|Unit History Project|
The Thorny Rose: The
Americanization of an Urban, Immigrant, Working Class
Regiment in the Civil War. A Social History of the 39th New
York Volunteer Infantry
At Fort Garibaldi in Winchester, the battle-scarred veterans of the Garibaldi Guard were recovering slowly from the combined frustrations of internal strife and the neutralization of their exemplary combat actions at Cross Keys by the humiliating Union reverses in the Valley. Detached now from the German Division, they carried out the daily tasks of garrison duty under the command of General John Wool of the Union Middle Department. In early August, their immediate commander was General Julius White, whose orders were to occupy and fortify Winchester, the Valley's queen secessionist city, as an additional Union supply and communication center. Fort Garibaldi was one of many such entrenched and parapeted works thrown up around the city. Winchester's works were spread out primarily east, northeast and southeast of the city and included artillery emplacements, lunettes and redoubts with infantry works and rifle trenches. (1)
Also at Winchester was the Thirty-Second Ohio Infantry Regiment, like the Garibaldians, another veteran unit, under the command of Colonel Thomas Ford, a square jawed, wavy haired man with a look of stubbornness and determination. Enlisting in 1861, the Thirty-Second "saw the elephant" for the first time, challenging the advance of Robert E. Lee in his first rebellion field campaign at Cheat Mountain, in western Virginia. The Thirty-Second, a native regiment, had felt badly used by the Army because of the sufferings they were forced to endure in the passes around Cheat Mountain, later admitted to be of little strategic significance. Shortages of tents, blankets and overcoats left the men unprepared for the cold, biting wintry winds that sent violent shivering tremors through their ill-clad bodies and depleted their numbers through sickness. Even spooning at night, sharing blankets and body heat with your comrades did not ward off the frigid, cutting temperatures. (2 )They could empathize with the feelings of the Garibaldians, their comrades since Cross Keys. Their memories of sufferings were rubbed raw by the latest Federal reverses.
One of the newer regiments at Winchester was the Ninth Vermont Infantry. These New Englanders were just as hardy, but just as green, as the mountains that had nurtured them. Organized at Brattleboro in southern Vermont, an area steeped in the tradition of colonial rebellion~the land of Ethan Allen, the Green Mountain Boys and the Bennington Flag~the Ninth was mustered into service in July of 1862 and was shipped immediately to the front in old cattle cars. The Vermont men were encamped on the heights of Winchester, and they received a taste of Southern chivalry early in their stay, albeit not from rebel troops. The Union men were shot at by hoop-skirted irregulars--Winchester women. This led one Vermont soldier to declare: "The women here are worse than in New Orleans." (3)
In addition to this exposure to feminine scorn, the men at Winchester were annoyed by continuing secesh espionage and bushwhackers, who ambushed and hanged unwary Union pickets. Anxiety about sneak attacks was augmented by the physical hardship of life in the trenches, where the Union men worked a grueling, back-breaking ten hour day. (4) By the time they reached Winchester, the Garibaldians, having learned the essentials of building works in the defenses of Washington City, were expert at the rock-blasting and pick and shovel work that filled their days in Winchester, as well as the trenches of Fort Garibaldi. But expertise made it no less arduous in the searing arridity of late summer in the Valley. And the worst plague in the ail-too-sunny South was the dust The dust, churned up by all the digging, was almost human in its maddening harassment of the men. Stirred up by a cunning and malicious wind, it whirled through the open tents both night and day. It got in your water, it got in your food (which was bad enough already). It formed a constant grit in your mouth. If you were not careful about when and how you breathed, the dust would choke you. Secesh dust, no doubt. Keeping clean was a luxury belonging to a time now gone. (5)
When the news reached Winchester of John Pope's defeat at Second Manasses, new tension gripped the now-stranded soldiers. The Union forces at Winchester were now subject to nightly attacks by increasingly larger forces of what appeared to be guerrillas and bushwhackers. (6) It was Tuesday evening, September 2, and the soldiers' grapevine had been humming furiously all day. The men of the Ninth Vermont were hard at work on the Star Fort, Winchester's six-pointed redoubt colossus, which was nearly complete. The Garibaldians were settling into their new home with some finishing touches at Fort Garibaldi. The signal to quit that day evoked sighs of relief all along the Union front, but the orders that followed were incredible! After weeks of drudgery in which most of the men developed a sort of grudging pride and a sense of ownership of their works, the command came to pack up and move out. The men of the Ninth Vermont were ordered to pile up their tools with combustibles and dismount the great old-fashioned 32-pounder cannons from the wheeled carriages on the parapets they had so painstaking built up. It had taken five days to get those damned guns up from the rails. And now they were ordered to dismantle them and render them unserviceable. At Fort Garibaldi details of men began grimly but systematically to break camp and to pile up belongings for transfer to the wagon trains.
Colonel D'Utassy, now a brigade commander, was staying in the town recovering from an illness when Major Hugo Hildebrandt transmitted the order to him. D'Utassy rose from his sickbed and went immediately to General White. "General," he protested, "you promised us a fight here; shall we have again to abandon the place?" White replied that the first duty of a soldier was to obey and that he had received "peremptory orders from the War Department." (7)
As darkness swallowed the Valley supply depot, foreboding and gloom overcame the troops. Throughout the evening, the Garibaldians packed all of their ammunition, arms, quartermaster stores and seven days rations. Rumors gave way to fearful realization. Marching orders clinched it At 11 o'clock, on an exceedingly clear, moonlit night, the Union garrison evacuated Winchester. Two or three hours down the road to Martinsburg shattering explosions turned the eyes of the men to their rear where lightning flashes of shooting flames and columns of smoke against the black sky told the men that the powder magazine, as well as many of the fortifications had been blown up to keep them out of the hands of the enemy. They resolutely tramped down the road to Harper's Ferry in the crisp but tainted night air. Their laborious efforts of summer were in vain, and they were in retreat. It was an oft-told tale.(8)
Just twelve hours later, at eleven o'clock in the morning, Confederate troops occupied Winchester. (9)
As the Garibaldians moved into Harper's Ferry, Confederate army movements all over the lower Valley prodded Union troops into a state of alert tension. At Martinsburg, the major depot on the B & O line northwest of Harper's Ferry, fresh Union regiments like the 126th New York, an untried unit from the Genessee Valley in New York, arrived daily. Late summer was cherry harvest season in Martinsburg. One tree, eight feet in circumference and fifty feet high, it was said, could produce over forty bushels of "heart cherries", a treat, indeed, when compared to the regular army fare. The men stationed there consumed huge amounts of not only cherries, but dewberries and whortleberries as well. Although southern ladies turned their backs on Union soldiers and flies were a vexing problem, the cherries and the magnificent mountain views had made life a trifle easier for the Union men at Martinsburg. The troopers of the Eleventh Illinois Cavalry had been in the area since late June. The Twelfth's job was to keep tabs on the Confederate guerrillas who threatened Federal maintenance of the B & O, and, thus, the Union supply line to the Valley troops. They had been issued new Burnside breechloading carbines to help them do this. With a Bum side a man could "load and fire ten times per minute with care and take deliberate aim." A veteran soldier was lucky if he pulled off two shots a minute with his improved rifled musket On August 10th Confederate guerrillas had attempted to fill up a B & O tunnel in order to stop the cars. In their spare time they forced loyal Union men into the rebel army, stole Army horses and generally rampaged around the countryside. (10) On the morning of September 4 an outpost of the Twelfth, on orders from Colonel Dixon Miles at Harper's Ferry, sent out a reconnoitering squad that ran smack into twelve mounted Confederates just six miles from their picket post The Union troopers charged the rebels and "drove them pell-mell before them." But the next day it became apparent that they were grappling with something other than bushwhackers. This time, instead of running, a larger mounted force stayed to play. The Confederates took cover behind some old buildings and unloaded some hot lead directly into the faces of the Twelfth's advance. Taken aback by such haughty and impolite conduct, the Twelfth bore down upon the rebels and sent them galloping away. After an energetic pursuit, the Union horsemen returned with six prisoners. Questioning turned up information that was cause for worry. These secesh were not irregulars. They were volunteers of the Twelfth Virginia Cavalry, Stonewall Jackson's Army. Three days later, On September 5 Federal pickets were driven in and a fierce skirmish ended in temporary victory for the Union side. The cat-and-mouse game was over. It was now ascertained that a sizeable advance guard of at least seven hundred rebel horsemen were menacing the Union line at Martinsburg—a bad omen for Union troops all over the Valley. (11)
In General John Wool's Middle Department, telegraph lines were buzzing. To General Julius White, ordered to Martinsburg after delivering Winchester's evacuated troops to Harper's Ferry, Wool sent a dispatch ordering htm to "defend yourself to the last extremity. No running before the enemy is coming. Reconnoiter." (12) When White's reconnaissance turned up the Confederate advance at Darkesville, Wool telegraphed him that if overwhelming numbers attacked, he should fall back to Harper's Ferry, removing as much U.S. Government surplus property as possible.
Simultaneously, orders and inquiries rippled back and forth from Wool to Miles at Harper's Ferry. Wool did not know Miles and had no basis for confidence in him. But a rotten situation was at hand and Miles needed to be prepared for it. Unfortunately, what Wool told Miles seemed to go in one ear and out the other. To Wool's worried inquiry, Miles insisted that he had enough ammunition and rations. When Wool ordered Miles to erect a blockhouse on the highest part of Maryland Heights, a precipice commanding the Ferry, and even sent him an engineer to "superintend the construcion of it," Miles paid no heed. When Wool instructed him to "abbatis the heights of Harper's Ferry," this was also ignored. Wool's attempts to get Miles to entrench and fortify Bolivar Heights fully and carefully (especially since this is where Miles expected to be attacked) also met with failure. What was wrong with the man? His efforts at fortification were sluggish, wholly inefficient and totally insufficent. (13) Finally, an imperative dispatch to Miles dated September 5 commanded:
The position on the heights ought to enable you to punish the enemy passing up the road in the direction of Harper's Ferry. Have your wits about you and do all you can to annoy the rebels should they advance on you. Activity--energy--and decision must be used. YOU WILL NOT ABANDON HARPER'S FERRY WITHOUT DEFENDING IT TO THE LAST EXTREMITY.
Two days later Wool's telegraph operator received a dispatch from Miles which read: "The enemy is steadily pressing on my pickets, and is establishing batteries on the plateau opposite Point of Rocks, but I am ready for them." (14) Shortly thereafter, one more dispatch began clicking through from the eastern line, "How are you General Pope? General Jackson's Army." (15)
Harper's Ferry is located at the very lowest point in the valley of the Shenandoah River. The Shenandoah falls forty feet in one mile here and offers a constant source of water power, a natural waterway to facilitate trade in the Nineteenth century's boom years. The modern visitor to Harper's Ferry can stand upon the grassy embankment known as The Point (once a bustling corner of hotels and saloons) and witness a spectacular collage of nature. At your left hand, the Potomac River painstakingly makes its way over its now depleted rocky riverbed At your right, the bubbling Shenandoah moves more quickly to meet its old companion. There before you, in the shadow of three craggy precipitous cliffs, they embrace, and flow together toward the Atlantic. In back of you, the quaint cobblestone and brick streets of the town reach precariously up still another steep hill, and stone steps, said to be stained with the blood of wounded soldiers, beckon up past the ruins of old St. John's Episcopal Church and the restored and functioning St. Peter's Catholic Church. Both were used as Civil War field hospitals. The Episcopal structure was shattered by artillery fire in the battle and left to die in what became by the 1880's a pitiful little ghost town. Continuing your walk carefully up the narrow, climbing path, you arrive at Jefferson Rock, where that founding parent witnessed the environmental drama from above and declared that the view was worth a trip across the Atlantic. (16)
By 1850 Harper's Ferry, Virginia was a thriving industrial center. More than three hundred mechanics, most of whom had emigrated from the workshops of the North, worked in the United States Armory and Arsenal alone. Others labored in Hall's Rifle Works, the flour mill, the distillery, and other factories on Virginius Island, an isthmus in the Shenandoah flanked on one side by the Chesapeake and Ohio canal. Barges and canalboats carried agricultural produce from the bounteous Shenandoah Valley to points beyond, and the Winchester and Potomac Railroad competed with the Baltimore and Ohio for overland transport.
The working people of Harper's Ferry were not union men, but guarded carefully and collectively what few privileges they had in the workplace. One of these privileges was the daily dram on the shop floor. In the years before the Whigs took power in Washington City, civilian proprietors of the Government works were lenient when it came to hours and refreshment. The gunsmiths of those early days kept a bucket of whiskey in the shop for a quick nip at frequent intervals. When one overseer forbade drinking during work hours on the shop floor, the smiths complied by sticking their heads out the window while taking a swig. The coming of military proprietorship and time-work discipline changed all that. In response, the workers chartered a canalboat and took their grievances directly to President John Tyler. In the spirit of the patronizing and patriarchal individualism of the period, Tyler told them not to seek their "sacred rights" through negotiation, but to "hammer out their salvation" at work. (17)
Thanks to its critical reputation as arms supplier for America, Harper's Ferry was among the first victims of the sectional crisis as it made its deadly metamorphosis into civil war. In 1859, "Old Osawatomie" Brown of Bleeding Kansas fame waved his fiery abolitionist sword over the town in a courageous but futile attempt to capture weapons for use in a major slave insurrection. But at the outset of formal war a shabby professor from the Virginia Military Institute, whom his students called "Fool Tom Jackson" and who had watched John Brown's seated body swing at the end of a rope in 1859, claimed Harper's Ferry and its military riches for the Confederacy. Most of its residents had fled the town by 1862, when it once again fell prey to the maneuvering armies.
The occupation of Harper's Ferry by Union forces in Spring of 1862 had been crucial to McClellan's campaign against Richmond. Little Mac considered it essential to firmly secure Harper's Ferry for Federal arms in order to re-open the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad line and establish a vital stronghold of Union supplies at the bottom of the Shenandoah Valley. (18) At the end of March, the B & O, with its new bridge replacing one destroyed earlier in the war, was on the tracks again. It was estimated that "3800 cars passed east and west over the bridge the first day." (19) Throughout the spring and summer, Harper's Ferry continued to act as a supply thoroughfare and depot, its tiny garrison swatting left and right at Confederate raids as Union forces chased Jackson up and down the Valley. But as the torrid dog days of August gave way to the lengthening shadows of Indian summer, the junction river town took on a glaring new significance. It stood squarely in the way of Robert E. Lee's planned invasion of the North.
At Harper's Ferry Colonel D'Utassy commanded the First Brigade comprising the right wing of the Union army on Bolivar Heights, west of the town, a position perceived as the first line of defense against a possible Confederate assault. His command included the Garibaldians, the 111th and the 115th New York and the 15th Indiana Battery. (20) Other troops were stationed on Maryland Heights, on Camp Hill and down the river at Sandy Hook. The Garibaldians were the only veteran unit in the brigade, and much of D'Utassy's task had to do with initiating the other New York troops into the rigors of camp life. This included teaching the new recruits how to build fortifications and, more importantly, drill and the school of the soldier, given the serious prospect of battle. These critical and laborious military lessons took place in what the soldiers perceived to be an unfriendly climate, hot and debilitating in daytime and "cold almost to frostiness at night." It was a climate that discouraged even the strong from wanting to move very quickly or exert any energy much less to spend long hours of the day clearing timber for the placement of artillery batteries and going through the drill manual the rest of the time. And when one was hot, dusty, aching and exhausted from strenuous labor or continuous drill, the rivers and streams offered no refreshment. The local water, according to one officer from Vermont, tasted like "St. Catharine's concentrate." (21)
The 111th New York of Amboy, one of D'Utassy's new regiments had a particularly rude awakening to the toils of a soldier's life. Royal treatment at the Soldiers' Entertainment Hall in Philadelphia en route to the Valley did nothing to prepare them for the bleak days ahead. They were loaded into rickety old box cars and shipped like freight to Harper's Ferry, where they wearily ascended the hills of the upper town and encamped on Bolivar Heights. There they were issued blankets, tents, black tarred knapsacks, wool-insulated canteens and Springfield rifles. They made their camp--a tedious business in itself--and began to drill, drill, drill and drill some more. With the additional task of clearing woods and digging rifle pits, according to Benjamin W. Thompson of the 111th, their duties included "lots of hard and dirty work that we never dreamed belonged to a soldier." (22)
Nicholas DeGraff of the 115th New York~the "Iron-Hearted Regiment," another of D'Utassy's new charges, and also relatively untutored in the school of war, was exhilarated by the beauty of the natural surroundings despite the strenuous nature of daily camp life and the confusion that often resulted from mixed-up orders. For his regiment, laying out camp became a ritual all too soon. As soon as they managed to arrange the neat lines of white canvas tents along company streets, dug firepits for cooking, stacked arms, made their tents as comfortable as possible and then laid down to rest, they would swiftly get orders to strike tents and fall in, in heavy marching order. This meant taking the tents back down, rolling blankets back up, packing knapsacks, gathering equipment, and putting the whole kit'n'caboodle on your person in proper order for marching. After repeating this carnival three times in forty-eight hours, they were finally permitted to remain in one place, at the elevation of one-half mile, where there was a beautiful view. (23) DeGraff described mornings at the Ferry as perfectly delightful, and this writer has also found them so. Early morning whispers its presence with illusive mists like heavenly bedding over the rivers, waiting for rays of sunlight that will soon filter through the clouds and take command of the day, making the dew on the grass gleam. The sounds of the camp must have mingled with these soothing and yet exhilarating sights and sounds in a curious way.
On September 7 the 115th had the regulation Sunday inspection. This meant that the men had to line up in marching order for inspection of rifles and uniforms, to ensure their cleanliness, and of other accoutrements and personal items they carried. All these things were placed on top of their waterproof "gum blankets", folded dog tents and black unistriped grey wool blankets for the viewing of their commanding officer. Soldiers were responsible for all government issue property, and woe to the man who had something he shouldn't or had thrown away something he needed. He would end up paying a pretty penny in compensation before he sent any pay home or spent any of it for luxuries or "medicinal" comforts. But that day the 115th passed inspection well. Their Brigade commander, Colonel D'Utassy, told the men that he was pleased with them and that all they needed were drill and discipline and he would be proud of the privilege to lead them to victory. (24)
During spare moments a soldier who knew the ins and outs of the camp might wander down to the village to see the sights. In addition to the natural panorama, which became more dramatic as one descended into the town, Old John Brown's engine house, where his insurrectionary dreams came to a shuddering halt, was a point of interest. The government Arsenal and many of the Virginius Island factory buildings were still charred and blackened from the misfortunes of war, but re-roofing had made the government buildings available for army stores. Jefferson's Rock was accessible for those who wished to place their feet on the very spot where the third President had stood, and various establishments in town were still open for a soldier to supplement his bland and meager diet with luxuries like ginger snaps. (25)
Some of the iron-hearted soldiers of the 115th New York visited the Harper's Ferry caverns, exploring them for nearly 250 feet. One of them jokingly suggested that the caves would be a "grand retreat in case of bombardment."
Evenings at the Ferry were an equally interesting spectacle in good weather or bad. DeGraff wrote is his journal on September 8: "The full moon is rising grandly over Maryland Heights, an emblem of such perfect peace that it rebukes us in our warlike-surroundings." (26)
Whether exhilarating in the natural wonders of the area, seeing the sights, or performing the duties of the soldier, the men of the Harper's Ferry garrison did not wander too far from home. As in Winchester and Martinsburg, the problems with guerrillas and rumors of advancing Confederate forces kept the camps in a state of apprehension. One house near the camp of the 115th New York was supposedly a den of secessionist activity. It was on a hill, and rockets were seen darting forth from it at night, apparently sending information about the garrison to rebel lookouts. Men in grey, either imagined or real, were reported skulking around the house. Finally, on September 5, twenty-five men of Company H set out to investigate. After some argument, the lady of the house surrendered the keys. The Union men found a dark, hidden passageway filled with stolen Union contraband,: "a U.S. wall tent,...three fancy Virginia rifles, a quantity of bayonets, scabbards, shirts, drawers and pants all with a U.S. mark plus 2000 pounds of bacon." When offered cider, an obvious luxury, by the young women of the house, the men were suspicious. They asked a Black servant to drink some in order to find out if it was poisoned; apparently, it was not As they left the grounds, the women muttered in disgust, calling them "mudsills," the lowest of the low. Union men had learned to expect as much from secesh females. (27)
It did not end there. Only a day or two later, several pickets were murdered at their posts, crept up upon from behind. John Hubbard of Company A, 115th New York was a victim. The 115th New Yorkers were new troops, but they had been through enough already to have developed the simple camaraderie and the love of comrades that came from eating, sleeping and just being together. A strike against one of their number, and a cowardly act at that, was a strike against all of them. Retribution was in order, and the finger of accusation pointed directly to the house on the hill. The next day, a squad of men riddled the house with bullets and smashed the glass windows. (28) It was a warning. War was not a pleasant business. You looked after your comrades, and your comrades looked after you.
For all their military inexperience, the new recruits at Harper's Ferry knew one thing: if, God forbid, they would have to make a stand here, the highest heights would be the key to the position-Maryland Heights, a part of Elk Ridge Mountain, flanking their position across the Potomac to the North. That much was obvious. The Ferry itself, and even Bolivar Heights, where Miles said he expected the first attack, were indefensible without seizing Maryland Heights. The Heights quite simply commanded the whole position. A Captain in the Ninth Vermont explained: "We were at the bottom of a bowl." (29) Another account described it: "Drop an apple into a bushel basket and you have the situation of Harper's Ferry. It is not a village at the base of a mountain, but a village surrounded by mountains, and a field piece on Maryland or Loudon Heights can hurl its missile into any part of the antiquated town." (30)
A natural inclination for an experienced soldier looking up at the mountains on his rear and flanks was to want to dig in. But Colonel Miles said no. (31) The enemy would attack from the West They would meet the enemy on Bolivar Heights. And there was enough digging of artillery emplacements and clearing of timber to be done. As early as Wednesday, September 3, the day the Winchester garrison reached Harper's Ferry after a forced march of thirty-four miles, reports reached Harper's Ferry that the enemy had crossed the Potomac at Point of Rocks and driven in the Union pickets there. Enemy campfires seen at night in the distance seemed to confirm the rumors. Not only had the Confederates crossed, but they also had drained the Chesapeake and Ohio canal in order to cross their artillery. (32)
Rumors of Confederate sightings in odd places began to multiply in the camps, sounding suspiciously as though the Ferry was being enveloped. The men were anxious, but not afraid. For the veterans of the Valley, natural surroundings had done what officers would not-put a stop to this marching to the rear. A Ninth Vermonter wrote: "We are through retreating, everyone hopes, and all full of fight." (33)
To General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Army of Northern Virginia, Harper's Ferry was simply in the way. In transferring his operations from the interior of Virginia to the frontier, Lee hoped that his destitute, bedraggled and hungry soldiers would benefit from the natural riches of the Shenandoah Valley. He also hoped that by threatening Washington, Baltimore and even Pennsylvania, he would pull the Union forces away from their supply bases and wound them desperately before wintry snows brought an end to campaigning for his ill-clad troops. Harper's Ferry stood right in the middle of his proposed lines of supply and communication. (34) Without the Ferry, the Valley's usefulness as a theater of operations would be diminished. Lee had hoped that by moving on Frederick, Maryland, he would force the evacuation of both Harper's Ferry and Martinsburg. When that did not happen, Lee reported that "it became necessary to dislodge the enemy from those positions before concentrating the army west of the mountains." (35) In order to accomplish this, Lee was willing to take a terrible risk. He divided his army, sending almost sixty percent of it, close to 30,000 troops, to take Harper's Ferry. (36) The only thing Lee had to bank on was that a cautious, slow and demoralized Union movement after the second humiliating Northern defeat at Bull Run would give him time to reunite his armies above Harper's Ferry and continue bis major invasion of Northern soil. Completely unaware that the stricken Union army's morale had been tremendously boosted by the re-appointment of George Brinton McClellan as commanding general, unknowing that it was reorganized and ready to move out from Washington's defenses again, expecting a clear shot, Lee disappeared from the front of the Federal capital, and with his shoeless veterans, embarked on his backdoor invasion of the North. And, with unwonted energy, Little Mac, the soldier's soldier, beau ideal of the Army and most loved by his troops, propelled his regenerated columns into motion to intercept Lee.
But the Washington cabinet and Union General-in-Chief, Henry Wager Halleck, had had too great a scare. Halleck, Old Brains, the book soldier, refused to believe that Lee was gone. It was just a feint, he insisted, a trick to pull McClellan away so that the "grey fox" could pounce on the capital. Halleck insisted that McClellan keep his left flank hitched to the Potomac River in order to cover Washington City at all times. It was a handicap from the start. Daring actions required daring counteractions. Yet Halleck continued to implore McClellan to move with forethought and caution. (37)
On September 10 and 11 McClellan begged Halleck to send him all available troops, including those of the Harper's Ferry garrison, which he felt should join his army "by the most practiceable route." McClellan was familiar with Harper's Ferry's strengths and its vulnerabilities. But Halleck refused his plea, with the stipulation that McClellan should first open communications with Colonel Miles by land. It was not until September 12 that definite news from the President told McClellan that the Army of Northern Virginia had crossed the Potomac into Maryland. That same day, all communications by telegraph with Harper's Ferry were cut off. It was too late.
Military theorists agree, and the history of warfare demonstrates, that one of the most dangerous actions an army can take is the detachment of a portion of itself for diversionary or strategic purpose in the course of an invasion. The Baron de Jomini, great Napoleonic historian and chronicler of turn-of-the-eighteenth century warfare, devoted Chapter 5, Article XXXVI, in his Art of War to this subject, "Of Diversions and Great Detachments". When such a movement is unavoidable, as in the case of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in autumn 1862, with its invasion of the North hampered by the existence of the Harper's Ferry garrison, a special kind of leader for the detachment is necessary. Of that leader, Jomini wrote:
For such expeditions officers should be selected who are bold and full of strategems. They ought to inflict upon the enemy all the injury they can without compromising themselves. When the opportunity for striking a telling blow presents itself, they should not think for a moment of any dangers or difficulties in their path. Generally, however, address and presence of mind, which will lead them to avoid useless danger are qualities more necessary for a partisan than cool, calculating boldness.
In such cases, "ease and rapidity of motion will be most likely to insure safety." (38) It was as though Jomini had in mind the one general officer of the American Civil War whose proven propensities and strategic successes by 1862 had predestined him for this important task. That man, already a legend, was Thomas Jonathan Jackson.
Jackson was the obvious and only possible choice that General Lee could make for the investment of the Harper's Ferry garrison. "Old Jack" or "Old Blue Light" as his ragged troops, his "foot cavalry" lovingly sobriqueted their General, was Lee's right arm, the only man who could be trusted with the crucial and dangerous task ahead. The fate of the eastern Confederacy hung in the balance. One false move, or a movement a trifle too slow, could mean the destruction of Lee's separated armies, each defeated by a larger Union force. The trump card in the deal was time. Both Lee and Jackson were betting on what they knew to be characteristic of McClellan--a cautious, careful and protracted advance that would give the main Confederate force and the Jackson detachment all the time they needed to capture Harper's Ferry and re-unite to continue the invasion.
Consequently, Jackson's command crossed the Potomac into Maryland on September 5 to commence its part of the campaign, and moved the next day into the environs of Frederick, Maryland, northwest of Washington City. By September 11 they had passed quickly back over the Potomac into Virginia and prepared to besiege the Union depot at Martinsburg under General Julius White. But White was not effectively surprised. Catching wind of the proximity of Southern troops by careful reconnaissance, he retreated to Harper's Ferry on the night of September 11. The next day the hungry, scarecrow Confederates moved into Martinsburg, picking up a sizeable amount of abandoned stores. (39)
Meanwhile, according to Lee's Special Orders No. 191, two other commands moved toward the Ferry. General Lafayette McLaws' and General Richard Anderson's Divisions moved in from the north and east, and another division under General John G. Walker headed for the Potomac crossing at Point of Rocks in order to approach via Loudon Heights." (40)
McLaws was aware immediately of the significance of Maryland Heights. Said he: "As long as Maryland Heights was occupied by the enemy, Harper's Ferry could never be occupied by us. If we gained possession of the Heights, the town was no longer tenable to them." Accordingly, McLaws ordered Brigadier General J. B. Kershaw and his South Carolinians and Brigadier General William Barksdale and his Mississippians to take the road that ran from the top of Solomon's Gap along Elk Ridge to Maryland Heights. Maryland Heights was the south face of Elk Ridge. The purpose of these troops would be to push any Union force off Maryland Heights. Meanwhile McLaws would move down Pleasant Valley, which was east of and parallel to Elk Ridge. For the men of Kershaw's and Barksdale's Brigades, the way was so steep and so densely wooded that infantry alone could pick its way painstakingly toward the Heights. (41)
Colonel Thomas Ford was in a quandary. On September 5, even as Stonewall Jackson's troops were crossing into Maryland, Ford, a veteran volunteer officer was placed in command of Maryland Heights and entrusted with its defenses. He had under his command his own 32nd Ohio, a battalion of the First Maryland Potomac Home Brigade, the 5th New York Heavy Artillery, a company of Rhode Island cavalry and a detachment of the First Maryland Cavalry. (42) Ford began, however, with a handicap. He had only recently returned from a sixty-day leave during which he had undergone surgery for the removal of a fistula. Now, in the midst of this great responsibility, he could not ride a horse; indeed, he could scarcely walk. He was constantly in pain from swelling and inflammation. (43) On top of his suffering, Ford was having trouble with his commanding officer, Colonel Miles. When Ford took command, he immediately examined the irregular terrain of the Heights and found that there were no defensive positions on the northern and eastern slopes. Anyone who chose could gain the Heights by way of Solomon's Gap, a mountain pass that cut through Elk Ridge four and a half miles from the point of the Heights. Ford determined to place an artillery battery at Solomon's Gap so that he could repel any force that attempted a line of march from the north or east against the Union position. Just as Maryland Heights was the key to Harper's Ferry, Ford knew, Solomon's Gap was the key to Maryland Heights. Thus, without Solomon's Gap, the successful defense of Maryland Heights and thus of the Ferry would be in jeopardy. Immediately Ford applied to Miles for some guns to command the position. Miles refused. Reluctantly, Ford gave up his plans to defend the Gap. He did, however, order some gigantic rocks tumbled into the Gap to obstruct troop movements in that quarter. Then Ford investigated a new approach.
Near the top of the mountain was a lookout or observatory, erected during a previous campaign to detect troop movements in the passes below. If Ford could procure a battery of artillery and place it at the lookout, he could at least contest any enemy movements up the eastern and northern slopes should they gain access to the undefended Gap. (44) Colonel D'Utassy, who had been sent ,to the Heights with Captain Von Sehlen of his brigade artillery to inspect the defenses, agreed with Ford. Ford asked D'Utassy, "What is your idea? What do you think of my position?" D'Utassy replied, "The devil could not get you out of here." Ford agreed, "I am certain of it. Are there forces enough here?" D'Utassy answered, "Yes: but not defense enough; you must have two guns higher up, or some force up there [near the lookout] or the enemy will come and take you in a trap." Ford responded that he had given orders to take some companies up there and had applied for more artillery. D'Utassy said that he would suggest the same in his report to Colonel Miles and later offered the Garibaldians for service on the Heights. But when Ford applied for artillery for his second plan of defense, Miles again refused, complaining that if Ford and McGrath [of the Fifth New York Heavy Artillery] had their way, they would have all the artillery at Harper's Ferry on Maryland Heights. Then Ford appealed for more infantry. Several of the regiments on the Heights were composed of raw troops who had not seen combat and could not be entrusted with the trials of the morrow. And in order for reinforcements to be effective, it would be crucial for them to be on hand for the initial onslaught-most likely at dawn. Miles agreed to send troops, but claimed he did not want to panic the troops on Camp Hill and Bolivar Heights by withdrawing them at night. (45)
Meanwhile, Miles continued to get reports from his cavalry reconnaissance expeditions of Confederate troop movements in the area. Contact with the enemy had been made by two units of New Yorkers and Marylanders in the direction of Frederick. Some Rhode Island troopers rode through Solomon's Gap and came within two miles of the Confederate Army, driving in their pickets and taking twenty-five prisoners. (46)
Colonel William P. Maulsby of the Maryland Potomac Home Brigade had also seen the enemy. He and his troops were stationed at Sandy Hook, due east of Harper's Ferry and at the point where the railroad, the canal, and country roads united leading into Pleasant Valley, the expanse of glen between Elk Ridge and the Blue Ridge. He positioned a line of skirmishers at the eastern base of the slope facing Pleasant Valley. Maulsby was leery of Miles, too. Miles had informed Maulsby that he must not abandon his position and that he (Miles) would reinforce him with half the Harper's Ferry command if necessary. Miles even sent reinforcements—infantry and artillery—to defend this approach to the Ferry. But Miles, Maulsby knew, had a bad habit of contradicting his own written orders with verbal ones. The day after giving the first command, he ordered Maulsby to fall back up the eastern slope of Maryland Heights, insisting that his position was not tenable and that he would lose his guns. Maulsby, meanwhile, had discovered a long wagon train about three miles distant in Pleasant Valley, but its extremities were not visible. For three hours, Maulsby observed Confederate movements. As he looked on, the enemy began planting an artillery battery across Pleasant Valley on the western slope of the eastern Blue Ridge range. On September 12, early in the morning, Maulsby sent word to Colonel Miles of these secesh movements. The Confederates, it seemed, were everywhere. (47)
Major Hugo Hildebrandt had been a soldier since he was fourteen years old. He received his first commission six years later in the midst of the Hungarian Revolution. Soldiering was all he knew. He had come to America in May 1861 for yet another war and joined with his fellow Hungarian Frederick George D'Utassy, in officering the Garibaldians. Hildebrandt was one of the survivors of the officer conflicts of the previous year, battles that had left a bad taste in his mouth for Colonel D'Utassy. At Harper's Ferry Hildebrandt commanded the Garibaldians while D'Utassy officered the First Brigade.
On September 11 the rumor spread through the camp that Union General Ambrose Bum side had captured Richmond. The troops had not seen newspapers for a week, and, although the rumor was unfounded, it fired the spirit of the men, even as Confederate troops closed in on them. (48) Late that same Thursday evening, Hildebrandt received orders from headquarters to remove the Garibaldians from the Union line on Bolivar Heights and report, with them, to Colonel Thomas Ford on Maryland Heights. Two companies of Garibaldians were absent on picket duty, and Hildebrandt was reinforced by two companies of the "iron hearted" 115th New York. At the crack of dawn the Garibaldians and other New Yorkers marched through the fog down into the town, crossed the pontoon bridge and headed up the steep slope of Maryland Heights. They reached Colonel Ford by 5 A.M.; it was Friday September 12. Winded by the ascent up the narrow road of the western slope, the men broke ranks to rest while Ford conferred with Major Hildebrandt.
Rebel troops were reported to be in Solomon's Gap, only four and a half miles from Maryland Heights. Although only about two companies of Confederates had been seen, and those weary and resting after a long march, Ford ordered Hildebrandt to take six companies to Solomon's Ford on reconnaissance, and, if possible, to take the rebels prisoner. Hildebrandt took four companies of Garibaldians and two companies of the Potomac Home Brigade, local boys familiar with the way. If the march up the Heights had been difficult, the true nature of the terrain did not appear until now. Dense morning fog was not the only obstacle that awaited the troops attempting to maintain ranks on the craggy brow of the sleeping mountain. The woods were so thick, that it was possible to see very far in any direction. Metal heeled brogans, worn already by miles and miles of marching, clunked perilously on rock-bedded underbrush and sharp stones. Vines and briars clutched at the woolen socks, leather gaiters and tucked-in pants legs of the men, caught at their hats and uniforms, stung their sweat-drenched faces. One soldier tripped and broke his leg on a huge jutting rock. The terrain was rocky, rough and steep, unfriendly to walking much less inarching and fighting. The unevenness of the ground finally gave way to the cleared area of the observatory. (49) There, a line of cavalry pickets informed Hildebrandt that they had been shelled out of Solomon's Gap by rebel artillery, and driven in from their original position by a heavy Confederate force. But Hildebrandt's orders were to go forward and ascertain the exact nature of rebel troop movements in the Gap.
Cautiously now, Hildebrandt sent forward a line of skirmishers to feel for the enemy. Due to the roughness of the ground, the two companies of skirmishers could not even maneuvre in the regular way. It was easy to lose contact with the men on your left and right The place was a veritable mountain jungle. As the troops neared the summit, they were met with heavy rifle fire. The woods exploded in musketry, balls turning twigs, branches and rocks into a myriad of projectiles. Six men went down, killed and wounded. One of the Garibaldians was missing, either captured or lost on the mountaintop. Hildebrandt drew up his men by the flank, and made a stand, but the opposing force was too overwhelming to tarry for long. The Union men withdrew to a better position and awaited the inevitable attack. Suddenly they heard rifle fire coming from the ridge of the mountain, too, where Hildebrandt had placed pickets to protect his exposed flank. Now convinced of the great strength of the Confederates on the Heights, Hildebrandt withdrew his force back over the mountain and reported his findings to Colonel Ford. (50)
All that day Union men on the mountain, having procured axes and spades, worked feverishly to throw up some kind of fortification against the coming onslaught. It had begun to rain, which made the going worse, and it was later admitted that it would have taken two weeks of hard labor to construct adequate defenses. The paltry result of one day's labor was an abattis of felled timber and rocks, one hundred yards wide, extending all the way across the Heights, resting on the precipitous rocky and jagged sloped. (51)
At 4 P.M. Major S. M. Hewitt, commanding the 32nd Ohio, received an order to hasten to the summit of Maryland Heights and join the one Ohio company already there on picket duty. Hewitt was also instructed to take along a bundle of combustibles to leave, guarded,on the eastern slope. If the advanced outpost was pressed too hard, they should fall back and set off the combustibles. The explosion would be a signal for the Union batteries on Maryland and Bolivar Heights to play a deadly fire on the advancing Confederates, while the Union line fell back within cover of the fire. Hewitt was also ordered to station another line of pickets from the eastern slope in a northeasterly direction up to the lookout. (52)
At about the same time, Colonel Eliakim Sherrill of the 126th New York received orders to pull his men off the Bolivar Heights line and reinforce further the men on Maryland Heights. Sherrill by his own admission knew nothing about the military. He was as green as his men. His Adjutant, having an idea of what was ahead, had taken some of the Genessee Valley men out on Thursday night to practice loadings in the moonlight. (53) The 126th had been in the field less than a month and could scarcely manipulate their rifles in drill, much less in the hellish chaos of battle. They marched up the hill, reporting to the Ohio Major, who assigned one company to the picket line, and the others, two to three companies at a time, governed as they were by the impossible terrain, to the summit and no man's land beyond. Those hustling up to the summit were quickly aware of the brisk firing that had begun. (54)
The Confederate troops under Kershaw and Barksdale had wasted no time in steadily pushing up the Heights from Solomon's Gap, scattering Union pickets before them, removing smaller abattis and natural obstructions as they came upon them. The path at one point turned down the mountainside, placing them plainly in view of Union troops and guns (55) in the town. The Southerners were forced to leave the trail, filing along the crags and pulling free of brambles and prickly underbrush that threatened their advance. Keeping up an intermittent fire, they reached a position a mile away from the point of the mountain by 6 P.M. Now they were in view of the big abattis stretching across the mountain and resting on the rocky ledges. General firing all the way down the line opened from both sides now, but again the nature of the ground played havoc with normal tactical movements. The woods were too snarled for anything that resembled order, and the fight threatened to turn to bushwhacking before nightfall pulled a curtain of darkness over the mountain reaches. As the firing ceased, Kershaw deployed his South Carolinians in two lines all the way across the mountaintop, wherever it was practiceable to stand, and both sides lay down in the ranks where they had stood to fight, resting on their arms to await the decisive conflict of the morning. (56)
In the evening, half of Hildebrandt's Garibaldians were ordered to support the heavy artillery on the Heights-two 9 inch Columbiads and one 50-pounder rifled piece. All that night, the Union troops could hear Kershaw's veterans within speaking distance of them. The enemy numbered ten times the Union troops on Maryland Heights and throughout the night Ford appealed to Miles, across the river, for more aid. Miles had finally promised reinforcements at daybreak, an empty promise, for they would eventually arrive three hours too late. (57)
For members of the 126th New York, who would experience the heat of real combat for the first time on the morrow, it was a grim prelude in a minor key. They could hear the drawling Southern voices, the rattle of canteens, the orders from the officers of their so near and so obviously mortal enemies. (58) As with most soldiers on the eve of their first certain combat, the men on the mountain probably drifted in and out of troubled sleep that night Less than a stone's throw away lay Lee's hardened veterans, men who by now faced war with the fatalism and affected nonchalance for which the inexperienced man could substitute only fear, faith and anxiety. For the 126th New York, apprehension undoubtedly swelled in the pits of their stomachs. In their hands, or near them, were the weapons which had not had time to become trusted friends and companions, which could not deal death out so rapidly and accurately as the rifles of the experienced foe. The younger men among them were lonely, scared and hungry. Some of them were from Canandaigua, New York, a progressive little town in western New York's Finger Lakes region that had served as the capital of the Iroquois Confederacy in times past. Showered with floral offerings by the young women of the town, many of the young men from Canandaigua had marched off to war singing proudly, "Tis sweet, oh 'tis sweet for one's country to die." In August 1862, Canandaigua men, too young to enlist the previous year, stepped forward to take the places of the fallen and joined the 126th regiment, the pride of Ontario County. Upon receiving their first pay, only two weeks before finding themselves at Harper's Ferry, they sent $15,000 of it home to loved ones. One soldier had telegraphed home: "God Bless You. Hail Columbia. Kiss the Baby. Write soon." (59) All of that was a sweet dream of illusive tranquility now. War was literally at hand. Death was at hand. Pain, suffering and maiming were at hand. How would they face the morning that was too quick to come?
As an unsuspecting dawn peaked through the dark skies all too soon, Confederates were already at work. All Friday night they had "wrestled with rocks and boulders" attempting to "drag artillery up the backbone of the ridge." for Barksdale's Mississippians, many of planters and the sons of planters, this was hard work to which many of them were unaccustomed. They were elite troops, fighting not for some vague flitting ideal called the "Cause" but for their economic lifestyle, their profits, their slave labor system: for a life of relative leisure they felt that they and their families should not have to do without Some of them had their servants with them to help with the dirty work. The New Yorkers could hear them swearing and joking as they attempted to pull some of the Richmond Howitzers up the rugged incline. One man inquired loudly if this wasn't Mount Ararat and if "old man Moses didn't live fur from here?" Another answered, "No; it is so dry of water ands barren of the rocks that I don't believe their is 'ary rat' here." (60)
The Union side too prepared for the deadly confrontation. The night before, Major Hewitt had crossed to Harper's Ferry to beg Colonel Miles for reinforcements for the morrow or the day would be lost. He also asked for more ammunition, but none could be found of the right calibre. Colonel Miles promised that any troops that could be spared from the Bolivar Heights line would make their appearance on Maryland Heights by dawn. He did not want to withdraw them at night for fear of producing a panic on the Bolivar-Camp Hill line. (61)
At dawn, no reinforcements had appeared but Russell's Roughs of the Maryland Cavalry, sharpshooters armed with pistols and carbines, were on the way. The rest of the Union battle line was set up with two companies of the Maryland Home Brigade on the extreme right, the 126th New York next to them, the 32nd Ohio to the left of the 126th, and several companies of the Garibaldi Guard, who had just returned from scouting on the left, holding the extreme left flank. (62)
The Garibaldi Guard companies on the Heights had slept with their rifles beside them. At 6:30 in the morning, skirmish fire popped like popcorn along the line and fighting began in earnest at the top of the mountain, a mile from the lookout-the highest point. The fury of the colliding forces and their musketry-fire enveloped the mountain in a nauseous, sulphury smoky haze, within which the mountaintop seemed to move and tremble at each great charge, to shudder at each new thunderclap of cannonfire.
The 126th New Yorkers' nerves were on edge. The back ranks were aiming too low, sending minie balls zinging around their comrades' ears. The front rank, furious, turned about, and warned that they would fire into their own troops if they didn't raise their aim. (63) Just then, Russell's Roughs rode up in column, but before they could deploy, a sergeant in the advance tumbled to the ground in full view of a large portion of the line, a bullet in his thigh. The reality of the situation now hit the 126th New York. They could no longer dissociate the hot, stinging lead and the nauseating sulphurous smoke from the thud of bullets tearing into flesh and shattering bones and the groans of the wounded man. Their lines became disordered and all at once some men began to break for the rear. Captain Russell threw his men behind rocks and trees and exhorted the officers of the 126th to bring back their men. The officers coaxed and intimidated their men back into line, and for a while they held, firing by file, for they were not experienced enough in loading their weapons to discharge regular volleys. The 126th was in the middle of the line and to their extreme left, the Garibaldians too, now sensed something definitive happening on the other side. The enemy was forming a distinctive, overpowering line of battle. The hell of it was that you could hear them, but you couldn't see them. A Confederate officer's voice, clearly audible but disembodied rose above the din of the skirmish, almost ghostlike, echoed by other officers, "Forward!" Then--the sound of heavy tramping like a giant beast trampling the undergrowth, dull, methodical, in ghastly unseen cadence, like the drum-beat of the funeral march. The 126th spooked. For all they could see, there might be a million men out there heading right for them. Terror gripped their ranks and the center broke, more men breaking free and running back through the Union lines. Some passed over the great breastwork 400-500 feet in the rear of the first battle line. The 126th's movement left a hole in the middle of the line and compelled a general backward movement of the Union line in order to reform and fill in the ranks.
Meanwhile, Colonel Eliakim Sherrill and his adjutant with the help of some other officers stopped the fleeing men at the works and attempted valiantly to hold their line there. Now there was a seeming lapse in the engagement To some it seemed like an hour. There were some wounded, and those who could be reached were tended to, while others limped down the only path to the rear. Now behind the breastworks, 126th tried to steady the staccato pounding of their hearts and their jumpy nerves.
Despite the panic of the 126th New York and the massive hole in the Union center, the companies of Garibaldians on the extreme left flank near the position of the Union artillery batteries were steadily holding their own. What they could not see was an ongoing, almost unbelievable attempt by Barksdale's Mississippians to outflank the Union line and thus the Garibaldians' from the left side of the mountain. With the "nimbleness of squirrels" the Mississippians jumped from rock to rock down the mountainside through "mountain ivy and straggling pines" and began the climb back up that would bring them out on the Federal left wing. Their progress was slow. Gulches, boulders and irregular rock formations were not the only obstacles. (64) To the Garibaldians' left, the Fifth New York Heavy Artillery had been playing upon the Federal position since daybreak. McGrath's gunners threw round after round into the woods and onto the mountainside to stop the rebels. At one point, so furiously did the artillerymen swab, load and ram home the charges, that a shell burst prematurely, blowing two gunners to pieces." (65) To the Mississippians, it sounded as though twenty cannon were arrayed against them. The shot and shell would strike the boulders, shattering them and raining rock fragments like hail on them. But, bounding and dodging, Barksdale's men soon made the top of the slope, subject all the while to a raking fire from above. Those in the rear received the fire, for the Federal gunners tended to overshoot the position. Thus for the Mississippians, the closer they got to the top, the safer they were. Now they were close enough to take pot-shots at Federal sharpshooters on the left flank.(66)
In the rear, reinforcements from the Maryland Potomac Home Brigade, coming two hours late to the rescue of the wavering line were met with a "tremendous [rebel] firing and the bullets commenced rattling all around them." Several of them were wounded just as they fell into line with the 126th New York, treating the New Yorkers to another spectacle of bloody flesh. They began to mill around behind the breastworks, threatening a second time to break. Placing his men behind the 126th, the commander of the Marylanders walked back and forth along the strengthened line, admonishing the men to do their duty.(67)
As the flanking fire of the Mississippians began to take effect on the Union left and the Garibaldian line began turning to meet the challenge, Colonel Sherrill of the 126th fought to keep the 126th from running amok down the mountain. He recklessly exposed himself to show his men they had nothing to fear. But the hysteria was mounting, and Sherrill now jumped from his horse, pulled out his pistol and threatened to shoot the first man who tried to run. At that instant, as his men looked on in gaping horror, Sherrill's jaw exploded, exposing mangled tongue and teeth. As he fell, the New Yorkers stampeded, tearing down the center path for the rear. Still, two companies held fast, and the Union line itself moved to accommodate the new hole. The Confederate flankers now had easy access to the position, raking their fire along the abbatis. But suddenly, a lone Union courier rode up the path to the breastworks, reporting to Lieutenant Colonel Downey of the Maryland troops, "The order is to retreat." Downey protested vehemently, "There can be no order to retreat." Turning to the other officers who, viewing his consternation had gathered around, he repeated, "There certainly can be no order to retreat from this position. If we lose this position, we lose everything; we can hold this position unless the enemy press heavier than they do now." But now another unidentified orderly rode up reiterating, "The order is to retreat." Some of the troops heard, passed it along, and began to fall back. Downey screamed, "For God's Sake! Don't fall back. We must hold this position." (68)
Meanwhile, back on Bolivar Heights, where the remaining companies of Garibaldians held the right wing of the Union line, an artillery duel had commenced between Union gunners and rebel artillery on the Charlestown Road. (69) The day before, the troops pushed out of Martinsburg by Stonewall Jackson's advance had reached the Ferry. Jackson's advance, however, had kept up a relentless pursuit Although White was now the ranking officer at the Ferry, he knew nothing about the military situation there. Therefore he graciously offered to step aside, permitting Miles to continue in command. White's troops joined the Bolivar Heights defenses. (70)
Now Miles was surveying White's line and positioning his artillery. Suddenly, Lieutenant Henry Binney, his aide-de-camp, called Miles' attention to Maryland Heights, where one could plainly see men in blue coming down the side. Reverend Sylvester W. Clemans, chaplain of the 115th New York, part of D'Utassy's brigade, was standing thirty feet away from Miles and heard him exclaim: "God Almighty! What does this mean? They are coming down! Hell and damnation!" (71) Miles, Binney and two other aides wheeled their horses around and sped off for Maryland Heights. On the way up they met up with some of the 126th New Yorkers, hightailing it down the mountain. Furious, Miles began shouting at them, "Damn scoundrels!" (72) The men protested that their officers were all gone, that their Major had given them the order to retreat (and done so himself quite handily) and they were just following their comrades. (73) While Binney attempted to round some of them up and get them back into line, Miles rode to the Unsell House on the slope facing the Ferry where the great Naval Battery stood and where Colonel Ford had his headquarters. The Garibaldi Guard companies supporting artillery on the left flank were ordered to fix bayonets and shoot anyone who tried to go through their lines. It is understandable that many were reluctant to bayonet their own comrades. They were able to waylay some of the terrified men but many of the panicked troops sidestepped the Garibaldians and headed for the woods in the left rear, where many of them could be seen crawling around in the underbrush. (74) Major Hildebrandt then sent companies of men to bring back those who had run, and reorganize them for battle, but by this time, the rout had become a general retreat The Confederates drove the Union men back two miles in a battle in which the two sides contended foot by foot for control of the mountaintop.
Now Miles met with Ford, also engaged in trying to rally his men, demanding to know who had given the order to retreat. His speech was sprinkled freely with salty profanity. What happened next would have been a matter for debate, but for the evidence of a woman who was staying upstairs in Ford's headquarters(albeit an odd place to be in the midst of a battle). Some say that Miles told Ford that the Heights must be saved, but if he was overpowered, then he must fall back in an orderly fashion and spike the cannons so that the enemy could not use them against the Harper's Ferry garrison. This order would have left the day to the discretion of Colonel Ford. (75) However, Mrs. Elizabeth Brown who was upstairs resting, and whose husband was a captain in the Potomac Home Brigade, overheard a different conversation. Brown was anxious to know the situation and her husband's fate. She heard two voices below, that of Colonel Miles and that of Colonel Ford. Stepping over to a stove hole in the floor, she heard Miles tell Ford "that his men would have to fall back to the Ferry," that since such a large number had already fallen back "they could not hold the Heights", that "the thing was impossible" and "the rebel force was too strong." According to Elizabeth Brown, Ford rose to his feet and swore that he would be damned if he could not hold it if Miles would send reinforcements and that it was a shame that the men would have to give it up. 76 This all occurred between 10 and 11 A.M.. Later, Miles sent an order to Ford that his (Ford's) position now appeared more defensible to him from Bolivar Heights than it had from Ford's station. Said he: "Covered as it is from all points by the cannon of Camp Hill, you will hold on, and can hold on, until the cows' tails drop off." Ford claimed later that he had never received that order. (77)
At noon more reinforcements from the 115th New York came up on the Heights. During their climb, they passed wounded soldiers sitting by the roadside, haggard and bleeding. (78) Now, a large portion of the 126th New York was rounded up and agreed to reform and go back up the mountain, perhaps to salvage what they could of their lost pride. (79) But it was too late. The Union line at the great breastworks had been enfiladed and enveloped by the Confederates, the Union men fired upon from the front, the left flank and the right flank. Now they were in danger of being cut off from the rear and taken prisoner. (80) With one last powerful lunge, Kershaw's Confederate line burst over the crest of the mountain, raising a great cheer. (81) The men behind the breastworks, vastly outnumbered, retreated down the mountain, leaving the mountaintop to the rebels. The Confederates now formed to the left near the captured fortifications and continued to fire into the fleeing ranks. Then they advanced to capture the siege guns. (82)
McGrath's gunners continued to shake the mountaintop with their thundering deliverance, even as the infantry fell back for the last time. (83) But the end was near. Despite the courage and daring of those who went back, and of those, like the Garibaldians, who continued to hold, there was no way to restore the battle lines of the morning. In danger of losing his cannons and his men as well, Colonel Ford gave the order to retreat. As the Federal troops came down the mountain, they spiked the guns and rolled several of them over the cliffs. (84) The Garibaldians were indignant at the order to retreat and angered because they felt that once again, they had not been given their share of the fighting; once again they had been cheated. While all was chaos, they preserved their line of battle. They were the last to leave the mountaintop. (85) Several officers later testified that if the Garibaldians and the 32nd Ohio, the only regiments in which Colonel Thomas Ford had confidence, had been positioned and used properly, they alone could have held Maryland Heights for at least the rest of the day. (86)
At approximately 3 P.M., Colonel Maulsby and his Marylanders, who were covering the area between the pontoon bridge and the railroad trestle, looked up to see Federal troops retreating down the side of Maryland Heights. Simultaneously, he received an order from Colonel Miles telling him to cover the rear of the retreating column, follow it across the bridge and cut the pontoon ropes. Responding to what seemed to be another of Miles' vague orders, Maulsby detailed a lieutenant with axes but told him not to cut the ropes until Maulsby had conferred with Colonel Miles. Then he proceeded to headquarters where, sure enough, one of Miles aides told him not to cut the ropes or destroy the bridge. Coming upon Colonel Miles, he asked, confused, "Why Colonel, what does this mean? What is to be done?" Agitated, Miles moaned, "My God, I don't know; I am afraid Colonel Ford has abandoned the heights almost too soon!" (87)
Footnotes for Chapter 7
1 Lunettes were shaped like the tip of a Bowie knife or sword with two faces coming to a point facing outward and two sides to permit flank protection. The rear of a lunette, like the redan, was used to "cover a point in its rear." Redoubts were completely enclosed works, usually in a polygon shape, sometimes in a star shape, able to be defended from all sides. Dennis Hart Mahan, A Complete Treatise on Field Fortification, with the General Outlines of the Principles Regulating the Arrangement, the Attack and the Defense of Permanent Works (Wiley & Long, 1836), New York: Greenwood Press Edition, 1968, 18-20.
2 E. Z. Hays, Ed., History of the Thirty-Second Regiment Ohio Veteran Volunteers (Columbus. Ohio: Cott and Evans, 1896), 13-15.
3 This comment was made in reference to the well publicized scorn shown Union men under the command of Union General Benjamin Butler by the women of New Orleans; Otto Eisenschiml, Ed., Vermont General: The Unusual War Adventures of Edward Hastings Ripley 1862-65 (New York: Devon-Adair, 1960), 9-11.
4 Ibid., 17.
5 Ibid., 19.
6 Record of Military Commission on the Evacuation of Winchester(September 2, 1862), September 23, 1862, OR I. xii-2, 766, 768-771,783-787.
8 Ibid.; Eisenschiml, 21.
9 Report of Gen. R. E. Lee, September 2-November 15, 1862, OR I. xix-1, 139.
10 Harry E. Pratt, Ed., "Civil War Letters of Winthrop S. G. Allen, 12th Illinois Volunteer Cavalry, Co. F," Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, XXIV-3, 558-559.
11 Report of Col. Arno Voss of skirmishes at Bunker Hill and Darkesville, OR I. xix-1, 516-518.
12Report of Gen. John Wool, OR I, xix-1, 520.
l3 Ibid., 519.
l4 Ibid., 520.
15 Report of Lt. Henry M. Binney, September 1-15, 1862, OR I, xix-1,534.
16 I worked for several months at Harper's Ferry National Historic Park as a historical interpreter in the National Park Service's attempt to revive the ravaged little town with a Living History program. The town lives on in many subtle and mysterious ways. The heartbeat of past humanity lingers in its shadows and one can discern its vibrations even in the quiet of a summer evening. This writer lived alone in a red house at the curve in the hill known as High Street, a house built in the 1840's for the family of a government worker. Many of the physical impressions of the environment in this dissertation are from my experiences in the Spring and Summer of 1973.
17 William C. Everhart, "A History of Harper's Ferry," National Park Service unpublished manuscript (1952), 27-29.
18 McClellan's Report, July 27, 1861-November 9, 1862, OR I. v, 48; Everhart, 71.
19 Everhart, 73.
20 Binney's Report, OR I. xix-1, 533.
21 Mrs. Arabella Willson. Disaster, Struggle, Triumph: The Adventures of One Thousand Boys in Blue....(Albany: The Argus Company, 1870), 48-50; Eisenschiml, 24.
22 "Memoirs of Benjamin W. Thompson, 111th New York Infantry." Civil War Times Illustrated Collection at Carlisle Barracks (Pa.) Military History Institute.
23 "Memoirs of Nicholas DeGraff, 115th New York Infantry." Civil War Times Illustrated Collection at Carlisle Barracks (Pa.) Military History Institute, 31.
24 Ibid., 31.
25 Eisenschiml, 25.
26 DeGraff, 31.
27 James H. Clark, The Iron Hearted Regiment (Albany: J. Munsell, 1865), 8-9.
28 Ibid., 9-10.
29 Eisenschiml, 27.
30 M. Quad. Field, Fort and Fleet (Detroit: Detroit Free Press, 1885), 145.
31 Eisenschiml, 28.
32 Binney Report, OR I, xix-1, 532-535.
33 Eisenschiml, 24.
34 Lee's Report, OR I, xix-1, 139, 140, 144, 145.
35 Francis Winthrop Palfrey, The Antietam and Fredericksburg (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons: 1899), 18.
36 Edward J. Stackpole, From Cedar Mountain to Antietam (Harrisburg: The Stackpole Press, 1959), 337-338.
37 McClellan's Report, OR I, xix-1, 40.
38 Baron de Jomini, The Art of War (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1862) Greenwood Press Edition, 1971; 224.
39 Report of Brigadier General Julius White on the Evacuation of Martinsburg and the Siege of Harper's Ferry, OR I, xix-1, 524-525.
40 Lee's Report, 145-146.
41 Report of Brigadier General J.B. Kershaw on Operations September 12-18, 1862, ) OR I, xix-1, 862-863.
42 Binney's Report, OR I. xix-1, 533.
43 Harper's Ferry Military Commission, Testimony of Major S. M. Hewitt, OR I. xix-1, 576. Hereafter in the chapter, "testimony" refers to Harper's Ferry Commission testimony.
44 Report of Colonel Thomas Ford on the action at Maryland Heights, OR I. xix-1, 542.
45 Colonel D'Utassy's Testimony, OR I, xix-1, 595; Ford's Report, 542.
46 Binney's Report, 533.
47 Colonel William P. Maulsby's Testimony, OR I. xix-1, 556-558.
48 Eisenschiml, 25.
49 Much of this description is based upon my own exploration of Maryland Heights in late summer 1973, some of which was done wearing a replica Civil War uniform of the town. By late 1862, it is unlikely that much remained of the Garibaldians' original uniform. Pants tended to wear out faster than jackets, and these were more than likely replaced by regulation Union gear. Some men may have retained the black leather gaiters, others more than likely followed marching order custom of tucking sky-blue kersey regulation pants into the tops of woolen socks. This protected them from crawling insects as well as streamlining the lower leg for ease in marching. Some Civil War brogans were hob-nailed; Union regulation bootees were more often both sewn in the sole and nailed at the heels; On the bottom of the heel was nailed a horseshoe-like metal plate to make the heels last longer. When this metal horseshoe connected with imbedded rock, the going could be quite slippery.
50 Major Hugo Hildebrandt's Testimony. OR I. xix-1, 601-602.
51 Major Sylvester M. Hewitt's Testimony, OR I. xix-1, 575.
52 Ibid., 575.
53 Lieutenant S. A. Barras' Testimony. OR I. xix-1, 672-675.
54 Hewitt's Testimony, 567.
55 In the Civil War, the word "guns" almost always referred to artillery.
56 Kershaw's Report, 862-863.
57 Ibid.; Hewitt's Testimony, 567.
58 Hewitt's Testimony, 567.
59 Caroline Cowles Richards, Village Life in America (Williamstown. Massachusetts: Corner House Publishers, 1972), 131, 136, 143-44.
60 R.A. Brock, Ed., Southern Historical Society Papers XXXII, 257-259; S.A. Cunningham, Ed., Confederate Veteran V, 173.
61 Hewitt's Testimony, 568.
62 New York Times. September 18, 1862.
63 Willson, 59-60.
64 Southern Historical Society Papers,XXXII, 257-259.
65 New York Times. September 18, 1862.
66 Southern Historical Society Papers, op cit.; Confederate Veteran, op. cit.
67 Lieutenant Colonel S. W. Downey's Testimony, OR I, xix-1, 614-615.
68 Willson, 60; Downey Testimony, 614-615. 69 Binney Report, 536-537.
70 White Report, 525-526.
71 Reverend Sylvester W. Clemans Testimony, 576.
72 Binney Testimony, 582.
73 Lieutenant John L. Willmon's Testimony, OR I. xix-1, 645-646.
74 LT. Col. Hugo Hildebrandt's Testimony, OR I. xix-1, 602.
75 Captain Henry Curtis, Jr.'s Testimony, OR I xix-1, 714-718.
76 Six years after I wrote my Masters Thesis on the Siege and Surrender of Harper's Ferry, Paul R. Teetor published a detailed book on the subject, whose main contention is that Miles, a Southerner, was guilty of treason in the way he handled events, doing everything he could to aid the enemy without actually acting in concert with them. Although his treatment of Colonel D'Utassy and the Garibaldi Guard is far from satisfying, his use of George Waring as a primary resource being inadequate, it is a book that needed to be written, as the importance of the actions at Harper's Ferry to the Antietam campaign and thus to the war is uncontestable. Paul Teetor, A Matter of Hours: Treason at Harper's Ferry (Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson Press, 1982), 137; Mrs. Elizabeth Brown's Testimony OR I, xix-1, 719.
77 Binney's Testimony, 579; Written statement concerning the evacuation of Maryland Heights by John Joliffe and Sanders W. Johnston in defense of Colonel Thomas Ford to the Harper's Ferry Military Commission, OR I. xix-1, 777-785.
78 DeGraff Memoirs, entry for 9-13-62 (page number illegible).
79 Barras' Testimony, 680; According to Barras, about 300 of the 126th went back up the mountain, a little less than one third of its regimental strength. Other accounts say 2/3 of the regiment returned.
80 Report of Colonel Thomas Ford OR I, xix-1, 544.
81 Confederate Veteran, V, 173.
82 Kershaw's Report, 863.
83 New York Times. September 18, 1862.
84 Ford Report, 544.
85 Binney Testimony, 580.
86 Binney Report, 537.
87 Maulsby Testimony, 557.
Copyright by Catherine Catalfamo, 1989
New York State Division of Military
and Naval Affairs: Military History