Lee Warns Johnston to Hold Harpers Ferry; The Union Advance

Friday, June 7, 1861

General Lee had received General Johnston’s letter arguing that his command at Harpers Ferry was in danger and should be moved south. Lee strongly disagreed, but to break the impasse, he demurred to President Davis in Richmond.

Davis, said Lee, placed “great value upon our retention of the command of the Shenandoah Valley and the position at Harpers Ferry.” Keeping it in Confederate hands meant that a steady stream of communication with Maryland could be kept open. Abandoning the Ferry would also cut off the western Virginia rail access. It was also not thought that McClellan and his Ohio troops would attack Harpers Ferry.

To make certain that no attack was made upon the town, Lee ordered four thousand troops under General Robert Garnett to Beverly, where Colonel Porterfield, still licking his wounds from Philippi, would be relieved of his command. This force would become the Army of the Northwest. Also, Col. Angus McDonald was ordered to disrupt troop movements over the B&O line, mainly near the Cheat River Bridge.

Lee assured Johnston that more troops, ammunition and accouterments were on their way. However, to Johnston’s complaints of the soldiers having too much baggage, he replied for the “surplus baggage, trunks, valises, & c., to be returned home or sent to some place of safety.” Lee’s orders could sometimes be very open, but he could also lead subordinates by the hand if needed.

Due to the nature of the unfolding war, Lee could not give Johnston precise instructions, “being informed of the object of the campaign, you will be able to regulate its conduct to the best advantage.”1

McDonald, en route to the Cheat River Bridge, had arrived at Harpers Ferry on this date. As commanded by Lee, McDonald reported to Johnston and handed him the order from President Davis strongly urging Johnston to give McDonald enough troops and horses to disrupt Union movements across the Cheat River Bridge.2

General Johnston, not quite in defiance of an order from the President, informed McDonald that he could spare not a single man for such an operation. McDonald would have settled for even a company of cavalry, but still Johnston refused. The Colonel realized that it was futile to attempt to obey the orders to take the bridge without help from Johnston. Without even a quick complaint to Lee, he sent out a few men to the Shenandoah Valley and Piedmont areas to raise a force of his own.3

Lee also sent a reply to Major Harmon, who had officially complained about the conduct of Col. Porterfield at the Battle of Philippi. First, he commended Harmon for taking the initiative to forward supplies to Porterfield at Beverly and then gave him the news he wanted: Porterfield was being replaced.

Like Lee told Johnston, General Garnett was ordered to Beverly with 4,000 troops and the command of all area forces.4


Patterson on the Move

Johnston’s fears of an attack from the north weren’t entirely unfounded. He had been receiving word for the past several days that as many as 13,000 Union troops under General Patterson were at Chambersburg, fifty miles north of Harpers Ferry.

General Patterson reported that all of his expected troops (17 regiments) had arrived. He had begun his movement towards Harpers Ferry by moving a brigade under Col. Thomas to Greencastle, ten miles south of Chambersburg. His goal was to occupy Hagerstown, making that his headquarters.

Looking towards the near future, Patterson wanted to establish the Boonsboro Road (National Pike/modern day US 40) as his left. This would allow him a favorable position to launch an attack on Harpers Ferry, fourteen miles south.

Patterson was finally on the move.5

  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p910. []
  2. The order can be found in Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p904. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p952 – McDonald did not inform Lee of Johnston’s refusal until June 25th. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p910. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p668-669. []
Creative Commons License
Lee Warns Johnston to Hold Harpers Ferry; The Union Advance by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


View all posts by