here that Colonel Robert E. Lee and Lieutenant J. E. B. Stuart had put down a rebellion, that of pro-abolitionist John Brown and 21 others, who called for slaves to join Brown at the local arsenal. On the west side of a massive gorge in the Blue Ridge, Harper's Ferry was a tactical nightmare to defend. Prominent Maryland Heights was the key to the city, towering some 2,000 feet tall, but only 1,450 feet above the neighboring town. Across the Shenandoah from the city was Loudoun Heights, 1,200 feet higher than Harper's Ferry. If an enemy occupied either one of these slopes holding the city would be impossible.
Defending the city were 10,000 Union soldiers under the command of Col. Dixon M. Miles, an aging West Point graduate and a veteran of the Mexican War. Consisting mostly of raw recruits, Miles stationed 2,000 men at the top of Maryland Heights along with 3 pieces of artillery. More than 7,000 were in a line to the west, defending the city from a land attack. Miles had been ordered not only to hold the city but to "...annoy the Rebels..." in spit of being outnumbered 5 to 1.
On September 9, 1862 General Robert E. Lee issued Special Orders No. 191, giving detailed instructions to Stonewall Jackson on taking Harper's Ferry. Jackson was to occupy Bolivar Heights with 14,000 men, while Major General Lafayette McLaws took Maryland Heights with 8,000 men and Major General John G. Walker occupied Loudoun Heights with 2,000 men. On the day the battle of Harper's Ferry began, General Henry Halleck altered the orders to Miles, ordering him to "unite his forces" with those of General George McClellan.
The Confederate attack at Harper's Ferry proceeded pretty much as planned. By the 12th, Walker advanced to Loudoun Heights. On Maryland Heights, though, Union forces gave McLaws a fight, but when the Union flanks collapsed the Union commander had no choice but to order a withdrawal. As Stonewall Jackson gained Bolivar Heights west of the city he realised that Miles had ably placed his troops for the battle and decided to use artillery to force a surrender.
On the morning of the 14th, Jackson was still moving artillery into place when Walker [on Loudoun Heights] grew impatient and ordered some troops to demonstrate. This drew bluecoat fire, as he knew it would, which he returned with artillery shells. Soon, fire reigned on Harper's Ferry and the Union recruits scrambled for cover. In spite of this attack, Colonel Frederick D'Utassy attacked Maryland Heights shortly after the start of the artillery barrage. In spite of limited manpower, D'Utassy managed to retake some of the Union artillery positions and recapture the guns, but the attack was unsupported and D'Utassy had to withdraw. As the sun set on the 14th, Rebel artillery grew hushed.
Fog greeted the mountaintop gunners on the morning of the 15th, but the city became visible as the sun rose that morning. Seemingly simultaneously, a total of almost 50 Confederate artillery pieces launched an attack against Union positions in the town. Union positions returned fire at first, but by 8:00am they had stopped. Miles was preparing to surrender.
Not every Union officer agreed with the surrender. McClellan was nearby, perhaps even on the way to rescued the town, and men were willing to fight it out. Miles, though, felt the Rebels could defeat the Union positions in half an hour and the Union commander rode out under a white flag of truce to get terms of surrender. Unfortunately, some the Rebel batteries were not paying attention and continued to fire on the Union lines. One shell exploded near Miles, nearly severing his leg. The wound was mortal and the actual surrender was handled by his second-in-command, Julius White.
With the passing of Harper's Ferry into Confederate hands, the starved Rebel army grabbed what it could. Most got hardtack and meat, but the most sought items were blankets and coffee. Although the numbers of Union dead (44) and wounded (173) were low for the battle more that 12,500 prisoners were taken.
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Battle of Harpers Ferry was last changed on - June 17, 2006
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