Dennis Frye – Robert E. Lee’s Invasion of Maryland Heights

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VIDEO: Dennis Frye – Robert E. Lee’s Invasion of Maryland Heights – TRT: 6:03

Dennis Frye

War isn’t accurately portrayed and remembered. Are there any examples of that and what about Jackson’s invasion of Maryland? Well, Colonel Thomas Jackson at Harper’s Ferry, charged with the defense of Harper’s Ferry, looked around and he saw mountains. As you probably know, Harper’s Ferry sits in the bottom of a hole, a hole that’s been formed by the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers that have carved their way through the mountains of the Blue Ridge. So, surrounding Harper’s Ferry are three mountaintops. Think of Harper’s ferry as a triangle and, in the middle of that triangle, is the town, but on the edges of the town are these three “hills,” “bluffs,” “heights.” One of them, called Bolivar Heights, is to the west. Another called Loudoun Heights, which is on the south side of the Shenandoah River, is the second of the highest. But, the highest of the mountains is in Maryland on the north bank of the Potomac River and it is referred to as Maryland Heights. Now, Jackson looking around, charged with the responsibility of defending Harper’s Ferry. In fact, he would write to General Lee that he intended to defend Harper’s Ferry with all the spirit which actuated the defenders of Thermopylae. He’s going to make a stand: “we are not going to be removed from this location.” But Jackson has a problem and the problem is elevation. Elevation – West Point will teach you – every military commander knows, every man in the ranks knows – you must hold the high ground. You always have tactical advantage when you are placed on the highest position. Whilst Jackson is looking around at these Heights surrounding Harper’s Ferry – Bolivar Heights, Loudoun Heights, Maryland Heights, (Maryland Heights, of course, is actually in the state of Maryland) and this is precisely Jackson’s quandary. For him to hold the high ground means that he would have to actually invade Maryland with Virginia or confederate troops. Now, remember: Maryland has not seceded. Maryland is not a member of the confederacy, but Maryland is a sister state. The confederacy is working very hard to woo into the south and, if Jackson sends troops into Maryland, the response could be very negative. I mean, they’ve already responded negatively to United States troops coming into Maryland. The Baltimore riots of April the 18th, where Massachusetts soldiers- the 6th Massachusetts – these men are actually attacked and some of them killed because it’s considered an invasion of the sovereign soil of Maryland. So, what makes Jackson any different for Marylanders, if he sends troops from Virginia across the Potomac and has his own invasion of Maryland to hold Maryland Heights. So, it’s a very serious predicament for Jackson. Well, Jackson decides to throw politics aside and, of course, he sends his troops across the river and he occupies Maryland Heights with Virginians and also men from Kentucky, thinking that Kentucky, a border state like Maryland, might help soften the blow. Well, Maryland will have none of it. The governor of Maryland would write to the governor of Virginia and bitterly complain about Jackson’s incursion-invasion into Maryland. We often think of the first invasion of north occurring during the Antietam campaign of 1862 – September, 1862. No, it’s in May of 1861. The first confederate troops who go north of the Potomac River, go there by the order of Colonel Thomas Jonathan Jackson to hold Maryland Heights. Not only does he hold Maryland Heights, he sends troops down the Potomac River to Berlin (which is modern day Brunswick) and even further down the Potomac River to Point of Rocks – all to control the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and any possible approach by the yankees using the rails toward Harper’s Ferry. So, Jackson is now the master of his defense, while Governor Letcher and General Lee are going berserk in Richmond. “What is this man doing? He is crazy! We are trying to have an amicable relationship with the state of Maryland and here is this wild man out there who is suddenly sending troops into Maryland soil without Maryland’s permission or Maryland’s invitation!!” So, we actually reprimand Jackson. Lee says: “it is not a good idea to keep your troops in Maryland. You must remove them unless the contingencies of war require you to keep them there.” Even that early, Lee was giving discretion to his men in the field, not trying to control from Richmond. But giving Jackson immediate operational control over his immediate operational district, Jackson knows he must hold the high ground and he decides to stay in Maryland. He will remain. Eventually, it’s resolved like this: Baltimoreans come to Harper’s Ferry, join Jackson in the confederate army, and Jackson then places Maryland troops to occupy Maryland Heights. Hence, no longer do we have foreigners – men from outside the state of Maryland – holding the Heights. So, Jackson is now in charge of Maryland Heights. Marylanders are on Maryland Heights and the crisis is resolved. We see at this point the resolve of Thomas Jonathan Jackson and his eagerness to defend Virginia and his willingness to take the advantage of the high ground, hold it with utmost determination, a character trait that we will soon see repeated again and again.