As Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia marched into Maryland in September 1862, they faced a daunting problem: roughly 14,000 Federal troops were stationed in Martinsburg and Harpers Ferry, Virginia, towns through which Lee hoped to run his supply and communication lines. His solution to this situation would be risky, requiring him to detach nearly two thirds of his army, and the resulting conflict would greatly influence the South’s Maryland Campaign.
To deal with the garrisons, Lee sent three columns of troops south, ordering them to capture the towns and reunite with the remainder of his army as quickly as possible. General Lafayette McLaws commanded a column of 8,000 men tasked with seizing Maryland Heights, the mountain overlooking the town from across the Potomac River, and General John Walker’s column of roughly 3,500 men was sent to occupy the neighboring Loudoun Heights. Meanwhile, General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson led the largest column, approximately 14,000 troops, flushing the Federals out of Martinsburg before circling around to the west of Harpers Ferry.
Even with its own force of 14,000 men, the Federal leadership in Harpers Ferry faced an unenviable position. Colonel Dixon Miles, the commanding officer, had to defend a crucial town flanked by steep mountains on two sides and a series of tall rolling hills on the other, and while he didn’t need to win a decisive victory, he did need to hold off long enough for the Federal Army of the Potomac to deal with Lee’s smaller force in Maryland. To make matters more difficult, almost all of Miles’ troops were fresh recruits unfamiliar with battle and unprepared to face a lengthy bombardment.
With news of the Confederates’ impending advance, the Federals prepared their defense. Miles sent 4,000 men to hold Maryland Heights. (Two 100-lb.* naval cannon were also on the mountain, but they would prove to be useless, unalterably pointed to the southwest where few Confederates would be.) At the same time, Miles left a few detachments in the town itself before sending the majority of the troops to occupy both Camp Hill and Bolivar Heights, two hills to the west.
The conflict began on September 13, when McLaws’ forces encountered Colonel Thomas Ford’s Federal troops on Maryland Heights. Two of McLaws’ colonels, William Barksdale and Joseph Kershaw, would soon force Ford’s men to abandon their defense of the heights. During their retreat down the mountain, the Federals spiked the two 100-lb. guns to prevent the Confederates from using them against the town.
The withdrawal didn’t sit well with Colonel Miles, who believed that the town would be indefensible if the enemy seized the mountain. His fears were confirmed on September 14. Walker’s Confederate artillery batteries arrived at Loudoun Heights and, along with McLaws’ batteries on Maryland Heights, began shelling the Federal positions on Bolivar Heights and Camp Hill from the rear. The night before, Jackson’s men had arrived at School House Ridge, a hill near Bolivar Heights, and on the 14th they began their attack against Miles. General Lawton, one of Jackson’s subordinate officers, led his troops in a frontal assault, while his associate, General A. P. Hill, struck from a more advantageous position on the Federals’ left flank. The two armies exchanged fire for much of the afternoon.
There was, however, a brief glimmer of hope for Miles and his men throughout the fighting on the 14th. Federal forces had been battling Lee’s men at various passes on nearby South Mountain in Maryland. At Crampton’s Gap, the southernmost conflict, General William Franklin commanded 19,000 Federals with orders to defeat McLaws’ rearguard, drive the Confederates off of Maryland Heights, and relieve Harpers Ferry. The Federals succeeded in pushing the Confederates out of Crampton’s Gap, but, unfortunately for the Harpers Ferry garrison, Franklin mistakenly believed that McLaws had more men at his disposal and consequently decided not to pursue further attacks after McLaws repositioned his forces. With his decision, any possibility of immediate relief for Harpers Ferry vanished.
Although Franklin’s relief effort failed, it did help a portion of the Harpers Ferry garrison to make their escape. On the night of September 14, Colonel Benjamin Davis led a column of nearly 1,500 Federal cavalry out of the town under the cover of darkness. They planned to head north toward Pennsylvania, but they encountered a pleasant surprise near Williamsport, Maryland: a lightly guarded Confederate wagon train carrying reserve ammunition to Lee’s army. Davis and the cavalry attacked, capturing more than seventy wagons and fifty Confederate soldiers before making good on their escape to Greencastle, Pennsylvania.
Yet for the men left in Harpers Ferry, the following morning would bring the conclusion to the conflict. Bombarded into submission, unable to return artillery fire, and running out of ammunition, the Federal troops asked for a truce to negotiate their surrender. Before news of the truce had reached all Confederate batteries, Miles was mortally wounded by one of the last artillery volleys to strike the Federal positions.
By this time, Jackson had heard of Lee’s retreat to Sharpsburg and the need for the army to reunite. Consequently, he led the majority of the Confederate troops back toward Maryland, leaving A. P. Hill to negotiate the terms of the Federal surrender. It would be a clear victory for the South, with the Confederates capturing nearly 12,500 men, along with munitions and supplies. Because Hill was also needed in Sharpsburg and didn’t have time to deal with that many captives, he paroled the Federals. The terms allowed them to go free but required that they abstain from fighting until the United States paroled a comparable number of Confederates. The Federals agreed and marched to Annapolis, Maryland, where they began to inform the Northern commanders of the surrender.
While the Battle of Harpers Ferry wasn’t large in terms of casualties, its effects were significant. Because Lee sent two-thirds of his army to confront the garrisons, he had to engage in stall tactics against General George McClellan’s much larger Army of the Potomac. The situation contributed to his strategic retreat to Sharpsburg, where the two armies would fight the Battle of Antietam on September 17. That conflict would force Lee to abandon his invasion of the North and cause other far-reaching consequences. It seems, then, that the 1862 Battle of Harpers Ferry isn’t Antietam’s “little brother,” as it is sometimes seen, but an important part of the war in its own right.
*Poundage refers to the weight of the projectile fired by the cannon, not the cannon’s weight.
Special thanks again go to the volunteers and staff at Harpers Ferry for their assistance in completing this summary. Any errors are, of course, my own! More information about the 1862 battle and other conflicts near and in the town can be found in Dennis Frye’s Harpers Ferry Under Fire, or with a visit to the park.