Sunday, August 8, 2010

SHAF Tour - Harpers Ferry

From SHAF Tour 2010

I will cover the SHAF tour of South Mountain and Harpers Ferry in several posts focused on the various separate engagements covered by the tour. An overview of Harpers Ferry seems appropriate to start, what with the concern over development plans for Bolivar Heights. The picture above shows the position of A.P. Hill's artillery on the Murphy Farm. Hill's seizure of this position flanked Bolivar Heights and sealed the fate of the garrison. It is worth noting the Murphy Farm represents a significant preservation victory made possible by the cooperation of the NPS and the Murphy family.

One of the themes of the tour highlighted the need to reappraise the performance of Federal and Confederate commanders during the campaign. Dixon S. Miles, the Federal commander at Harpers Ferry, is almost universally regarded as an "imbecile," but as Dr. Dennis Frye points out, he was forced to defend the town. His choices of Maryland Heights and Bolvar Heights for defensive positions made the best of a bad situation. Miles had perhaps 14,000 troops, most of which were green, and many of them had been in the army for only 3 weeks - barely enough time to learn how to load and fire a musket, let alone maneuver in formation.

The loss of Maryland Heights to troops under Lafayette McLaws seriously compromised Miles's defense, but this was perhaps unavoidable given the inexperience of Miles's command. With hope for relief fading, Miles permitted 1400 cavalry under Colonel Grimes Davis to attempt a breakout. The cavalry had been posted on the Murphy farm, guarding the southern flank of Miles's defensive line. As the cavalry made their escape in darkness, the infantry sent to replace them was recalled to Bolivar Heights to shore up the main line against an apparent night assault.

This night assault was a diversion planned by Jackson to cover the advance of A. P. Hill's division to the Murphy Farm, and it worked brilliantly. Frye considers this one of Jackson's most ingenious strategems, and suggests that Jackson receives little credit for it because of the low opinion most historians hold of his opponent. Given a reappraisal of Miles's efforts, Jackson's success at Harpers Ferry attains new significance. He coordinated three separate columns in a difficult convergence, disrupted his opponents defensive arrangements with a clever ruse, and seized a key position that made the enemy's line, and ultimately the town of Harpers Ferry, untenable. His efforts resulted in the largest surrender of U.S. forces prior to World War II.

Today, Harpers Ferry National Historic park includes portions of School House Ridge, Bolivar Heights, the Murphy Farm, and Maryland Heights. The battlefield portions of the park exist through the combined efforts of private individuals, CWPT, and the National Park Service. As I rethink my own opinions of Miles and Jackson's operations before Harpers Ferry, I am grateful for the areas that have been preserved, and hopeful for those that have not.

1 comment:

Dick Stanley said...

I haven't gotten to the 13th MS's participation here yet, but this will be a good link, when I do. Thanks.