1862 Battle of Harpers Ferry

Lee Invades the North

On September 4, 1862, Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia splashed across the Potomac River into Maryland at White's Ford. During the next few days, Lee's veteran Confederates settled in around the town of Frederick. The first invasion of the North had begun.

With his invasion, Lee expected some 14,000 Federal troops garrisoning Harpers Ferry and Martinsburg to withdraw northward. In fact, Lee's plans depended upon it - the Confederates needed the Shenandoah Valley as their line of supply and communication while they campaigned north of the Potomac. The Federals, however, refused to withdraw, forcing Lee into a quandary.

Believing that Union forces were in "a very demoralized and chaotic condition" following their defeat at Second Manassas in Virginia, and that Union General George B. McClellan was "an able general but a very cautious one," Lee decided to divide his army into four parts. Special Orders 191 contained all the operational details: three separate columns totaling almost 23,000 men would march on Harpers Ferry, surround the place, and capture or destroy the Union garrison there. With that mission accomplished, Lee's entire army would reassemble at Boonsboro, Maryland - 20 miles north of Harpers Ferry. Lee selected Major General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson to lead the assault on Harpers Ferry.

The Union Garrison

Union Colonel Dixon S. Miles found a war-ravaged wasteland when he took command at Harpers Ferry in the spring of 1862. The Harpers Ferry Armory, which at its peak had produced 10,000 firearms a year, lay in ruins - burned by Confederate forces in 1861. The town's churches and mills had become hospitals; shops and residences had become barracks and stables. The prewar population of 3,000 had fled. Only 100 local inhabitants dared remain on the border between North and South. One soldier wrote that the blackened ruins of Harpers Ferry presented a "ghost of a former life," and that "the entire place is not actually worth $10."

But the military value of Harpers Ferry remained important. It served as a key base of supply for Union operations in the Shenandoah Valley, and served to protect the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal and Baltimore & Ohio Railroad - important Union transportation corridors. Altogether, Miles commanded 14,000 men at Harpers Ferry and Martinsburg in September 1862.

The Confederate Advance

Special Orders 191 anticipated splendid results. But could the mission be accomplished in the allotted three days? The operation appeared to be technically overwhelming: three separate columns marching circuitous routes, converging from three different directions, ascending three separate ridges divided by two rivers. There was heavy artillery to place, caissons to haul up steep ridges, with signal flags serving as the best means of communication.

One glance at Lee's veterans suggested that his Harpers Ferry mission was impossible. Short on food, destitute of clothing, and many shoeless from hundreds of miles of marching, Lee's ragged army appeared physically incapable of meeting the campaign's tight deadline. Nevertheless, on September 10, Lee bade his detached columns farewell as they left Frederick and pressed on toward Harpers Ferry. [View a map of the Confederate advance on Harpers Ferry].

Brigadier General John G. Walker commanded one wing of Jackson's three-pronged advance. Crossing the Potomac River at Noland's Ferry near Point of Rocks, Maryland, Walker advanced across the northern Virginia countryside to the eastern slope of Loudoun Heights. Colonel Miles had neglected to post any men or artillery on these heights, considering them to be well within the range of Federal gunners on nearby Maryland Heights. Walker, facing no Union opposition, moved a battery of artillery up onto Loudoun Heights and, on September 14, exchanged the first artillery fire with Union guns at Harpers Ferry.

Major General Lafayette McLaws commanded the second wing of the Confederate advance. McLaws understood the topography around Harpers Ferry well. At 1,448 feet, Maryland Heights was the highest ridge overlooking Harpers Ferry. "So long as Maryland Heights was occupied by the enemy," he wrote, "Harper's Ferry could never be occupied by us. If we gained possession of the heights, the town was no longer tenable to them."

McLaws ordered two infantry brigades to advance south along the crest of Elk Ridge - the northern extension of Maryland Heights. On September 13, these Confederates drove 4,600 Union defenders off the mountain despite "a most obstinate and determined resistance." One day later, McLaws opened fire on Harpers Ferry with four guns.

Major General "Stonewall" Jackson commanded the third Confederate wing himself. Advancing from Frederick to Boonsboro, Maryland, Jackson swept across western Maryland, crossed the Potomac River at Williamsport, captured Martinsburg, and came up behind Harpers Ferry - marching 51 miles in less than two days. Jackson's 14,000-man column occupied School House Ridge, sealing the trap on the surrounded Federal garrison. [View a map of Confederate positions around Harpers Ferry].

A Serious Predicament

From his command post near Halltown, "Stonewall" Jackson methodically and deliberately positioned his cannons "to drive the enemy" into extinction. Indeed, Confederate artillery fire upon Harpers Ferry was effective and demoralizing. Colonel William H. Trimble of the 60th Ohio wrote that there was "not a place where you could lay the palm of your hand and say it was safe."

Realizing that artillery alone probably would not subdue the Union garrison, Jackson ordered General A.P. Hill to flank the Federal position on top of Bolivar Heights. Using School House Ridge for cover, Hill moved his forces toward the Shenandoah River, dragged and tugged five batteries up the river's steep bluffs, and succeeded in planting his artillery 1,000 yards from the exposed left flank of the Union position. Hill later wrote that "the fate of Harpers Ferry was sealed."

Louis Hull of the 60th Ohio agreed, writing in his diary on the evening of September 14th: "All seem to think that we will have to surrender or be cut to pieces."

A Daring Escape

With Union surrender at Harpers Ferry imminent, cavalry commander Colonel Benjamin F. "Grimes" Davis deemed a breakout from the Confederate trap worth a try. On the evening of September 14, Davis, guided by Lt. Green of the 1st Maryland Cavalry and Tom Noakes, a civilian scout, led 1,500 men across the Potomac River on a pontoon bridge and then up the "John Brown Road" toward Sharpsburg. Fortuitously, the Confederates had withdrawn their troops guarding the Sharpsburg Road, redeploying them in the Pleasant Valley to counter a Union threat at Crampton's Gap.

The Cavalry column pressed on undetected toward Sharpsburg, captured a 91-wagon Confederate ammunition train near Williamsport, and eventually reached safety in Greencastle, Pennsylvania, on the morning of September 15. The column rode 50 miles in 12 hours. Back at Harpers Ferry, however, the scene was not so bright.

The Union Surrender

On the morning of September 15, the Union commanders at Harpers Ferry held a council of war. Surrounded by a force twice the size of their own and out of long range artillery ammunition, the officers unanimously agreed to surrender. At around 9:00 a.m., white flags were raised by Union troops all along Bolivar Heights. Minutes later, a stray Confederate shell exploded directly behind Colonel Dixon Miles, mortally wounding the Union commander. Brigadier General Julius White, second in command, made the final arrangements for the Union surrender.

Jackson captured over 12,700 Union troops at Harpers Ferry - the largest single capture of Federal forces during the entire war. The Confederates also seized 13,000 arms and 47 pieces of artillery.

Last updated: April 10, 2015

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