September 12, 1862: Siege of Harper’s Ferry Begins

Colonel Dixon Miles was a Union regular army officer, 58 years old in 1862.  In 1861 he had commanded a division at the Battle of Bull Run held in reserve.  He was convicted subsequent to the battle by a court of inquiry of being drunk during the battle.  Incredibly, instead of being cashiered from the Army, he was assigned in March of 1862 to command a brigade guarding the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.  In September of 182 he was placed in command of the garrison at Harper’s Ferry, the huge Union arsenal.  This was  a large command consisting of over 12,000 men.  With the Confederates moving into Maryland, the folly of placing a man who had been convicted of being drunk in battle in command of such a vital position should have been obvious to all.

Lee had from the first intended to capture Harper’s Ferry with its supplies and ordinance and detached Stonewall Jackson and his II Corps to accomplish this.  Jackson arrived at Harper’s Ferry on September 12 with minor skirmishing occurring between the Union and Confederate forces.  On September 13, the Confederates seized Maryland Heights which dominated Harper’s Ferry from the Union forces.   No attempt was made by Miles to defend the other hills that surrounded Harper’s Ferry and the Confederates quickly seized the high ground.  Jackson deployed his artillery and began a fierce bombardment on September 15.  Miles held a council of war and quickly decided to surrender.  Before this was done, Miles was mortally wounded by an artillery shell.

The surrender of the Union force of 12,439 men was the largest surrender in the history of the United States Army until the surrender on Bataan in 1942.  Due to Miles’ failure to fight for the hills surrounding Harper’s Ferry he had sealed the fate of the garrison.  A court of inquiry found him guilty of incapacity rising almost to imbecility.  I concur, although Major General John E. Wool, aged 78, who assigned Miles, after his drunken performance at Bull Run, to command at Harper’s Ferry, clearly also was guilty of being an imbecile on this occasion.

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9 Comments

  1. I have visited Harper’s Ferry on several occasions. It is amazing how much history there is in so few miles… close to Antietam, Gettysburg, Shenandoah Valley, to have been a citizen there in those times must have been filled with times of fright and times of great joy.
    Love the detail of historical insight the crew at ACP provides. in Chrst, Dennis

    • The destiny of a nation Dennis decided in so small an area as you describe!

  2. Certainly having Stonewall on one side and Miles on the other amounts to a mismatch of talent so extreme that it can only be compared to Mohammed Ali vs. Stan Laurel!

    • Ha! One of the many problems of the military is that until a war is actually in progress no one can truly be certain which officers will prove to be great, which adequate, which inadequate and which completely laughable.

  3. [...] threw away the benefit of the battle by remaining inactive the next day, allowing Stonewall Jackson to capture Harper’s Ferry the next day.  The valor of Union soldiers could not compensate for a very lackluster commander.  Go here to [...]

  4. Jackson’s Mill in WV is where Stonewall spent most of his youth. It is now a 4-H center for the state of WV 4-H program. I lost a summer of youth counseling camps after being caught under neath the Mill House with a very pretty girl. Mr. Butcher thank you for having a spine and courage to discipline a wayward kid. Chuckle has nothing to do with history except, I was introduced to Ol’ Stonewall in that place.
    In Christ, Dennis

    • “under neath the Mill House with a very pretty girl”

      Ah the days of youth, mispent and otherwise!

  5. [...] mass surrender of United States military personnel until the surrender on Bataan in 1942.  Go here to read a post on the sorry [...]

  6. [...] mass surrender of United States military personnel until the surrender on Bataan in 1942.  Go here to read a post on the sorry [...]


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