Harpers Ferry: Largest Union Surrender of Civil War

Harpers Ferry: Largest Union Surrender of Civil War
(AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)
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Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, is most remembered as the site where the abolitionist zealot John Brown was captured by U.S. forces commanded by Col. Robert E. Lee after Brown and his armed men raided the arsenal there in what was supposed to be the first step in an armed struggle to free all of the slaves in the United States. But Harper’s Ferry was also the scene of the largest surrender of Union troops in the Civil War, after a three-day battle was fought there on Bolivar Heights in September 1862.

The town of Harper’s Ferry is located at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. The lower town, much of which is now owned and operated by the National Park Service, sits astride those rivers and below Maryland Heights, Loudoun Heights, and Bolivar Heights. Harper’s Ferry featured prominently in Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s first invasion of the North in September 1862.

Lee hoped to capitalize on his recent victory over the Army of the Potomac at Second Manassas (or Second Bull Run) in late August 1862.

In early September 1862, Lee discussed the upcoming invasion of the North with General John Walker. Walker later recalled that Lee directed his attention to a map and pointed to Harrisburg, Penn. “That is the objective point of the campaign,” he told Walker. Lee stated that he wanted to destroy the bridge at Harrisburg that carried the Pennsylvania Railroad, and then turn his attention to Baltimore, Philadelphia, or Washington, D.C. On Sept. 3, Lee informed Confederate President Jefferson Davis of his intention to cross the Potomac into Maryland. The next day, elements of the Army of Northern Virginia crossed the Potomac at Whites’ Ford. 

Lee issues Special Order 191

As Lee’s army marched into Maryland, the commanding general issued Special Order 191, which outlined the disposition of his forces and planned for their convergence in the near future. Lee issued the orders on Sept. 9. Lee divided his army into four parts, and more than half of the army was assigned to Harper’s Ferry. Special Order 191, however, was mishandled by a Confederate aide - -he wrapped it around three cigars and apparently left it under a tree at a Confederate campsite in Frederick, Md. There it was discovered by Union troops on Sept.13. When Lee’s orders reached Union commanding General George McClellan, he told one of his aides, “Here is a paper with which if I cannot whip Bobby Lee I will be willing to go home.” McClellan, true to form, waited too long to take effective advantage of this Confederate intelligence blunder. 

Meanwhile at Harper’s Ferry, General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson positioned his artillery on two of the heights above the town. “One hour of plunging fire from the surrounding heights,” wrote historian Shelby Foote, “smothered the [Union] batteries below” on Bolivar Heights. Soon thereafter, Confederate forces observed the “white flag of surrender.” Union forces had capitulated. More than 12,000 troops surrendered. It was the largest surrender of Union forces during the war, and the largest in U.S. history until the surrender of MacArthur’s army in the Philippines in early 1942. 

Jackson thanked the Lord for the victory, but told his men that there was still a lot of work to be done. A few days later, Confederate and Union forces met near Sharpsburg, Md, near Antietam Creek, and slugged it out for more than 12 hours on the bloodiest day of the Civil War -- indeed, the bloodiest day in American history. Lee’s first invasion of the North had failed. But he would try again in less than a year and meet defeat in an even bloodier battle over three days at a small Pennsylvania town named Gettysburg. 



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