The Battle of Harpers Ferry
September 12-15, 1862
The stage for the Battle of Harpers Ferry was set in early September 1862, when Gen. Robert E. Lee opened the Maryland Campaign in an attempt to draw the Army of the Potomac out of war-worn Virginia. Expecting the historic arsenal at Harpers Ferry to evacuate when the Army of Northern Virginia marched up the Shenandoah Valley, Lee hoped to requisition the garrison’s supplies and open a supply line back into Virginia. Knowing that the Army of the Potomac was in pursuit, Lee ordered a bold maneuver. On September 9 he issued Special Order 191, an audacious plan that involved splitting his army in three and sending three divisions led by Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson to seize Harpers Ferry.
On September 7, the U.S. War Department received word that Lee had left Frederick, Maryland, yet Jackson’s division had disappeared. The next day, the Union commander at Harpers Ferry, Col. Dixon S. Miles, famous for his drunkenness during the Battle of Bull Run, began preparations to defend Harpers Ferry. The topographical features of the town, however, rendered it nearly indefensible. Surrounded by three heights, the successful defense of Harper’s Ferry relied on holding Bolivar Heights, Maryland Heights, and 1,200-foot Loudoun Heights. Disregarding the advice of his subordinates, Miles divided his 12,000 men into four brigades, with the main force tasked with defending Bolivar Heights, a ridge two miles west of town on the southern bank of the Potomac. Miles posted a lone brigade atop Maryland Heights and a brigade of militia on Camp Hill. While he posted troops on Bolivar and Maryland Heights, he ignored Loudoun Heights, convinced that the oncoming Confederates would be unwilling or unable to secure artillery on the steep rise. On the highly strategic Maryland Heights, Miles deployed his weakest brigade that contained several troops that had never seen battle. On Camp Hill, a gentle slope above the town placed in an ideal defensive position, Miles posted a brigade of mostly untrained militia. The majority of his soldiers, Miles kept posted near the town.
Jackson’s division left Frederick in Sept. 10, and fighting began on September 12 on Maryland Heights. Jackson coordinated an attack that began with Gen. Lafayette McLaws placing artillery on Maryland Heights, aimed for an attack against both Bolivar Heights and Camp Hill. The troops defending Maryland Heights - Col. Thomas H. Ford’s 126th New York Volunteers - had only been in the army for 21 days and were no match for the seasoned veterans of Joseph B. Kershaw’s and William Barksdale’s brigades. At 9 a.m. on September 13 they advanced up the steep slopes of Maryland Heights and swept away the New Yorkers, who fled instantly. The remaining Federal troops held against repeated assaults until a Confederate flanking maneuver by Barksdale’s Mississippians caused a full blown rout.
That same day, Confederate Gen. John G. Walker’s brigade had reached the summit of Loudoun Heights unopposed, and Jackson’s brigade was about three miles south of Bolivar Heights. Realizing he was now surrounded on three sides, Miles wrote McClellan that if the garrison was not supported within 48 hours, he would have to surrender.
But Miles didn’t have 48 hours. Early the next morning well-placed Confederate artillery on Maryland Heights shelled the Union position. The inexperienced Yankee gunners returned fire, but their shots were haphazard and poorly aimed. At 3 p.m. A.P. Hill’s Division advanced toward the Federals on Bolivar Heights, meeting stiff resistance from Col. Stephen Downey’s 3rd Maryland Brigade. Undeterred, the Confederates nudged Downey back towards Camp Hill. With the three major heights surrounding Harper’s Ferry now firmly in his possession, Jackson ordered additional artillery to be brought up that evening in preparation for a fierce strike on the morning of the 15th.
During the night, Jackson brought up five batteries from Hill’s division and placed them on Maryland Heights and around the base of Loudoun Heights. Coordinating one fierce strike, Jackson ordered an infantry assault for 8 a.m. the next morning, sending A.P. Hill forward as his batteries enfiladed the Union left. As guns began firing from the two batteries placed on the Union right, most of Miles’s infantry took shelter in ravines and tranches. As Jackson ordered Hill’s guns to cease firing, he ordered the infantry to storm the Federal works. Union artillery was rapidly losing ammunition. Believing the situation to be hopeless, Miles called a council in a nearby home that unanimously decided further resistance was useless. As the surrender was debated, a shell burst through the wall, fatally wounding Miles and shattering his left leg. The garrison surrendered, giving the surrender at Harpers Ferry the distinction of leading to the capture of the most prisoners of any battle throughout the war.
Jackson sent a courier to Lee telling him of the victory, and received in reply a message to get his men to Sharpsburg as quickly as possible. Jackson left Hill to accept the surrender of Harpers Ferry, who then paroled 12,000 prisoners, captured 73 pieces of artillery, 13,000 arms, and large quantities of wagons and supplies. Hill’s division then left Harper’s Ferry, arriving in Sharpsburg in time to play a decisive role at the Battle of Antietam days later.