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1862 September 24: Battle of Harpers Ferry

September 25, 2012

The Battle of Harpers Ferry was fought September 12-15, 1862, before the battles of South Mountain (September 14) and Antietam (September 17).  You will remember that on September 4, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, under General Robert E. Lee, invaded Maryland.  At the same time Lee sent General Stonewall Jackson and his corps upriver to surround, bombard, and capture the Union garrison at Harpers Ferry (now in West Virginia).  Meanwhile Lee headed to Frederick and sent James Longstreet north to toward Hagerstown, Maryland, near the Pennsylvania line.

After his victory at South Mountain, Union General George B. McClellan failed to to destroy Lee’s army before it could come back together. His limited activity condemned the garrison at Harpers Ferry to capture and gave Lee time to reunite his separated forces for the Battle of Antietam.

These reports, primarily about Harpers Ferry, come from the September 24, 1862, issue of The Prescott Journal.

Harper’s Ferry Fallen.


Flight of the Rebel Army.

8,000 Prisoners Taken.
A Battle Going On.

BALTIMORE, Sept. 16.

Passengers from Monocasy1 report seeing paroled prisoners from Harper’s Ferry, who report the surrender of that place on Monday morning, after a most desperate defence and the death of Col. Miles,2 who was killed by a shell cutting off one of his legs.

Reports state that Miles evacuated Maryland heights Saturday after exploding one of his heavy guns and throwing others down the rock.

FREDERICK, Sept. 16.

I regret to announce the surrender of Harper’s Ferry with all the forces and stores there, to the enemy at 9 o’clock Monday morning.

The enlisted men and some officers have been paroled, and arrived here.—From them I gather the following particulars:

The rebels commenced the attack Friday noon on our forces on Maryland Heights. Skirmishing continued throughout the day and was renewed Saturday.  The enemy were driven back with considerable loss and were repulsed, when it was discovered they were approaching in overwhelming force.  The order was given to spike guns and throw them down the mountain, while from the heights they returned safely, the guns from Camp Hill shelling the enemy when they attempted to pursue our retiring men.

On Sunday morning a party of our men again ascended the heights and brought away their field pieces, which they had left unspiked.

On Sunday, at noon, the rebels appeared in great force on London Heights.

Miles shelled them from point to point.  Some of their guns were dislodged, but they still managed to keep up a brisk fire from some of their batteries, which were run back out of sight and landed.  Cannonading were kept up all day Sunday without much damage.  The firing ceased at dusk on Sunday evening, and was resumed on Monday morning at daylight, and kept up till nine o’clock, when Miles ordered a white flag to be raised.

There was considerable fog and smoke, and the enemy did not see the flag, or would not see it, and kept up a heavy fire for three quarters of an hour.

About ten minutes after the flag was up, a shell struck Col. Miles, shattering his right leg.

It was amputated before the prisoners were paroled.

There were about 2,200 cavalry, all of whom, except about 40, escaped about eight o’clock on Sunday night, and cut their way through to Greencastle, with but little loss.

 The balance of the troops, numbering from six to 8,000, with Gen. White’s [Julius White] command from Martinsburg, were all surrendered.

Map of the Battle-Field of Harper’s Ferry, from the “Atlas to Accompany the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies,” plate 29, map 1 (see footnote 3)

FREDERICK, Sept. 16.

The following is to the Baltimore American:—

Intelligence from the front this morning is of a most cheering character, not withstanding the bad news from Harper’s Ferry.

McClellan was pursuing the enemy with a vigor most destructive of them.

On Monday morning with his reserves and a large body of fresh troops, the enemy took the road towards the river at Harper’s Ferry and at Sheparpstown [sic], and he was pursuing them and shelling their retreat, in inflicting great loss.  In several contests on Monday, where they made a stand, our troops charged upon them with such vigor that they fell back from point to point in great haste.

The advantages obtained on Monday are thought to be of greater in importance than those of Sunday.

Drayton’s South Carolina Brigade is entirely gone—either killed, wounded or taken prisoners.

The 17th Michigan, a new regiment, disposed of this brigade—first with bullets and finally with bayonets.

Howell Cobb is wounded and taken prisoner.

McClellan was pushing on them closely last evening, and had already sent 8,000 prisoners to the rear.

The rest of plate 29, showing Harper’s Ferry in relation to Sherpherdstown and Sharpsburg, where the Battle of Antietam takes places, from the “Atlas to Accompany the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies,” plate 29, map 1 (see footnote 3)


[Special to the New Yorld [sic] World.]—The battles at South Mountain Gap and Burkettsville Gap, fought respectively by forces of Burnside [Ambrose E. Burnside] and Franklin [William B. Franklin] on Sunday, the enemy having been driven from their position, fell back rapidly to Boonesboro, thence southward to Sharpsburg, and began crossing the Potomac above and below Shepardstown.  The pursuit by our troops was rapid, Hooker following by way of Boonesborough, supported by Sumner and Banks.  The enemy breakfasted at Keedysville, three miles from Boonesborough; but our cavalry soon drove their rear-guard from that place.

Porter’s [Fitz John Porter] and Reno’s [Jesse L. Reno] corps took the shortest road over the mountain, and arrived at Sharpsburg at sundown, capturing hundreds of prisoners on their way.

Franklin’s corps supported by Couch’s division [Darius N. Couch], passed through Burkettsville Gap, which he captured so handsomely, striking the road leading directly from Boonesborough to Harper’s Ferry, and thence moving in the direction of the latter place, gaining Elk Ridge Mountain, which flanked the enemy’s position, and brought them within good range of our artillery.

Hancock’s [Winfield Scott Hancock] brigade made a charge up a hill and captured a battery of six pieces.

Howell Cobb and 900 of his Georgians, together with the 16th Virginia regiment, were taken entirely.  We have also captured fragments of many other regiments.

We have taken, since Friday last, about 6,000 prisoners with less than the usual proportions of officers.

On Thursday last Jackson crossed the Potomac at Williamsport, and marched towards Harper’s Ferry, which place he invested on Saturday.  He captured Maryland Heights on the north and London Heights on the south side of the river.

On Sunday he attacked the Ferry, but was repulsed.

On Monday morning, at daylight, he renewed the attack, and the place was surrendered by D. H. [sic] Miles at 7 o’clock.

 Our total loss will not probably exceed 2,500 killed and wounded, with a very small proportion killed.  I can learn of field officers killed.  The death of Gen. Reno is mourned throughout the whole army.

The churches in Middletown and Frederick are to be occupied by the wounded.

FREDERICK, Sept. 16, 2 P.M.

Our loss at Harper’s Ferry is light, less than 200 killed and wounded.  The forces captured were the 8th, 60th, and 32d Ohio; 9th Vt.; 39th, 115th, and 12th N.Y. State Militia, an Indiana battery, besides a Maryland home brigade.

NEW YORK, Sept. 17.

[Dispatch to the Herald.]—The following important intelligence, just received, puts a new phase upon the conduct of affairs at Harper’s Ferry, and shows that although there has been no direct intelligence from McClellan to-day, the enemy are evidently panic-sticken, and unwilling to await the approach of his victorious arms, even in a strong position, where, by dint of overwhelming numbers, the small garrison under Miles, and which was compelled to surrender after nearly three days hard fighter [sic], and after Miles had been seriously wounded and incapacitated for further participation in defence of his position.

An officer who has just arrived from Harper’s Ferry reports that the rebels had evacuated the place in a great hurry.  They are sending everything across the river as fast as possible. They left Harper’s Ferry in such a great hurry they had not time to complete paroling prisoners, and a number were unconditionally released in consequence.

1.  The Monocacy River is the largest tributary of the Potomac in Maryland.
2.  Dixon Stansbury Miles (1804-1862) was a graduate of West Point, a 38-year veteran of the U.S. Army who had served in the Mexican War and the Indian Wars. Early in the Civil War he commanded a division in General Irvin McDowell’s army. After the First Battle of Bull Run he was accused of being drunk during the battle and the court of inquiry found him guilty. After an eight-months leave of absence, Miles was given a supposedly quiet posting at Harpers Ferry. His garrison included the federal arsenal and was comprised of 14,000 men, many inexperienced. While battles raged on the passes of South Mountain, Stonewall Jackson methodically positioned his artillery on Maryland Heights around Harpers Ferry and began his bombardment on September 15. Miles decided to surrender, but before he could he was stuck in the leg by a shell, mortally wounding him. The subsequent surrender of 12,419 men was the largest number of U.S. soldiers surrendered during the Civil War, in fact until the Battle of Corregidor in World War II. The court of inquiry into the surrender denounced Miles for “incapacity, amounting to almost imbecility.”
3.  Atlas to Accompany the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, published under the direction of Redfield Proctor, Stephen B. Elkins, and Daniel S. Lamont, Secretaries of War, by George B. Davis, Leslie J. Perry, Joseph W. Kirkley, Board of Publication ; compiled by Calvin D. Cowles (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1891-1895). Available in Special Collections, UWRF University Archives & Area Research Center (E 464 .U6), or digitally at Ohio State University’s eHistory.

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