“an honor to the State of Maryland” – The Potomac Home Brigade at the Battle of Harpers Ferry

Last time we took at look at the Home Brigade’s role in the opening phase of the 1862 Maryland Campaign. I left off on September 6th, as Captain Faithful and his company of the 1st PHB Infantry were evacuating Frederick and marching to rejoin the rest of the regiment at Harpers Ferry. When Faithful and his men arrived they joined the bulk of the regiment in Sandy Hook.

Sandy Hook is a small thin strip of housing along the north bank of the Potomac, wedged alongside the B&O Railroad and the C&O Canal. It was a familiar sight for the 1st PHB, who had been stationed there at various points in the war. Colonel Maulsby was charged with holding the village, as it controlled not only the railroad and canal but also the eastern approaches to Maryland Heights. Almost every officer in the garrison recognized Maryland Heights as the key to holding Harper’s Ferry, so Maulsby was told that the “position was not to be abandoned” (1). He was to do so with five of his own companies, part of the 87th Ohio Infantry, and a few guns of Potts’s Ohio Battery. Three of the remaining companies under the command of Major John Steiner were sent up to the top of Maryland Heights to augment the force there, and the remaining two companies remained in the town of Harpers Ferry itself.

Capture2

1st PHB Infantry positions, September 7th (Library of Congress)

 

While the 1st PHB dug in around Maryland Heights they were joined by the 3rd PHB Infantry and elements of Cole’s Cavalry. Both units had been busy over the past few days. The 3rd PHB Infantry under the command of Lt. Col. Stephen Downey had been parceled out between Hedgesville and Shepherdstown, with orders to keep an eye out for any Confederate movements. On September 10th Downey himself made a reconnaissance into Boonesboro, Maryland alongside 20 troopers of the 1st Maryland Cavalry. As Downey’s party chased some Confederate pickets into Boonesboro they ran head first into at least 100 rebels – part of the vanguard of the Army of Northern Virginia. After a brief fight in which Downey was wounded the Union soldiers escaped (2). Downey lost one man killed, but he had gained valuable information on the disposition of the rebel army. His regiment was soon on the march to Harpers Ferry.

Cole’s Cavalry was active during this time as well. During this period Cole was under the direct command of Col. Maulsby at Sandy Hook, who had orders to use Cole’s Battalion to find the Confederates and determine their ultimate objective. One particularly energetic reconnaissance was undertaken by Lt. Hanson T. C. Green of Company A on September 7th. The 23 year old Frederick native rode east through Petersville, Middletown, and to within 2 1/2 miles of his home town, taking several prisoners without the loss of a man (3). Green’s ride across Frederick County confirmed that the Army of Northern Virginia was still in Frederick in strength, but that they were moving westward.

Concerned with growing evidence that the Confederates were advancing on his post in force, Colonel Dixon Miles ordered Colonel Maulsby to pull his men back to the eastern slope of Maryland Heights. From this vantage Maulsby was able to clearly see the advancing rebels as they moved through the Pleasant Valley. The following morning Maulsby sent a dispatch to his commander across the river:

CAMP AT SANDY HOOK, September 12, 1862.

Colonel DIXON S. MILES, Commanding:

COLONEL: The enemy is in sight with a large wagon train, apparently making its way toward Weverton and Knoxville.

We, of course, are strong enough only to defend ourselves when attacked, according to your orders, and I make this communication in order that you may understand the condition of affairs, and take such action as you may deem proper. The train is apparently guarded by a heavy force of cavalry and infantry. The artillery, if any, is not yet in view.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

WM. P. MAULSBY,

Colonel, Commanding. (4)

Later that afternoon Miles responded to Maulsby

SEPTEMBER 12, 1862.

Colonel MAULSBY, Commanding Sandy Hook:

A large force is represented marching on you; it may be our own army, but if it is the enemy your position is not a defensible one, and as soon as you know to a certainty it is the enemy you must fall back to the head of the bridge with your whole command, bringing the two guns along. Do it deliberately; obstruct the road against a charge of cavalry. Send Cole out to distinctly understand what is the character of the force marching on you. I will visit you so soon as I can. Out troops are driven out of Solomon’s Gap, and a large infantry force is advancing on Maryland Heights. I shall now place guns to play on the road, from the bridge to Sandy Hook. Have the trees cut down by Captain Bamford’s company to unmask the road on bank of canal. Have this done at once.

Your obedient servant,

D. S. MILES,

Colonel Second Infantry, Commanding. (5)

By the time Miles made his reply the Confederate attack on the Heights had already begun. Much has been made over the performance of Dixon Miles at Harpers Ferry, and he has posthumously had to answer charges ranging from incompetence to drunkenness to treason. Whatever the case his decision to focus his defense on the town itself rather than on Maryland Heights would prove disastrous over the next few days.

The three companies of the 1st PHB Infantry under Maj. Steiner were part of approximately 1,000 men under the command of Colonel Thomas Ford of the 32nd Ohio. With the rebels approaching the Home Brigaders worked hard to throw together makeshift fortifications across the narrow crest of Maryland Heights. Captain Whittier’s Company F, 1st PHB constructed an advanced work located 400 north of “the Lookout” – a high point used to observe the oncoming rebels. Anchored on the rocky outcroppings of the ridge the works were comprised of a wall of “large chestnut logs…with rocks to shoot through” complemented by “trees cut down and limbs sharpened at the ends and all piled up in a mass”(6). The Marylanders were ordered to hold this line against the brigades of Joseph Kershaw and William Barksdale.

The Confederate attack began early on the 12th, as the advancing rebel skirmishers took fire from the men behind their log walls and abatis. The handful of Home Brigaders fell back towards the lookout. Some stopped there to join Companies H and I of the 1st PHB in offering some resistance. The broken and wooded terrain combined with these skirmish lines slowed the Confederate advance to a crawl, but it was clear that the weight of numbers would soon begin to tell. By the end of the day the rebels had advanced a few miles, with only a thin line of Marylanders, Ohioans, and New Yorkers between them and the commanding heights. To make matters worse for the defenders their commander, Colonel Ford was near-incapacitated with illness and command was breaking down. Even worse, Colonel Miles was reluctant to send more reinforcements to help hold the position.

The fighting renewed in earnest early on the 13th. At around 10 AM Lt. Col. Stephen Downey led his 3rd PHB Infantry across the pontoon bridge and up the heights to strengthen the beleaguered line. When he reported to Col. Ford the Ohioan ordered Downey to split his command – four companies of the 3rd PHB remained with Ford on the west slope while Downey took the remainder (as well as companies of the 32nd Ohio) to the east slope. Downey’s detachment rushed to the breastworks just in time to check the advancing South Carolinians of Kershaw’s Brigade (7). The firing was heavy and the 3rd began to take its first casualties of the campaign. Wave after wave of rebels came to within a few yards of the breastworks before they were beaten back. All the while the rebels continued to probe the flanks of the Union line, looking for weakness. Major Hewitt of the 32nd Ohio, then in charge of the troops at the breastworks, began to falter and finally gave the order to fall back. Downey, however, refused to accept the command, even after being told it had come from Colonel Ford himself. He fired back that “there certainly can’t be an order to retreat from this position” and continued to hold his line at the barricade (8). Word began to spread that a retreat had been ordered, and slowly the enlisted men began to trickle back towards the rear. Downey did his best to arrest the movement, roaring at them “For God’s sake, don’t fall back; we must hold this position! (9)” It was too late.

Further down the slope Downey caught up with Major Charles Grafflin, second in command of the 3rd PHB and ordered the Major to gather whatever men he could to stabilize the line. He then set off to find Colonel Ford. When Downey arrived at the ailing Colonel’s headquarters he found the Ohioan conferring with Dixon Miles. Ford was so out of touch with the situation that he ordered Downey to counterattack and retake the barricade that had been abandoned – an impossible task given the disintegration of the Union lines (10).

When Downey returned to the Grafflin’s position he found a loose assortment of defenders coalescing around his Marylanders. Many were from the 126th New York, a green regiment in combat for the very first time. They had led the retreat from the barricade and were now refusing to answer Downey’s impassioned pleas. When their officers balked at Downey’s orders to stand and fight Downey appealed to the men themselves, shouting that “If you have no officers to lead you, I will lead you myself” (11). His words fell on deaf ears and only 5 of the 300-odd New Yorkers stepped forward – Downey immediately threw them onto his line as skirmishers. The Maryland Colonel also gave orders that anyone who fell back would be shot.

Downey continued to hold onto his position with desperate ferocity throughout the morning and into the early afternoon. Reinforcements trickled in, including a detachment of the 1st PHB lead by Major Steiner. Still, his men were running low on ammunition and the Confederate attackers were gaining ground. Stragglers continued to skulk away, gathering at the Naval Battery where the ailing Colonel Ford had clearly lost all resolve. Early in the afternoon Ford finally gave up, writing to Colonel Miles that “I must leave the hill unless you direct otherwise” (12). Miles acquiesced, and soon an orderly brought the written orders to Downey. The Marylander was in disbelief. His men were still holding and at the moment were not being pressed. Every moment counted, and here he was ordered to throw away an absolutely critical defensive position. He had expected reinforcements, not this. One can only imagine the disgust he felt as he led his men in good order down the slope that they had fought so hard to hold on to.

At the base of Maryland Heights the retreat was being watched by Colonel Maulsby and the remainder of the 1st PHB. Miles had ordered them off of Maryland Heights and back to guard the pontoon bridge across the Potomac. Maulsby later recalled:

About 3 p. m. I saw the column retreating from the Maryland Heights. I received, about the same time, an order from Colonel Miles to cover the rear of the column and follow it across the bridge, which I did. I was still guarding the eastern approach. At the same time I was ordered by Colonel Miles (in person, I think, but am not positive) to destroy the pontoon bridge after the retreating column and my command had crossed. I detailed one of my lieutenants, having supplied him with axes, but directed him not to cut the rope of the pontoon boats until I should confer again with Colonel Miles. Calling on the colonel, I was told, through his aide, not to cut the ropes. A short time afterward I met Colonel Miles, and said to him, “Why, colonel, what does this mean? What is to be done?” To which he replied, in an agitated manner, “My God! I don’t know; I am afraid Colonel Ford has abandoned the heights almost too soon. (13)

Maulsby’s account speaks to the confusion and vacillation that defined Miles’s performance at Harpers Ferry. His inability to fully commit to the defense of Maryland Heights doomed the garrison. As night fell on the 13th it was only a matter of time.

The final defense of Harpers Ferry began to take shape that night. Miles would put everything he had into Boliver Heights, along the western edge of town. The men of the Home Brigade would take up positions alongside the rest of the garrison for the final struggle. The 1st PHB under Maulsby, including those who had been on Maryland Heights, were gathered up in town and took their position overlooking the pontoon bridge. There they would act as a reserve and also as a sort of rear guard to ensure that the Confederates wouldn’t make a move from the east. Meanwhile Downey’s men were rushed across the river to their new position on the left flank of the Boliver Heights line. Together with the 32nd Ohio and 9th Vermont they were ordered to hold the rugged and broken ground between the turnpike and the Shenandoah River (14).

harpers-ferry-sept-12-15-2

Position of the PHB Infantry, Sept 14 and 15 (Civil War Trust)

 

On the afternoon of the 14th the ring of Confederate batteries around Harpers Ferry finally opened up. Skirmishers from A. P. Hill’s division advanced along the Shenandoah River towards Boliver Heights. It wasn’t long before they ran into the 3rd PHB, and in the fighting several more Marylanders fell, including Captain Jacob Sarbaugh, commanding Company G of the 3rd. The 46 year old Baltimore resident was the highest ranking Home Brigader to fall at Harpers Ferry – killed instantly in the skirmishing.

As night fell on the 14th it was clear that Jackson had made his final arrangements and that the next day would bring an all out assault on the town. Colonel Miles was convinced that surrender was now the only option. Before the surrender took place there was one last role for the Home Brigade to play. Convinced that escape would be possible several of the cavalry commanders approached Miles and got permission to attempt a break out under the cover of darkness. This daring escape would become the only real bright spot to come out of the Harpers Ferry debacle.

As darkness fell over 1,500 troopers assembled near the Pontoon Bridge in the lower town. At the head of the column was Lt. Hanson Green of Cole’s Cavalry – the same man who had led the reconnaissance to Frederick just a few days earlier. Now he would guide his comrades out of the besieged town, through the ring of rebel pickets, and towards freedom. Immediately behind Green rode the rest of Cole’s Cavalry, who together with the remaining few survivors of the Loudoun Rangers would form the van. Behind them rode the 12th Illinois, 8th New York, 7th Rhode Island Squadron, and finally the 1st Maryland Cavalry in the rear. The decision to place Cole’s men in the front was deliberate. If anyone could maneuver their way across the western Maryland countryside under the cover of darkness it would be men who had lived their whole lives there. Christopher Newcomer related the events of that night in his post-war memoirs:

It was soon known, that Cole’s Cavalry was going to undertake a hazardous task as soon as night approached. Officers and men of the different Cavalry commands besieged Cole’s camp and requested that they be permitted to join with Major Cole*, and go out with the Maryland boys; the request of course was granted, and at ten o’clock on the night of September the 14th, 1862, Cole’s Battalion took the advance over the pontoon bridge across the Potomac River, with their brave Major in the lead, and the following regiments: 12th Illinois, 8th New York, Battalion of the 1st Maryland, and a Rhode Island Regiment, making in all twenty-one hundred Cavalrymen. Lieutenant Hanson Green of Company A, with three men, were detailed as an advance, and were the first to cross the bridge. Lieutenant Green and his companions were thoroughly familiar with the country, and their courage had been tested in many an engagement. It was deemed necessary to have one in whom Major Cole had implicit confidence as advance guard. One mile above Harper’s Ferry the advance was halted by Confederate pickets. The night was very dark. Major Cole coming to the front with the command failed to halt, the Rebel vedette discharged his piece and fell back. The Cavalry continuing to advance until near Sharpsburg, Maryland, where they came upon the enemy guarding a wagon train, and the Rebels supposing the Federal Cavalry to be a Brigade of their own command failed to fire upon them, Major Cole captured the train without the loss of a man. At daylight, when near Hagerstown, he discovered it was General Longstreet’s ammunition wagons, and the capture of this train proved a great loss to the Confederates. It has been said, that in a great measure the battle of Antietam, which was fought a few days later, was won to the Union side because General Longstreet’s Corps of General Lee’s Army had run out of ammunition. But for the loss of the train, captured by Major Cole, the battle of Antietam might have gone against General McClellan. The train was taken to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. (15)

Newcomer exaggerates the number of men who escaped as well as the impact of the capture of the ammunition train, but the basic narrative is there. The fact that they escaped without loss AND managed to capture Longstreet’s train is incredible. Much has been written on this feat, but I find the multi-part blog series at Crossed Sabers to be a great starting point.

While the escape from Harpers Ferry was a triumph for Green and the rest of the Home Brigade cavalry back in the town the men of the 1st and 3rd PBH Infantry would suffer one of their greatest embarrassments of the war. On the 15th the orders went out that the garrison would be surrendered. Over 12,000 men laid down their arms in what became the largest surrender of US forces until the Second World War. The captured men were paroled and were soon on their way to Camp Parole near Annapolis, where they would wait out their exchanges.

Casualties among the Home Brigade regiments weren’t particularly heavy, despite their role in the defense of Maryland Heights. On September 19th, 1862 the Baltimore Sun listed all of the Maryland casualties from the Battle:

Capture.JPG

These numbers match up pretty close to the official casualties recorded for the regiments, although several men were mistakenly reported wounded when they had in fact died. According to the OR the 1st PHB Infantry lost 6 men wounded and 6 killed at Maryland Heights. Among the dead were William Martin, Charles Mann, James Huggins, Charles Oursler, and Robert Gill. Frank George was wounded in the battle but later died at his home in Frederick on September 20th. Casualties were surprisingly light among the 3rd PHB as well. That regiment lost 1 officer killed (Captain Sarbaugh) along with two enlisted men. One of those killed was Private William Harrison, but I haven’t been able to figure out the other yet. An additional one officer (Major Grafflin) and eight men were wounded. Although Cole’s led the breakout on the 14th the didn’t suffer any combat casualties. About a dozen or so men of Cole’s command were captured in and around Harpers Ferry during that week, but it appears that most were clearly wounded at Mile Hill on the 2nd and were captured in the hospital at Harpers Ferry.

Harpers Ferry was a disaster for the United States war effort. Over 12,000 much needed men were captured, as were vast quantities of valuable military stores. For the hundreds of escaped slaves who had sought refuge within the Union lines the situation was much more dire. Over 800 to 1,000 men, women, and children were taken by the Confederates at Harpers Ferry, to be sold at Richmond (16). A lucky few escaped this fate by escaping under the protection of the 60th Ohio regiment. Colonel Miles would never have to answer for his conduct, however. Just as the white flag went up he was mortally wounded by an artillery shell, leaving behind a frustrating legacy of blame and recriminations.

For the men of the Home Brigade it was their first real taste of battle, and by all accounts the men performed well given the circumstances. Lt. Colonel Downey showed a great deal of bravery and coolness commanding the critical defense on Maryland Heights when his superior officers lost their nerve. Major Cole and Lt. Green showed great energy and initiative in both scouting before the siege and in directing the cavalry breakout. Perhaps the greatest compliment came from the report of Brig. Gen. Julius White, who had taken over command from the mortally wounded Miles. In his official report White wrote of “Colonel Maulsby and Lt. Col. S. W. Downey, of the First and Third Maryland Potomac Home Brigade, who, with their brave men, are an honor to the State of Maryland” (17).

 

*Documents show that Major Cole was not in Harper’s Ferry at the time of the surrender and was not present at the time of the cavalry breakout. Several days earlier he had volunteered to deliver word of the Confederate attack to McClellan, and had found the General in Frederick. He was still with the Army of the Potomac when his command escaped Harper’s Ferry. I’m not sure if Newcomer included his commander in the narrative because he remembered incorrectly after 30 years, or if he was deliberately trying to inflate Cole’s personal reputation. Either way, the actions of the other officers and men that night were remarkable and deserve praise.

s

  1. OR 19:1. p 556
  2. OR 19:2. p 249; Laramie Sentinel 14 August 1886. I am indebted to historian Kim Viner of Laramie, WY for bringing this article to my attention.
  3. OR 19:1. p 534
  4. OR 19:1. p 557
  5. OR 19:1. p 557
  6. Hartwig. To Antietam Creek. p 235.
  7. Carman. The Maryland Campaign of 1862. p 237
  8. Hartwig. p 255-256
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid. p 259-260
  11. OR 19:1. p 615-616
  12. Hartwig. p 264
  13. OR 19:1. p 557
  14. Hartwig. p 524
  15. Newcomer. p 43-44
  16. Hartwig. p 564-565; Richmond Dispatch 20 September 1862; See also notation on Robert Sneden Map, https://www.loc.gov/item/gvhs01.vhs00296/
  17. OR 19:1. p 528

One thought on ““an honor to the State of Maryland” – The Potomac Home Brigade at the Battle of Harpers Ferry

  1. Pingback: “I believe that every man did his duty” – The 1st Potomac Home Brigade Infantry and the Gettysburg Campaign – Part 1 | A River Divided

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