The Battle of Harpers Ferry - Jackson's Greatest Victory?

James N.

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Harpers Ferry - A Place in Time
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Harpers Ferry in 1862 was a tiny community resting in the gorge formed by the junction of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers; it owed its existence to them as the source which powered the machinery of the U. S. Armory and nearby Hall Rifle Works. It owed its notoriety to the "raid" of abolitionist John Brown on the arsenal there in Oct., 1859, attempting unsuccessfully to seize weapons with which to arm a slave revolt. When war came less than two years later Harpers Ferry suffered devastation at the hands of both sides, leaving its public buildings gutted and burned and the population largely fled, instead becoming an armed camp to guard the still vital route of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad which linked Washington, D. C., to the west.

In 1861, it had been occupied by Virginia State forces led by an eccentric professor of Virginia Military Institute, Thomas J. Jackson, who first set about to defend it but was soon ordered to evacuate it and complete the destruction of Federal property there. While in command, Jackson was able to study its strengths and weakness, coming to the conclusion it was an easier place to attack than to defend. He was to get the chance to prove his theory in September, 1862, as part of Robert E. Lee's invasion of Maryland. Not wanting to leave Harpers Ferry and its considerable garrison of nearly 10,000 in his rear, Lee ordered Jackson to take 25,000 men and eliminate the threat.

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Harpers Ferry sits at the bottom of the gorge created by the rivers and is dominated on all sides by ridges and hills: across the Potomac, Maryland Heights is the highest point; across the Shenandoah above, Loudon Heights, also seen in the background below, is a little lower but nearer; across the neck of land containing the town are three successive highpoints, a knob called Camp Hill, and two parallel ridges, Bolivar Heights and Schoolhouse Ridge. It was within these that the battle would take place.

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Camp Hill
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Camp Hill overlooked the town and was the site of its cemetery above, but had only a few large structures that had been offices and residences for the U. S. Armory and Arsenal like the Lockwood House below, which served as a succession of headquarters during various periods of occupation. It lay between the town and another small settlement known as Bolivar in honor of Argentine liberator Simon Bolivar, but Anglicized in pronunciation to rhyme with Oliver.

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Bolivar Heights
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The ridge known as Bolivar Heights was the main Union position during the battle, as it had been when Jackson commanded here and also when it was briefly threatened during his Vally Campaign earlier in the spring of 1862. Now it was the encampment and defenses for the Railroad Brigade which garrisoned Harpers Ferry under the command of Col. Dixon S. Miles. At the time, the heights were bare of trees, affording a fine field of fire towards Schoolhouse Ridge across the valley to the west, now barely visible through the "window" between the trees in the photos here.

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Next - Jackson arrives and begins his attack.
 
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James N.

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Part II
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Schoolhouse Ridge North
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Jackson's forces began to arrive in the area on the afternoon of September 12, when they chased a Federal brigade from Martinsburg to the west almost to Miles' position at Harpers Ferry. The following morning, they surrounded the place, including crucial Maryland and Loudon Heights, the latter of which Miles had left totally unoccupied. He had been reenforced by the addition of the Martinsburg garrison and felt confident he could hold out as he had been ordered to do by department commander, Maj. Gen. John E. Wool. Led by the Stonewall Division, Jackson's command formed across the valley on Schoolhouse Ridge seen here; the valley between was occupied by the pickets of both sides.

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The Union skirmish line formed Miles' first line of defense, and was kept under constant fire by the Confederates from Schoolhouse Ridge in the background. Jackson used the ridge to mask the deployment of his three divisions, led by generals D. R. Jones, A. R. Lawton, and A. P. Hill. Meanwhile, the division commanded by Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws had driven some 2000 Federals into their defenses on Maryland Heights, which Miles hoped to hold. He was disappointed in this however, when his subordinate Col. Thomas H. Ford took advantage of discretionary orders and withdrew across the pontoon bridge there into the town. Miles exclaimed, "God Almighty! What does that mean? They are coming down!" when he saw Ford's men streaming rearward, but it was too late.

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Now with Maryland and Loudon Heights and Schoolhouse Ridge all firmly in Confederate hands, Jackson soon demonstrated his expertise in the arm with which he had begun his military career, the artillery. Loudon Heights was the key to this, for it provided a natural elevated platform from which to shell the Union encampment and lines on Bolivar Heights. It was only held by the small two-brigade division of Maj. Gen. John Walker, but young Col. Stapleton Crutchfield soon placed his artillery battalion there on what was supposed by Miles to be ground impassable to cannon.

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As shown on the NPS sign above, Jackson used Schoolhouse Ridge to mask the movement of the division of A. P. Hill, largest in the army, in a flank march to gain Miles' unprotected left flank, near but not anchored on the Shenandoah River. A night attack on the Federal skirmish line below by the Stonewall Brigade helped distract Miles from the true objective.

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Next, A. P. Hill attacks.
 
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James N.

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Schoolhouse Ridge, South
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This part of Jackson's Schoolhouse Ridge line was held by the division of A. R. Lawton, which also demonstrated against the Federals in their front on Bolivar Heights. A. P. Hill led his division behind that of Lawton and around to the right to get between Miles' flank and the Shenandoah River the night of September 14.

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The ruins of the period Allstadt farmhouse stand on the southern part of Schoolhouse Ridge;
below, the view from the Allstadt house toward the Federal Line on Bolivar Heights.

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The Murphy - Chambers Farm and House
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It was on the grounds of the Murphy - Chambers Farm that A. P. Hill drew his forces under the cover of night in line squarely on the Union left flank which was near but not anchored on the Shenandoah. The morning of September 15, Miles was surprised to find them there, and under fire from Crutchfield's ten guns on Loudon Heights and a battery of four of McLaws' cannon on Maryland Heights. Unfortunately, Miles' Railroad Brigade was made up of largely untrained and untried soldiers, some of which had only been in service a couple of weeks, and they were unable to withstand the unexpected bombardment.

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A. P. Hill added his own artillery at closer range, taking the relatively new and untried Federals under crossfire from several directions at once. Miles realized his men couldn't stand this for long and soon ordered them to stop firing and sent a flag of surrender; before the terms could be finalized, however, he was struck by a piece of shell while back near Bolivar and soon died. He was therefore spared the humiliation of what remained the largest surrender of U. S. forces until Corregedor in 1942 at the beginning of WWII.

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While this wasn't a stunning field victory like Second Manassas or Chancellorsville, nor full of strategic brilliance like the Valley Campaign had been, nevertheless the results were gratifying and all out of proportion: Jackson garnered the surrender of 12,737 prisoners, 73 cannon, some 13,000 small arms, and 200 wagons, all at a loss of 39 killed and 247 wounded. Unfortunately, the Confederate success here was all-too-soon overshadowed by Antietam and the end of Lee's hopes for a successful invasion of the North. From Harpers Ferry, Jackson soon hastened northwards to join Lee and Longstreet, leaving Hill to complete the details of the surrender; Hill's own march to save Lee's army at Antietam would soon follow and enter its own place in Confederate legend.

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Carronade

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I suppose it's a matter of interpretation; my idea of someone's greatest victory would be one achieved against formidable odds, like Jackson's Valley campaign.

As James said, it was a valuable victory in material terms, and an embarrassment to the Union. I'll bore you again with one of my favorite stories, the Union soldiers waiting in Harpers Ferry to be paroled when Jackson rode by. Supposedly one Yank said to another "He sure don't look like much, but if we'd had him, we wouldn't be in this fix!"
 
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ole

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Not to detract from Jackson's stunning victory, but Harpers Ferry was indefensible. It sits in a bowl. Put artillery on the heights surrounding it and it is a gone goose.Even so, Miles put up a creditable fight.

Trivia time. Ever notice that Harpers is one of the few possessive names that doesn't use an 's?
 

TalkingJohnMc

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Schoolhouse Ridge, South
View attachment 46927

This part of Jackson's Schoolhouse Ridge line was held by the division of A. R. Lawton, which also demonstrated against the Federals in their front on Bolivar Heights. A. P. Hill led his division behind that of Lawton and around to the right to get between Miles' flank and the Shenandoah River the night of September 14.

View attachment 46929

The ruins of the period Allstadt farmhouse stand on the southern part of Schoolhouse Ridge.

View attachment 46938

Below, the view from the Allstadt house toward the Federal Line on Bolivar Heights.

View attachment 46939

The Murphy - Chambers Farm and House
View attachment 46940


It was on the grounds of the Murphy - Chambers Farm that A. P. Hill drew his forces under the cover of night in line squarely on the Union left flank which was near but not anchored on the Shenandoah. The morning of September 15, Miles was surprised to find them there, and under fire from Crutchfield's ten guns on Loudon Heights and a battery of four of McLaw's cannon on Maryland Heights. Unfortunately, Miles' Railroad Brigade was made up of largely untrained and untried soldiers, some of which had only been in service a couple of weeks, and they were unable to withstand the unexpected bombardment.

View attachment 46941

A. P. Hill added his own artillery at closer range, taking the relatively new and untried Federals under crossfire from several directions at once. Miles realized his men couldn't stand this for long and soon ordered them to stop firing and sent a flag of surrender; before the terms could be finalized, however, he was struck by a piece of shell while back near Bolivar and soon died. He was therefore spared the humiliation of what remained the largest surrender of U. S. forces until Corregedor in 1942 at the beginning of WWII.

View attachment 46942

While this wasn't a stunning field victory like Second Manassas or Chancellorsville, nor full of strategic brilliance like the Valley Campaign had been, nevertheless the results were gratifying and all out of proportion: Jackson garnered the surrender of 12,737 prisoners, 73 cannon, some 13,000 small arms, and 200 wagons, all at a loss of 39 killed and 247 wounded. Unfortunately, the Confederate success here was all-too-soon overshadowed by Antietam and the end of Lee's hopes for a successful invasion of the North. From Harpers Ferry, Jackson soon hastened northwards to join Lee and Longstreet, leaving Hill to complete the details of the surrender; Hill's own march to save Lee's army at Antietam would soon follow and enter its own place in Confederate legend.

View attachment 46943
James,
Did you notice the Customs and Border protection training center at Schoolhouse Ridge South? They are doing quite a bit of digging and construction there. Wonder if they have found anything related to the Civil War on those grounds.
 

James N.

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James,
Did you notice the Customs and Border protection training center at Schoolhouse Ridge South? They are doing quite a bit of digging and construction there. Wonder if they have found anything related to the Civil War on those grounds.

Unfortunately, I failed to notice any sign of that agency; if there was anything, I must've been concentrating on the battle sites to its exclusion. There was relatively little to be seen in that area, but it was certainly nice to see it being preserved!
 

HardeeBoy

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Fantastic pictures. Thanks for sharing.

Harper's Ferry. I grew up in NoVa and we'd go there all the **** time when I was a kid. School field trips etc.,. LOL, I hated it as it was all this booooring history and all I wanted to do was play sports.

Years later and I'd kill to go back there. Now that I live back east again I'm not that far away. First I gotta cross Gettysburg off my list (yet another place I saw as a kid and didn't give a **** about.)

"Youth...what a pity it has to be wasted on the children" - Bernard Shaw.

Edit: sorry folks, those weren't really even bad four letter words in my post. New to the forum here, gotta tone it down to PG-13....maybe even PG. I'm learning.
 
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Carronade

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Harpers Ferry was a curious situation, bit of a retrograde movement for Lee who had to send almost half of his army invading Maryland back across the Potomac to deal with it. Neither Lee nor McClellan had expected the Union garrison to remain at Harpers Ferry, but Halleck ordered it to (in fairness, it could have been a major problem for Lee had Miles shown more determination in the defense and Mac on the offense). Lee recognized both the danger of a Union position on his supply lines and at a crossing of the Potomac and the opportunity to snap up the garrison and material. As noted it was highly vulnerable, and Jackson was familiar with the area from his occupation of Harpers Ferry earlier in the war.
 
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Bee

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A few times in recent posts, Harpers Ferry has been mentioned. Most particularly it has been emphasized as being indefensible -- almost a gimme. I decided to look it up and found this interesting play-by-play of the battle of Stonewall Jackson's Triumph at Harpers Ferry. The article paints the battle somewhat as a strategic masterpiece, which surprised me in light of the obvious advantages of terrain. To my delight, I found these companion pictures to help put everything in place (and realize what a monumental task it must be to drag those cannons around) I appreciate the time you took in documenting the battle, James N.
 

James N.

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A few times in recent posts, Harpers Ferry has been mentioned. Most particularly it has been emphasized as being indefensible -- almost a gimme. I decided to look it up and found this interesting play-by-play of the battle of Stonewall Jackson's Triumph at Harpers Ferry. The article paints the battle somewhat as a strategic masterpiece, which surprised me in light of the obvious advantages of terrain. To my delight, I found these companion pictures to help put everything in place (and realize what a monumental task it must be to drag those cannons around) I appreciate the time you took in documenting the battle, James N.

My pleasure; I agree that nothing compares with actually standing on the ground - or failing that, to see photos that accurately depict the landscape - to best understand what happened at this or any other given place.
 

mofederal

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I have been to Harper's Ferry a couple of times, but to the city itself, not the surrounding battlefield area. My focus was on the town itself. So I very much enjoyed your tour. I had photos of the Rifle Works, Brown's Fort, and other areas in town. Thank you James N. once again for showing me areas and sites I am now far removed from.
 

SharonS

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Connecticut
A couple of years ago I was doing some work in contemporary newspapers--north and south--for April, May, and June of 1961 and I was struck by just how important everybody considered Harpers Ferry to be--front page of almost every newspaper every day with multiple daily dispatches. Because of how difficult the town turned out to be to defend, it didn't end up being quite so important, but it was certainly the focus of attention early on.
 
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