September 11, 1862 (Thursday)
As three Confederate columns picked their way through western Maryland and along the Potomac River towards Harpers Ferry, Col. Dixon Miles, commanding the Union forces garrisoning the town, was in denial. The previous day, a small company of his cavalry brushed into the Rebels at Boonsboro and their report suggested Harpers Ferry was their destination.
Miles heard other reports that placed enemy troops on the road to Sharpsburg, but even with that he just assumed they were simply foraging parties. “I cannot learn he has any disposition to advance this way,” he reported. Nevertheless, he made some preliminary efforts just in case, ordering the ferry boats to be burned at Shepherdstown if it had to be abandoned.
He also conceded that if the Rebels were going to attack, they would do so through Solomon’s Gap, four miles north of Maryland Heights – a pass that he had earlier refused to fortify. None of his guns on Maryland Heights [the fortified eminence just east of Harpers Ferry] could hit Solomon’s Gap.1
That afternoon, Miles crossed the river and visited Maryland Heights. There, he learned from a scout that the Rebels had breeched Solomon’s Gap to advance towards Harpers Ferry along the western slope of Maryland Heights. From the Heights, Miles could see Confederates advancing through Brownsville Gap and down Pleasant Valley towards the Potomac and Harpers Ferry. Sporadic artillery fire peppered the advance until nightfall.2
The Confederates Miles saw were those of General Lafayette McLaws Division. His objective was Maryland Heights, from which, he would command the entire Union force at Harpers Ferry. It was hoped that just by taking the Heights, he would effect a surrender. McLaws had marched through Burkittsville, bypassing Crampton’s Gap and the main road, opting to take the more southerly Brownsville Gap.
Near the end of the day, having skirmished here and there with the Rebels, McLaws divided his 8,000 men, sending some towards Solomon’s Gap, while others moved south through Brownsville and Pleasant Valley. Generals Kershaw and Barksdale, commanding a brigade each, were to move along Elk Ridge (which became Maryland Heights when it reached the Potomac). McLaws was confident that they could take the Heights.3
Meanwhile, another Confederate force under General John Walker was making its way towards Loudoun Heights, a rise opposite the southern end of Harpers Ferry.4
The main Confederate force approaching Harpers Ferry was under General Stonewall Jackson. They had pushed off from Boonsboro before dawn. When orders were issued to him on the 9th, Martinsburg was believed to be abandoned by the Yankees. When he learned that it was occupied, he decided to veer from his actual orders and add sixty-miles to his tramp. By noon, his men were crossing the Potomac at Williamsport. They stopped for the night at Hedgesville, several miles north of Martinsburg.5
All day long at Martinsburg, General Julius White had been hearing reports of Rebels crossing the Potomac. He had been ordered to hold Martinsburg to the last extremity, and was growing more and more doubtful that it could be done. He sent a scouting party to validate the reports and obstruct the road to Martinsburg as much as possible.
By nightfall, he realized that his tiny force of 2,500 could do nothing but vacate the town. White acted quickly. Securing a train from Harpers Ferry, his men loaded it with everything they could get their hands on. Whatever could not be loaded into the train was hefted onto wagons. At 2am, his men left the town, marching for Harpers Ferry.6
Price and Van Dorn Advance – Rosecrans Sees Nothing Alarming
When the Union Army of the Ohio, under Don Carlos Buell, began their northward move from Nashville, it set into motion a flurry of other events. General Braxton Bragg, commanding the main Confederate army, had to change his marching orders from Bowling Green, Kentucky to the more easterly Glasgow. While Kirby Smith still threatened Cincinnati, there must have been a notion of impending haste. To the south, however, even more was happening.
Two small Confederate forces, led by Generals Sterling Price and Earl Van Dorn, occupied different parts of Mississippi. Price had held Tupelo, while Van Dorn had Vicksburg. Covering both were Federals under Ulysses S. Grant in Memphis and Corinth.
Even before Buell and Bragg began their marches north, Bragg had been urging Price to move, hoping to keep Federal reinforcements from reaching Buell. Conversely, Van Dorn was urging Price to follow him in an advance towards Grand Junction (midway between Memphis and Corinth).
This was all because of Rosecrans. Bragg and Price were afraid that Rosecrans would reinforce Buell in Kentucky, while Van Dorn was hoping to keep Rosecrans from reinforcing Grant in Memphis. Rosecrans was in Iuka, just east of Corinth, but by September 6th, Bragg and Price believed he was on the move towards Nashville. Price was ordered by Bragg to hurry along and stop him.
With elements of his command already moved north, through Saltillo and Baldwyn, on this date, Price stepped off, 14,000-strong. On this night, through hot dust and humidity, they arrived at Marietta, eight miles east of Baldwyn. The day had sapped their strength, and, when halted, most simply fell upon the side of the road to sleep.7
But Price wasn’t the only Confederate force in Mississippi on the move. Van Dorn had also left his camp at Vicksburg for Holly Springs, a railroad junction southeast of Memphis and southwest of Corinth. As Van Dorn was moving north, he was still trying to convince Price to join him. He even wrote to the Secretary of War (who passed it along to President Davis), hoping that they would give him command over Price.
Due to the date of his promotion, he was technically Price’s superior. Davis gave him that authority, but never bothered to tell anyone but Van Dorn.8
While all this was happening, Grant moved his headquarters to Corinth, leaving William Tecumseh Sherman in command at Memphis. The movements of the two Rebel armies absolutely confounded him. “With all the vigilance I can bring to bear I cannot determine the objects of the enemy,” wrote Grant to General-in-Chief Henry Halleck. “Everything threatens an attack here, but my fear is that it is to cover some other movement.”9
He had no idea what that “other movement” might be, while Rosecrans believed it to be some demonstration to cover another move against Buell’s rear. As time moved on, Grant became more and more convinced that Corinth would be the focus of the Confederate attack. On this date, he predicted it would happen in forty-eight hours. Rosecrans’ forces were scattered and so he ordered them to be concentrated, while Rosecrans remained unconvinced: “I see nothing in this to alarm us.”10
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 51, Part 1, p820. [↩]
- Six Years of Hell by Chester Hearn, Louisiana State University, 1996. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 19, Part 1, p852-853. [↩]
- Landscape Turned Red by Stephen W. Sears, Mariner Books, 1988. [↩]
- Make Me a Map of the Valley by Jedediah Hotchkiss, Southern Methodist University, 1973. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 19, Part 1, p524. [↩]
- The Darkest Days of the War by Peter Cozzens, University of North Carolina Press, 1997. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 17, Part 2, p696, 699-700. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, vol. 17, Part 2, p213. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, vol. 17, Part 2, p214-215. [↩]