Battle of Harpers Ferry During the American Civil War

Stonewall Jackson
Lieutenant General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. The National Archives & Records Administration

The Battle of Harpers Ferry was fought September 12-15, 1862, during the American Civil War (1861--1865).

Background

Following his victory at the Second Battle of Manassas in late August 1862, General Robert E. Lee elected to invade Maryland with the goals of resupplying the Army of Northern Virginia in enemy territory as well as inflicting a blow on Northern morale.  With Major General George B. McClellan's Army of the Potomac mounting a leisurely pursuit, Lee split his command with Major Generals James Longstreet, J.E.B. Stuart, and D.H.

Hill entering and remaining in Maryland while Major General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson received orders to swing west then south to secure Harpers Ferry.  The site of  John Brown's 1859 raid, Harpers Ferry was situated at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers and contained a Federal arsenal.  On low ground, the town was dominated by Bolivar Heights to the west, Maryland Heights to northeast, and Loudoun Heights to the southeast.

Jackson Advances

Crossing the Potomac north of Harpers Ferry with 11,500 men, Jackson intended to attack the town from the west.  To support his operations, Lee dispatched 8,000 men under Major General Lafayette McLaws and 3,400 men under Brigadier General John G. Walker to secure Maryland and Loudoun Heights respectively.  On September 11, Jackson's command approached Martinsburg while McLaws reached Brownsville approximately six miles northeast of Harpers Ferry.

 To the southeast, Walker's men were delayed due to a failed attempt to destroy the aqueduct carrying the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal over the Monocacy River.  Poor guides further slowed his advance.

The Union Garrison

As Lee moved north, he expected the Union garrisons at Winchester, Martinsburg, and Harpers Ferry to be withdrawn to prevent being cut off and captured.

 While the first two fell back, Major General Henry W. Halleck, the Union general in chief, directed Colonel Dixon S. Miles to hold Harpers Ferry despite requests from McClellan for the troops there to join the Army of the Potomac.  Possessing around 14,000 largely inexperienced men, Miles had been assigned to Harpers Ferry in disgrace after a court of inquiry found that he had been drunk during the First Battle of Bull Run the previous year.  A 38-year veteran of the US Army who had been brevetted for his role in the Siege of Fort Texas during the Mexican-American War, Miles failed to understand the terrain around Harpers Ferry and concentrated his forces in the town and on Bolivar Heights.  Though perhaps the most important position, Maryland Heights was only garrisoned by around 1,600 men under Colonel Thomas H. Ford.

The Confederates Attack

On September 12, McLaws pushed forward Brigadier General Joseph Kershaw's brigade.  Hampered by difficult terrain, his men moved along Elk Ridge to Maryland Heights where they encountered Ford's troops.  After some skirmishing, Kershaw elected to pause for the night.  At 6:30 AM the next morning, Kershaw resumed his advance with Brigadier General William Barksdale's brigade in support on the left.

 Twice assaulting the Union lines, the Confederates were beaten back with heavy losses.  Tactical command on Maryland Heights that morning devolved to Colonel Eliakim Sherrill as Ford had taken ill.  As the fighting continued, Sherrill fell when a bullet struck his cheek.  His loss shook his regiment, the 126th New York, which had only been in the army three weeks.  This, coupled with an attack on their flank by Barksdale, caused the New Yorkers to break and flee to the rear.

On the heights, Major Sylvester Hewitt rallied the remaining units and assumed a new position.  Despite this, he received orders from Ford at 3:30 PM to retreat back across the river even though 900 men from the 115th New York remained in reserve.  As McLaws' men struggled to take Maryland Heights, Jackson and Walker's men arrived in the area.

 In Harpers Ferry, Miles' subordinates quickly realized that the garrison was surrounded and implored their commander to mount a counterattack on Maryland Heights.  Believing that holding Bolivar Heights was all that was necessary, Miles refused.  That night, he dispatched Captain Charles Russell and nine men from the 1st Maryland Cavalry to inform McClellan of the situation and that he could only hold out for forty-eight hours.  Receiving this message, the McClellan directed VI Corps to move to relieve the garrison and sent multiple messages to Miles informing him that aid was coming.  These failed to arrive in time to influence events.

The Garrison Falls

The next day, Jackson commenced emplacing guns on Maryland Heights while Walker did the same on Loudoun.  While Lee and McClellan fought to the east at the ​​​Battle of South Mountain, Walker's guns opened fire on Miles' positions around 1:00 PM.  Later that afternoon, Jackson directed Major General A.P. Hill to move along the west bank of the Shenandoah to threat Union left on Bolivar Heights.  As night fell, Union officers in Harpers Ferry knew that the end was approaching but remained unable to convince Miles to attack Maryland Heights.  Had they moved forward, they would have found the heights guarded by a single regiment as McLaws had withdrawn the bulk of his command to aid in blunting VI Corps advance at Crampton's Gap.  That night, against Miles' wishes, Colonel Benjamin Davis led 1,400 cavalrymen in a breakout attempt.  Crossing the Potomac, they slipped around Maryland Heights and rode north.  In the course of their escape, they captured one of Longstreet's reserve ordnance trains and escorted it north to Greencastle, PA.

As dawn rose on September 15, Jackson had moved around 50 guns into position on the heights opposite Harpers Ferry.  Opening fire, his artillery struck Miles' rear and flanks on Bolivar Heights and preparations commenced for an assault at 8:00 AM.  Believing the situation hopeless and unaware that relief was en route, Miles met with his brigade commanders and made the decision to surrender.

  This was met with some hostility from a number of his officers who demanded the opportunity to fight their way out.  After arguing with a captain from the 126th New York, Miles was struck in the leg by a Confederate shell.  Falling, he had so angered his subordinates that it initially proved difficult to find someone to carry him to the hospital.  Following Miles' wounding, Union forces moved forward with the surrender.

Aftermath

The Battle of Harpers Ferry saw the Confederates sustain 39 killed and 247 wounded while Union losses totaled 44 killed, 173 wounded, and 12,419 captured.  In addition, 73 guns were lost.    The capture of the Harpers Ferry garrison represented the Union Army's largest surrender of the war and the US Army's largest until the fall of Bataan in 1942.  Miles died from his wounds on September 16 and never had to face the consequences for his performance.  Occupying the town, Jackson's men took possession of a large volume of Union supplies and the arsenal.  Later that afternoon, he received urgent word from Lee to rejoin the main army at Sharpsburg.  Leaving Hill's men to parole the Union prisoners, Jackson's troops marched north where they would play a key role in the Battle of Antietam on September 17.

Armies & Commanders

Union

  • Colonel Dixon S. Miles
  • approx. 14,000 men

Confederate

  • Major General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson
  • approx. 21,000-26,000 men

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