Camp-Fires of General Lee, by Edward S. Ellis, Chapter 11

Camp-Fires of General Lee


GENERAL LEE rested his line upon the Shenandoah Valley. During the battle of Manassas the northern end of this valley was occupied by twelve thousand Federals, four thousand of whom, under General White, were at Winchester, and the rest at Harper’s Ferry, under Colonel Miles. So soon as White learned of Lee’s advance upon the Potomac, he withdrew from Winchester and occupied Martinsburg, while Miles was cut off from Washington by Stonewall Jackson, who, it will be remembered, had crossed the river near Leesburg. However, it was an easy matter for the Federals to cross in turn into Maryland, and, falling back, join the troops that were organizing for the resistance to the Confederate advance. When the latter passed the Potomac, Harper’s Ferry and Martinsburg became of no account; for the railroad passing through those places was of no value to the Confederates, because it took a different direction from the one they were following. As a consequence, the Federals who stayed on the Virginia shore simply invited the Confederates to make them prisoners.

General Halleck was still commanding Harper’s Ferry and Martinsburg from his headquarters in Washington, and he sent peremptory orders that the former should be defended to the last. Why he gave such a ridiculous order is hard to understand. It is said he claimed that Harper’s Ferry was the key to Maryland, but, as we have shown, the sweep of the Federals had carried the gates with them; so the keys were useless. When Lee, at Frederick, learned that the Federals were still at Harper’s Ferry, he decided to accept the invitation and go out and “bag the whole crowd.” With this purpose he suspended for several days his advance Northward.

On the 10th of September the Confederate army turned its back on Washington and took up the line of march toward the Upper Potomac, entering the mountainous section of Maryland. For the purpose of capturing Harper’s Ferry, Jackson, with his three divisions, the two divisions of McLaws and the division of Walker, was detached. Jackson was to go by way of Sharpsburg, crossing the Potomac above Harper’s Ferry and advancing by the rear; McLaws was to proceed by way of Middleton, on the direct route to the ferry, and occupy the hills known as the Maryland Heights; Walker was to cross below Harper’s Ferry and seize Loudon Heights. The movement was begun on the 10th, and it was intended the surrender should be forced by the 13th, after which the captors would immediately rejoin Lee on the march to Boonsboro’ or Hagerstown.

It must not be forgotten that McClellan all this time was following Lee, though he did it from afar, and was obliged to keep so near Washington that he could whirl about and run back to its protection should the invaders turn in that direction. So guarded and slow were his movements that Lee was warranted in believing he could detach enough of his army to capture Harper’s Ferry and to return before the Union commander could strike him.

It is one of the remarkable facts connected with the history of the late war that whereas General Halleck did a most foolish thing in ordering Harper’s Ferry to be held, and that General Lee did what only ordinary generalship required him to do in capturing it, yet the Federal blunder proved in the end disastrous to the Confederate cause.

On the morning of September 12, Jackson entered Martinsburg and captured a large amount of stores abandoned by the Federals, who had withdrawn in great haste. Pushing on, he reached the Federal outer line, on Bolivar Heights, in the rear of Harper’s Ferry, the next morning. General Hill, still leading the advance, encamped near Halltown, a couple of miles from Bolivar Heights. The rest of the force was near by, and General Jackson now set out to learn whether McLaws and Walker had arrived. His signals were answered from the mountains opposite, and he instantly despatched couriers to Maryland and Loudon Heights to see whether the two divisions were in position for the attack.

General Walker had crossed the Potomac on the night of the 10th, at Point of Rocks, and marched hurriedly to Loudon Heights, which were occupied three nights later. The courier sent by Jackson dashed up shortly after, and, having communicated with Walker, galloped back to Jackson with the news that Walker had arrived. The day was so far gone, however, that the attack was deferred until the next morning. McLaws at that time was steadily working his way up Maryland Heights, which, once reached, placed Harper’s Ferry at his mercy, as will readily be perceived from the following description.

The Elk Ridge Mountains, extending north and south across portions of Maryland and Virginia, seem to have split in two to allow the clamoring waters of the Potomac to pass through. This naturally leaves a high rocky wall on each side. The one on the north bank is called Maryland Heights, and the one on the south is known as Loudon Heights. Directly between the latter and Harper’s Ferry the Shenandoah sweeps into the Potomac, and behind this river is a smaller ridge, known as Bolivar Heights, which slopes off southward into the Shenandoah Valley. In the little basin formed by this trio of mountain-peaks nestles Harper’s Ferry, the scene of the opening drama of the great civil war, in 1869, when John Brown made his memorable raid. Harper’s Ferry is one of the most picturesque little towns in America, the mountain-peaks being about two miles from each other, with the town itself slumbering in the valley below. It will thus be seen that a strong force on any one of these ridges could bombard Harper’s Ferry with the greatest ease.

Colonel Miles, in distributing his command for defence, posted a strong force on Maryland Heights, the highest of the three mountain-peaks, but, unfortunately for him, the larger part was down in the valley below. The commonest prudence would have saved him from leaving a single soldier in the death-trap, into which the Confederates could pour a resistless fire not only of cannon, but of musketry. Had he kept his entire command on Maryland Heights, he could have held it with ease until the arrival of McClellan, who even then was hurrying to his relief. Had the Federals strained their ears, they might have caught the boom of Franklin’s signal-guns. He was hastening to their assistance and firing at intervals to apprise Colonel Miles of the fact, that he might be encouraged to hold out, as he had promised he would do. But the monumental blundering which was the distinctive feature of the Federal campaigns in the East during the early years of the war showed itself again at Harper’s Ferry. It was folly to attempt to hold it, but Colonel Ford, when he awoke to the fact that Stonewall Jackson had turned his eye toward him, made only a feeble show of resistance, then spiked his guns, tumbled them down the rocks and hurriedly retreated to Harper’s Ferry. Thus it was that Maryland Heights, towering far above the others, was vacated by the Federals. McLaws laboriously dragged some of his cannon to the top, and, looking across and down upon the other mountain-peaks, he saw both swarming with his comrades; the Stare and Bars fluttered in the wind, and on Loudon and Bolivar the cheers of the Confederates swept back and forth through the autumn air far above the doomed army below. Looking down on the quaint little town, nestling in the basin like one of the Alpine villages, every private in the Confederate forces felt that their game was as good as bagged already. The Federals had placed themselves between the upper and nether millstones, and they would be ground to powder.

The investment of Harper’s Ferry was complete, and at daylight on the morning of September 15 a terrific plunging fire was opened on the garrison. It had lasted but an hour, when Colonel Miles called his officers together and told them it was useless to fight longer: they were at the mercy of their assailants, and he felt the best thing to do was to surrender. All assented, and the Confederate artillerymen, who were pouring their fire into the one common receptacle below, suddenly caught sight of a white flag fluttering through the smoke. Those who observed the token ceased firing, but several shots followed before the signal was fully recognized. The last one of these struck and mortally wounded Colonel Miles. It was fortunate for him that it did so; for had he survived, a disgrace awaited him far worse than death. Harper’s Ferry was taken, and Colonel White surrendered more than eleven thousand men, seventy-three pieces of artillery, thirteen thousand small arms and an immense amount of military stores.

It is said that when the surrender was made General Jackson was leaning against a tree, sound asleep. Placing his hand on his shoulder, A. P. Hill introduced Colonel White, who had come to arrange the terms of capitulation. The eyelids parted just long enough for the leader to recognize his visitors, when he spoke one word: “Unconditional!̶ Then the drowsy eyelids drooped again, and he resumed his slumber, which was destined to be of short duration.

The terms were not such as Colonel White expected, but he had no choice; his command was completely disorganized, and it was utterly beyond his power to make any further defence. The surrender took place, as has been stated, and stirring events in other quarters immediately demanded the attention of Jackson.

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