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The surrender of Harper's Ferry.

by Julius White, Brigadier-General, U. S. V.

Army water-cart.

On the 8th of September, 1862, being then in command of the Union forces at Martinsburg, Virginia, about 2500 of all arms, I reported to General Wool at Baltimore, commanding the Department, that the enemy was approaching from the north in a force estimated at 15,000 to 20,000, and asked for instructions. General Wool replied:

If 20,000 men should attack you, you will of course fall back. Harper's Ferry would be the best position I could recommend. . . .

After reconnoissance, and some skirmishing with the enemy's advance [Sept. 11th], demonstrating that his force was too large to be opposed with success, especially as there were no defenses at Martinsburg, the post, in accordance with General Wool's views, was evacuated, and on the 12th Harper's Ferry was reached.

Upon my reporting to Colonel Miles, the officer in command, he showed me the following dispatch:

Washington, D. C., Sept. 7th, 1862. Colonel miles, Harper's Ferry: Our army [McClellan's] is in motion; it is important that Harper's Ferry be held to the latest moment. The Government has the utmost confidence in you, and is ready to give you full credit for the defense it expects you to make. H. W. Halleck, General-in-Chief.

In view of the foregoing dispatch, and of the fact that I had been ordered from Harper's Ferry to the command at Martinsburg a few days before by General Wool, it was manifest that the authorities intended to retain Colonel Miles in command — very properly so, as he was an officer of forty years experience.

The defenses of Harper's Ferry, if worthy of the name, comprised a small work on the crest of Maryland Heights called Stone Fort; another well down the western slope, where a battery of heavy naval guns was established; and a line of intrenchments terminating at a work near the Potomac called Fort Duncan,--but this line was not occupied except at the upper end. [See map, p. 606.]

On Bolivar Heights a line of rifle-pits extended from near the Potomac southward to the Charles-town road, where a small work for the protection of artillery was situated.

In the rear of this line eastward, and in the upper part of the town, was an earth-work known as Camp Hill. Loudoun Heights (east of the Shenandoah) were not occupied by our troops.

The troops constituting the garrison were originally disposed by Colonel Miles as follows: on Maryland Heights, about 2000; on Bolivar Heights, from the Potomac to the Charlestown road, thence at a right angle to the Shenandoah, a distance in all of at least a mile and a half, 7000 men; in the work at Camp Hill, about 800; while the remainder, about 1000, guarded the bridges and other points on the rivers.

The distance from Maryland Heights to the nearest point on Bolivar Heights by way of the pontoon bridge was two and a quarter miles; to the intersection of the Charlestown road, three miles. Thus the principal points to be defended were not within supporting distance of each other in case of assault, nor was either of them properly fortified.

On the 13th the divisions of Generals McLaws and R. H. Anderson, by order of General Lee, reached Maryland Heights, and attacked the force stationed there, under Colonel Ford, who after some fighting abandoned the position — as he stated, by order of Colonel Miles; the latter, however, denied having given such an order. Be this as it may, it is certain that the enemy could easily have taken it with the force at his command whenever he chose.

On the same day General Walker, with a force of the enemy estimated at eight thousand, had taken possession of Loudoun Heights, and General Jackson with a much larger force had reached a position in front of Bolivar Heights — thus completing the investment of Harper's Ferry.

It has generally been considered that Colonel Miles should have tried to hold Maryland Heights (on the north side of the Potomac), even if it became necessary to mass his whole force there. The reasons given by him to the writer for not doing so were: (1) That his orders required him to hold Harper's Ferry, and this would be a violation of such orders; (2) that water would be inaccessible. Moreover, it was manifest that if the town of Harper's Ferry and the defensive line on Bolivar Heights were evacuated, the entire forces of the enemy on the Virginia side of the Potomac would recross to the north side, enveloping our small force and at the same time concentrating Lee's entire army in front of McClellan; while we should have given up the river-crossing, which, as the contending armies were then placed, constituted the only strategic value of Harper's Ferry.

Whether this view was correct or not, it is a fact that the maintenance of the line on Bolivar Heights till the morning of September 15th prevented the presence of the divisions of Generals A. P. Hill, McLaws, and Anderson with Lee, until the 17th, the day of Antietam, being four full days after General McClellan had received a copy of General Lee's orders directing the movement against Harper's Ferry, and disclosing the fact that fully one-third of his army was south of the Potomac, and much more than that, including the force under General McLaws, engaged in the movement against Harper's Ferry. Distinguished officers of the Confederate [613] army [Generals Longstreet and Walker and Colonel Douglas, see pp. 604, 620, 663] describe the situation of that part of Lee's army north of the Potomac during the 14th, 15th, and 16th of September as one of “imminent peril,” “very serious,” etc., etc., virtually admitting that it might then have been defeated.

Thus it will be seen that there were two sides to the question whether Maryland Heights was the key to Harper's Ferry under the then existing circumstances, and that the detention of the Confederate forces around that place was prolonged, instead of abbreviated, by the continued occupation of Bolivar Heights by Colonel Miles.

In the afternoon of the 14th General Jackson moved forward with a view to occupy the ridge which is a prolongation of Bolivar Heights south of the Charlestown road and descends toward the Shenandoah River.

To oppose this movement troops were advanced., but after a spirited engagement it was manifest that we could not prevent his establishment in the position sought, and at night our force was withdrawn within the lines of defense.

During the evening of the 13th a consultation took place between the writer, then temporarily in command of the cavalry, Colonel B. F. Davis of the 8th New York, and Lieutenant-Colonel Hasbrouck Davis of the 12th Illinois, at which it was agreed that the mounted force could be of little use in the defense — that the horses and equipments would be of great value to the enemy if captured, and that an attempt to reach McClellan ought therefore to be made.

This proposition, made by Colonel B. F. Davis, was warmly seconded by Colonel Davis of the 12th Illinois. The question whether the whole force might not also escape was considered, but was negatived on the ground that infantry and artillery could not march fast enough to succeed. Besides, Colonel Miles considered that he had no right under his orders to evacuate the post.

After some hesitation and some sharp words between Colonels Miles and B. F. Davis, the former issued the order directing the cavalry to move out on the evening of the 14th, under the general command of the senior officer, Colonel Arno Voss, of the 12th Illinois.

Under the inspiration and immediate direction of the two Davises, who rode together at the head of the column, the escaping force accomplished the brilliant achievement of reaching the Union lines without the loss of a man, capturing on the way a Confederate ammunition train of 97 wagons and its escort of 600 men.

Graphic accounts of this daring and successful exploit have been published by Major Thomas Bell of the 8th New York, Major W. M. Luff of the 12th Illinois, and Sergeant Pettengill of the 1st Rhode Island Cavalry--all of whom were participants, and I regret that the limits of this article do not permit the recital here.

There were other incidents in the history of the events under consideration highly creditable to the troops constituting the garrison of Harper's Ferry. General Kershaw's report to General McLaws of the capture of Maryland Heights, on the 13th, states that he met with a “most obstinate resistance” from our force stationed there, “a fierce fire being kept up at a distance of one hundred yards,” and it was not till he had sent General Barksdale's brigade to attack the works in rear that the heights were evacuated.

The fighting with Jackson's advance in front of Bolivar Heights, on the afternoon of the 14th and on the morning of the 15th, by the troops posted in that quarter, was deliberate, systematic, and plucky. The artillery was admirably handled, and if there had been anything like an equality of position, its effect would have been more decided. It would be invidious to specify the action of certain brigades, regiments, or batteries, but common justice to these troops requires that the foregoing statement of their service be made.

Soon after daylight on the morning of the 15th fire was opened by the enemy's artillery, comprising nearly or quite fifty pieces. Those established at the southern extremity of Bolivar Heights completely enfiladed that part of our line extending from the Charlestown road northward to the Potomac; those placed on the south-western slope of Loudoun Heights, and on the west side of the Shenandoah near by, delivered their fire at an acute angle to our line, being half enfilade; those at or near the crest of Loudoun Heights took us in reverse; and still others in the valley beyond Bolivar Heights fired directly at our front.

The fire was chiefly converged upon the batteries we had established at and near the intersection of Bolivar Heights and the Charlestown road, that being the point upon which it was manifest that General Jackson would deliver the expected assault.

The writer, being in command of the forces in this quarter, ordered the massing of the artillery there and the movements of the regiments holding Camp Hill to the front. These orders, as I afterward learned, were countermanded by Colonel Miles, who deemed it necessary to retain a force near the river-crossing; at all events the order was not executed.

The artillery fire continued until half-past 8 in the morning, when it was apparent the assault might be expected immediately. At this time Colonel Miles visited the work at the Charlestown road and said to the writer that the situation seemed hopeless, and that the place might as well be surrendered without further sacrifice of life. It was replied that such a step should only be taken upon the judgment of a council of war; whereupon Colonel Miles called the commanders of brigades together, who, after consultation, and with great reluctance on the part of some, voted unanimously for capitulation if honorable terms could be obtained, for the following reasons:

First. The officer commanding had lost all confidence in his ability further to defend the place, and was the first to advise surrender.

Second. There was no reason to hope that the attenuated line on Bolivar Heights could be maintained, even for half an hour, against the greatly superior force massed for the assault, supported if [614] necessary by an attack on our rear by Generals Walker and McLaws.

Third. Great as was the disparity in numbers, the disparity in position was greater. Harper's Ferry and Bolivar Heights were dominated by Maryland and Loudoun Heights, and the other positions held by the enemy's artillery. The crest of Maryland Heights is at an elevation of 1060 feet; the southern point, nearest Harper's Ferry, 649 feet; Loudoun Heights, 954 feet. The south-western slope of the latter and the grounds near by, west of the Shenandoah, where batteries of the enemy were placed, were 300 to 600 feet high. The elevation of Bolivar Heights is about 300 feet, while Camp Hill and the town of Harper's Ferry are still lower. Thus all our movements of men or guns during the engagements of the 14th and 15th, as well as the effect of their own plunging fire, were plainly visible from the enemy's signal-station on Loudoun Heights. No effective reply could be made to the fire from these elevated positions, no suitable defenses existed from which to resist the assault, and there was no opportunity on the morning of the 15th to change our position, even if there had been a better one to occupy.

Fourth. To await the assault, then impending, with no hope of even a temporary successful resistance, did not seem to justify the sacrifice of life consequent upon such a course — the situation being regarded as one of the unfortunate chances of war, unavoidable under existing circumstances.

I was appointed by Colonel Miles commissioner to arrange the terms of capitulation, and at the urgent request of other officers I accepted the unwelcome duty, in the hope of obtaining honorable conditions. Immediately after the council broke up Colonel Miles was mortally wounded; he died the next day.

As commissioner I was received very courteously by the Confederate officers, and the terms of capitulation agreed upon with General A. P. Hill provided that all private property of individuals and the side-arms of officers should be retained by them. Refugees, of whom there were a considerable number, were not to be treated as prisoners, except such, if any, as were deserters from the Confederate army. There were none of this class. All the Union troops were immediately paroled, not to serve again until regularly exchanged. A number of the prominent officers of the Confederate army spoke of our situation as hopeless from the hour when the investment was completed.

Harper's Ferry is not defensible by a force inferior to that attacking it, unless the surrounding heights be well fortified, and each of them held by a force sufficient to maintain itself unsupported by the others. It was this which doubtless prompted the advice given by General McClellan to General Halleck, before the investment, that the garrison be withdrawn.

The battle of South Mountain was fought by General McClellan, on the 14th of September, against a force of the enemy not more than two-thirds as large as that encountered by him at Antietam.

After the mountain passes had been carried, if a prompt advance down Pleasant Valley had been made by his largely preponderating force, there seems good reason to believe that Harper's Ferry would have been relieved, the river-crossing at that place secured, the reunion of Lee's army, separated as it was by the Potomac, rendered difficult, if not impossible, and the capture or dispersion of a large part of it probable.

The orders issued by General McClellan to General Franklin, commanding the Sixth Corps, on the night of the 13th, announced his purpose to do these very things, and directed that Crampton's Gap — the pass nearest Harper's Ferry — be carried at whatever cost. The enemy in front of General Franklin was then to be “cut off, destroyed, or captured, and Harper's Ferry relieved.” The dispatch concludes with the remark: “My general idea is to cut the enemy in two, and beat him in detail.” The column to be thus interposed between the enemy and Harper's Ferry consisted of General Franklin's corps only — subsequently reinforced by General Couch's division of the Fourth Corps. The imminent peril of Harper's Ferry had been known to General McClellan from the inception of the campaign. He had advised the withdrawal of the garrison, and had predicted its loss if left there, before he left Washington.

No direct measures were taken by him, however, for the relief of the post, until after his receipt on the 13th of General Lee's order detaching a large part of his army for its capture, which force had then completed its investment. Early on the morning of the 14th General McClellan had been informed by Colonel Miles, through Major Russell of the 1st Maryland Cavalry, who, with great courage and tact, had made his way during the night through the enemy's lines, that Harper's Ferry could not be held more than forty-eight hours--from the time the courier left — viz., till the 15th.

Thus the time within which to relieve that post had been reduced to the minimum, so that success depended upon the prompt and vigorous advance of a force large enough to readily overcome such of the enemy as stood in the way. Unfortunately, General Franklin's command was not sufficient to accomplish this vitally important purpose.

After receiving the orders, he was not able to get his command into action until midday of the 14th, and met with such determined resistance that it was not until near nightfall, and after a loss of more than five hundred in killed and wounded, that he had forced the pass and found himself on the west side of the mountain in Pleasant Valley, confronted by an increased force of the enemy, with plenty of artillery advantageously posted.

The attack on Turner's Gap by the main body of the army, although successful, did not result, as General McClellan had expected, in relieving General Franklin of the enemy in his front; and the latter, as shown in his dispatches of the morning of the 15th, declined to attack unless reinforced.

But the time within which it was possible to relieve Harper's Ferry had then passed, even if the place had been held during the whole of that day.

During the afternoon of the 14th our guns at Harper's Ferry, engaged with Jackson's forces, [615] were cheeringly responded to by those of General Franklin at Crampton's Gap; but after 4 o'clock of that day, and on the morning of the 15th, there was no sound of conflict in that direction, and the hope of relief from McClellan, which the proximity of the firing had inspired, was abandoned. Harper's Ferry was doomed, and as affecting this result, it did not matter whether the garrison occupied the town or either of the adjacent heights, nor whether the surrender took place before or after our assault, because it was surrounded by the whole of Lee's army.

I must not be understood as presuming to criticise the conduct of this campaign by General McClellan. The object of this article, as before stated, is only to relate the historical facts bearing upon the subject in hand; therefore, no commentary is made upon the questions whether his advice that the garrison of Harper's Ferry be withdrawn should have been adopted, whether he might have marched his army toward Harper's Ferry faster, or whether he might and should have detached a larger force for the purposes indicated in his orders to General Franklin. Manifestly it was his design to relieve that post, but the measures taken did not succeed.

It has been often asserted that Harper's Ferry might have held out a day or two longer, but of those who have claimed that it could have been longer held, no one has yet, so far as the writer is informed, stated how a garrison mostly of recruits under fire for the first time could have successfully defended an area of three square miles, assailed from all sides by veterans three times their number, posted, with artillery, in positions commanding the whole field. The writer, with due deference, expresses the opinion that the force under Jackson could have carried the place by assault within an hour after his arrival before it, or at any time thereafter prior to the surrender, in spite of any resistance which under the circumstances could have been made.1

1 The report of the Military Commission censured Colonels Miles and Ford and Major Baird. It affirmed that there was nothing in the conduct of Colonels D'Utassy and Trimble to call for censure; and that General Julius White merited the approbation of the Commission, adding, “He appears from the evidence to have acted with decided capability and courage.”--Editors.

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