Dennis Frye – Jackson’s Mission at Harper’s Ferry

910 words

VIDEO: Dennis Frye – Jackson’s Mission at Harper’s Ferry TRT: 5:49

Dennis Frye

At Harper’s Ferry at the beginning of the war, Robert E. Lee had a very specific mission for Thomas Jonathan Jackson. Harper’s Ferry – now keep in mind the structure of command. Lee is the overall general in command of all Virginia forces. All state forces defending Virginia belong to Lee. Jackson is directly under Lee and he is a colonel. He is a colonel in the Virginia militia responsible for the area at Harper’s Ferry. Lee assigns him the following responsibility: 1) get the armory machinery out of Harper’s Ferry, remove it. Remove it quickly, efficiently. Lee was very concerned that Harper’s Ferry, because it was so far to the north and could be so easily attacked and so vulnerable to a northern advance. They wanted to make sure that the armory machinery would be removed. This was very disappointing to the people of Harper’s Ferry and it was absolutely disheartening to the armorers, who worked there, when our Alfred Barbour, the former superintendent of the armory, had announced that secession would occur and that Virginia would move in and seize the machinery. There were high hopes that Virginia would continue the operation of the armory at Harper’s Ferry, but when it became very evident that the Potomac River, rather than the Mason-Dixon line, was to become the northern border of the confederacy. That machinery in that location in Harper’s Ferry was too vulnerable. So, Jackson, shortly after arrival, is given an assignment by Lee to remove that machinery and he begins immediately. He begins to dismantle the machinery, first in the musket factory, along the Potomac River, and then, ultimately, follows up, removing the machinery from the rifle factory along the Shenandoah River. It’s very methodical, very systematic. Jackson will use wagons, the Winchester-Potomac Railroad, and he will ship the machinery to Winchester. Ultimately, then it will be carried over land from Winchester to Strasburg, where it will be placed on the Manassas Gap Railroad and then, move further into the interior. So, within one week after Jackson’s arrival, (and incidentally he arrives on April the 29th) the war is only about 11 days old when Jackson arrives at Harper’s Ferry. He is already moving the machinery and has two-thirds of it moved into the interior within one week after his arrival. It was a very impressive performance by Jackson. This machinery had to be dismantled. It weighs tons and tons. He had to put the wagons and the trains together and move it when he didn’t get all the cooperation he needed from the local citizens. He impressed wagons and impressed the trains. He reminded people that we are now at war and that I’m in charge, not your local mayors and not your local county commissioners. So, with all of that, Jackson got that job done. Now, Lee gave him another assignment and that was to organize the burgeoning force that was organizing in Harper’s Ferry. These thousands of men that were coming not only from Virginia now, but also men were arriving from Mississippi and Alabama. The deep south states – the original seceding states – were sending men to Harper’s Ferry to be part of the confederate defense of Virginia. So Jackson was responsible for organizing all these men. His principal area of concentration were Virginians. There were almost 5,000 Virginians that had had concentrated at Harper’s Ferry, but they all arrived as militia companies with their own commanders – some trained, some with very little training. So, it was basically a pretty disorganized mob. Some were in uniform; some were had weapons, many did not; some who did have weapons had not very modern weapons. They would have been used during the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812. This was not what you would call an army. So, Jackson had to take this this mob of men – these citizens – and make them soldiers. The first thing he did was begin to organize them into regiments and brigades. For example, the 1st Virginia brigade that Jackson himself would soon command. The 1st Virginia brigade would consist of five Virginia regiments. Almost all of those men and those regiments coming out of the Shenandoah Valley. The local regiment that Jackson organized was called the 2nd Virginia infantry and it was comprised of men from Charlestown and Shepherdstown and Harper’s Ferry and little old Duffields. Even Duffields had a company in the 2nd Virginia infantry, but it also extended further south into Clarke County and included a company from Berryville and also further west into Martinsburg companies, coming from Martinsburg and Hedgesville. All of these local men in Berkeley and Jefferson and Clarke County in the lower Shenandoah Valley would become part of the 2nd Virginia infantry. In fact, there was even one Winchester company in there, coming out of Frederick County, Virginia. So, Jackson would work very hard to organize the men. Most of these men would be encamped on Bolivar Heights and it was there on Bolivar Heights that they would sleep and eat. But more than anything, they would drill and they would drill some more. They would drill some more, Jackson transforming these sons of Virginians into these very, very, very disciplined soldiers. But even with that discipline, the question was: how well would they fight on a battlefield? How well would their discipline stand up to the bullets of the enemy, whizzing toward them? That question still remained unanswered.