Firing at Aquia Creek; Salute to Major Anderson; Abandon Harpers Ferry?

Friday, May 31, 1861

Forty miles down the Potomac from Washington, three Union gunboats exchanged shots with the Confederate batteries near Aquia Creek. The USS Thomas Freeborn, along with the USS Anacostia had tangled with these batteries a couple of days ago, but little damage was done on either side. The two vessels were, on this date, joined by the USS Resolute.

For two hours in the late morning, the three batteries along the shore and three gunboats exchanged round after round. Eventually, the batteries were silenced, but, nearing the end of their ammunition, the Union gunboats were fired upon by more Confederate batteries established on high ground beyond the waterfront. According to the commander of the Thomas Freeborn, the fire from those guns “reached us in volleys, dropping the shot on board and about us like hail for nearly an hour, but fortunately wounding but one man.”

Expecting a landing by Union troops, Confederate Col. Ruggles brought up four companies of infantry and one of cavalry, but by the time they arrived on the scene, the firing had stopped.

Completely expended of ammunition and unable to fire high enough to threaten the Rebel batteries, all three Union ships pulled back out of range.

That evening, the USS Pawnee, was called to assist. She had been near the capital and had ferried the New York Fire Zouaves from Washington for the taking of Alexandria.1

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A Salute to Major Anderson

Union troops had reached Grafton, western Virginia the day before and spent most of this day in camp, preparing for the next move. Col. Kelley was reworking his plan of attack on the Rebels in Philippi, fifteen miles south, while waiting for more troops to come up.

The 14th Ohio, under Col. Steedman was in Clarksburg, 20 miles west of Grafton. Three Indiana regiments (6th, 7th and 9th) were heading east with Brigadier-General Morris, whom McClellan had placed in command of the entire force.2

The 6th Indiana, commanded by Col. Thomas Crittenden of Alabama, nephew of Kentucky Senator John Crittenden (famous for his Compromise), passed through Cincinnati. As he and his boys marched up Fourth Street, the sidewalks were crowded with cheering citizens. When passing the residence of Larz Anderson, Crittenden spied Major John Anderson watching the procession through a window. The hero of Fort Sumter was in town visiting his brother. As soon as Anderson caught his eye, Crittenden ordered he men to face the window and present arms. Anderson saluted in return.

The 6th then boarded a train and spent the night near Marietta, Ohio, just north of Parkersburg, western Virginia.3

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Harney Acknowledges and then Refuses to Give Up Command

Recently relieved Union General William Selby Harney wrote to Washington disputing his removal. The previous evening, he was handed Special Orders No. 135, dated May 16, 1861, ending his command of the Department of the West. Most such orders involved a reassignment or at the very least a call to Washington. This short paragraph granted him an indefinite leave of absence.

Perhaps sensing something wasn’t quite right, Harney wrote Washington on this date, informing the War Department that he had relinquished command, but had also received orders from Washington dated May 27. Harney concluded that it was not the intention of President Lincoln that he should be relieved. “I shall, therefore, at once resume the command of the department,” Harney wrote in defiance of the orders, “and I beg that the President may be assured that if I am permitted to conduct operations here as my judgment may dictate I anticipate no serious disturbance in the State.”

While Harney probably believed that Lincoln wished him to stay, General Lyon, who had been gunning for Harney’s command, believed not only that Lincoln wanted the former commander gone, but that only he (Lyon) could fill Harney’s shoes.

Lyon wrote General Orders, No. 5 for the Department of the West stating that since Harney had relinquished his command, he was to assume the “command thereof, which thus devolves upon him [Lyon].”4

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Johnston Wishes to Abandon Harpers Ferry?

Just as the Rebels in Grafton thought it a fair idea to retreat to Philippi, General Joseph Johnston, commander of the troops in Harpers Ferry, thought it might be an equally fair idea to abandon that indefensible little town. Johnston felt that their occupation “perfectly suited the enemy’s views.” What he feared most was that their flanks would be turned by Union troops moving below the town (by Leesburg, for example) and crossing the river.

The major crossings at Point of Rocks and Shepherdstown were covered, but the men were spread very thin. With about five thousand troops, Johnston was convinced that Harpers Ferry could not be saved. He proposed that he move the force out of the town and focus primarily upon the Potomac crossings.5

News from the North indicated that a large body of Union troops were to cross the Potomac near Cumberland, Maryland to join forces with the Ohio (and US western Virginia troops) near Grafton. Johnston had heard that the Confederates under Col. Porterfield had abandoned Grafton, but did not know where they were. He suggested to General Lee that the Confederate troops in western Virginia, being greatly outnumbered, join up with a larger force elsewhere rather than be certainly lost in western Virginia.

Lee would reply to Johnston’s concerns about Grafton and Harpers Ferry the next day.6



  1. Official Navy Records, Series 1, Vol. 4, p497-499. []
  2. Lee vs. McClellan; The First Campaign by Clayton R. Newell. []
  3. The Spirit of 1861: History of the Sixth Indiana Regiment by Andrew J. Grayson, Courier Printers, 1875. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, p381. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p881. []
  6. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p899. []

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