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Stonewall Jackson Builds a Legend
at Harpers Ferry in 1861

Turning Recruits into Soldiers

Harper's Ferry was a strategic point in northern Virginia. It was the gate to the Shenandoah Valley as well as the point where the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad crossed the Potomac some sixty miles northwest of Washington. Harper's Ferry was known by name to North and South through John Brown's raid two years before. It was now coveted by Virginia for its Arsenal as well as for its command of road, rail, and water routes. The plan to raid it was arranged at Richmond on the sixteenth of April. But when the raiders reached it on the eighteenth they found it abandoned and its Arsenal in flames. The machine shops, however, were saved, as well as the metal parts of twenty thousand stand of arms. Then the Virginia militiamen and volunteers streamed in, to the number of over four thousand. They were a mere conglomeration of semi-independent units, mostly composed of raw recruits under officers who themselves knew next to nothing. As usual with such fledgling troops there was no end to the fuss and feathers among the members of the busybody staffs, who were numerous enough to manage an army but clumsy enough to spoil a platoon. It was said, and not without good reason, that there was as much gold lace at Harper's Ferry, when the sun was shining, as at a grand review in Paris.

Into this gaudy assemblage rode Thomas Jonathan Jackson, mounted on Little Sorrel, a horse as unpretentious as himself, and dressed in his faded old blue professor's uniform without one gleam of gold. He had only two staff officers, both dressed as plainly as himself. He was not a major-general, nor even a brigadier; just a colonel. He held no trumpeting reviews. He made no flowery speeches. He didn't even swear. The armed mob at Harper's Ferry felt that they would lose caste on Sunday afternoons under a commandant like this. Their feelings were still more outraged when they heard that every officer above the rank of captain was to lose his higher rank, and that all new reappointments were to be made on military merit and direct from Richmond. Companies accustomed to elect their officers according to the whim of the moment eagerly joined the higher officers in passing adverse resolutions. But authorities who were unanimous for Lee were not to be shaken by such absurdities in face of a serious war. And when the froth had been blown off the top, and the dregs drained out of the bottom, the solid mass between, who really were sound patriots, settled down to work.

There was seven hours' drill every day except Sunday; no light task for a mere armed mob groping its ignorant way, however zealously, towards the organized efficiency of a real army. The companies had to be formed into workable battalions, the battalions into brigades. There was a deplorable lack of cavalry, artillery, engineers, commissariat, transport, medical services, and, above all, staff. Armament was bad; other munitions were worse. There would have been no chance whatever of holding Harper's Ferry unless the Northern conglomeration had been even less like a fighting army than the Southern was.

Harper's Ferry was not only important in itself but still more important for what it covered: the wonderfully fruitful Shenandoah Valley, running southwest a hundred and forty miles to the neighborhood of Lexington, with an average width of only twenty-four. Bounded on the west by the Alleghanies and on the east by the long Blue Ridge this valley was a regular covered way by which the Northern invaders might approach, cut Virginia in two (for West Virginia was then a part of the State) and, after devastating the valley itself (thus destroying half the foodbase of Virginia) attack eastern Virginia through whichever gaps might serve the purpose best. More than this, the only direct line from Richmond to the Mississippi ran just below the southwest end of the valley, while a network of roads radiated from Winchester near the northeast end, thirty miles southwest of Harper's Ferry.

Throughout the month of May Jackson went on working his men into shape and watching the enemy, three thousand strong, at Chambersburg, forty-five miles north of Harper's Ferry, and twelve thousand strong farther north still. One day he made a magnificent capture of rolling stock on the twenty-seven miles of double track that centered in Harper's Ferry. This greatly hampered the accumulation of coal at Washington besides helping the railroads of the South. Destroying the line was out of the question, because it ran through West Virginia and Maryland, both of which he hoped to see on the Confederate side. He was himself a West Virginian, born at Clarksburg; and it grieved him greatly when West Virginia stood by the Union.

Apart from this he did nothing spectacular. The rest was all just sheer hard work. He kept his own counsel so carefully that no one knew anything about what he would do if the enemy advanced. Even the officers of outposts were forbidden to notice or mention his arrival or departure on his constant tours of inspection, lest a longer look than usual at any point might let an awkward inference be drawn. He was the sternest of disciplinarians when the good of the service required it. But no one knew better that the finest discipline springs from self-sacrifice willingly made for a worthy cause; and no one was readier to help all ranks along toward real efficiency in the kindest possible way when he saw they were doing their best.

At the end of May Johnston took over the command of the increasing force at Harper's Ferry, while Jackson was given the First Shenandoah Brigade, a unit soon, like himself, to be raised by service into fame.

The above information comes from Captains of the Civil War, A Chronicle of the Blue and the Gray by William Wood

John Brown's Raid on Harpers Ferry
Lee's Maryland Campaign of 1862
Map of the area around Harpers Ferry
Map of Stonewall Jackson's Route to Harpers Ferry
Battle of Crampton's Gap
Battle of South Mountain

Harpers Ferry as a Federal Depot
National Park Site

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