Thursday, May 31, 2012

Jackson Stopped

150 years ago, a small and little-known episode of "Stonewall" Jackson's famous 1862 Valley Campaign occurred on the outskirts of Harpers Ferry.  Something that could not be said very much in the spring of 1862 could be said on the night of May 30, 1862 and the morning of May 31, 1862: "Stonewall" Jackson had been stopped.

After "Stonewall" Jackson defeated Nathaniel Banks' Federal army in the Shenandoah Valley at Front Royal, May 23, 1862, and Winchester, May 25, 1862, Jackson began a northward movement to expel the last remaining Federal force in the Lower Shenandoah Valley: the garrison at Harpers Ferry that consisted of 8,000 men under the temporary command of Brigadier General Rufus B. Saxton. 
Rufus B. Saxton (

Saxton was assigned to the post on May 25 due to the growing fear in Washington that Jackson's move would threaten the Northern capital.  Along with Saxton, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton rushed reinforcements to Harpers Ferry using the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.  The most notable reinforcements in this episode of Jackson's Valley Campaign were 300 sailors from the USS Satellite, which was stationed in the Washington Navy Yard at the time of the crisis.  These sailors would also bring three 9-inch Dahlgren guns with them to aid in the Ferry's defense.  Saxton moved these guns halfway up the slope of Maryland Heights and established what is now known as the Naval Battery.  These guns would be able to check any attack that Jackson made against Saxton's line on Bolivar Heights west of Harpers Ferry. 
Modern view of the Naval Battery

View from the Naval Battery.  The Harper Cemetery, on the west side of Camp Hill, can be seen in the left of the picture

As Saxton and his garrison awaited Jackson's force, Saxton set to work "moving the stores across the [Potomac] river" using the former slaves that had escaped behind Union lines; they are more commonly referred to as contraband.  Saxton also put his infantry and artillery in a line on Bolivar Heights that stretched nearly 2,000 yards.  These were the Federal dispositions at the Ferry when Jackson's force arrived around Charles Town and Halltown, only a few miles west of Harpers Ferry, on May 28. 

Location of Saxton's line on Bolivar Heights

Jackson's first move was to send the 2nd Virginia Infantry, most of which was composed of local men, up Loudon Heights, across the Shenandoah River from Harpers Ferry.  They seized the heights on May 29.  Fearing a flanking movement by Jackson, Saxton pulled his line back from Bolivar Heights to Camp Hill, a lesser but still impressive rise east of Bolivar Heights.  This consolidated his line and greatly improved his position, which now stretched only 900 yards with both of his flanks anchored on a river. 

View of Camp Hill (with the large brick structure known as the Barbour House at its center) from Bolivar Heights. The town of Harpers Ferry lies behind Camp Hill

May 30 came and everyone wondered what Jackson was up to.  The afternoon came and went and still Jackson made no serious attempt to seize Harpers Ferry.  Then just before dusk, Jackson rushed east from Bolivar Heights towards Camp Hill in a terrific thunderstorm.  His assault was stopped by the Federal troops on Camp Hill and the Naval Battery on Maryland Heights.  When the sun rose the next morning, Jackson's troops were racing south to avoid being trapped by two Federal forces commanded by John C. Fremont and James Shields; his attack had only been a diversion to cover the retreat.  Harpers Ferry was saved.  For his defensive stand 150 years ago, Rufus Saxton earned the Medal of Honor in 1893.  Saxton left the Ferry on June 2, 1862.

This small event at Harpers Ferry marked one of the first instances during the Civil War when United States soldiers used a railroad to strategically move troops.  It also marked a rare occasion when "Stonewall" Jackson was stopped, but this did not slow his momentum and Jackson would continue to deceive and defeat Union armies in the Shenandoah Valley for the next couple of weeks.

Sunset from Bolivar Heights

1 comment:

  1. Welcome to the blogosphere Kevin. Good luck with your blog.

    Jim Rosebrock