It was 10 months before the western counties of Virginia
broke away to form a separate state. On the heels of a big win the first week
of September at the battle of Second Manassas, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee
wanted to keep up the momentum and bring the war to Pennsylvania
so it more directly affected people living in the north.
The first battle of the 1862 Maryland Campaign took place
September 14 on South Mountain,
near Frederick Md. It was followed the next day by what some historians,
including Dennis Frye, at Harpers Ferry
Park, consider Jackson’s
biggest victory, Harpers Ferry.
“This was a key location in the northern Shenandoah
Valley,” Frye said. “The railroad passed through here, the Baltimore
and Ohio Railroad was so essential to northern interests. It was a supply line
for the north. The north used it to move troops east and west. And there was a
bridge across the Potomac here.”
About 14,000 Union soldiers, known as the Railroad Brigade,
were stationed at Harpers Ferry. Frye said Lee expected
the brigade to move north after the Confederates cut off its supply and
communication lines from the east.
“They didn’t, they were ordered to remain here,” Frye said,
“and that’s the reason General Lee orders the great assault against Harpers
Ferry in mid September of ’62.”
“Keep in mind, Harpers Ferry, that
place is basically a ghost town by September 1862,” Mark Snell, director, Shepherd
Tyler Moore Center
for the Study of the Civil War, said.
“They had lost basically their means of living, the Harpers
Ferry Armory and Arsenal is burned down in April 1861 so Jefferson
County economically is hurting at
the time,” Snell said.
Despite the hard economic times, Frye said the population of
Harpers Ferry grew prior to the battle. Most of that
growth came from former slaves. About 2,000 came to the town seeking refuge
behind Federal lines.
“These people were experiencing freedom and living here
working in many cases for the Federal soldiers who occupied the town,” Frye
said. “It was the very first job they had where they got paid for their work,”
“Many of them we know were living here in the lower town
living in the buildings along Shenandoah Street,
High Street, Potomac Street
and during the battle of Harpers Ferry they were
hunkered down here under the protection of the Federal Army,” Frye said.
But the freedom the slaves experienced was short-lived. Once
the Confederates controlled Harpers Ferry they seized
not only the Union soldiers, but the African Americans as well, and returned
them to slavery.
Understanding the topography around Harpers Ferry
is essential to understanding why many historians consider this Stonewall
Jackson’s greatest victory of the war.
This is where the Shenandoah and Potomac
Rivers meet. Rising up from the
confluence are three steep forested mountains laced with rocky cliffs, Maryland
Heights and Loudon
Union Col. Dixon Miles and most of his 14,000 troops were
located in a good spot, on top of Bolivar
Heights with the Confederates on
lower ground at School House Ridge.
ordered his troops on the night of September 14 to snake their way along the Shenandoah
River, hoisting cannons up the steep
banks and ravines, so they were situated at the Chambers Farm on Bolivar
Heights behind the Union soldiers.
“So on the morning of the fifteenth at first there’s this
thick fog that covers the Potomac and Shenandoah
Valley but as the sun begins to rise and burn it off, it’s like a
white curtain that rises on the stage of Harpers Ferry,”
Frye said. “And as that curtain rises Confederate gunners can see the Union
troops and they open up.”
Frye said after about an hour, as the Confederate infantry
was preparing to launch an assault from the Chambers farm, Miles met with his
officers and they decided to surrender.
“At about 9 a.m. on
September the 15th, a Monday morning, the white flags go up,” Frye
One factor in Jackson’s
ability to capture Harpers Ferry that September day 150
years ago was the lack of experience of the Union soldiers.
veterans, most of them had been in the army for 16, 17 months, since the
outbreak of the war. These were hardened veteran soldiers,” Frye said. “On the
other hand, the Federal soldiers fighting here, about two thirds of Col. Miles’
men had only been in the army for three weeks.”
“Now this doesn’t mean they went to boot camp and then were
in the field for three weeks,” Frye added. “They’ve had a uniform on for three
weeks and arrive here and are suddenly surrounded by the most feared general in
the Confederacy, Stonewall Jackson.”
Historian Tom Clemens said there are several reasons for the
disparity in experience between the north and south. The way the Confederacy
recruited soldiers meant those who were inexperienced always served beside
those with experience. On the other hand the Federal government recruited
entire regiments consisting of soldiers with no experience.
In addition the north had closed the recruiting offices and
by mid summer of 1862 the Lincoln
administration realized this was a mistake. Clemens said the federal government
launched a major recruiting campaign that included a song called ‘We’re Coming
Father Abraham 300,000 More.’
That meant a lot of new, barely-trained recruits arriving
in Washington, D.C.,
just in time to fight the seasoned Confederate Army at Harpers
Ferry, Va. and South
Mountain and Sharpsburg,
“This would be criminal today, people would be brought up on
charges ordering soldiers that inexperienced into combat,” Clemens said. “But
this is a national emergency.”
Once Stonewall Jackson’s troops secured Harpers
Ferry, they headed up the Potomac River
towards Sharpsburg where they planned
to meet up with Gen. Lee.
Dennis Frye said it was Lee’s plan to continue the march
“General Lee never intended to fight at Antietam,
that might surprise a lot of your listeners that was not the plan,” Frye said.
“The plan was to wait for Jackson’s
forces to come and join him from Harpers Ferry and then
move from Antietam to his objective in Pennsylvania.”
But Lee’s plan did not pan out. Tomorrow we’ll look at how fighting
at Sharpsburg turned into the
bloodiest one day battle on American soil.
Harpers Ferry National Historical Park
will commemorate the sesquicentennial of the battle Sept. 13-16, 2012, with a program called “Prelude
to Freedom: the 1862 Battle of Harpers Ferry.”