Harpers Ferry Surrenders; McClellan Has Lee, but Waits for “Tomorrow”

September 15, 1862 (Monday)

Harpers Ferry

In western Maryland, through the valley of Antietam Creek, the streets of Harpers Ferry, South Mountain, and the broad and dividing Potomac River, all was drenched in the dark hell of war. Bodies of friends, loved ones, comrades and enemies were strewn across mountain passes, as General McClellan’s Army of the Potomac, stirring into action, as the battered Army of Northern Virginia, clung for time and maybe life to the rocks of Turner’s Gap.

Time and maybe life was bought with blood and steel and lead – such an appalling cost for a Southern Army already weakened and small. Their commander, General Robert E. Lee had decided to retreat back across that wide river to his beloved Virginia. McClellan’s strange forward movement came quickly. He was not ready. They were not ready. What other choice was there but to gather his army?

The small crossroads of Sharpsburg was as good of a place as any to gather his scattered forces. The troops that had defended South Mountain the previous day were finding each other in Pleasant Valley, just west of the passes. Men under James Longstreet and D.H. Hill, together maybe 13,000-strong were making good time away from Boonsboro. Meanwhile, 23,000 under Stonewall Jackson, Lafayette McLaws and John Walker surrounded the Union garrison at Harpers Ferry.

Stonewall Jackson

For this retreat, Harpers Ferry, on the brink of surrender, would have to be forgotten. Lee directed McLaws to abandon his position upon Maryland Heights and find his own way to Virginia. Jackson and Walker were already on Southern side of the Potomac. When the rest of the army was brought together, Lee would walk it home. This was the only choice left to him.

But then it all changed.

While the battles soaked the Maryland soil with blood the previous day, Stonewall Jackson wanted to put an end to his stay at Harpers Ferry.

“So soon as you get your batteries all planted, let me know,” he wrote to General McLaws across the Potomac, “as I desire, after yourself, Walker, and myself have our batteries ready to open, to send in a flag of truce, for the purpose of getting out the non-combatants, should the commanding officer refuse to surrender. Should we have to attack, let the work be done thoroughly; fire on the houses when necessary. The citizens can keep out of harm’s way from your artillery. Demolish the place if it is occupied by the enemy, and does not surrender.”1

The roar and percussion of artillery broke the dawn of this day at Harpers Ferry. The Rebel guns surrounding the town let loose their merciless fury. The Federals, under Col. Dixon Miles, replied, but to no effect. By 8am, a flag of truce was raised and most of the Rebel guns ceased. Most of those that did not quiet their pieces could not see the white flag in the drifting smoke and mists of morning. Some, however, saw it and unleashed whatever was left in their guns.

Col. Dixon Miles

It was after the ceasefire that Col. Miles was hit. Some placed his wounding at the hands of these careless Rebel gunners, while others blamed his own men, who were disgusted over having to surrender with McClellan’s force so close at hand. Either way, Dixon Miles’ wound, which tore his left calf to the bone, proved to be unbearably painful as well as fatal. He would die the following day.

The garrison was surrendered to A.P. Hill, commanding a division under Jackson. In all, the Confederates captured 13,000 stand of arms, 73 pieces of artillery, wagons, stores, ordinance and 11,000 Union troops. As General Hill and his men counted their blessings, Jackson wrote to Lee.

“Through God’s blessing, Harper’s Ferry and its garrison are to be surrendered. As Hill’s troops have borne the heaviest part in the engagement, he will be left in command until the prisoners and public property shall be disposed of, unless you direct otherwise. The other forces cam move off this evening so soon as they get their rations. To what place shall they move?”2

Harpers Ferry

When Lee received the message, he ordered it be read to the army. Everything had changed. The campaign was not yet over. His army not yet beaten. Soon, they would be united and together, they could make their stand.

General George McClellan rightfully believed the Rebels to be in retreat. He ordered the veterans of the South Mountain battles to storm into Pleasant Valley, capturing and fighting whomever they found. If the Rebels concentrated at Boonsboro, it was Boonsboro that was to be assailed. If they moved towards Sharpsburg, then the Federals were to cut off the enemy retreat.

Under General Franklin, the Union troops poured through Crampton’s Gap, but came face-to-face with 5,000 Rebels under General McLaws. Before he could get his men into position, a roaring cheer could be heard coming from the direction of Harpers Ferry. Joining in the huzzah, McLaws’ men threw up their hats and yelled themselves hoarse.

“What the hell are you fellows cheering for?” bellowed a Federal soldier who had climbed upon a rock to get their attention.

“Because Harper’s Ferry is gone up, God damn you!” came the reply.

With this revelation, Franklin froze.

To the north, other Federal troops streamed through Turner’s and Fox’s Gaps. McClellan, remaining back at his camp, received good news upon good news throughout the day. Much of it was baseless conjecture, of course. “General Lee is wounded” came one. “The entire Rebel army is demoralized” stated another. He believed that the Confederates lost 15,000 the day before.

Soon, however, it was clear. The tails and stories, seemingly too good to be true, turned out to be just that. After receiving Stonewall’s dispatch, Lee dug in behind Antietam Creek, eight miles away from South Mountain. Such a short distance should have been covered in half a day, but, as usual, McClellan’s momentum ground to a halt.

A small rear guard action erupted south of Keedysville, but aside from that, hardly a shot was fired. McClellan’s army had more than 80,000 men. Across the small creek was hardly more than 15,000 Confederates. He knew, thanks to Lee’s lost Special Orders No. 191, that Jackson and McLaws were at Harpers Ferry. His plan to divide the Rebel army and destroy them in detail could have been realized in the afternoon of this day.

But it was not. McClellan vowed that “tomorrow” would be the time to attack. But by then, Jackson’s all-night march would bring his men to Sharpsburg, making their homes in Lee’s lines, and McClellan would have to think of yet another reason he could not attack until “tomorrow.”3

  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 19, Part 2, p607. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 19, Part 1, p951. []
  3. I’ve been in complete mental exhaustion because of the Maryland campaign that I thought I’d try to switch up my style a bit. With the exception of the two quotes from the OR, I used Landscape Turned Red by Stephen W. Sears, Mariner Books, 1983; Six Years of Hell by Chester G. Hearn, Louisiana State University, 1996; and Stonewall Jackson by James I Robertson, Macmillan, 1997. []
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Harpers Ferry Surrenders; McClellan Has Lee, but Waits for “Tomorrow” by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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