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Jackson's capture of Harper's Ferry.1

by John G. Walker, Major-General, C. S. A.
When General Lee began his campaign against Pope I was in command of a division (of three brigades) which was not a part of either of the two corps of the Army of Northern Virginia. I was left on the James for the defense of Richmond, but after the evacuation of Harrison's Landing by McClellan's army [August 14th to 20th], the Confederate capital being no longer threatened, I was ordered by the Secretary of War to leave one of my brigades at Richmond and proceed with the other two to join General Lee in the field. Leaving Daniel's brigade on the James, I marched northward with my old brigade, the strongest and the one which had seen most service, at that time commanded by Colonel Van H. Manning, and with the brigade of General Robert Ransom.

It was our hope that we should overtake General Lee in time to take part in the fight with Pope; but when we reached the field of Bull Run we found it strewn with the still unburied dead of Pope's army, and learned that Lee was pushing for the fords of the Upper Potomac. Following him rapidly, on the night of the 6th of September my division reached the vicinity of Leesburg, and the next morning crossed the Potomac at Cheek's Ford, at the mouth of the Monocacy, and about three miles above White's Ford, where Stonewall Jackson had crossed.

At Cheek's Ford I overtook G. B. Anderson's brigade of D. H. Hill's division and crossed into Maryland with it. The next day we reached the neighborhood of Frederick. I went at once to General Lee, who was alone. After listening to my report, he said that as I had a division which would often, perhaps, be ordered on detached service, an intelligent performance of my duty might require a knowledge of the ulterior purposes and objects of the campaign.

“Here,” said he, tracing with his finger on a large map,

is the line of our communications, from Rapidan Station to Manassas, thence to Frederick. It is too near the Potomac, and is liable to be cut any day by the enemy's cavalry. I have therefore given orders to move the line back into the Valley of Virginia, by way of Staunton, Harrisonburg, and Winchester, entering Maryland at Shepherdstown. [See map, p. 553.]

I wish you to return to the mouth of the Monocacy and effectually destroy the aqueduct of the Chesapeake and Ohio canal. By the time that is accomplished you will receive orders to cooperate in the capture of Harper's Ferry, and you will not return here, but, after the capture of Harper's Ferry, will rejoin us at Hagerstown, where the army will be concentrated. My information is that there are between 10,000 and 12,000 men at Harper's Ferry, and 3000 at Martinsburg. The latter may escape toward Cumberland, but I think the chances are that they will take refuge at Harper's Ferry and be captured. [605]

Besides the men and material of war which we shall capture at Harper's Ferry, the position is necessary to us, not to garrison and hold, but because in the hands of the enemy it would be a break in our new line of communications with Richmond.

A few days' rest at Hagerstown will be of great service to our men. Hundreds of them are barefooted, and nearly all of them are ragged. I hope to get shoes and clothing for the most needy. But the best of it will be that the short delay will enable us to get up our stragglers — not stragglers from a shirking disposition, but simply from inability to keep up with their commands.2 I believe there are not less than from eight to ten thousand of them between here and Rapidan Station. Besides these we shall be able to get a large number of recruits who have been accumulating at Richmond for some weeks. I have now requested that they be sent forward to join us. They ought to reach us at Hagerstown. We shall then have a very good army, and,

he smilingly added, “one that I think will be able to give a good account of itself.”

“In ten days from now,” he continued, “if the military situation is then what I confidently expect it to be after the capture of Harper's Ferry, I shall concentrate the army at Hagerstown, effectually destroy the Baltimore and Ohio road, and march to this point,” placing his finger at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. “That is the objective point of the campaign. You remember, no doubt, the long bridge of the Pennsylvania railroad over the Susquehanna, a few miles west of Harrisburg. Well, I wish effectually to destroy that bridge, which will disable the Pennsylvania railroad for a long time. With the Baltimore and Ohio in our possession, and the Pennsylvania railroad broken up, there will remain to the enemy but one route of communication with the West, and that very circuitous, by way of the Lakes. After that I can turn my attention to Philadelphia, Baltimore, or Washington, as may seem best for our interests.”

I was very much astonished at this announcement, and I suppose he observed it, for he turned to me and said:

“You doubtless regard it hazardous to leave McClellan practically on my line of communication, and to march into the heart of the enemy's country?” I admitted that such a thought had occurred to me.

“Are you acquainted with General McClellan?” he inquired. I replied that we had served together in the Mexican war, under General Scott, but that I had seen but little of him since that time. [606]

Map of the defenses and approaches of Harper's Ferry.

“He is an able general but a very cautious one. His enemies among his own people think him too much so. His army is in a very demoralized and chaotic condition, and will not be prepared for offensive operations — or he will not think it so — for three or four weeks. Before that time I hope to be on the Susquehanna.”

Our conversation was interrupted at this point by the arrival of Stonewall Jackson, and after a few minutes Lee and Jackson turned to the subject of the capture of Harper's Ferry. Iremember Jackson seemed in high spirits, and even indulged in a little mild pleasantry about his long neglect of his friends in “the Valley,” General Lee replying that Jackson had “some friends” in that region who would not, he feared, be delighted to see him.

The arrival of a party of ladies from Frederick and vicinity, to pay their respects to Lee and Jackson, put an end to the conversation, and soon after I took my departure.

Retracing our steps toward the Potomac, at 10 P. M. of the 9th my division arrived at the aqueduct which conveys the waters of the Chesapeake and Ohio canal across the Monocacy. The attempted work of destruction began, but so admirably was the aqueduct constructed and cemented that it was found to be virtually a solid mass of granite. Not a seam or crevice could be discovered in which to insert the point of a crow-bar, and the only resource was in blasting. But the drills furnished to my engineer were too dull and the granite too hard, and after several hours of zealous but ineffectual effort the attempt had to be abandoned. Dynamite had not then been invented, so we were foiled in our purpose, and about 3 o'clock A. M. of the 10th went into bivouac about two miles and a half west of the Monocacy.

Late in the afternoon a courier from General Lee delivered me a copy of his famous “Special orders no. 191,9” directing me to cooperate with Jackson and McLaws in the capture of Harpers Ferry. That order contained the most precise and detailed information respecting the position, at its date, of every [607] portion of the Confederate army,--where it would be during the next five or six days at least,--and inferentially revealed the ulterior designs of the Confederate commander. Possessed of the information it contained, the Federal general would be enabled to throw the weight of his whole force on that small portion of the Confederate army then with Lee, before Jackson, McLaws, and Walker could effect the capture of Harper's Ferry and go to its assistance.

General McClellan did get possession, on the 13th of September, of a copy of this order, addressed to General D. H. Hill. In what manner this happened is not positively known. General Bradley T. Johnson says that there is a tradition in Frederick that General Hill was seen to drop a paper in the streets of that town, which was supposed to be the order in question. The Comte de Paris says it was found in a house in Frederick which had been occupied by General Hill. But General Hill informed me, two years after the war, that he never received the order, and never knew of its existence until he read it in McClellan's report.3

To whatever circumstance General McClellan owed its possession, it certainly enabled him to thwart General Lee's designs for the invasion of Pennsylvania, or a movement upon Washington. But that he obtained all the advantages he might have done will hardly be contended for by General McClellan.s warmest admirer. By the exercise of greater energy he might easily have crushed Lee on the afternoon of the 15th or early on the 16th, before the arrival of Jackson from Harper's Ferry. On receiving my copy of the order I was so impressed with the disastrous consequence which might result from its loss that I pinned it securely in an inside pocket. In speaking with General Longstreet on this subject afterward, he remarked that the same thought had occurred to him, and that, as an absolutely sure precaution, he memorized the order and then “chewed it up.”

Informed of the presence of a superior Federal force at Cheek's Ford, where I was ordered to pass the Potomac, and learning that the crossing at the Point of Rocks was practicable, I moved my division to that place and succeeded in landing everything safe on the Virginia shore by daylight of the 11th.

About the same time a heavy rain set in, and as the men were much exhausted by their night march, I put them into bivouac. I would here remark that the Army of Northern Virginia had long since discarded their tents, capacious trunks, carpet-bags, bowie-knives, mill-saw swords, and six-shooters, and had reduced their “kits” to the simplest elements and smallest dimensions.

Resuming our march on the morning of the 12th, we reached Hillsboro' and halted for the night. During the night I was sent for from the village inn by a woman who claimed my attendance on the ground that she was just from Washington, and had very important information to give me. Answering the call, I found seated in the hotel parlor a young woman of perhaps twenty-five, of rather prepossessing appearance, who claimed to have left [608]

View from Walker's position on Loudoun Heights of the Union camp and position on Maryland Heights. From a War-time sketch.

Washington the morning before, with important information from “our friends” in the Federal capital which she could communicate only to General Lee himself, and wished to know from me where he could be found. I saw at once that I had to do with a Federal spy; but as I did not wish to be encumbered with a woman prisoner, I professed ignorance of General Lee's whereabouts and advised her to remain quietly at the hotel, as I should, no doubt, have some information for her the next morning. Before resuming our march the next day I sent her under guard to Leesburg, directing the provost marshal at that place to hold her for three or four days and then release her.

Resuming the march at daylight on the 13th, we reached the foot of Loudoun Heights about 10 o'clock. Here I was joined by a detachment of signal men and Captain White's company of Maryland cavalry. I detached two regiments,--the 27th North Carolina and 30th Virginia,--under Colonel J. R. Cooke, directing him to ascend Loudoun Mountain and take possession of the heights, but, in case he found no enemy, not to reveal his presence to the garrison of Harper's Ferry. I sent with him the men of the Signal Corps, with orders to open communication if possible with Jackson, whose force ought to be in the neighborhood, coming from the west. I then disposed of the remainder of the division around the point of the mountain, where it abuts on the Potomac. [609]

About 2 P. M. Colonel Cooke reported that he had taken unopposed possession of Loudoun Heights, but that he had seen nothing of Jackson, yet from the movements of the Federals he thought he was close at hand. By 8 o'clock the next morning five long-range Parrott rifles were on the top of the mountain in a masked position, but ready to open fire. About half-past 10 o'clock my signal party succeeded in informing Jackson of my position and my readiness to attack.

At a reunion of the Association of the Army of Northern Virginia held at Richmond on October 23d, 1884, in an address delivered by General Bradley T. Johnson, occurs this passage:

McLaws, having constructed a road up Maryland Heights and placed his artillery in position during the 14th, while fighting was going on at Crampton's Gap and Turner's Gap, signaled to Jackson that he was ready; whereupon Jackson signaled the order both to McLaws and Walker--“Fire at such positions of the enemy as will be most effective.”

I am, of course, ignorant of what Jackson may have signaled McLaws, but it is certain that I received no such order. On the contrary, as soon as he was informed that McLaws was in possession of Maryland Heights, Jackson signaled me substantially the following dispatch: “Harper's Ferry is now completely invested. I shall summon its commander to surrender. Should he refuse I shall give him twenty-four hours to remove the non-combatants, and then carry the place by assault. Do not fire unless forced too.4

Jackson at this time had, of course, no reason to suspect that McClellan was advancing in force, and doubtless supposed, as we all did, that we should have abundant leisure to rejoin General Lee at Hagerstown. But about noon I signaled to Jackson that an action seemed to be in progress at Crampton's Gap, that the enemy had made his appearance in Pleasant Valley in rear of McLaws, and that I had no doubt McClellan was advancing in force.

To this message Jackson replied that it was, he thought, no more than a cavalry affair between Stuart and Pleasonton. It was now about half-past 12 and every minute the sound of artillery in the direction of South Mountain was growing louder, which left no doubt on my mind of the advance of the whole Federal army. If this were the case, it was certain that General Lee would be in fearful peril should the capture of Harper's Ferry be much longer delayed. I thereupon asked permission to open fire, but receiving no reply, I determined to be “forced.” For this purpose I placed the two North Carolina regiments under Colonel (afterward Major-General, and now U. S. Senator) M. W. Ransom, which had relieved those under Cooke, in line of battle in full view of the Federal batteries on Bolivar Heights. As I expected, they at once opened a heavy, but harmless, fire upon my regiments, which afforded me the wished — for pretext. Withdrawing the infantry to the safe side of the mountain, I directed my batteries to reply.

It is possible that some of my military readers may question the propriety of my course, and allege that it amounted virtually to disobedience of orders. [610] This I freely admit, but plead the dire urgency of the case. Had Jackson compromised himself by agreeing to allow the Federal commander twenty-four hours, as he proposed, General Lee would undoubtedly have been driven into the Potomac before any portion of the Confederate force around Harper's Ferry could have reinforced him. The trouble was that Jackson could not be made to believe that McClellan's whole army was in movement.

I never knew whether or not Jackson actually made a formal demand for the surrender of the Federal garrison, but I had his own word for it that he intended to do so. Besides, such a course was in harmony with the humanity of his generous nature, and with his constant practice of doing as little harm as possible to non-combatants.

About an hour after my batteries opened fire those of A. P. Hill and Lawton followed suit, and about 3 o'clock those of McLaws. But the range from Maryland Heights being too great, the fire of McLaws's guns was ineffective, the shells bursting in mid-air without reaching the enemy. From my position on Loudoun Heights my guns had a plunging fire on the Federal batteries a thousand feet below and did great execution. By 5 o'clock our combined fire had silenced all the opposing batteries except one or two guns east of Bolivar Heights, which kept up a plucky but feeble response until night put a stop to the combat.

During the night of the 14th-15th, Major (afterward Brigadier-General) R. Lindsay Walker, chief of artillery of A. P. Hill's division, succeeded in crossing the Shenandoah with several batteries, and placing them in such a position on the slope of Loudoun Mountain, far below me, as to command the enemy's works. McLaws got his batteries into position nearer the enemy, and at daylight of the 15th the batteries of our five divisions were pouring their fire on the doomed garrison. The fire of my batteries, however, was at random, as the enemy's position was entirely concealed by a dense fog clinging to the sides of the mountain far below. But my artillerists trained their guns by the previous day's experience and delivered their fire through the fog.

The Federal batteries replied promptly, and for more than an hour maintained a spirited fire; but after that time it grew more and more feeble until about 8 o'clock, when it ceased altogether, and the garrison surrendered. Owing to the fog I was ignorant of what had taken place, but surmising it, I soon ordered my batteries to cease firing. Those of Lawton, however, continued some minutes later. This happened unfortunately, as Colonel Dixon S. Miles, the Federal commander, was at this time mortally wounded by a fragment of shell while waving a white flag in token of surrender.

It was pleasing to us, perched upon the top of the mountain, to know that more than twelve thousand “boys in blue” below us were stacking arms. Such a situation has its pathetic side too, for after the first feeling of exultation has passed there comes one of sympathy for the humiliation of the brave men, who are no longer enemies, but unfortunate fellow-soldiers.

Some hours later, accompanied by two of my staff, I rode into Harper's Ferry, and we were interested in seeing our tattered Confederates fraternizing [611] in the most cordial manner with their well-dressed prisoners. I was introduced by General A. P. Hill to Federal Brigadier-General White. He explained to me that although of superior rank to Colonel Miles he had declined to assume command of the garrison, since he was at Harper's Ferry by accident--“an unfortunate accident too,” he added.

I am of the opinion that it would Shave been practicable for Colonel Miles to have escaped with the infantry of his garrison during the night of the 14th-15th, as did a body of thirteen hundred cavalry under ColonelGrimesDavis.5 This enterprising young officer crossed his cavalry to the Maryland side of the Potomac over the pontoon bridge, and followed the road on the berme side of the Chesapeake and Ohio canal, leading north to Sharpsburg. Mention of this very meritorious action is made in neither Federal nor Confederate accounts of the capture of Harper's Ferry that have fallen under my notice.6 There is a strong probability that the infantry of the garrison could have done the same. It should be stated that Davis not only escaped capture, but that he passed through Sharpsburg at daylight of the 15th,7 and in crossing the Hagerstown and Williamsport road he destroyed the greater part of Longstreet's reserve ordnance trains.8 This escape of Davis from Harper's Ferry and Forrest's escape from Fort Donelson under very similar circumstances show what a bold subordinate may achieve after his superior has lost heart.

No sooner had the surrender of Harper's Ferry been assured than my division took up its line of march to join General Lee. At 2 A. M. of the 16th my advance overtook the rear of Jackson's force, and about 8 o'clock in the morning [of the day of the battle], after seeing our commands safe across the river at the ford below Shepherdstown, Jackson and myself went forward together toward Sharpsburg. As we rode along I mentioned my ruse in opening fire on Harper's Ferry. Knowing the strictness of Jackson's ideas in regard to military obedience, I felt a little doubtful as to what he would say. When I had finished my confession he was silent for some minutes, and then remarked: “It was just as well as it was; but I could not believe that the fire you reported indicated the advance of McClellan in force. It seemed. more likely to be merely a cavalry affair.” Then after an interval of silence, as if to himself, he continued: “I thought I knew McClellan” (they were classmates at West Point), “but this movement of his puzzles me.”

1 for other Harper's Ferry pictures, see Vol. I., pp. 115 to 120, and Vol. II., p. 155.--Editors.

2 During the Maryland campaign the Federals as well as the Confederates were greatly weakened by straggling. On October 7th, twenty days after the battle of Antietam, General Halleck, in a letter to General McClellan, said:

“Straggling is the great curse of the army, and must be checked by severe measures. . . . I think, myself, that shooting them while in the act of straggling from their commands, is the only effective remedy that; can be applied. If you apply the remedy you will be sustained here . . . The country is becoming very impatient at the want of activity of your army, and we must push it on. . . . There is a decided want of legs in our troops . . . The real difficulty is they are not sufficiently exercised in marching; they lie still in camp too long. After a hard march one day is time enough to rest. Lying still beyond that time does not rest the men. If we compare the average distances marched per month by our troops for the last year, with that of the rebels, or with European armies in the field, we will see why our troops march no better. They are not sufficiently exercised to make them good and efficient soldiers.” Editors.

3 See General D. H. Hill's statement, p. 570; General Colgrove's, p. 603, and the text of the order, p. 664.--Editors.

4 See statements by General Bradley T. Johnson, p. 615, and Colonel H. Kyd Douglas, p. 617.--Editors.

5 Colonel Benjamin F. Davis of the 8th New York Cavalry, familiarly known at West Point and among his old army associates as “GrimesDavis. He was killed at Beverly Ford, June 9th, 1863. For some interesting details of his escape from Harper's Ferry and subsequent march, see page 613.--Editors.

6 Mentioned by General McClellan.--Editors.

7 According to a paper read by Captain William M. Luff, 12th Illinois Cavalry, before the Illinois Commandery of the Loyal Legion, the hour was 10 P. M. of the 14th.--Editors.

8 Narrowly missing an encounter with the Reserve Artillery under General William N. Pendleton, which crossed Davis's track about eight miles north of Sharpsburg, about sunrise on the 15th. General Pendleton says Davis was “perhaps less than an hour ahead of us,” and speaks of the large wagon train then passing, which he took immediate measures to protect.--Editors.

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