The Battle of Harpers Ferry: September 12-September 15, 1862

This entry is part 5 of 12 in the series The Maryland Campaign

The Battle of Harpers Ferry:

September 12-September 15, 1862

Harpers Ferry, Virginia was not only the location of the Federal arsenal but it also was at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. The town was also the location of a key Potomac River bridge for the vital Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.

The town was surrounded by mountains and ridges in such a way that one Union soldier wrote that it was “no more defensible than a well bottom.” Despite this, Union garrison commander, Col. Dixon S. Miles, only placed a small force on Maryland Heights to the north of the town. He left the other two prominences, Loudon Heights and Bolivar Heights, completely undefended, keeping the majority of his 1,600-man garrison inside the town.

The defensive force that was positioned on Maryland Heights was under the command of Col. Thomas H. Ford of the 32nd Ohio Infantry. It consisted of parts of four regiments, that totaled about 1,600 men. Some of the troops were only in the army for 21 days and lacked combat skills in all areas.

Harpers Ferry, Virginia, 1865About halfway up the heights there was an artillery battery of two 9-inch (230 mm) naval Dahlgren rifles, one 50-pounder Parrott rifle, and four 12-pounder smoothbores.

On September 12th, the Maryland Heights defenders encountered the first skirmishers of Brig. Gen. Joseph B. Kershaw South Carolina Brigade. The Confederates had been had been moving slowly through the very difficult terrain on Elk Ridge. The Union defenders had erected crude breastworks and abatis as defensive fortifications and after a brief exchange of fire, the Confederates pulled back for the night.

At 6:30 AM on the 13th, the South Carolinians resumed the attack. The Confederate plan called for Kershaw’s Brigade to assault the position frontally while Brig. Gen. William Barksdale‘s Mississippians would flank the Union defenders on their right. Kershaw’s first two assaults were repulsed at the abatis with heavy losses. The inexperienced troops seemed to be holding their own.

However, Col. Ford had taken ill during the morning and was 2 miles behind the lines. His second-in-command, Col. Eliakim Sherrill, was badly wounded in the cheek and tongue. He was removed from the field and seeing this the green troops began to become panicky. When the Mississippians attacked their flank the green troops of the 126th New York broke and fled the field.

At about 3:30 PM, Col. Ford, rather than sending in his 900-man reserve from the 115th New York, ordered the artillery pieces to be spiked and withdrew across the river on a pontoon bridge. He later insisted that he had the authority to do so but a court of inquiry found that he had “abandoned his position without sufficient cause,” and recommended his dismissal from the Army.

While the fighting at Maryland Heights was taking place, the other two Confederate columns had arrived at their appointed positions. Brig. Gen. John G. Walker‘s force arrived at the base of Loudon Heights at about 10:00 AM only to find the position devoid of Union defenders.

Maj. Gen. Stonewall Jackson’s force of three divisions, Brig. Gen. John R. Jones to the north, Brig. Gen. Alexander R. Lawton in the center, and Maj. Gen.A.P. Hill to the south, arrived at Bolivar Heights to the west of the town at about 11:00 AM. They were equally astonished when they realized that the heights were also undefended.

Click Map to enlarge.

Inside the now-surrounded town, the Union commanders were starting to panic. They urged Col. Miles to send a force to recapture Maryland Heights but he refused, insisting that he would defend the town from any attack from the west. He did send a small cavalry patrol with a message to General McClellan in Frederick. The message informed the Union commander that the besieged town could hold out only for 48 hours. Otherwise, he would be forced to surrender.

McClellan was dismayed and replied to Miles that a relief force was on the way. He then ordered Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin and his VI Corps to march from Crampton’s Gap to relieve Harpers Ferry. Three couriers were sent to Miles using different routes but none of them arrived in time.

Meanwhile, Jackson, who knew the value of artillery, began to position his around the besieged town. At the same time he ordered A.P. Hill to move down the west bank of the Shenandoah to prepare for a flank attack on the Union left the next morning. Unknown to Miles, only a single Confederate regiment held the crest of Maryland Heights while the rest had left to defend Crampton’s Gap from Franklin’s advance.

Col. Benjamin F. “Grimes” Davis proposed to Miles that his troopers of the 12th Illinois Cavalry, the Loudoun Rangers, and some smaller units from Maryland and Rhode Island, attempt to break out. Cavalry forces were useless in a siege and Grimes was so insistent that Miles relented and Colonel Benjamin Franklin Grimesallowed him to make the attempt. Leading some 1,400 troopers across the pontoon bridge and around the base of Maryland Heights, Grimes’ force escaped unscathed.

In fact, along the way the encountered and captured one Maj. Gen. James Longstreet’s ammunition wagon trains. Driving off the Confederate cavalry escort, they rejoined the main Union army with the loss of a single soldier. It is considered the first great cavalry exploit of the war for the Army of the Potomac.

By the morning of September 15th, Jackson had surrounded the town with at least 50 guns on Maryland Heights and the base of Loudon Heights. They were prepared for enfilade fire on the rear and flanks of the Union defenders while the largest of his three columns were ready for a frontal assault. He began a fierce artillery barrage and ordered an infantry assault for 8:00 AM.

After a council of war, Miles agreed to surrender the entire garrison. Confronted by a captain from the 126th New York, who opposed surrender, Miles insisted that it was the right decision. He then turned and was mortally wounded when a shell exploded near him. He succumbed the next day.

Jackson had won a great victory at minor expense. The Confederate Army sustained 286 casualties (39 killed, 247 wounded), mostly from the fighting on Maryland Heights, while the Union Army sustained 217 (44 killed, 173 wounded). The Union garrison also surrendered 12,419 men, 13,000 small arms, 200 wagons, and 73 artillery pieces. It was the largest surrender of Union forces during the Civil War.

By early afternoon, Jackson received an urgent message from General Lee: Get your troops to Sharpsburg as quickly as possible. Jackson left A.P. Hill at Harpers Ferry to manage the parole of Federal prisoners and began marching to join the Battle of Antietam.

 

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