Dennis Frye – Rebels Set to Leave Harper’s Ferry – late May-early June 1861

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VIDEO: Dennis Frye – Rebels Set to Leave Harper’s Ferry late May-early June 1861 TRT: 6:06.

Dennis Frye

Well, by the end of May, Harper’s Ferry had become one of the largest garrison, confederate positions in all the South. There were almost 10,000 men there under Colonel Jackson. Now, keep in mind that a transition is occurring in Virginia. Virginia is transitioning from the state of Virginia to the state of Virginia in the Confederate States of America. So, when Jefferson Davis and the confederate government arrive in Richmond and they look at the map and they see the Virginia forces and other confederate southern forces scattered along the Virginia frontier and they look at Harper’s Ferry. Jefferson Davis says: “We can’t have a colonel in charge there. We need a general there. We need someone there who has general’s credentials; even better, someone who was previously a general. So, he looks around in his cadre of men who had seceded from the United States Army and come south and he selects Joseph E. Johnston. Joseph E. Johnston, a former general in the United States Army outranked Robert E. Lee. Johnston is given his very first field assignment of the Civil War and it is Harper’s Ferry. So, on May the 23rd 1861, Johnston arrives in the town. Jackson himself hasn’t received the orders that placed Johnston in charge. So, a day or so goes by before the formal orders are communicated that Joe Johnston is here, now, to take command at Harper’s Ferry and represent the confederate leadership at Harper’s Ferry. Now, you’ll remember that Jackson determined to defend Harper’s Ferry with everything he had. He had sent troops to Maryland. He had occupied and fortified the heights. He was defending the railroad approaches. He was ready to make a stand there. Johnston arrives, spends a few days doing reconnaissance, reconnoitering around the Harper’s Ferry area. Of course, talking with Jackson, learning what Jackson had done and Johnston sends a message to Robert E. Lee in Virginia at Richmond and basically says: “I can’t hold this place. This place is indefensible. I can’t stay here,” – completely the opposite point of view of Thomas Jackson.

Now, Lee became alarmed because, remember, Lee had set up this defensive parameter around Richmond and Lee knew about the strategic importance of Harper’s Ferry. Remember, Lee had been in Harper’s Ferry during the John Brown raid. Lee had captured Brown with United States marines. Lee had helped escort Brown to Charlestown. He was familiar with the Shenandoah Valley. He knew about the importance of the valley. He knew about the proximity of the valley to Maryland and Pennsylvania and he knew that the Shenandoah Valley was a natural corridor of invasion for the United States forces. He also knew that Patterson was collecting an army in Hagerstown and was only about 10-12 miles from coming into the valley and invading Virginia. So, Lee felt that the defense of Harper’s Ferry was tantamount to the defense of Virginia. He must stand and hold and that’s what he said to Johnston. Well, Johnston just was relentless in his communications back to Richmond saying: “I’ve got to get out of here and then even went to the point where Lee said: “Look: if you leave Harper’s Ferry, it will be depressing to the cause of the South.” That’s exactly how Lee phrased it – “depressing to the cause of the South.” Basically, it would be the very first retreat of the confederate army and there’s no battle that’s even occurred. You see, Johnston’s thinking strategically, about moving somewhere else. Johnston wants to move from Harper’s Ferry to Winchester, deeper in the interior. He wants to lull the federal army into the valley and he believes that, because Winchester is a crossroads that also is a place where he can easily maneuver from one place to another. So, Johnston sees that army at Harper’s Ferry as an army that’s both defensive and offensive: one that can hold, but one that can move whereas; Jackson definitely saw his army only in a position of defense, holding the Harper’s Ferry area. Well, Lee still was very demanding that Harper’s Ferry be held. Johnston just refused to give up and he would say: “Is it not better to leave Harper’s Ferry and preserve the army, protect the army, than to make a stand here and possibly lose the army?” Well, eventually Lee was so exacerbated he couldn’t answer the question. So, he sent it all the way up to the highest authority of the confederate government: Jefferson Davis and Jefferson Davis wanted to hold Harper’s Ferry for the same reasons Lee did: to protect the Shenandoah Valley and to not have a psychological blow. But, even Jefferson Davis gave Johnston discretionary authority to retire, if he felt it necessary and it wasn’t because of Patterson – but (Patterson’s army) it was way out in the Ohio river area. As federal troops began to move into far northwestern Virginia where Johnston would use that as the excuse to abandon Harper’s Ferry and move his troops from Harper’s Ferry to Winchester. That would occur June 14-15, 1861. The rebel army would abandon Harper’s Ferry. So, the very first fight that was expected in the Harper’s Ferry region would not occur because Joe Johnston unilaterally moved his army to Winchester; and that then beckoned a new strategy by the federals. 889 words