I suppose you could say one of the places the American Civil War began was Harper's Ferry (above), where the falling waters of the Shenandoah and the Potomac rivers powered the machines at the Federal Armory, mass producing muskets and ammunition. But after rebel Colonel Thomas Jackson seized the town and armory in April of 1861, stripping it of muskets and powder stores, and shipping 300 gun making machines to Richmond, the place lost its military significance. Still, it was federal property, and the man 74 year old Winfield Scott picked to restore it was his old rival and subordinate, 68 year old Robert Patterson.
The fickle President James Polk had chosen Patterson (above) to lead the 1847 invasion of Vera Cruz, Mexico. But then he changed his mind. Winfield Scott collected the glory and Patterson did the paper work. Now, Scott charged his “friendemy” with retaking Harper's Ferry, and keeping the 11,000 rebels in the Shenandoah Valley, now commanded by General Joe Johnston, from reinforcing Beauregard's 22,000 men at Manassas Junction. It wouldn't be easy, of course. But it was made worse by Patterson's lingering resentment over Vera Cruz. He never disobeyed a direct order from Scott, but always parsed those orders carefully, rarely sharing his own thoughts with his “superior”. And while urging Patterson to move on the rebels, General Scott had also reminded his old rival that any reversal could be catastrophic. Patterson put that warning in his pocket, to use later.
By the middle of June, Patterson had assembled 18,000 troops, mostly 90 day militia, to retake Harper's Ferry. In response Joe Johnston (who regarded the place as as “untenable”) ordered Jackson to evacuate the town, blowing up the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad bridge and the armory buildings as he did. The next day, Monday, 17 June, seeing the place abandoned, Patterson took.”formal possession of Harper's Ferry.”
Informed of the bloodless victory, Scott now urged Patterson to at once move against Johnston, who had concentrated his forces on the other side of the Blue Ridge mountains, around Winchester, Virginia.. Patterson did not reply, and neither did he cross the Potomac for another two weeks, in part because because he believed Johnson had 20,000 men at Winchester, making the rebels stronger than himself, and in part because he had to shift his men from around Harper's Ferry, to the west. And that latter point illustrated a truth about the coming war in western Virginia.
The Shenandoah valley, was important for the south because of its food and horses, and because the Blue Ridge Mountains shielded any rebel army heading north (“down” the valley) into Pennsylvania or Maryland. But an invading federal army advancing “up ” the valley, heading south, would be moving away from Richmond and the industrial centers of the Confederacy. So the Federal government could never win the war in the valley. But as General Robert Patterson was about to prove, the government could lose the war there.
At about four in the morning, on Monday, 1 July, 1861, a company of ex-firemen from Philadelphia , McMullin's Independent Rangers, wadded across the chest high Potomac River at Watkins Ferry, under the watchful eyes of rebel troopers under Colonel J.E.B. Stuart. It was quickly evident, as heavy supply trains followed, that Patterson was moving cautiously. Fifteen miles to the south, in Martinsburg, Virginia, Colonel Jackson was awakened with the news about 7:30 that morning. He immediately aroused his 5th Virginia Regiment of 380 men, and notified Johnson, 30 miles further south in Winchester. Jackson's standing orders were to slow the federal advance, but avoid any serious engagement. He sent three cannon back to Winchester, and just one forward with his Virginians, certain he need not worry about being overrun by Patterson's slow advance.
The next morning, Tuesday, 2 July, a brigade of federal regulars and militia under 63 year old Colonel John Joseph Abercrombie (above, the oldest line officer in either army ) and a second brigade under 45 year old Colonel George H. Thomas, began the march south on the Martinsburg and Potomac Turnpike. Both federal commanders were West Point graduates, and both were from slave states. Abercrombie's choice to fight for the union was made easier because his home state, Maryland, and not seceded, and because he was the son-in-law of his commander, General Patterson.
George Thomas (above) was from Virginia, and when his slave owning family learned he was leading troops against Virginia, they literally turned his picture to the wall, and never spoke his name again. J.E.B. Stuart, whose cavalry which was snipping at Thomas' brigade this day, wrote bitterly, “I would like to hang, hang him as a traitor to his native state.”
Shortly after noon, as the 3,500 federals were passing though the village of Hainsville, they began receiving fire. This was the 300 Virginians of the 5th regiment, thrown out in a skirmish line near the 10 mile marker, where the pike crossed a stream called Hoke's Run and climbed a low hill splitting William Porterfield's farm in two. Both federal brigades drew up in a battle line, and advanced slowly. Jackson's rebels held them up for about 45 minutes, until a federal battery of artillery began throwing explosive shells into Mr.Porterfield's barn. Jackson then skillfully withdrew his men.
The federals called it “The Battle of Hoke's Run”, or “The Battle Falling Waters” after two nearby streams. The rebels called it the “Battle of Hainsville”. It left 2 federals dead, 30 wounded and 35 captured when a company of unsuspecting Pennsylvania militia were caught by Stuart's cavalry, who were dressed in blue. The Confederate dead and wounded were about the same numbers as the federals. By later standards it would be called a skirmish, but both sides were still learning how to fight this war.
The next morning, Wednesday, 3 July, Patterson's invasion showed its clumsy side. As most of the two brigades advanced on Martinsburg, Private Charles Leonard and his regiment of Maryland militia, “The Park Grays”, were ordered back to Watkins Ferry, to escort supply wagons forward. “We started about 8 a.m., double quick...and slept on the banks of the old Potomac....The next day (4 July) (we) convoyed the supply train to Martinsburg”. Patterson now dug in, and began to build up his supplies.
On Friday, 12 July General Winfield Scott (above) telegraphed Patterson that McDowell would begin his advance on the 16th, and ordered Patterson to also move on that date. The next day Scott repeated the order and added, “If not strong enough to beat the enemy...make a demonstration so as to detain him in the valley or at Winchester.” Patterson responded that his intelligence suggested Johnson could quickly double his strength, bringing him to 40,000 men. If so, should Patterson attack anyway? General Scott did not bother to reply to this fantasy.
In fact, Patterson moved a day early, on Monday, 15 July. But he got only 5 miles. As the Winchester Road crossed Mill Creek, in the shadow of a rise called Bunker Hill, the federal advance again came under long range musket fire from 600 of J.E.B.Stuart's troopers. Not a single federal soldier was hit, while one rebel was killed and five captured, before the rest withdrew. But it was enough to spark a rebellion in the federal ranks. Several regiments simply refused to march any further. They were two weeks from the end of their service, and they refused to move further from their muster points. General Patterson was forced to call a “council of war”, and the consensus among his officers was the mutiny might infect the entire force. The federal force of 20,000 marched straight back to Martinsburg..
Robert Patterson did his best to put a good light on things. He telegraphed Washington about his problems, and asked permission to sidestep to the east, to Charles Town. It was better than nothing, and Scott approved the move, which Patterson completed on 17 July. But most of the soldiers on both sides, knew it was a retreat. A member of the 4th Alabama regiment noted, "The best generals of the age say it requires more tact and military learning to conduct a good retreat than to fight and win a battle. Therefore I assert that Patterson is the best general they have." The members of Patterson's own army, even those who had refused to advance, were even more cruel. As he rode past a unit, waiting beside the road to Charles Town, he was greeted with cries of, “Go home, you old coward!, ”” “He's an old secessionist. Shoot him.” Patterson said nothing, but he was steaming with indignation. On Thursday Patterson telegraphed his mea culpa to Scott:. “The enemy has stolen no march on me. I have kept him actively employed, and by threats and reconnaissance in force caused him to be reinforced.”
It was a fantasy, again. Not only was Joe Johnson (above) not begin reinforced. On, Friday evening, 18 July, he began marching his 18,000 men, beginning with Jackson's Brigade, south to the Mananas Gap Railroad, and then transferring them by train to reinforce General Beauregard’s 22,000 men at Mananas Junction. The north had lost its advantage on the field of Mananas, by its ineptitude in the Shenandoah valley.
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