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November 21, 2011
Roads to Leesburg (3)By Greyhawk
At 6 feet 6 inches, John White Geary (center) was tall sitting down.
October 20 1861: John White Geary began a letter to his wife. Following his heartfelt appreciation of news of her continued health and well being - and assurances that he himself was "never better" ("God has blessed me with an excellent constitution," the six-six, 240-pound colonel wrote) - he offered a mild complaint: "Our fight of the 16th inst has not yet had justice done to it in the papers."
He didn't specify his exact charges as to the nature of their failure, but from that phrase alone it didn't appear he was in any way upset or embarrassed by their overly enthusiastic descriptions of his great victory - which the press certainly hadn't ignored. Lacking details, the first notice that a battle had been fought at Harper's Ferry had appeared in papers at least as far away as New York within a day of the clash; details - some of which were accurate and all of which were flattering to the Union forces (and their commander) had been published each and every day since.
Among the first words provided the public were those written by Geary himself - his own first dispatch from the scene. It was brief - and written using a newly-captured rebel cannon ("1 - 32 pounder columbiad, on which I wrote my first dispatch to Genl Banks" he informed his wife) now multi-purposed as both a desk and a mount for his triumphant victory march: "I have just ridden into camp on a 32-pounder captured from the enemy at Bolivar. JOHN W. GEARY." (Depending on who you asked, this particular cannon might or might not have been usable for firing lethal projectiles into enemy ranks, too.)
More details came right along with that leak. "Last night, at half past ten, the War Department received per telegraph a copy of a modest dispatch from Col. GEARY to Gen. BANKS, announcing that he had just routed a large body of the enemy," the Washington Star had reported the next day, adding that Geary had halted his pursuit of the fleeing rebels only long enough to compose and send his modest report. But "At a subsequent hour," the Star account continued, "the following dispatch, descriptive of the battle, was received by the Government here, from Gen. BANKS' headquarters."
The battle-field was at Bolivar Heights, near Harper's Ferry, where 450 of Col. GEARY's force, with three pieces of artillery, were attacked by the rebels, 3,000 strong, including 500 cavalry...
It described a remarkable victory. Besides being outnumbered 7-1, Geary had no cavalry, and the rebels had seven pieces of artillery to his three. The truth alone would thrill the hearts of any true Union men - and major newspapers throughout the north were reporting the truth and more, just as fast as they possibly could.
Against overwhelming odds, "Col. GEARY not only repulsed the enemy, and held his position in spite of a tremendous cannonade from flank and front, and well-directed attacks of infantry and cavalry, but drove them by impetuous bayonet charges for three miles, and took a 32-pounder columbiad and considerable ammunition, at the point of the bayonet."
Union losses were just four killed, one mortally wounded and eight slightly. Tragic losses - but the completeness of the victory they'd purchased with their blood was obvious in the enemy casualty figures Geary provided: at least one hundred and fifty killed and wounded (rebel corpses were being hauled from the battlefield by the wagonload, later reports explained), and three Confederate prisoners captured. (An unusual ratio - but perhaps explainable by a rebel penchant to fight to the death rather than surrender...) Among the enemy dead, none other than the notorious rebel cavalry commander Colonel Turner Ashby himself, whose forces had plagued Geary's (and those of other Union commanders) along the upper Potomac since the onset of hostilities.
Details of Ashby's death would emerge soon after, via letters written by Geary's men and appearing in the newspapers. It seemed Corporal Marshall, of the Massachusetts Thirteenth, had been attempting to help one of the Union wounded off the field of battle. Apparently Ashby had spied the soldier thus engaged (and seemingly helpless), and had launched his own personal and cowardly attack - a one-man mounted charge, sword upraised to deliver the death blow. But Marshall "turned and shot his pursuer through the breast" according to one account. ("Turned" meaning Ashby was attacking him from behind.) An even more dramatically written version had it that Marshall's "trusty rifle saved his life a second time," (earlier a minie ball had struck the barrel and deflected through his cap) "by bringing the rebel officer to the ground, a corpse."
Miraculous events - but though he'd shortened the odds a bit in his own letter home ("I had only 600 men, and the enemy over 3,000" and "I had 4 cannon - They had 7"), the fight, as Geary now described it to his wife, "was one of those in which the finger of God was visible for our deliverance."
October 17, 1861: Turner Ashby didn't often provide official reports of his battles, but he deemed yesterday's fight worthy of one - or at least believed the Confederate government's war department might appreciate one - so having paper, pen and time on hand he began to write.
If he was aware that he himself had been killed in the fight - or even wounded - he made no mention of it in his casualty figures: "My loss is 1 killed and 9 wounded. Report from the Ferry states the loss of the enemy at 25 killed and a number wounded. We have 2 Yankee prisoners and 8 Union men co-operating with them. We took a large number of blankets, overcoats, and about one dozen guns."
Not bad for an attack against multiple Union regiments launched by nominally "regular" Confederate cavalry forces joined with a few hundred local militia members backed with a couple of cannon mounted on decrepit wagons - which (though Ashby wouldn't describe it as such) was certainly what the Harper's Ferry battle was. Ashby wouldn't insult the honor of such men as his volunteers by claiming they'd been defeated, but his report left no doubt that while they put up a good fight it had not ended as he'd hoped.
"My force upon the morning of the attack consisted of 300 militia," he wrote. Along with that group he had about 230 cavalry troops - scarcely more than "mounted militia" themselves. (In fact, some lacked horses.) Some were armed with rifles; most brought whatever they could from home, primarily muskets or flintlocks. Ashby also reported "I had one rifled 4-pounder gun, one 24-pounder gun badly mounted, which broke an axle in Bolivar, and I had to spike it."
If his troops lacked organization and equipment, they had no shortage of courage or enthusiasm, and were led by a man fast becoming legendary in Virginia and notorious in the North. He'd developed a bold plan using combined arms - infantry, cavalry and artillery - in what would certainly be the largest engagement of his military career thus far. The Yankees had been in Harper's Ferry for several days, emptying Abraham Herr's flour mill of 20-30,000 bushels of wheat otherwise rotting there. (In Ashby's report: "The enemy occupying that position have for several days been committing depredations in the vicinity of their camp.") Ashby had determined to use the irregular forces at his disposal in an overland attack from the west against the like-number of Union troops on the Harper's Ferry side of the Potomac. While that might prove to be a fair fight, he could also count on being overwhelmed when enemy reinforcements flooded the town from the Maryland side.
So he'd contacted Colonel Evans, (or "General" Evans - as both his and Geary's official reports promoted him even though the Confederate government had not) whose area of responsibility was Loudoun County. Loudoun's western border was just across the Shenandoah from Harper's Ferry, and from a commanding position on Loudoun Heights a few pieces of artillery and as much infantry as Evans could spare might be able to prevent those reinforcements from crossing from Maryland. Evans obliged, and on the second anniversary of John Brown's raid his troops were in place above the town, and Ashby's militia struck.
Something of a see-saw battle ensued. Ashby's forces met with initial success, driving enemy pickets from Bolivar Heights in their first strike. "I made the attack in three divisions, and drove the enemy from their breastworks without loss of a man, and took position upon the hill," Ashby reported. But while moving forward from that point his first setback occurred. The axle on the old wagon used to transport his largest gun broke. It was out of the fight, "and this materially affected the result."
Captain Henry Bertram, commanding Company A of the Third Wisconsin Infantry gave additional details of the first Union counter-attack in his official report:
As we commenced, the enemy attempted to haul off their gun, but in their hasty attempt broke the axle-tree. As we approached the gun we saw one of the men spiking it and the others left it and sought cover, when a tremendous fire upon us from a masked breastwork compelled us to seek cover. We sustained and answered the fire for some fifteen minutes, saw our men falling, and were obliged to retreat, closely pursued by the enemy's cavalry. We rallied, after falling back some 50 rods, and fired upon the enemy's cavalry, driving them back and covering the retreat of our wounded and those who were aiding them off the field; then slowly retreated to the main body.
The rebel's immediate goal had become the rescue of their cannon, but as the Union troops were soon reinforced with more infantry and artillery pieces of their own they would not succeed.
Evan's detached forces on Loudoun Heights - led by Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Griffin, second-ranking officer of the 18th Mississippi under Colonel Erasmus Burt - had given all they could, but ultimately the position itself was less effective than Ashby had hoped; their most significant contribution to the fight would be that their mere presence offered some validity to Geary's claim to have confronted Evans' Mississippians and Virginians in battle. "The position which Colonel Griffin held upon Loudoun was such as to be of very little assistance to us," Ashby wrote, "not being so elevated as to prevent them [Union forces] from controlling the crossing." Thus Union reinforcements - including their own field artillery - arrived.
The infantry on Loudoun Heights might have briefly been more effective than the artillery there. In his official report Maj. J. P. Gould of the Thirteenth Massachusetts wrote that while the reinforcements were crossing from Maryland "the rebels fired upon them from the Loudoun Heights by rifle shots." However, "I ordered one of our iron guns to fire upon them with canister; two shots silenced them." Still, Griffin's soldiers were sufficiently threatening for Geary to declare in his own official report that "Lieutenant Martin, by my order, joined me with one rifled cannon... he having crossed the river with it under a galling fire of rifleman from Loudoun Heights."
As for the Loudoun artillery, unable to bring their fire to bear on the crossing they instead aimed for Union forces already engaged. Their effectiveness was described in a letter home from a Massachusetts soldier (that soon appeared in a Boston newspaper): "...we didn't mind the shot and shells, for we could hear and see them coming, and dodge them, especially the round shot, which were fired at us from Loudon Heights - for the guns from which they were fired were about a mile off, and the force of the balls was nearly spent when they reached us. And we could see, by the same which hung to them, about where they would strike."
Another soldier, whose report appeared in a competing Boston paper, declared "They then began to shell us, the missiles skipping down the street. We only laughed at them. They fired some twenty rounds at us, which were harmless, when were heard the rattling of chains coming up the street. It was our cannon and reinforcements."
Still, the threat of the Loudoun artillery had not gone unnoticed by the Union troops on the Maryland side. "I ordered one iron gun to play upon the guns on Loudoun Heights, from which they were throwing shells on to and over the mill, with slugs, and I learn that it seemed to have some good effect," Gould reported. Such statements are open to interpretation - but Union artillerymen were certainly kept busy that day, though not all their efforts had some good effect. "At one time," wrote the Boston Saturday Evening Gazette's correspondent (he who had laughed at rebel cannon fire), "our own artillery on Maryland Heights shelled us, as we were falling back, thinking we were the enemy."
The rest of the battle, from Captain Betram's report:
Company H, Third Regiment Wisconsin, having joined us, we formed a complete line of skirmishers from Bolivar main street to the Shenandoah, and awaited the arrival of artillery. At 1 o'clock p.m., the artillery having arrived, we moved the line slowly forward, by command of Colonel Geary, firing as we advanced, at the enemy slowly falling back. On our arrival at the outskirts of Bolivar we advanced rapidly, the enemy having retreated behind the hill; and passing in our advance the gun which had been disabled, we established our line on Bolivar Heights, the enemy having retreated to a belt of wood about three-quarters of a mile away in the direction of Halltown.
Five more companies of fresh Union troops from the Maryland side soon joined them there. Presumably their numbers (or the numbers of troops he'd had placed along the Potomac in Maryland and the Shenandoah in Harper's Ferry to prevent any additional rebels crossing over from Loudoun) didn't factor in to Geary's preferred outnumbered 7 to 1 narrative - but whether any of the new arrivals fired a shot at the now outnumbered (and departing, unpursued) rebels or not, their arrival effectively ended the great Harper's Ferry Battle of 16 October 1861.
Though prior to his own retreat back to Maryland, Geary did have at least one last act of war to perform. He'd "ascertained" that a local iron foundry "was used by the rebels for casting shot and shell of all kinds," he stated in his official report. So "I ordered it to be burned, which was done the same night."
Individual participants in the battle would no doubt have experienced moments of terror comparable to that of any individuals engaged in battle throughout the war, but Chester G. Hearn, in a recent history of Harper's Ferry in the Civil War, effectively summed one aspect of the fight with an observation that likely had to wait well over a century to be made: "With roughly eleven hundred men involved in a skirmish lasting four hours, where total casualties added up to five killed and twenty wounded, enough cannot be said about poor marksmanship."
In his own history of the town, Joseph Barry (who was there that day - one of the residents pressed into the service of the Union troops emptying Herr's Mill) described the fight as "a very sharp skirmish" in which "Both sides claimed the victory, though both retreated." As for what it meant to the town, "Many young men of the neighborhood of Harper's Ferry, who were serving in the confederate army, were wounded..."
Unarmed residents had the misfortune of finding themselves involved in the fight, too:
The federal soldiers were very much excited on this occasion, in consequence of a malicious report spread among them that some citizens of Bolivar were harboring the enemy in their houses and giving them them an opportunity to pick off the unionists from the windows. Mr. Patrick Hagan was arrested on this charge and hurried away to Maryland without his getting time to put on his coat of which he had divested himself for work around his house. This gentleman was one of the most peaceable men of the place, and no citizen of either party in Harper's Ferry or Bolivar believed that he was guilty. Notwithstanding his high character, however, he was taken away in the condition mentioned and kept in confinement for several months in a government fort.
Per Ashby's report ("We have 2 Yankee prisoners and 8 Union men co-operating with them") the Confederates had also hauled off their own selection of "undesirables" from the town.
But Harper's Ferry still hadn't suffered enough. Shortly after the battle, the rebels rode back into town and, finding no Union troops present to oppose them, promptly set fire to Herr's Mill. In his official report Geary explained that "a great portion of the wheat had been taken" from the site already (many accounts claimed the Union forces had "captured" the wheat in a "raid") - he deemed its loss no great tragedy.
Its ruined shell remained a prominent feature on the Harper's Ferry shoreline for years after the war.
The view from Harper's Ferry, circa 1888: Virginius Island, with the ruins of Herr's Mill still visible in the center. Bolivar Heights in background, Loudoun Heights across Shenandoah River to left. (Historic Photo Collection, Harpers Ferry NHP.)
Apparently the rebels did score some near misses. In his letter to his wife Geary revealed one bit of information from the battle that had not yet appeared in the newspapers - he himself had been wounded. "I was struck with a piece of shell in the early part of the action just below the knee in the front of the leg, which cut to the bone," he wrote. "I did not let it be known until after the victory was won, it is healing rapidly and will soon be well."
In the days after he wrote his own letter, those from Geary's troops began appearing in the papers. Though by this point editors would acknowledge that reports of Ashby's death were premature (and forgivable; with rebel corpses being hauled off by the wagon load, who could fault someone for misidentifying one?) these stories likely provided the "justice" Geary believed the earlier versions lacked.
New York and Washington readers were told that "Col. GEARY displayed much skill and great bravery during the whole of the engagement" - and if any were uncertain how this fight compared to other battles (or with what battles it should be compared), "This was not a 'Bull Run,' but a rebel-run affair."
Philadelphia Inquirer readers (Geary was born in Pennsylvania and at the beginning of the war commanded infantry units he'd raised there) were assured that the rebels "fear Geary like they do the----" and that "Geary said it was a glorious victory, and the hardest battle he was ever in." His toughness was highlighted, too - along with the degree to which his men loved him: "Our Colonel was slightly wounded in the leg in the fore part of the engagement," the corespondent wrote. "The boys would not be satisfied until he took off his boot and showed us where it was. We thought it was worse than he wanted to let on." (After the war, Geary - a Mexican War veteran who'd already served as mayor of San Francisco and territorial governor of Kansas, was twice elected Governor of Pennsylvania.)
The report delivered to Boston readers, via published letters from the Massachusetts troops in the fight, included no such glowing praise of the field commander (Massachusetts men knew who to credit for the victory: "We have heard there were 150 of them [the rebels] killed and wounded," wrote the Boston Saturday Evening Gazette corespondent. "The Enfield rifle is the piece that tells. I heard one of the rebels exclaim, 'I wish to God we had their guns!'"), but did provide an oblique reference to Geary's experience and qualification as such: "The Colonel said he had been in fifteen battles and never saw so hot as one before."
He was certainly destined to see others that would make the Harper's Ferry skirmish pale in comparison, but for the time being "justice" was still denied John White Geary. By the time those reports appeared, Ball's Bluff had captured the public's attention, and whatever had happened at Harper's Ferry somehow just didn't seem so important any more.
New York Times readers had gotten a hint of what was coming on October 19th, the day before Geary had written home to his wife. The same "Great Rebellion" round-up of news items that included "IMPORTANT FROM HARPER'S FERRY Renewal of the Fighting at Bolivar" (an exaggerated report of the rebel's return to burn Herr's Mill) in its headline actually led with this item from the paper's Washington correspondent:
I telegraphed you yesterday that the rebels had sent away their sick and disabled and baggage from Leesburgh, and that the six regiments yet encamped there were preparing to retire. Information is received to-day that the entire force has been withdrawn, even to the scouts and pickets...
Closer to Washington, the modern miracle of manned flight was being applied to war: "A balloon reconnoissance was made this afternoon, the balloon going up from Cloud's Mills, and coming down near Hunter's Chapel. It reached an altitude of about two miles, giving an extended view of the country. Nothing could be seen of the rebels anywhere this side of Fairfax, and but few traces of them there."
With the rebels pulling back, more long-awaited Union advances along the Potomac were anticipated soon...
Epilogue: Major J. P. Gould of the Thirteenth Massachusetts - who had actually arranged (and for days been in command of) the effort to "harvest" wheat from Herr's Mill - was late delivering his official report. He couldn't resist appending an "apology" for his tardiness, explaining that "besides being quite unwell, there was much necessary and pressing business connected wither the closing up of this adventure, every part of which needed my personal attention."
However, as he further explained, he thought there might be no need for a report from him anyway, because...
...from the accounts I see in the papers, I infer that there is no Major Gould at this post, and, if here, he is only an intruder; nor had he anything to do with getting the wheat. Indeed, his name does not occur in a long whole-column article of to-day's Baltimore paper.
One could almost hear a distant sigh when reading his final words: "Let Ceasar have his own."
Reports on the 16 October 1861 Harper's Ferry battle in the Official Records begin here.
Rebellion Record documents (including news stories) on the fight are here.
The New York Times archive of stories on Colonel Geary at Harper's Ferry from October 1861 is here.
Geary's letter to his wife is among those compiled by William A. Blair in A Politician Goes to War: The Civil War Letters of John White Geary
A web site for the Thirteenth Massachusetts provides an expanded look at their time in the vicinity of Harper's Ferry here.
Posted by Greyhawk / November 21, 2011 9:56 AM | Permalink
November 26, 2010
I think anyone who's ever pondered the "comment" option - once only available on blogs and bulletin boards, now ubiquitous on almost any web site - will appreciate this:
The so-called faculty of writing is not so much a faculty of writing as it is a faculty of thinking. When a man says, "I have an idea but I can't express it"; that man hasn't an idea but merely a vague feeling. If a man has a feeling of that kind, and will sit down for a half an hour and persistently try to put into writing what he feels, the probabilities are at least 90 percent that he will either be able to record it, or else realize that he has no idea at all. In either case, he will do himself a benefit.
That's wisdom from the past, captured for posterity at the US Naval Institute, shared via the web on the institute's 137th anniversary.
From their about page:
"The Naval Institute has three core activities," among them, History and Preservation:
The Naval Institute also has recently introduced Americans at War, a living history of Americans at war in their own words and from their own experiences. These 90-second vignettes convey powerful stories of inspiration, pride, and patriotism.
Take a look at the collection, and you'll see it's not limited to accounts from those who served on ships at sea, members of the other branches are well-represented.
I'm fortunate to have met USNI's Mary Ripley, she's responsible for the institute's oral history program (and she's the daughter of the late John Ripley, whose story is told here). She also deserves much credit for their blog. ("We're not the Navy nor any government agency. Blog and comment freely.") We met at a milblog conference - Mary knew (and I would come to realize) that milbloggers are the 21st-century version of exactly what the US Naval Institute is all about. Once that light bulb came on in my head, I mentioned a vague idea for a project to her - milblogs as the 21st century oral history that they are.
"Put that in writing," she said (of course - see first paragraph above!) - and here's part of the result.
Shortly after the first tent was pitched by the American military in Iraq a wire was connected to a computer therein, and the internet was available to a generation of Americans at war - many of whom had grown up online. From that point on, at any given moment, somewhere in Iraq a Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine was at a keyboard sharing the events of his or her day with the folks back home. While most would simply fire off an email, others took advantage of the (then) relatively new online blogging platforms to post their thoughts and experiences for the entire world to see. The milblog was born - and from that moment to this stories detailing everything from the most mundane aspects of camp life to intense combat action (often described within hours of the event) have been available on the web...
And et cetera - but since you're reading this on a milblog, you probably knew that. And you know that milblogs aren't just blogs written by troops at war, that many friends, family members, and supporters likewise documented their story of America at war online in near-real time, as those stories developed.
The diversity in membership of that group is broad, the one thing we all have in common is the impulse to make sense of the seemingly senseless, and communicate the tale - for each of us that impulse was strong enough to overcome whatever barriers prevent the vast majority of people from doing the same. Everyone at some point has some vague idea they believe should be shared - we were the people who, from some combination of internal and external urging, found and spent those many half hours persistently trying to write it down.
But where will all that be in another 137 years? Or five or ten, for that matter. That's something I've asked myself since at least 2004 - when I wrote this:
Membership in the ghost battalion has grown in the years since, and an ever growing majority of those abandoned-but-still-standing sites are vanishing. Have you checked out Lt Smash's site lately? How about Sgt Hook's? If you're a long-time milblog reader you know the first widely-read milblog from Operation Iraq Freedom and the first widely-read milblog from Afghanistan are both gone from the web. If you're a relative newcomer to this world you may never even have heard of them - or the dozens upon dozens of others who carried forth the standard they set down.
If you have a vague notion that something should be done about that, (a notion I've heard expressed more than once...) then you and I and the good folks at the US Naval Institute are in agreement. Preserving the history documented by the milbloggers is just one of the goals of the milblog project, the once-vague idea that we're now making real.
And it's a big idea, if I say so myself - too big to explain in one simple blog post, so stand by for more. Likewise, it's too big a task to be accomplished by just one person. So if you're a milblogger (and exactly what is a milblogger? is a topic for much further discussion on its own) I'm asking for your help. All I'll really need is just a little bit (maybe just one or two of those half hours...) of your time, and your willingness to tell the tale.
We've already made history, it's time to save it.
(More to follow...)
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