Thursday, September 13, 2012

Battle of Harper's Ferry - Day 1

Dixon Miles
The Union officer commanding garrison at Harper's Ferry was Colonel Dixon Miles. A veteran of the Mexican War, he had fought at Bull Run but then, being accused of drunkenness, was sent to Harper's Ferry on garrison duty, a post of less responsibility. But now with his 14,000 he was under attack by converging Confederate columns under the famed Stonewall Jackson. Miles's orders were to hold the town, and he took those orders very strictly. He placed most of the men in the town itself, but the town was indefensible without holding the high ridges surrounding it. On Maryland Heights, across the Potomac River, he did place Colonel Thomas Ford with four regiments. Several batteries were on the heights as well, but they were useless as they were positioned to meet an attack from a different angle.

Brig. Gen. Lafayette McLaws, commanding the Confederate column advancing on the Maryland side of the Potomac, encountered Ford's troops on the Heights near evening on the 12th, and halted for the night. Kershaw's South Carolina brigade attacked at 6:30 am on the 13th, 150 years ago today. The rebel plan was for Kershaw to attack directly at the Federal breastworks while Barksdale's Mississippi brigade worked around the Union right. At first Ford's green troops held their own. They met Kershaw's attacks from the front, but when the Mississippi troops were seen on their flank, they panicked and ran precipitously off the mountain and across the river, to the supposed safety of the town. With this small force driven back, Miles had lost one of the three keys to the defense of Harper's Ferry. But although his officers pleaded with him to launch a counterattack, he refused. Maryland Heights would remain in Confederate hands.
Harper's Ferry with Maryland Heights on the left and Loudon Heights on the right
While McLaws pushed the Federals off Maryland Heights, the other Confederate columns were arriving in position. Brig. Gen. John Walker found Loundon Heights across the Shenandoah River on the east of Harper's Ferry unoccupied, and occupied it. To the west of Harper's Ferry, Jackson's column occupied Bolivar Heights, astonished that Miles had left this position undefended as well. Holding the high ground, all the Confederates had to do was bring up their artillery and without a doubt Harper's Ferry would soon fall.
Harper's Ferry from Maryland Heights

Miles continued to reject proposals to retake Maryland Heights. He put his troops in position opposite Jackson on Bolivar Heights, and told his subordinates, "I am ordered to hold this place and God ---- my soul to hell if I don't." He did, however, send out 10 cavalry troops which found McClellan and informed him of the situation at Harper's Ferry. McClellan had what he needed to out general Lee – Special Order 191, the Lost Order. He assured Miles,
"You may count on our making every effort to relieve you. You may rely upon my speedily accomplishing that object. Hold out to the last extremity. If it is possible, re-occupy the Maryland heights with your whole force."
This order would never arrive, for before a courier could find a way in to beleaguered Harper's Ferry, the town would fall to the rebels.


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