Setting The Stage
On the September 8, 1862, Brigadier General Julius White reported to Major General Wool that enemy forces numbering 15,000 to 20,000 were approaching from the north and asked for instructions. White was commanding a garrison of approximately 2,500 men at Camp Wool near Martinsburg, Virginia. Wool replied that if the enemy approached in those numbers, he should move his force to Harper’s Ferry. After some reconnaissance and skirmishing with the Confederate advance, White determined they were too many to fight and evacuated Martinsburg on September 11th. Late that night the men of his regiments boarded trains and rode the Baltimore & Ohio railroad to Harper’s Ferry. They reached Harper’s Ferry about 2 am on Friday the 12th.
The town of Harper’s Ferry had virtually ceased to exist by 1862. The once thriving town that had profited from the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad had been reduced to a population of less than one hundred people. Federal forces had burned the armory and the arsenal at the outbreak of the war to keep them from falling into Confederate hands. Churches had become hospitals, gardens had become graveyards, and residences were barracks for the garrison. The town’s desolation was complete.
The garrison at Harper’s Ferry was commanded by Colonel Dixon S. Miles, the colonel of the 8th US Infantry regiment and a veteran of some forty years of service. General White, though superior in rank to Colonel Miles, declined to take command of the garrison based on a dispatch from General Halleck to Colonel Miles directing him to defend the post. He was instead placed in temporary command of all of the garrison’s cavalry.
At this point, the cavalry assigned to the garrison included the 8th New York Cavalry, Colonel B.F. Davis, a squadron of the 1st Maryland Cavalry under the command of Captain Charles H. Russell, the 7th Squadron of Rhode Island Cavalry under Major Augustus W. Corliss, and a squadron of the First Maryland Potomac Home Brigade Cavalry under Captain H.A. Cole.
White’s forces had been closely followed by those of Stonewall Jackson. He crossed the Potomac at Williamsport on the 11th, arrived in the vicinity of Harper’s Ferry on the 13th, and took up positions near Bolivar Heights. Bolivar Heights was a small community about five hundred feet above Harper’s ferry to the west. Other forces under General Walker made their way via Point of Rocks to Loudoun Heights, a summit of about eleven hundred feet south of town. A third force under General McLaws marched from Frederick via Crampton’s Gap to Maryland Heights, the highest point in the area at fourteen hundred feet. The highest point in Harper’s Ferry was about five hundred feet, so artillery on the surrounding heights was sure to dominate the Federal defense. If the Confederates successfully placed artillery on any of the three heights, they would be able to fire downhill into Harper’s Ferry at a range of just under a mile.
On September 12, McLaws’ troops occupied Pleasant Valley in considerable force and advanced up the eastern slope of Maryland Heights. They skirmished heavily with Union forces under Colonel Ford. On the morning of the 13th, General Walker’s forces reached the foot of Loudoun Heights and occupied and occupied them without opposition. By this time Jackson was in possession of Bolivar Heights, and pressure on Maryland Heights intensified.
Over the course of these two days, the Union cavalry units were actively engaged in reconnaissance and skirmishing duties. Captain Russell’s squadron of the 1st Maryland and the 7th Squadron Rhode Island Cavalry distinguished themselves on Maryland Heights with stubborn skirmishing until Colonel Ford abandoned them on the afternoon of the 13th. The 12th Illinois was in town for less than ten hours before they were tasked to scout the surrounding area and report the positions of the advancing Confederate columns.
Colonel Miles in the meantime became increasingly anxious to open communications with General McClellan. Captain Russell volunteered to attempt to slip through the Confederate lines, and Miles consented. Russell selected nine volunteers from his command and slipped through the Confederate pickets on the Virginia side of the Potomac. He marched down the river on that side until he reached Shepherdstown, and crossed the Potomac near the mouth of Antietam Creek. He again passed through the enemy’s pickets in this area before passing on to South Mountain by back roads. He evaded Confederate pickets there by going directly over South Mountain to Middletown, where he found General Reno. Reno, upon receiving his report, gave him a fresh mount and sent him on to McClellan’s headquarters near Frederick, Maryland. Russell arrived there about nine in the morning on the 14th, and relayed Miles’ message about the situation at Harper’s Ferry.
McClellan sent a dispatch to General Halleck on the 14th stating that if Miles could hold out for that day he could probably save him. Miles did hold out that day, but the majority of McClellan’s army was moving in the opposite direction.
Maryland Heights was abandoned to the Confederates before 4pm on the 14th through a miscommunication, and General McLaws immediately moved his batteries into position. Walker’s command reached the summit of Loudoun Heights on the morning of the 14th, and Union defenders could clearly see them signaling to General Jackson’s soldiers on Bolivar Heights during the late morning.
At 2 p.m. on the 14th, the Confederate artillery began to fire from Loudoun Heights. Their initial target was the cavalry camp below Bolivar Heights, it being a conspicuous target. Fires were quickly added from Maryland Heights and batteries on the Shepherdstown Road.
The 12th Illinois Cavalry was bivouacked near Virginius Island on the west end of Shenandoah Street in town, across the river from Loudoun Heights. Lieutenant William M. Luff, acting commander of Company A, 12th Illinois during the siege, described the initial artillery fire in the following manner: “The 12th Illinois had been in the saddle since daylight and were now resting. Horses were unsaddled, and officers and men were sitting about watching the enemy and discussing the situation, when suddenly a puff of smoke appeared on Loudoun Heights, and the next instant a shell came screaming into camp. It was followed by other sin quick succession, and they soon came thick and fast. There was no time to ask for orders, and calling to the men to “Saddle up,” the writer turned his attention to his own horse.” The regiment moved onto Virginius Island, where they were temporarily able to find some concealment in the trees.
There was no respite for the cavalry regiments during the remainder of the day. They would be shelled out of one position and seek new shelter, only to be forced to move again ten minutes later. Unsurprisingly enough, the minds of officers and enlisted men alike soon turned to escape. They could do little in the face of an artillery siege, and were having extreme difficulties simply trying to protect their horses from the Confederate cannon fire. The majority of them didn’t even have carbines, and were armed only with pistols and sabers. Fortunately there were few casualties, as the percussion shells the Confederates were using often failed to explode in the sandy soil of the town.
Colonel Benjamin F. “Grimes” Davis, the commander of the 8th New York Cavalry, and Lieutenant Colonel Hasbrouck Davis, the executive officer of the 12th Illinois Cavalry, developed a plan for the cavalry’s escape. Davis proposed that the Union cavalry attempt to break out of the encirclement. He argued that the cavalry were of no use defending the post, given their lack of armament, and their departure would deprive the Confederates of their mounts and equipment should the garrison surrender. Additionally, the garrison’s supply of forage was nearly exhausted. They presented the plan initially to General White, under whom both had served earlier in the summer in Martinsburg. White approved the plan and arranged for them to meet with Colonel Miles. Miles initially rejected the plan, considering it too risky, and a heated discussion ensued. After consulting with General White and others, however, he conditionally agreed to the plan if a suitable escape route could be identified. He assigned command of the column to Colonel Arno Voss of the 12th Illinois Cavalry, who was senior to Davis. General White, at his own insistence, would remain in Harper’s Ferry with the garrison.
Colonel Miles called a meeting of the commanders of all the cavalry units in the garrison to discuss the best route. Colonel Davis suggested moving north along the west side of the Potomac to Kearneysville, then crossing the river at Shepherdstown, but the garrison had received reports of Confederate cavalry activity in the area, and Miles feared the escaping column would be discovered. Another suggestion was to cross the Shenandoah near its junction with the Potomac and then march down the Potomac to Washington, but the ford was found to be full of holes and dangerous to cross. About 7 pm, the officers finally agreed on a plan. The route eventually agreed upon was to cross the Potomac on the pontoon bridge at the base of Maryland Heights and attempt to move north to reach McClellan’s army.
Lieutenant H.C. Reynolds, Colonel Miles’ aide-de-camp, issued Special Orders Number 120, which provided instructions for the cavalry’s exodus. “The cavalry force at this post, except detached orderlies, will make immediate preparations to leave here at 8 o’clock tonight, without baggage wagons, ambulances or led horses, crossing the Potomac over the pontoon bridge, and taking the Sharpsburg Road. The senior officer, Col. Voss, will assume the command of the whole, which will form the right at the quartermaster’s office, the left up Shenandoah street, without noise or loud command, in the following order: Cole’s Cavalry, 12th Illinois Cavalry, 8th New York Cavalry, 7th Squadron Rhode Island Cavalry, and the 1st Maryland Cavalry. No other instructions can be given to the Commander than to force his way through the enemy’s lines and join our own army.”
It was a plan fraught with risk. Over a thousand horsemen were to cross an improvised bridge in single file under the mouths of the enemy’s guns in the dark. If detected, they would be close enough to the guns for the Confederate artillerymen to use cannister shot against them. Once across the bridge, they had to turn left and climb a narrow road between the canal berm and the edge of Maryland Heights toward Sharpsburg. Ironically, it was the same road John Brown used to approach Harper’s Ferry in 1859. The pontoon bridge was constructed during the early days of Union reoccupation of Harper’s Ferry, anchored in a breach of the seawall that surrounded the town. They were forced to construct the bridge after the Confederates burned the railroad bridge between Maryland Heights and Harper’s Ferry before they departed.