The Battle of Harpers Ferry, which took place between September 12 and September 15, 1862, resulted in the largest surrender of Union soldiers during the American Civil War.
Lee Heads North
Emboldened by the Rebel victory at the Second Battle of Bull Run (August 28 to 30, 1862), Confederate commander Robert E. Lee took the war to Northern soil in the late summer of 1862. On September 4, the Army of Northern Virginia began crossing the Potomac River from west to east near Poolesville, Maryland.
Beyond Lee’s military goals, economic and political motives inspired the invasion. The Southern armies needed provisions. Taking the war north would allow Virginia farmers to harvest their crops, unmolested by Union troops. In addition, the invasion would enable Southern troops to commandeer supplies from Northern farmers. Lee also hoped that giving Northerners a taste of war would diminish their resolve, bolstering the prospects of Peace Democrats in the upcoming 1862 Congressional elections. Finally, a victory on Northern soil might convince European powers to lend support to the South.
Lee Divides His Army
Upon entering Maryland, Lee proceeded to Frederick, where he rested his men and met with his generals to devise a campaign plan. By September 9, Lee drafted Special Order Number 191, which outlined his course of action. Assuming that the federal forces near Washington were still in disarray following their stinging defeat at the Second Battle of Bull Run, Lee believed that it was safe to divide his army temporarily.
Lincoln Turns to McClellan
Lee’s beliefs were justified. The federal armies around Washington were in disarray. Sensing the vulnerability of the nation’s capital, President Abraham Lincoln reluctantly turned to Major General George B. McClellan to reinvigorate the federal forces to stop Lee’s advance. On September 2, 1862, Lincoln placed McClellan in command of “the fortifications of Washington, and all the troops for the defense of the capital.” Known for his organizational skills, McClellan merged the Army of Virginia with his Army of the Potomac and quickly transformed the demoralized Union soldiers into a formidable force.
Martinsburg and Harpers Ferry Garrisons
Lee’s first order of business, as outlined in Special Order Number 191, was capturing the federal garrisons to his west at Martinsburg and Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). Brigadier General Julius White commanded the garrison of roughly 2,500 soldiers at Martinsburg. Colonel Dixon S. Miles commanded the garrison of about 10,000 soldiers at Harpers Ferry. Because the two garrisons threatened Lee’s supply lines through the Shenandoah Valley, he decided that he had to dispose of them to prevent his army from being isolated in Maryland.
Lee had hoped that the presence of his army in Maryland might prompt federal officials to abandon the garrisons. McClellan nearly played into Lee’s hands when he proposed abandoning both posts and moving the garrisoned soldiers east to join his main force. Union General-in-Chief Henry Halleck, however, dashed Lee’s hopes when he overruled McClellan and informed Miles on September 7 that “It is important that Harpers Ferry be held to the latest moment.” Halleck’s decision paid off because it forced Lee to redirect valuable time and resources away from his primary objectives.
Harpers Ferry Geography
Harpers Ferry sits at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. High ground surrounds it on three sides. Maryland Heights lies to the north across the Potomac River, which flows toward the Atlantic Ocean from the northeast. Loudoun Heights lies to the south across the Shenandoah River, which joins the Potomac from a southeasterly direction. Bolivar Heights overlooks the town from the west. The high ground surrounding the town made it highly vulnerable to attack.
September 10 – Operations Begin
The operation against the garrisons at Martinsburg and Harpers Ferry got underway on Wednesday, September 10, under the overall command of Major General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Brigadier General John G. Walker’s Division of roughly 3,400 soldiers headed west out of Frederick with orders to occupy Loudoun Heights. At 3 a.m. the next morning, Jackson marched 14,000 men northwest from Frederick with ambitions to recross the Potomac River at Winchester, subdue the garrison at Martinsburg, and then circle around to attack Harpers Ferry from the west. Later that morning, Major General Lafayette McLaws and 8,000 soldiers followed Jackson along the National Road with orders to capture Maryland Heights.
September 11 – Federals Abandon Martinsburg
By the evening of Thursday, September 11, Jackson was within four miles of Martinsburg. Faced with Jackson’s superior numbers, White opted to abandon Martinsburg and withdraw to Harpers Ferry, where he placed his troops under the command of Miles. The next day, Jackson’s troops marched into Martinsburg, unopposed. A few miles away, on the other side of the Potomac, skirmishing erupted between advance elements of McLaws’ soldiers and the 4,600 Union defenders on Maryland Heights.
September 13 – Rebels Occupy Maryland Heights and Loudoun Heights
On Saturday, September 13, two spirited Rebel assaults drove the Blue Coats off of Maryland Heights and back across the Potomac to Harpers Ferry. On the same day, Walker took possession of Loudoun Heights with no resistance, and Jackson resumed his march toward Harpers Ferry. Realizing his vulnerability, that night Miles sent Captain Charles Russell through the Confederate lines to “try to reach somebody that had ever heard of the United States Army, or any general of the United States Army, or anybody that knew anything about the United States Army, and report the condition of Harpers Ferry.”
September 14 – Rebel Bombardment
Events justified Miles’ concerns. By early morning on Sunday, September 14, Walker and McLaws had artillery batteries in place on Loudoun and Maryland heights. The only place where the Yankees still held sway was Bolivar Heights on the west side of Harpers Ferry, where Miles had positioned most of his command. Holding the higher ground, Miles’s soldiers offered stiff resistance as Jackson’s men approached from the west. That afternoon, however, Miles and McLaws began bombarding the town and the rear of the federal line on Bolivar Heights. When the Confederate fire failed to dislodge the Blue Coats, Jackson sent General A. P. Hill’s infantry on a flanking maneuver to the south during the night that completely entrapped the Yankee defenders.
September 15 – Federals Surrender
The next morning, Jackson ordered an artillery barrage from all directions as he prepared for an infantry assault on Bolivar Heights. Following an early morning council of war, Miles concluded that his situation was hopeless and decided to surrender. Before being able to do so, however, a Confederate shell mortally wounded him. General White assumed command and completed the surrender.
Jackson’s victory at Harpers Ferry was one of the greatest of his storied career. At a cost of fewer than forty men killed and 250 wounded, Jackson captured over seventy cannon, 200 wagons, roughly 13,000 small arms, and nearly 12,500 Yankee prisoners. The federal capitulation at Harpers Ferry was the largest Union surrender of the Civil War.
When Jackson sent word to General Lee that “Harpers Ferry and its garrison are to be surrendered,” Lee decided to stand and fight, rather than abandon his invasion of Maryland. Two days later, Lee’s decision led to the bloodiest single day of battle during the Civil War on September 17, 1862, along the banks of Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg.
Confederate officials pardoned General White and his men after the surrender at Harpers Ferry. Federal officials then arrested White and temporarily relieved him of his command. A court of inquiry later that year exonerated White and restored him to duty. The reputation of the deceased Colonel Miles did not fare as well. The members of the court concluded that “incapacity, amounting to almost imbecility, led to the shameful surrender of this important post.”