Most casual historians will recognize the name of Harper’s Ferry as “ground zero” for John Brown’s infamous raid that was designed to inspire a revolution amongst the enslaved population in America. While the raid did not fully succeed, many claim that Brown’s actions at Harper’s Ferry and his subsequent execution are the instigating factors that propelled the nation into the Civil War. While I’m of the persuasion that the war began due to a number of other catalysts, I do believe that the events that took place in October of 1859, made Harper’s Ferry a household name throughout the war and throughout history.
Before John Brown, Harper’s Ferry was first the location of the U.S. Armory. Most of the 3,000 inhabitants of the town were dependent upon the armory and its support facilities, with about 400 workers laboring in 20 separate buildings dedicated to arms manufacturing. The people came from all walks of life, all political views, statuses, and races. All lived relatively peacefully until John Brown’s nighttime raid, which drew much of the repressed hostilities over the institute of slavery and other political factions to the forefront.
One thing that was universal, however, was the fear of what war would do to Harper’s Ferry, particularly for those who worked for the armory. They knew their town would become a warzone because of Harper’s Ferry’s location at the bottom (north end) of the Shenandoah Valley and right on the border between Virginia and Maryland. Would they lose their jobs? How could they support their families? Would Virginia turn Confederate or choose to stay with the Union? The armory superintendent, Alfred M. Barbour put measures in place to guard the armory, as citizens became divided over the secession issue. One case shows this divide in the story of Jeremiah Donovan, a Unionist, guarding the armory gate while John Burk, a southern loyalist, took up arms to protect the telegraph office.
Both the Union and Confederacy realized the importance of Harper’s Ferry as the gateway to the Shenandoah. It could be used as a backdoor to either central Virginia and allow easy access to Richmond, and vice-versa for Washington. The screen of mountains on either side effectively masks troop movements from outside the Valley. Harper’s Ferry sits at the confluence of the Shenandoah River that runs – roughly – north and south and the Potomac River running east and west. At Harper’s Ferry, three “Heights” provide ample high grounds for defense or bombardment, as the next four years would reveal in horrific detail. Maryland Heights is along the north side of the Potomac upon Maryland (Union) soil. Virginia would claim Loudoun Heights which spans east of the Shenandoah, and Bolivar Heights just west of the town. If Virginia should secede, Harper’s Ferry would effectively be in the crosshairs of both armies.
Secession did come and Virginia sided with the Confederacy after the firing upon Fort Sumter. Lieutenant Roger Jones and his garrison of 42 men had taken up a position in Harper’s Ferry to protect the armory, but upon hearing word on April 18th that a group of Virginia militia were coming to take it from them, he set explosives to blow the armory into a state of disuse. The town shook with the ferocity of the detonation at 10pm that night. Then, the Federals abandoned the town – not for the last time. The fires at the armory were put out and the equipment inside was salvageable. The then Colonel Thomas Jackson – who had not earned his famous nickname yet – received his first orders to occupy Harper’s Ferry and he used it as a base of training and organization for the 1st Virginia Brigade, which he would continue to command.
Efforts to fortify the three heights around Harper’s Ferry began under Jackson’s authority, though the occupation of Maryland Heights proved controversial, since it was technically in Federal territory. Jackson also took the armory machinery that could still be used and had it shipped south as far as North Carolina to be used for Confederate purposes. By the end of May, 1861, about 8,000 rebel troops occupied the town, mostly at Camp Hill. Without the armory, the town struggled economically and many of the families that had tied their livelihoods to the industry followed the machinery to North Carolina.
Joseph Johnston eventually took over command of Harper’s Ferry, but he did not see it as a tenable position and argued against the War Department that it was not worth keeping. The Confederates would evacuate Harper’s Ferry – not for the last time – on June 13th, but not before destroying the railroad bridge that stretched over the Potomac River, along with any other wagon bridges in the vicinity. This crippled the community even further, as they lost the benefits of the railroad and influx of supplies.
Union Major General Robert Patterson was next to occupy Harper’s Ferry and made the case that he wanted the railroad bridge rebuilt so that better communication and supplies could be funneled into the Valley for the Federal army. But the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Company refused to oblige unless they could be assured of the line’s complete safety by Federal protection. Instead of battling the railroad company, Patterson decided to leave Harper’s Ferry and focus on bolstering Winchester further up (south) the Valley. This lack of Union troops at the bottom (north) of the Valley concerned Washington and it was decided that Harper’s Ferry could not stay empty.
The first engagement to take place in Harper’s Ferry occurred on July 4th, 1861. This small skirmish that lasted only half an hour was between the 1st Pennsylvania and 9th New York that took positions on Maryland Heights and a small detachment of Confederates who were left to “defend” the town. In the end, the Federals incurred three casualties, four for the Confederates, and Frederick Roeder became the first civilian killed in Harper’s Ferry by a rogue bullet.
More Union troops came and the town was in Federal hands again on July 18th. The citizens gave the bluecoats a warm and effusive welcome and presented a flag that had been sewn in secret during the first Confederate occupation. Patterson arrived with 6,000 troops a few days later. He would struggle with the complications of fugitive slaves racing for Union lines, as well as mutinies over delayed pay for his garrisoned soldiers. With the debacle over losing track of Jackson and Johnston in the Valley and his inability to occupy them while Irvin McDowell made a move toward Manassas Junction, Patterson was soon replaced by Major General Nathaniel Banks.
Under Banks, the army was transferred to the north bank of the Potomac, seeing this position was better for the management of supplies coming in on the railroad and shelling the town should the Confederates try to take it again. He would leave Harper’s Ferry with one corps to defend it under the command of Colonel John Geary. Confederate raiders that sometimes slipped into the town made the Federals on the other side of the river a little trigger-happy, occasionally firing upon civilians walking in the streets, unable to distinguish between them and the enemy. This sort of disorder was not uncommon, as long-distance skirmishing and raiding of local businesses like the flour mill became commonplace. The bell atop what was dubbed “John Brown’s Fort” was also stolen during this time.
The first major engagement in Harper’s Ferry took place on October 16th at 7:30am between about 300 Confederate militia commanded by Turner Ashby, and Geary’s forces of approximately 700 in the battle for Bolivar Heights. Three advances were made by Ashby to take the high ground, but they were repulsed each time, resulting in a 3-hour stalemate that ended with Ashby withdrawing and Geary taking the heights. It was seen as a victory for both sides, because the Federals had beaten off the Confederates, but they were also away from Harper’s Ferry as they concentrated their attention on Bolivar Heights.
It was finally determined by the Federal government that if the B&O Company would not rebuild the railroad bridge for the army, the army would rebuild it for themselves. With cooperation from Geary on the inside angle of the confluence and army engineers on the outside angle, they first began with a pontoon bridge – temporary and effective for moving troops and supplies – that would be followed by a more stable reconstruction of the railroad bridge. This would allow better access for shuttling troops and supplies and ultimately allow the Federals to have a more permanent presence in Harper’s Ferry. They made a crossing on February 24th, 1862 and captured Loudoun Heights soon after. Soldiers quartered themselves in abandoned houses – which there were many, and a new “Railroad Brigade” was formed for the express purpose of protecting the newly constructed bridge. This was left up to Colonel Dixon Stansbury Miles to monitor almost 360 miles between Baltimore and Winchester with only 6,000 troops.
To make matters more complicated, Jackson was back in the valley by May and ready to advance straight up to Harper’s Ferry. In response, Brigadier General Rufus Saxton was sent with 8,000 additional inexperienced forces via the B&O Railroad, along with 300 sailors and three heavy cannons that would be mounted on Maryland Heights. All was ready by May 28th. Jackson inched closer to Harper’s Ferry, tempting them to come out of their defenses. Once they were in range, the Federals open-fired, but with few satisfying results. The shells either exploded in mid-flight before they could reach their targets, or never exploded at all. Some exploded far too close to the barrel, almost right out of the muzzle. The green troops made it easy for Jackson’s men to take Loudoun Heights, effectively spooking the Federals into crossing the Potomac and concentrating on Maryland Heights instead. For several days, Jackson l did little more than invest the area, all the while under the watchful eye of the Federals who were ready to shell the Confederates if they tried to take Bolivar Heights.
Their patience paid out and when Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson stormed onto Bolivar Heights, Saxton unloaded on the Confederates. The rebels reached within 300 yards of Camp Hill when they did the unexpected. So close to their goal, Stonewall turned back for fear of entrapment. Harper’s Ferry was safe again, but not for long. With the town out of danger, Saxton withdrew and took away his troops as well.
This left Colonel Miles to manage the military occupation of Harper’s Ferry. Stonewall had caused some damage to the railroad bridge, which needed tending to, as well as addressing the occasional threat of Turner Ashby’s guerilla cavalry raids in the area. More importantly, Miles wanted to put measures in place to ensure total obedience and cooperation from the citizens still left in Harper’s Ferry. All occupants of the town were to take the Oath of Allegiance to the United States or were to be removed beyond the Federal lines. If they returned, they would be treated as spies. Miles held a no-tolerance policy against any civilian who would not comply with this mandate.
Through the summer of 1862, Harper’s Ferry would also contend with camp diseases and other daily hazards of military occupation. Clayton General Hospital was the most widely used at the time, though a former cotton mill on Virginius Island would also come to be utilized for a hospital in 1863. At Clayton, 285 soldiers were treated or convalesced under the care of Matron Abba A. Goddard. The hospital would eventually close in September of 1862 and the occupants were moved to Frederick, Maryland.
Around the same time that this was happening, Robert E. Lee would embark upon his Maryland Campaign, the first time the Army of Northern Virginia would make a united invasion onto Federal soil. Harper’s Ferry and the Union forces there blocked a main artery of supply lines for Lee’s campaign. Part of Special Order No. 191 instructed Stonewall to, once again, advance upon Harper’s Ferry and take it for the Confederacy. With his intimate knowledge of the terrain, he formulated an effective plan. He would take three columns, each one ordered to come in from a different direction. Major General Lafayette McLaws would come in from the north, Major General John Walker would come in behind Loudoun Heights, and Jackson would take the long way around to attack Bolivar Heights as he had before. Collectively, 28,000 were to cross rivers and mountainous landscapes to descend upon Harper’s Ferry.
Miles’ communication was cut off from Washington as the Confederates came closer and there was little chance for reinforcements to support him. He was outnumbered and most of his troops were untested. On September 13th, Loudoun Heights was given up easily to Walker and any escape up (south) the Shenandoah Valley was prevented. After an arduous 9-hour fight upon Maryland Heights, this strategic point was lost to McLaws. Miles moved what remained of his troops into Harper’s Ferry and formed a line to defend the western approach to the town. Confederate cannons were ordered up to the two heights they commanded and Jackson directed all non-combatants to leave before the bombardment. At 1pm on September 14th, Walker began the artillery barrage, followed by the rest of the Confederate army in the next hour. 50 guns reigned down hot lead for 5 hours, creating a living hell for the civilians still left in Harper’s Ferry.
Still, Miles did not yield. By now, General George McClellan had discovered a copy of Special Order no. 191 and knew what was happening at Harper’s Ferry. He sent a rescue column. McLaws moved to protect his rear at Crampton’s Gap from these reinforcements. Union cavalry under Benjamin Franklin “Grimes” Davis was ordered to find a hole in the Confederate defenses in order to get word out about their predicament, as Miles was unaware of the help already on the way. By now, many of McLaws’ men had withdrawn from Maryland Heights, deploying in Pleasant Valley in Maryland and the cavalry managed to slip through.
Meanwhile, Jackson ordered an advance formation to trick Miles, and it worked. While attacking Miles’ line in the center, launching from School House Ridge, he feigned a flanking movement to the left to draw his troops in that direction, while preparing for the real flanking move to his right – Union left. With the help of cannon from Loudon Heights, the plan worked. Miles shifted his forces to the Union right and were blindsided by the Confederate assault on the left coming from A.P. Hill’s men on the south side of Bolivar Heights. Miles ran out of ammunition to contend with the Confederates and surrendered on September 15th. It became the largest surrender in the entire Civil War with 12,700 prisoners. They also captured 73 cannons, 200 wagons, 1,200 army mules, and 13,000 small arms. Miles was wounded in some post-surrender firing and died September 16th.
However, more trouble was brewing to the east and Lee called for Stonewall’s help along Antietam Creek. He paroled the prisoners en masse, obligated to leave for Maryland until they were officially exchanged four months later. A.P. Hill was placed in charge of the paroling system and the exiting actions of the Confederate forces there. Free blacks or formerly enslaved persons who had sought refuge with the Union were recaptured and sent south to be sold into bondage again. 13 free blacks that were in the direct care of Colonel William Trimble managed to make it to free soil because he received an official pass from Hill that he enforced to the guards at the river crossing who didn’t want to honor it. The railroad bridge was also destroyed, again, as the Confederate forces rushed to Sharpsburg on September 17th.
Ironically, by September 19th, Harper’s Ferry was occupied by Federals again and they were left to clean up the mess of the battle. The dead, in particular, needed to be buried and the most efficient way was to burn the bodies as opposed to trying to find a place for them along the rocky surface of the heights they died upon. Some of the troops that returned were now hardened veterans, having seen action at Antietam. Some also had seen Harper’s Ferry before it was ravaged by war. Now, instead of a quiet, unassuming town at the junction of these two mighty rivers, it was practically desolate and wasted by the armies that had fought over it. Buildings had been leveled and lifelong residents scared away by the hardships that plagued the community.
Despite its terrible condition, Harper’s Ferry was still a prize to be won.
(to be continued…)