Jackson at Harper's Ferry in 1861
BY JOHN B. IMBODEN, BRIGADIER GENERAL, C. S. A.
The movement to capture Harper's Ferry Virginia, and the fire-arms manufactured and stored there was organized at the Exchange Hotel in Richmond on the night of April 16th, 1861. Ex-Governor Henry A. Wise was at the head of this purely impromptu affair. The Virginia Secession Convention, then sitting, was by a large majority "Union" in its sentiment till Sumter was fired on and captured, and Mr. Lincoln called for seventy-five thousand men to enforce the laws in certain Southern State. Virginia vas then, as it were, forced to "take sides" and she did not hesitate. I had been one of the candidates for a seat in that convention from Augusta county, but had been overwhelmingly defeated by the "Union" candidates, because I favored secession as the only "peace measure" Virginia could then adopt, our aim being to put the State in an independent position to negotiate between the United States and the seceded Gulf and Cotton States for a new Union to be formed on a compromise of the slavery question by a convention to be held for that purpose.
Late on April 15th I received a telegram from "Nat" Tyler, the editor of the "Richmond Enquirer'', summoning me to Richmond, where I arrived the next day. Before reaching the Exchange Hotel I met ex-Governor Wise on the street. He asked me to find as many officers of the armed and equipped volunteers of the inland towns and countries as I could, and request them to be at the hotel by 7 in the evening to confer about a military movement which he deemed important. Not many such officers were in town, but I found Captains Turner Ashby and Richard Ashby of Fauquier county, Oliver R. Funsten of Clarke county, all commanders of volunteer companies of cavalry; also Captain John A. Harman of Staunton–– my home– and Alfred A. Barbour, the latter ex-civil superintendent of the Government works at Harper's Ferry. These persons, with myself, promptly joined ex-Governor Wise and a plan for the capture of Harper's Ferry was at once discussed and settled upon. The movement, it was agreed, should commence the next day, the 17th, as soon as the convention voted to secede, - provided we could get railway transportation and the concurrence of Governor Letcher. Colonel Edmund Fontaine, president of the Virginia Central railroad, and John S. Barbour, president of the Orange and Alexandria and Manassas Gap railroads, were sent for, and joined us at the hotel near midnight. They agreed to put the necessary trains in readiness next day to obey any request of Governor Letcher for the movement of troops.
A committee, of which I was chairman, waited on Governor Letcher after midnight, and, arousing him from his bed, laid the scheme before him. He stated that he would take no step till officially informed that the ordinance of secession was passed by the convention. He was then asked if contingent upon the event he would next day order the movement by telegraph. He consented. We then informed him what companies would be under arms ready to move at a moment's notice. All the persons I have named above are now dead, except John S. Barbour, "Nat" Tyler, and myself.
On returning to the hotel and reporting Governor Letcher's promise, it was decided to telegraph the captains of the companies along the railroads mentioned to be ready next day for orders from the governor. In that way I ordered the Staunton Artillery, which I commanded, to assemble at their armory by 4 P. M. on the 17th, to receive orders from the governor to aid in the capture of the Portsmouth Navy Yard. This destination had been indicted in all our dispatches, to deceive the Government at Washington in case there should be a "leak" in the telegraph offices. Early in the evening a message had been received by ex-Governor Wise from his son-in-law Doctor Garnett of Washington, to the effect that a Massachusetts regiment, one thousand strong, had been ordered to Harper's Ferry. Without this reinforcement we knew the guard there consisted of only forty-five men, who could be captured or driven away, perhaps without firing a shot, if we could reach the place secretly.
The Asbys, Funsten, Harman, and I remained up the entire night. The superintendent and commandant of the Virginia Armory at Richmond, Captain Charles Dimmock, a Northern man by birth and a West Point graduate, was in full sympathy with us, and that night filled our requisitions for ammunition and moved it to the railway station before sunrise. He also granted one hundred stand of arms for the Martinsburg Light Infantry, a new company just formed. All these I receipted for and saw placed on the train. Just before we moved out of the depot, Alfred Barbour made an unguarded remark in the car, which was overheard by a Northern traveler, who immediately wrote a message to President Lincoln and paid a negro a dollar to take it to the telegraph office. This act was discovered by one of our party, who induced a friend to follow the negro and take the dispatch from him. This perhaps prevented troops being sent to head us off.
My telegram to the Staunton Artillery produced wild excitement, that spread rapidly through the county, and brought thousands of people to Staunton during the day. Augusta had been a strong Union county, and a doubt was raised by some whether I was acting under the orders of Governor Letcher.
To satisfy them, my brother, George V. Imboden sent a message to me at Gordonsville, inquiring under whose authority I had acted. On the arrival of the train at Gordonsville, Captain Harman received the message and replied to it in my name, that I was acting by order of the governor. Harman had been of the committee, the night before, that waited on Governor Letcher, and he assumed that by that hour-noon-the convention must have voted the State out of the Union, and that the governor had kept his promise to send orders by wire. Before we reached Staunton, Harman handed me the dispatch and told me what he had done. I was annoyed by his action till the train drew up at Staunton, where thousands of people were assembled, and my artillery company and the West Augusta Guards (the finest infantry company in the valley) were in line. Major-General Kenton Harper, a native of Pennsylvania, "a born soldier," and Brigadier-General William H. Harman, both holding commissions in the Virginia militia, and both of whom had won their spurs in the regiment the State had sent to the Mexican war, -met me as I alighted, with a telegram from Governor Letcher ordering them into service, and referring them to me for information as to our destination and troops. Until I imparted to them confidentially what had occurred the night before, they thought, as did all the people assembled, that we were bound for the Portsmouth Navy Yard. For prudential reasons, we said nothing to dispel this illusion. The governor in his dispatch informed General Harper that he was to take chief command, and that full written instructions would reach him en route. He waited till after dark, and then set out for Winchester behind a good team. Brigadier-General Harman was ordered to take command of the trains and of all troops that might report en route.
About sunset we took train; our departure was an exciting and affecting scene. At Charlottesville, in the night the Monticello Guards, Captain W. B. Mallory, and the Albemarle Rifles, under Captain R. T. W. Duke, came aboard. At Culpeper a rifle company joined us, and just as the sun rose on the 18th we reached Manassas.
The Ashbys and Funsten had gone on the day before to collect their cavalry companies, and also the famous "Black Horse Cavalry," a superb body of men and horses, under Captains John Scott and Welby Carter of Fauquier. By marching across the Blue Ridge, they were to rendezvous near Harper's Ferry. Ashby had sent men on the night of the 17th to cut the wires between Manassas junction and Alexandria, and to keep them cut for several days.
Our arrival at Manassas Junction startled the quiet people of the village. General Harman at once "impressed" the Manassas Gap train to take the lead, and switched two or three other trains to that line in order to proceed to Strasburg. I was put in command of the foremost train. We had not gone five miles when I discovered that the engineer could not be trusted. He let his fire go down, and came to a dead standstill on a slight ascending grade. A cocked pistol induced him to fire up and go ahead. From there to Strasburg I rode in the engine-cab, and we made full forty miles an hour with the aid of good dry wood and a navy revolver.
At Strasburg we left the cars, and before 10 o'clock the infantry companies took up the line of march for Winchester. I now had to procure horses for my guns. The farmers were in their corn-fields, and some of them agreed to hire us horses as far as Winchester, eighteen miles while others refused. The situation being urgent, we took the horses by force, under threats of being indicted by the next grand jury of the county. By noon we had a sufficient number of teams. We followed the infantry down the Valley Turnpike, reaching Winchester just at nightfall. The people generally received us very coldly. The war spirit that bore them up through four years of trial and privation had not yet been aroused.
General Harper was at Winchester, and had sent forward his infantry by rail to Charlestown, eight miles from Harper's Ferry. In a short the a train returned for my battery. The farmers got their horses and went home rejoicing, and we set out for our destination. The infantry moved out of Charlestown about midnight. We kept to our train as far as Halltown, only four miles from the ferry. There we set down our guns to be run forward by hand to Bolivar Heights, west of the town, from which we could shell the place if necessary.
A little before dawn of the next day, April 18th, a brilliant light arose from near the point of confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers. General Harper, who up to that moment had expected a conflict with the Massachusetts regiment supposed to be at Harper's Ferry, was making his dispositions for an attack at daybreak, when this light convinced him that the enemy had fired the arsenal and fled. He marched in and took possession, but too late to extinguish the flames. Nearly twenty thousand rifles and pistols were destroyed. The workshops had not been fired. The people of the town told us the catastrophe, for such it was to us, was owing to declarations made the day before by the ex-superintendent, Alfred M. Barbour. He reached Harper's Ferry, via Washington, on the 17th about noon, and, collecting the mechanics in groups, informed them that the place would be captured within twenty-four hours by Virginia troops. He urged them to protect the property, and join the Southern cause, promising, if war ensued, that the place would be held by the South, and that they would be continued at work on high wages. His influence with the men was great, and most of them decided to accept his advice. But Lieutenant Roger Jones, who commanded the little guard of forty-five men, hearing what was going on, at once took measures to destroy the place if necessary. Trains of gunpowder were laid through the buildings to be fired. In the shops the workmen of Southern sympathies managed to wet the powder in many places during the night, rendering it harmless. Jones's troops, however, held the arsenal buildings and stores, and when their commander was advised of Harper's rapid approach the gunpowder was fired, and he crossed into Maryland with his handful of men. So we secured only the machinery and the gun and pistol barrels and locks, which, however, were sent to Richmond and Columbia, South Carolina, and were worked over into excellent arms.
Within a week about thirteen hundred Virginia volunteers had assembled there. As these companies were, in fact a part of the State militia, they were legally under command of the three brigadiers and one major-general of militia, who had authority over this, that, or the other organization. These generals surrounded themselves with a numerous staff, material for which was abundant in the rank and file of the volunteers; for instance, in my battery there were at least a dozen college graduates of and below the grade of corporal. Every fair afternoon the official display in Harper's Ferry of "fuss and feathers " would have done no discredit to the Champs Elysees.
One afternoon, six or eight days after our occupation, General Harper sent for me as the senior artillery officer (we then had three batteries but all without horses), to say he had been told that a number of trains on the Baltimore and Ohio railroad would try to pass us in the night, transporting troops from the West to Washington, and that he had decided to prevent them at the risk of bringing on a battle. He ordered the posting of guns so as to command the road for half a mile or more, all to be accurately trained on the track by the light of day, and ready to be discharged at any moment. Infantry companies were stationed to fire into the trains if the artillery failed to stop them. Pickets were posted out two or three miles, with orders to fire signal-guns as soon as the first troop-laden train should pass. About 1 o'clock at night we heard the rumbling of an approaching train. The long roll was beat; the men assembled at their assigned positions and in silence awaited the sound of the signal-guns. A nervous cavalryman was the vedette. As the train passed him (it was the regular mail) he thought he saw soldiers in it, and fired. Pop! pop! pop! came down the road from successive sentries. Primers were inserted and lanyards held taut, to be pulled when the engine should turn a certain point four hundred yards distant from the battery. By great good luck Colonel William S. H. Baylor, commanding the 5th Virginia regiment, was with some of his men stationed a little beyond the point and seeing no troops aboard the train signaled it to stop. It did so, not one hundred yards beyond where the artillery would have opened on it. When the first excitement was over, he demanded of the conductor what troops, if any, were on board, and was told there was "one old fellow in uniform asleep on the mail-bags in the first car." Entering that car with a file of soldiers, he secured the third prisoner of war taken in Virginia. It proved to be Brigadier-General W. S. Harney, of the United States army, on his way from the West to Washington, to resin his commission and go to Europe rather than engage in a fratricidal war. He surrendered with a pleasant remark, and was taken to General Harper's headquarters, where he spent the night. On his assurance that he knew of no troops coming from the West, Harper ordered us all to quarters. Next morning General Harney was paroled to report in Richmond, and was escorted to a train about to leave for Winchester. He was a fine-looking old soldier, and as he walked down the street to the depot he saw all our forces except the cavalry. He was accompanied socially by two or three of our generals and a swarm of staff-officers. He cast his glance over the few hundred men in sight, and turning to General Harper, I heard him inquire, with a merry twinkle in his eye, "Where is your army encamped, general?" Harper's face crimsoned as he replied, "Excuse me from giving information." Harney smiled, and said politely, "Pardon me for asking an improper question, but I had forgotten I was a prisoner." He went on to Richmond, was treated with marked courtesy, and in a day or two proceeded to Washington.
In a few days our forces began to increase by the arrival of fresh volunteer companies. Being only a captain, I was kept very busy in trying to get my battery into the best condition. We had no caissons and but insufficient harness. For the latter I sent to Baltimore, purchasing oil my private credit. In the same way I ordered from Richmond red flannel shirts and other clothing for all my men, our uniforms being too fine for camp life. The governor subsequently ordered these bills to be paid by the State treasurer. We found at the armory a large number of very strong horse-carts. In my battery were thirty or more excellent young mechanics. By using the wheels and axles of the carts they soon constructed good caissons, which served us till after the first battle of Bull Run.
We had no telegraph line to Richmond except via Washington, and the time of communication by mail was two days. General Harper found it so difficult to obtain needed munitions and supplies, that about the last of April he decided to send me to the governor, who was my intimate friend, with a requisition for all we needed, and verbal instructions to make to him a full statement of our necessitous and defenseless condition, in case General Robert Patterson, who was reported with a Federal force at Chambersburg, should move against us. When I arrived in Richmond, General Robert B. Lee had been placed in command of all the Virginia forces by the governor, and by an ordinance every militia officer in the State above the rank of captain had been decapitated, and the governor and his military council had been authorized to fill vacancies thus created.
This was a disastrous blow to "the pomp and circumstance of glorious war" at Harper's Ferry. Militia generals and the brilliant "staff" were stricken down, and their functions devolved, according to Governor Letcher's order of April 27th, upon Thomas J. Jackson, colonel commandant, and James W. Massie, major and assistant adjutant-general, who arrived during the first week of May.
This was "Stonewall" Jackson's first appearance on the theater of the war. I spent one day and night in Richmond, and then returned to camp, arriving about 2 p. m. What a revolution three or four days had wrought! I could scarcely realize the change. The militia generals were all gone, and the staff had vanished. The commanding colonel and his adjutant had arrived, and were occupying a small room in the little wayside hotel near the railroad bridge. Knowing them both, I immediately sought an interview, and delivered a letter and some papers I had brought from General Lee. Jackson and his adjutant were at a little pine table figuring upon the rolls of the troops present. They were dressed in well-worn, dingy uniforms of professors in the Virginia Military Institute, where both had recently occupied chairs. Colonel Jackson had issued and sent to the camps a short, simple order assuming the command, but had had no intercourse with the troops. The deposed officers had nearly all left for home or for Richmond in a high state of indignation. After an interview of perhaps a half hour I proceeded to my camp on the hill, and found the men of the 5th Virginia regiment, from my own country, in assembly, and greatly excited. They were deeply attached to their field-officers, and regarded the ordinance of the convention as an outrage on freemen and volunteers, and were discussing the propriety of passing denunciatory resolutions. On seeing me they called for a speech. As I did not belong to the regiment, I declined to say anything, but ordered the men of the Staunton Artillery to fall into line. Then I briefly told them that we were required to muster into service either for twelve months or during the war, at our option, and urged them to go in for the full period of the war, as such action would be most creditable to them, and a good example to others. They unanimously shouted, "For the war! For the war!" Before they were dismissed the ceremony of mustering in was completed, and I proudly took the roll down to Colonel Jackson with the remark, "There, colonel, is the roll of your first company mustered in for the war." He looked it over, and, rising, shook my hand, saying," Thank you, captain - thank you; and please thank your men for me." He had heard that there was dissatisfaction in the camps, and asked me to act as mustering officer for two other artillery companies present. Before sunset the rolls were returned. This prompt action of the batteries was emulated the next day by the other troops, and all were mustered in. Within a week Governor Letcher wisely appointed Major-General Harper colonel of the 5th Virginia, Brigadier-General
Harman lieutenant-colonel, and Colonel Baylor major, and I venture to say no regiment in either army was better officered, as the fame it won in the "Stonewall" brigade will prove. The presence of a master mind was visible in the changed condition of the camp. Perfect order reigned everywhere. Instruction in the details of military duties occupied Jackson's whole time. He urged the officers to call upon him for information about even the minutest details of duty, often remarking that it was no discredit to a civilian to be ignorant of military matters. He was a rigid disciplinarian, and yet as gentle and kind as a woman. He was the easiest man in our army to get along with pleasantly so long as one did his duty, but as inexorable as fate in exacting the performance of it; yet he would overlook serious faults if he saw they were the result of ignorance, and would instruct the offender in a kindly way. He was as courteous to the humblest private who sought an interview for any purpose as to the highest officer in his command. He despised superciliousness and self-assertion, and nothing angered him so quickly as to see an officer wound the feelings of those under him by irony or sarcasm.
When Jackson found we were without artillery horses, he went into no red-tape correspondence with the circumlocution offices in Richmond but ordered his quartermaster, Major John A. Harman, to proceed with men to the Quaker settlements in the rich county of Loudoun, famous for its good horses, and buy or impress as many as we needed. Harman executed his orders with such energy and dispatch that he won Jackson's confidence, and remained his chief quartermaster till the day of Jackson's death.
By Jackson's orders I took possession of the bridge across the Potomac at Point of Rocks, twelve miles below Harper's Ferry, and fortified the Virginia end of the bridge, as we expected a visit any night from General B. F. Butler, who was at the Relay House on the Baltimore and Ohio railroad. It was my habit to keep awake all night to be ready for emergencies, and to sleep in the day-time, making daily reports night and morning, to Jackson. One Sunday afternoon, a little over a week after we occupied this post, I was aroused from my nap by one of my men, who said there were two men in blue uniforms (we had not yet adopted the gray) riding about our camp, and looking so closely at everything that he believed they were spies. I went out to see who they were, and found Jackson and one of his staff. As I approached them, he put his finger on his lips and shook his head as a signal for silence. In a low tone he said he preferred it should not be known he had come there. He approved of all I had done, and soon galloped away. I afterward suspected that the visit was simply to familiarize himself with the line of the canal and railroad from Point of Rocks to Harper's Ferry preparatory to a sharp bit of strategy which he practiced a few days later.
From the very beginning of the war the Confederacy was greatly in need of rolling-stock for the railroads. We were particularly short of locomotives, and were without the shops to build them. Jackson, appreciating this, hit upon a plan to obtain a good supply from the Baltimore and Ohio road. Its line was double-tracked, at least from Point of Rocks to Martinsburg, a distance of 25 or 30 miles. We had not interfered with the running of trains, except on the occasion of the arrest of General Harney. The coal traffic from Cumberland was immense, as the Washington government was accumulating supplies of coal on the seaboard. These coal trains passed Harper's Ferry at all hours of the day and night, and thus furnished Jackson with a pretext for arranging a brilliant "scoop." When he sent me to Point of Rocks, he ordered Colonel Harper with the 5th Virginia Infantry to Martinsburg. He then complained to President Garrett, of the Baltimore and Ohio, that the night trains, eastward bound, disturbed the repose of his camp, and requested a change of schedule that would pass all east-bound trains by Harper's Ferry between 11 and 1 o'clock in the day-time. Mr. Garrett complied, and thereafter for several days we heard the constant roar of passing trains for an hour before and an hour afternoon. But since the "empties" were sent up the road at night, Jackson again complained that the nuisance was as great as ever, and, as the road had two tracks, said he must insist that the west-bound trains should pass during the same two hours as those going east. Mr. Garrett promptly complied, and we then had, for two hours every day, the liveliest railroad in America. One night, as soon as the schedule was working at its best, Jackson sent me an order to take a force of men across to the Maryland side of the river the next day at 11 o'clock, and, letting all west-bound trains pass till 12 o'clock, to permit none to go east, and at 12 o'clock to obstruct the road so that it would require several days to repair it. He ordered the reverse to be done at Martinsburg. Thus he caught all the trains that were going east or west between those points, and these he ran up to Winchester, thirty-two miles on the branch road, where they were safe, and whence they were removed by horse-power to the railway at Strasburg. I do not remember the number of trains captured, but the loss crippled the Baltimore and Ohio road seriously for some time, and the gain to our scantily stocked Virginia roads of the same gauge was invaluable.
While we held the Point of Rocks bridge, J. E. B. Stuart (afterward so famous as a cavalry leader) was commissioned lieutenant-colonel, and reported to Colonel Jackson for assignment to duty. Jackson ordered the consolidation of all the cavalry companies into a battalion to be commanded by Stuart, who then appeared more like a well-grown, manly youth than the mature man he really was. This order was very offensive to Captain Turner Ashby, at that time the idol of all the troopers in the field, as well he might be, for a more brave and chivalrous officer never rode at the head of well-mounted troopers. Ashby was older than Stuart, and he thought, and we all believed that he was entitled to first promotion. When not absent scouting, Ashby spent his nights with me at the bridge. He told me of Jackson's order, and that he would reply to it with his resignation. I expostulated with him, although he had all my sympathies. I urged him to call upon Colonel Jackson that night. It was only twelve miles by the tow-path of the canal, and on his black Arabian he could make it in less than an hour. I believed Jackson would respect his feelings and leave his company out of Stuart's battalion. I ventured to write a private letter to Jackson, appealing in the strongest terms for the saving of Ashby to the service. The result of his night ride was that Jackson not only relieved him from the obnoxious order, but agreed to divide the companies between him and Stuart, and to ask for his immediate promotion forming thus the nuclei of two regiments of cavalry, to be filled as rapidly as new companies came to the front. One of these regiments was commanded at first by Colonel Angus McDonald, with Ashby as lieutenant-colonel, and in a few months Ashby was promoted to its full command Ashby got back to Point of Rocks about 2 in the morning, as happy a man as I ever saw, and completely enraptured with Jackson. From that night on, the affection and confidence of the two men were remarkable. A trip Ashby had made a few days before to Chambersburg and the encampment of General Robert Patterson was the real reason for Jackson's favor. Ashby had rigged himself in a farmer's suit of homespun that he had borrowed, and, hiring a plowhorse, had personated a rustic horse-doctor. With his saddle-bags full of some remedy for spavin or ringbone, he had gone to Chambersburg, and had returned in the night with an immense amount of information. The career of Ashby was a romance from that time on till he fell, shot through the heart, two days before the battle of Cross Keys.
May 23d, 1861, Colonel Jackson was superseded in command at Harper's Ferry by Brigadier-General Joseph E. Johnston. When General Johnston arrived several thousand men had been assembled there, representing nearly all the seceded States east of the Mississippi River. Johnston at once began the work of organization on a larger scale than Jackson had attempted. He brigaded the troops, and assigned Colonel Jackson to the command of the exclusively Virginian brigade. The latter was almost immediately commissioned brigadier-general, and when on the 15th of June Johnston withdrew from Harper's Ferry to Winchester, he kept Jackson at the front along the Baltimore and Ohio road to observe General Patterson's preparations. Nothing of much importance occurred for several weeks, beyond a little affair near Martinsburg in which Jackson captured about forty men of a reconnoitering party sent out by Patterson. His vigilance was ceaseless, and General Johnston felt sure, at Winchester, of ample warning of any aggressive movement of the enemy.