I think the smartest thing Daniel Tyler did that June – and he did a lot of very smart things the last 2 weeks of that month - was to not assert his authority on arriving in Martinsburg, Virginia. He was a Brigadier General and under orders to take command of the town 30 miles north of Winchester. But when he stepped off the train from Harpers Ferry at 8:00 that Sunday morning, 14 June, 1863, the 62 year old Tyler found Colonel B.F. Smith just leading the 1,200 man Martinsburg garrison out to face a rebel threat. Rather than create confusion on the eve of battle, Tyler sized up Smith in a glance, judged him competent, wished him good luck, offered to supply advice if asked, and concentrated on loading the last train out of town.
An hour later a rider appeared in front of the Federal lines with a note from sourful rebel Brigadier General Albert “Grumble” Jenkins (above), addressed to the “Commanding Officer U.S. Forces near Martinsburg”. The note demanded the immediate surrender of the town or threatened its destruction. The post script added: “An immediate reply is necessary.” Technically, the Federal Commander was Tyler. But the Mexican War veteran never hinted, then or later, that he should have answered. Colonel Smith did - after delaying for an hour to buy time. He told Jenkins, “ You may commence shelling as soon as you choose.”
It was now closing in on 11:00 a.m., and the old man who had spent a sleepless night on an express train out of Baltimore, still found the energy to supervise the loading of ammunition and food, and dispatching it to safety, while at the same time laying out a line of retreat for Smith and his soldiers. It is a testament to Tyler's cool competence that he marched into Harper's Ferry (above) the next morning, Monday, 15 June at the head of all Colonel Smith's men. Tyler's reward for this display of cool professionalism was to be saddled with defending a place the legendary “Stonewall” Jackson himself considered indefensible.
Since 1761, when Robert Harper began operating his ferry where the Potomac River cut through the quartzite crests of the once towering Appalachian mountains, its junction with the Shenandoah River had been a magnet for power hungry people. Between 1801 when it opened, and 1861, when retreating federals burned most of it, the “U.S. Musket Factory” at Harpers Ferry built half a million weapons. But even after the factorty's destruction and looting in 1861, the site lost very little of its strategic importance. If you wanted to enter the fertile Shenandoah Valley from the north, you had to start at Harpers Ferry. And the fastest way to get there was on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.
By the start of the Civil War the B & O ran 380 miles of iron rails, beginning in Baltimore and running first to Fredrick, Maryland, where it touched the north shore of the Potomac River. Turning west for 12 miles the railroad squezzed around the base of the 300 foot tall Maryland Heights, before crossing to the southern shore at Harpers Ferry.
The line then wound west through 11 tunnels and over 113 bridges to Piedmont and Grafton, Virginia before reaching the Ohio River at Wheeling. Branch lines drew in the produce from the rich farms of the Shenandoah Valley, and coal from the mines of western Virginia and Pennsylvania – 1/3 of the railroad's profits in 1861 came from transporting coal to northern factories. And even though northern military commanders were slow to realize the advantages of the B&O for moving troops, their political master were always sensitive to threats to corporate property.
However, the Rebels occupying Harpers Ferry found Federal artillery glowering down from Maryland Heights (above), which forced them to evacuate the town within months of its capture. But they captured it again during Lee's 1862 invasion of Maryland. They returned it after the failure at Antietam, but many assumed the rebels would be back this year, 1863. And after General Milroy's disastrous stand at Winchester, the new commander of Harper's Ferry, General Taylor, lacked the manpower to even be certain of holding the Heights.
Daniel Tyler (above) knew Harpers Ferry well. After graduating from West Point in 1819, the Connecticut native had specialized in ordinance, and in 1832 he was made "Superintendent of the Inspectors of Contract Arms." The next year he rejected every musket offered by private industry. His integrity so angered the industrialists that the following year, when Tyler was recommended for promotion to Chief of Ordinance, President Andrew Jackson appointed a business friendly southerner instead. In his letter of resignation, Tyler complained, “I have lost all ambition to be connected with the service where... the fact that a man was not born in the South was a bar to promotion."
But Daniel Tyler's brains and patriotism were never in doubt. As a civil engineer, he got rich saving 3 failing railroads from bankruptcy, the last being the Macon and Western, which paid 8% dividends under his direction. In 1849, when asked to explain why he unexpectedly resigned, he told the board of directors, “Gentlemen...You are educating your young men to hate the Union and despise the North, and the result will be a conflict within ten years, and in that event I mean to be with my family north of Mason and Dixon Line.” And he was, growing richer over the decade serving on 4 more northern railroads before the outbreak of war in December of 1860.
General Tyler (above) served with distinction at Bull Run, but a year of service outside Cornith, Mississippi, under the indecisive and untrustworthy General Henry Halleck broke his health and spirit. But the old man came back in the spring of 1863, and was dispatched to rescue the disaster Shenandoah Valley. At 7:00 p.m. on the Monday he took command at Harpers Ferry, Tyler telegraphed that the remnants of General Milroy's mismanagement had arrived. “I am sending everybody over to Maryland Heights... Our effective force here...is not over 4,000 men.”
The cool head at Harpers Ferry soon showed it value. At midday, Tuesday, 16 June, Tyler told his boss in Balitimore, Major General Robert Shenck, “...rebel cavalry this side of Halltown (3 miles to the south west), (are) endeavoring to flank our pickets.” But by 9:40 that night he could reassure his superior, “We have not been attacked at Harpers Ferry. We have been threatened from the direction of Charlestown (6 miles to the southwest), but no rebel columns have advanced nearer...” Then, at 6:00 p.m. on Wednesday, 17 June, General Tyler was forced to telegraph his boss, “I am requested by Major General Hooker to (send) our infantry...(to) Noland and Haulings Fords. This is out of my command. Will you attend to it?”
It was a simple matter of chain of command. Brigadier General Daniel Tyler in Harper's Ferry, reported to Major General Robert Shenck (above) who commanded the VIII Corps headquartered 70 miles away in Baltimore. Tyler's orders came from Baltimore. Tyler's logistics – his supplies and reinforcements - came from Baltimore.
And from Baltimore, Major General Shenck reported to General-of-the-Army Henry Halleck (above) in Washington, D.C..
Major General "Fighting Joe" Hooker (above) commanded the Army of the Potomac, which usually operated south of Washington, D.C. But as the mercurial Hooker followed the Army of Northern Virginia north of the Potomac river, he was a lot closer to Harpers Ferry than Shenck was in Baltimore. And the increasingly panicky Hooker seemed determined not to understand he had no authority to issue orders to General Tyler. Nor did the commander of 80,000 Federal infantry, artillery and cavalry seem willing to understand why Tyler's 4,000 men could not simply abandon Maryland Heights, to provide information to benefit Hooker. Fighting Joe's inability to order about Tyler's paltry command became an obsession, to the point that the Major General went a little nuts – never a good thing in a field commander.
I am tempted here to remind you of what General Omar Bradly said – so I will. “Amateurs study strategy. Professionals study logistics.”
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