Col. Jackson Arrives at Harpers Ferry, Dumps Whiskey

Tuesday, April 30, 1861

When Colonel Thomas Jackson first met the soldiers under his command at Harpers Ferry, more than one soldier thought that “the Old Dominion must be woefully deficient in military men… if this was the best she could do.” Jackson, who was dressed in his professor’s uniform from the Virginia Military Institute, looked more like a private than a colonel. While nearly every other officer was decked out in gold trimmings, medals and assorted trappings, Jackson had none of that fuss and gusto.

He rode an older horse that also lacked the fine accoutrements of this new war. Jackson looked no better while mounted, as “he leaned forward awkwardly; settled his chin from time to time in his lofty military stock, and looked from side to side, from beneath the low rim of his cadet cap.”1

This, however, was just a first impression.

Before Jackson’s arrival at Harpers Ferry, the recruits were growing weary and restless waiting for a commander. Jackson quickly changed everything. One of the first things he accomplished was the demotion of every militia officer above the rank of captain. Bringing in small militia units from all over the state had amassed a magnificent collection of officers who had no business being officers. Jackson’s swift demotions were a “disastrous blow to the pomp and circumstance of glorious war.”

There were two types of soldiers waiting for Jackson upon his arrival. The first, which were directly under his command, were the Virginia volunteers, who were registering in state-approved recruitment offices and being ushered to wherever they were needed within Virginia’s borders. The second group were the militia troops. They were generally county-based, political organizations.

Militia generals were gone, demoted downwards like the colonels, majors and captains. Jackson (and the Confederate army, for that matter) had little use for the militias. The militiamen who came into the Virginia volunteer ranks would be graciously accepted, of course, but most did not come as the terms for enlistment were for one full year.

Jackson caught wind that Harpers Ferry contained a great deal of alcohol. He ordered the barrels of whiskey to be broken open and poured into the gutters. Some men collected what they could in their cups. Seeing this, Jackson ordered the barrels to be dumped into the Potomac instead.

Another change immediately implemented by the new Colonel was the daily schedule. Before dawn, at 5am, reveille would be called. Throughout the day, it was drilling and target practice, followed by drilling and more target practice. Guards were posted around the camp and everything was now done “by the book.”2


Federal Building Full of Troops

While the troops in Harpers Ferry were camping under the stars, the Federal militia units in Washington had much better arrangements. The Sixth and Eighth Massachusetts, along with the Seventh New York, were put up in the Capitol Building. Inauguration Hall was inhabited by the Fifth Pennsylvania; the Treasury held the Fifth Massachusetts. The First Rhode Island bunked in the Patent Office, while the Fifth New York (commanded by Col. Daniel Butterfield) took up residence in the Assembly Rooms.

However, more troops would soon be coming and Washington was quickly running out of places to put them.3

  1. The Military History of the Virginia Military Institute from 1839 to 1865 by Jennings Cropper Wise, J. P. Bell, 1915. []
  2. Stonewall in the Valley by Robert G. Tanner, Stackpole Books, 2002. The whiskey story came from an enlisted man, John N. Opie, as told in A Rising Thunder by Richard Wheeler – a good book that is sorely lacking footnotes. It will be used very sparingly. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1 – Volume 51 (Part I), p345. []
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Col. Jackson Arrives at Harpers Ferry, Dumps Whiskey by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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