July 5, 1864 (Tuesday)
“The damned town is full of Rebels!” exclaimed Major Gustavus Merriam of the artillery. His battery was positioned on Maryland Heights, overlooking Harpers Ferry. The only Union troops occupying the town were cavalry under Max Weber. General Franz Sigel’s force, 5,000-strong, were still en route, but it appeared they would not make it on time.
This put Weber in a desperate situation. Harpers Ferry contained large quantities of Federal stores. Just after noon, Chief of Staff Henry Halleck demanded that “everything should be prepared for a defense of your works and the first man who proposes a surrender or retreat should be hung.” The message wouldn’t reach the Federals at Harpers Ferry until the following day.
The Rebel line came over Bolivar Heights, opposite the Federal position, with the town sandwiched between. Weber’s skirmishers retreated to an inner line of defenses, and the Rebels stopped.
General Jubal Early, commanding this Confederate column, concluded “it was not possible to occupy the town of Harpers Ferry, except with skirmishers, as it was thoroughly commanded by the guns on Maryland Heights.”
He was right to be wary. The Federal guns opened, plying their trade, shelling both Rebels and civilians. Sigel finally arrived at 9pm, but by that time, it hardly mattered, Early had already decided to bypass Harpers Ferry.
Though he could not occupy the town, his men attacked the stores and, according to a Confederate officer, “A universal pillaging of United States Government property, especially commissary stores, was carried on all night.” All the while, the Federal iron rained down, though sporadically. Many were drunk, and division commander Robert Rodes had to post guards around the town to stop a full scale riot.
Come the next morning, the 5th of July, Early thought his chances no better, especially now with Sigel’s force above him. With two divisions, he demonstrated upon the town, but with another, under John Gordon, he threatened the Federal line on Maryland Heights. They moved first through Sheherdstown, north of Harpers Ferry, and there crossed the Potomac. Once on the northern banks, they turned east, crossing Antietam Creek and occupying Sharpsburg once again. This, by nightfall, placed them on the Union right.
Meanwhile, Sigel watched the Confederates in the town and the lines beyond and slowly realized that Early had decided not to occupy Harpers Ferry in any vast numbers. But if not Harpers Ferry, then where?
The relative handful of Rebels in the town spent the day feasting and gathering up the abandoned supplies while the Federals watched on helplessly. Their numbers were too deficient to attack, but it was clear that they would never even get the chance to defend.
That night, the two divisions under Jubal Early withdrew, following Gordon to Shepherdstown, and rejoining with John Breckinridge’s division. But time was starting to slip away from Early. With great speed he flew north to the lower Shenandoah Valley, but now he seemed hesitant to stray too far into Maryland, clinging to the Potomac River.1
- Sources: Autobiographical Sketch by Jubal Anderson Early; Six Years of Hell by Chester G. Hearn; Jubal Early’s Raid on Washington by Benjamin Franklin Cooling. [↩]