Heaven and Earth Seemed Collapsing: Under Fire at Harper's Ferry

With tomorrow marking the 158th anniversary of the surrender of Harper's Ferry, Virginia during the Civil War, I thought it would be appropriate to review a few scenes from the siege and surrender of the town.

This account was originally published in the New York Evening Post and later republished in the Cleveland Morning Leader. We know a few things about the author: she was a civilian, a Unionist, and was residing in a house atop Camp Hill while the three guns of Captain John H. Graham's Company A, 5th New York Heavy Artillery thundered behind the garden. Company A had been raised in New York City so an account from the wife of one of the soldiers of the 5th New York is my best guess as to the identity of this correspondent. 



Maryland Heights across the Potomac from Harper's Ferry

"Whiz! Whiz! Whiz! Whir, whir, whir! Hiss, hiss, hisssss! Bang, bang, bang! Roar, roar! Crash, smash! The Rebels batteries opened upon us together. The windows rattled, the house shook to its foundations. Heaven and earth seemed collapsing. The roar rolling back to the mountains died amid the deeper roar bursting from their summits. One of our batteries on Camp Hill was directly behind in the rear of the house behind the garden fence. The Rebel batteries on Loudon Heights faced us. Thus this loyal little domicile was under the heaviest fire. I intended to finish eating a piece of pie dancing on a plate before me, but the shock of the tremendous cannon behind the house sent me off my chair in defiance of my aspiration after sublime courage. I am not a hero, but I very much wish to be one, but am not. 

With profound humility, I went down into the cellar to escape the earthquake. I concluded as a woman cannot command a battery, she should have the privilege of trying to save her head. We all went into the cellar. On a box sat a matron. I entrenched myself in a piano box, my amusement being the frequent opportunity which I enjoying of jumping out of it as a shell hissed or struck near the outside wall. There sat gray-haired old men, and sick a sick young man most frightened of all. Poor fellow, how he dodged about! Thus in all the cellars of the street above us cowered old age, innocent childhood, and helpless womanhood.

Captain John Hugh Graham
Co. A, 5th N.Y. Heavy Artillery

I am afraid of bombshells. I am far more afraid of them than I was before I heard or felt their sulphurous current hissing very near my head. If there is a sound purely devilish this side the region of the damned, it is the scream and shriek of a bombshell. No matter how thickly they tear the air, each fiend of a shell persists in a diabolical individuality of its own, and never screams or hisses precisely like any one of its myriad neighbors. 

This cannonading continued terrific, unremitting. The bombshells poured into the garden beside us, struck the pavement before us, tore the earth up on the cellar door, threw the scared soil into our upstairs windows, stunned us, but did not hit us. 


On September 15, 1862, the Union garrison at Harper's Ferry surrendered to General Thomas J. Jackson's army. Shortly after the surrender, the Confederates started marching into town and this same female correspondent described their arrival.

First came the cavalry, the flower, the chivalry, the aristocracy of the South, spurred and mounted like the knights of old, each man in his spirit and person repeating the princely crusader of the Middle Ages. They look like what they are: high-blooded, high-bred, infatuated men. Every eye burns and scintillates with passion and its very glitter is the ire of insanity. They ask only to win or die and unlike the infantry, they know what they are fighting for. 

After these imperial leaders marched their slaves- their white slaves, true serfs, fighting in their rear for eternal serfdom which they are taught to believe is Southern rights. Never until I saw it with my own eyes did I believe all that I had read of the outward destitution and degradation of the Southern rank and file. Gather the scum of New York from her dirtiest dens, stretch it along the streets in its squalor and filth and wretchedness, and it would be a comely sight compared with that presented by the great army of the South. The tatters and the skin of the men are the color of the earth beneath their feet. Bare-footed, half-naked, foul, filling the air with unbearable stench, flouting their dirty banners, gazing eagerly about with half starved faces intent only on plunder and on finding something to eat. Thus the deliverers of Maryland entered Harper's Ferry.


Colonel Dixon S. Miles commanded the Federal garrison at Harper's Ferry, but was struck down as he was riding towards the Confederates to surrender the town. General Julius White actually signed the surrender terms which gave the Confederates 12,419 prisoners who they promptly paroled. 

The rough appearance of Jackson's "foot cavalry" contrasted sharply with the appearance of many of the Federal troops, most of whom had just enlisted and had been in the army less than a month. William Mosby McLain of the 32nd Ohio described the dress of his captors as "their clothes were of all sorts, sizes, shapes, kinds, colors, and cuts. From the old short-waited jacket, so short indeed that it general exposed a zone of dirty shirt between wind and water giving one the idea that pants and coat were bound in different directions. I never dreamed that God's images could become so defaced: ragged, dirty, lousy, lean, haggard, hatless, shoeless, blanket-less, often bootless and shirtless for many of them had a strip torn from some old tent to serve in place of coat and short in the day and blanket at night. I don't believe there were a hundred good pairs of socks in the whole corps nor many more of shoes or boots."

One of those new recruits cut to the heart of the matter though, writing to his sister that "the worst I can say of the Rebels is that they are a dirty, ragged, ignorant set of men, not one out of a hundred of whom can read or write his own name. All they know is fight, and that they understand to perfection."


Sources:
"A Lady's Feelings Under Bombardment," Cleveland Morning Leader, October 21, 1862, pg. 4
"The Rebel Reign at Harper's Ferry," Cleveland Morning Leader, November 6, 1862, pg. 1
Letter from Marcus Andrus of the 126th New York Volunteers, Geneva (New York) Daily Gazette, October 3, 1862, pg. 2
Masters, Daniel, editor. The Seneachie Letters: A Virginia Yankee with the 32nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Perrysburg: Columbian Arsenal Press, 2020, pgs. 105-106

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