Just one week after the Second Battle of Bull Run, General Robert E. Lee decided it was time to take the war into the North. By marching his victorious army into Maryland, Lee had several objectives. First, he wanted to maintain the momentum achieved with his stunning victory at Bull Run a few days earlier, which left the retreating Union army in chaos. By marching into Maryland, Lee could relieve Virginia of enemy occupation. He knew the Union army would have to mirror his movements and take up defensive positions in front of Washington and Baltimore.
Logistically, also, moving his army into the unharvested, virgin countryside of western Maryland would provide new food supplies for Lee's hungry soldiers, and the merchant stores in Frederick could resupply his troops with new clothing and shoes. Also September and October mark the key harvest months. Without Union armies to bother them, the Southern farmers could gather their harvests and be able to feed Lee's armies during the upcoming winter.
Lee also hoped that by his moving into Maryland the undecided border state would join the Southern cause. Possibly he could influence the upcoming Congressional Elections and cause more Democrats--who favored peace--to be able to outvote the Republican majority in the House and demand an end to the war.
However, as a larger objective Lee hoped that a victory in the North by his extremely confident army could gain diplomatic recognition from Europe and possibly bring England and France to the aid of the South. Such a victory might cause the people of the North to question President Lincoln's leadership and force him to sue for peace.
And so on Thursday morning, September 4, 1862, the dirty, ragged Army of Northern Virginia splashed across the shallow fords of the Potomac River just north of Leesburg to the strains of "Maryland, My Maryland." By midmorning, Saturday, September 6, Gen. "Stonewall" Jackson's advance force of 5,000 men marched down Market Street in Frederick and made camp on the north side of town. The remainder of Lee's 40,000-man army soon followed.
Upon his arrival in town, Lee drew up a Proclamation to the People of Maryland, inviting them to side with the Southern movement. For the next several days Lee's troops, upon strict orders not to pillage, bought food and all the shoes and clothing they could find at the stores in town. But soon it became obvious that the citizens of Frederick, though polite, had no sympathy for the Southern cause.
So Lee drew up a new set of plans. He would divide his forces into four sections, sending Gen. Jackson with six divisions of 22,000 men to eliminate the 12,000-strong Federal garrison at Harpers Ferry to the southwest. The remaining three divisions of Lee's forces--18,000 men, under Gen. James Longstreet--would move northwest over the Catoctin and South Mountain ranges to Boonsboro and Hagerstown, a distance of 25 miles.
Later Jackson would rejoin Lee and Longstreet at Hagerstown. Then, using these mountain ranges to protect his right flank, Lee could move his combined Confederate forces northeast along the rail line to Harrisburg, the capital of Pennyslvania and a key rail center for the Union. Early on Wednesday morning, September 10, Lee's forces began leaving Frederick to carry out their assignments.
The Seige of Harpers Ferry
With his invasion, Lee expected some 14,000 Federal troops garrisoning Harpers Ferry and Martinsburg to withdraw northward. In fact, Lee's plans depended upon it – the Confederates needed the Shenandoah Valley as their line of supply and communication while they campaigned north of the Potomac. The Federals, however, refused to withdraw, forcing Lee into a quandary. Believing that Union forces were in "a very demoralized and chaotic condition" following their defeat at Second Manassas in Virginia, and that Union General George B. McClellan was "an able general but a very cautious one," Lee decided to divide his army into four parts. Special Orders 191 contained all the operational details: three separate columns totaling almost 23,000 men would march on Harpers Ferry, surround the place, and capture or destroy the Union garrison there. With that mission accomplished, Lee's entire army would reassemble at Boonsboro, Maryland – 20 miles north of Harpers Ferry. Lee selected Major General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson to lead the assault on Harpers Ferry. The Union Garrison Union Colonel Dixon S. Miles found a war-ravaged wasteland when he took command at Harpers Ferry in the spring of 1862. The Harpers Ferry Armory, which at its peak had produced 10,000 firearms a year, lay in ruins – burned by Confederate forces in 1861. The town's churches and mills had become hospitals; shops and residences had become barracks and stables. The prewar population of 3,000 had fled. Only 100 local inhabitants dared remain on the border between North and South. One soldier wrote that the blackened ruins of Harpers Ferry presented a "ghost of a former life," and that "the entire place is not actually worth $10." But the military value of Harpers Ferry remained important. It served as a key base of supply for Union operations in the Shenandoah Valley, and served to protect the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal and Baltimore & Ohio Railroad – important Union transportation corridors. Altogether, Miles commanded 14,000 men at Harpers Ferry and Martinsburg in September 1862. The Confederate Advance Special Orders 191 anticipated splendid results. But could the mission be accomplished in the allotted three days? The operation appeared to be technically overwhelming: three separate columns marching circuitous routes, converging from three different directions, ascending three separate ridges divided by two rivers. There was heavy artillery to place, caissons to haul up steep ridges, with signal flags serving as the best means of communication. One glance at Lee's veterans suggested that his Harpers Ferry mission was impossible. Short on food, destitute of clothing, and many shoeless from hundreds of miles of marching, Lee's ragged army appeared physically incapable of meeting the campaign's tight deadline. Nevertheless, on September 10, Lee bade his detached columns farewell as they left Frederick and pressed on toward Harpers Ferry.
Brigadier General John G. Walker commanded one wing of Jackson's three-pronged advance. Crossing the Potomac River at Noland's Ferry near Point of Rocks, Maryland, Walker advanced across the northern Virginia countryside to the eastern slope of Loudoun Heights. Colonel Miles had neglected to post any men or artillery on these heights, considering them to be well within the range of Federal gunners on nearby Maryland Heights. Walker, facing no Union opposition, moved a battery of artillery up onto Loudoun Heights and, on September 14, exchanged the first artillery fire with Union guns at Harpers Ferry. Major General Lafayette McLaws commanded the second wing of the Confederate advance. McLaws understood the topography around Harpers Ferry well. At 1,448 feet, Maryland Heights was the highest ridge overlooking Harpers Ferry. "So long as Maryland Heights was occupied by the enemy," he wrote, "Harper's Ferry could never be occupied by us. If we gained possession of the heights, the town was no longer tenable to them." McLaws ordered two infantry brigades to advance south along the crest of Elk Ridge – the northern extension of Maryland Heights. On September 13, these Confederates drove 4,600 Union defenders off the mountain despite "a most obstinate and determined resistance." One day later, McLaws opened fire on Harpers Ferry with four guns. Major General "Stonewall" Jackson commanded the third Confederate wing himself. Advancing from Frederick to Boonsboro, Maryland, Jackson swept across western Maryland, crossed the Potomac River at Williamsport, captured Martinsburg, and came up behind Harpers Ferry – marching 51 miles in less than two days. Jackson's 14,000-man column occupied School House Ridge, sealing the trap on the surrounded Federal garrison.
Map of Jackson's Route to Harpers Ferry
From his command post near Halltown, "Stonewall" Jackson methodically and deliberately positioned his cannons "to drive the enemy" into extinction. Indeed, Confederate artillery fire upon Harpers Ferry was effective and demoralizing. Colonel William H. Trimble of the 60th Ohio wrote that there was "not a place where you could lay the palm of your hand and say it was safe." Realizing that artillery alone probably would not subdue the Union garrison, Jackson ordered General A.P. Hill to flank the Federal position on top of Bolivar Heights. Using School House Ridge for cover, Hill moved his forces toward the Shenandoah River, dragged and tugged five batteries up the river's steep bluffs, and succeeded in planting his artillery 1,000 yards from the exposed left flank of the Union position. Hill later wrote that "the fate of Harpers Ferry was sealed."
Map of Jackson's Final Positions at Harpers Ferry
Louis Hull of the 60th Ohio agreed, writing in his diary on the evening of September 14th: "All seem to think that we will have to surrender or be cut to pieces."
On the morning of September 15, the Union commanders at Harpers Ferry held a council of war. Surrounded by a force twice the size of their own and out of long range artillery ammunition, the officers unanimously agreed to surrender. At around 9:00 a.m., white flags were raised by Union troops all along Bolivar Heights. Minutes later, a stray Confederate shell exploded directly behind Colonel Dixon Miles, mortally wounding the Union commander. Brigadier General Julius White, second in command, made the final arrangements for the Union surrender. Jackson captured over 12,500 Union troops at Harpers Ferry – the largest single capture of Federal forces during the entire war. The Confederates also seized 13,000 arms and 47 pieces of artillery.
Lee's Plans Disrupted
Three unforseen events, however, would disrupt Lee's plans. General George McClellan would reorganize the Army of the Potomac in days, rather than weeks as Lee expected, and arrive in Frederick on Friday, September 12th. Second, the garrison at Harpers Ferry, rather than fleeing, was ordered to stand until reinforcements could arrive. Third, an official copy of Lee's Special Order 191--wrapped around three cigars and placed in an envelope—was found by a Union private in an abandoned Confederate campsite the next day.
When Lee learned that McClellan's army was moving westward from Frederick, he realized the peril in which his divided forces found themselves. Quickly he sent troops to block the three main passes over South Mountain, providing sufficient time to concentrate the majority of his forces in a defensive position around Sharpsburg, six miles to the southwest of Boonsboro. At the same time McClellan, with 85,000 men, gathered on the east bank of the Antietam Creek. And thus, late on September 16, all the pieces were in place late for the battle that would begin at sunrise the next morning--the battle that would become the bloodiest day of the Civil War.
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