A National Disgrace: The 60th Ohio and the Surrender of Harper's Ferry
Major Joseph K. Marlay of the 60th Ohio was mortified by the events that culminated in the surrender of Harper’s Ferry, Virginia in September 1862, and at first opportunity wrote the following letter home to Highland County, Ohio to explain the role his regiment played in the sad affair. The 60th Ohio had fought in several engagements in the Shenandoah Valley during the spring and summer of 1862 before being ordered to Harper’s Ferry.
The Confederates had slowly but surely tightened the noose around the Federal garrison until they had guns placed on all sides of the town. Pummeled by Rebel artillery fire from all directions on the morning of September 15th, Marlay and his men hunkered down in their rifle pits and awaited the end. “Colonel Dixon Miles appeared and seeing how it was, called a council of brigadiers and decided to surrender at once. He started along the brow of Bolivar Heights with a white flag in his hand. When he got about halfway to where we were, he was struck on the calf of his leg by a piece of a shell and mortally wounded. Colonel William Trimble then caught up the flag and on his horse carried it to Rigby’s Battery. The enemy ceased firing for a moment, but only for a moment, when they opened on us with more fury than ever. During this firing Colonel Trimble was very much exposed and it is a wonder he escaped at all. Soon after, an orderly was sent forward with another flag, which he fastened to one of Rigby’s guns. When the enemy saw it, they checked their firing, though it did not stop altogether for an hour, but kept firing random shots though without injury to us,” he noted.
The paroled men were sent to Camp Douglas in Chicago to await exchange, and while there it was decided to muster out the 60th Ohio, as they had only a one year enlistment term. A second 60th Ohio organization came into being in 1864 and fought in the Petersburg campaign. Major Marlay’s account of Harper’s Ferry appeared in the October 23, 1862 edition of the Highland Weekly News.
Camp Douglas, near Chicago, Illinois
September 29, 1862
This is the first opportunity I have had to give you any account of the Harper’s Ferry transaction. I will undertake it now with the aid of a diagram which I send you. Colonel William H. Trimble’s brigade consisting of four regiments and Colonel Frederick G. D’Utassy’s, consisting of three regiments, were stationed on Bolivar Heights, each with a battery of artillery. Colonel Thomas Ford with his regiment (32nd Ohio), a Maryland regiment, and a battery was posted on Maryland Heights to hold the place and protect a battery of heavy siege guns planted there during the summer. The 87th Ohio and some other troops were stationed on Town Hill.
Our entire strength was 11-12,000, including 2,000 cavalry. With this force we had a line of five miles to defend, besides the troops sent to Maryland Heights. Such a force, stretched out on so long a line of defense, naturally weakened our defense in every direction; cavalry in a siege of any kind is of no use. The enemy’s force, from what we could see, and learned from Rebel officers after the surrender, numbered from 75-100,000, and was posted as follows: Jackson, Ewell, and Hill on our front, Longstreet on Maryland Heights, and Lee on Loudon Heights.
On Saturday Longstreet attacked our forces on Maryland Heights under Colonel Ford. A severe engagement ensued lasting two or three hours. In consequence of the 126th New York giving way and scattering like a pack of cowards as reported to me by Colonel Ford himself, his regiment was severely cut up and had to fall back to Battery No. 1, his main point of defense. Here he received orders from Colonel Miles to spike his guns, throw them down the mountain, and return to town which he did. He told me he besought Colonel Miles Saturday night to let him have the 60th Ohio and he would yet go back and retake the Heights, but Colonel Miles refused.
The spiking of those guns on Saturday and the withdrawal of our forces was considered a virtual surrender of the place, and all that might follow was mere nonsense. The day we arrived there I remarked to Colonel Noah Hixon [60th Ohio] that we were in the wrong place. Maryland Heights was the true point of defense, because it commanded all others, but instead of being stationed there, we were placed at a point commanded by all others. Saturday night all was quiet, but it was a night of terrible suspense, for we could see the Rebels making signals to each other in all directions, from Loudon Heights and from all their lines in front of us. Every now and then they changed the motion and color of their flags, showing by these signals that they were drawing their lines closer in upon us and changing the position of their batteries. In fact, by these signals, distant points can communicate with each other as well as by telegraph. Our army has a signal corps, by which they communicate as far as they can see, and at night when they cannot see, they send up kits, rockets, and transparencies of different shapes and colors, every variation in form or color having some particular signification. I stayed up all night, watching in all directions for we expected a hot battle in the morning.
Colonel Dixon S. Miles
Sunday morning came, yet all was quiet but with the naked eye, by the aid of glasses, we could see that the Rebel lines were drawn in upon us, and very soon to all appearances we would be in deadly conflict. Time passed on until about 11 o’clock, when our brigade adjutant came riding up to me in great haste (Colonel Hixson being field officer of the day left the regiment in my command) and stated that they had information that the enemy was advancing rapidly and in force, that I must take the 60th Ohio to the support of Rigby’s Battery. In a few moments, the regiment was formed and moving rapidly to the place assigned it.
On arriving there, we went to work with picks, shovels, and spades to throw up rifle pits and here I will state that rifle pits saved the lives of hundreds of our men during the fierce cannonading which followed. While engaged upon this work, the enemy opened upon us a battery in our rear and one in our front, but without injury to us or stopping our work. During this time they were moving their infantry into and back of a strip of woods. After them was sent one regiment with two parts of regiments who engaged them and had a fierce conflict, which resulted in driving the enemy back. As they retreated in the deep dusk of the evening they looked like multitudes, perfect swarms. Thus ended the conflict, Sunday night having closed in upon us.
All day long I had nothing to eat except what father brought to us after night, which consisted of hot coffee and hard crackers, for which we were very thankful to him. Arranging our pickets and seeing after our men, with various other duties, occupied our time until 11 o’clock when Colonel Trimble wanted me to ride down to town and see General White. I got to his room at midnight, found him just retiring, stated my business, which was to inquire about the protection of our left flank from the Winchester Railroad to the Shenandoah River, and that portion of our front formerly protected by the 60th Ohio. He had protected these points as far as his force would admit.
We then had some conversation from which I became more satisfied that he was of the opinion that Harper’s Ferry would soon have to surrender. We had but 50 rounds of long range artillery ammunition and were out of water, that is to say, we could not get to either of the rivers without coming into immediate range of the enemy’s rifles. I returned with his answer to Colonel Trimble, and then went with him to visit our lines from pike to river. Found all right and returned to our regiment to endeavor to get what rest I could before morning, which was done by lying upon the ground and sleeping about an hour; I became cold and got up and walked until daylight.
Being well convinced of what was coming, Colonel Hixson, Adjutant Barrere, and I started to take our horses to some safe place, if any could be found. Just after we turned the brow of the hill, the enemy opened on us from batteries Nos. 5,7,8,9, and from Nos. 2 and 3. The last two did not reach our position, the first three were new batteries planted during the night. These, with all the former ones, that had been playing upon us, were all directed at Rigby’s Battery for this reason: they could not well assail Bolivar Heights at any other point on account of the steep ascent. At this they could as the ascent was gradual and as Rigby’s Battery would be destructive to them, they must destroy it before the assault was attempted. Hence they directed upon it every cannon they could. You can now imagine what our situation was, posted there to protect this battery, and in complete range of all the enemy’s guns. It was here the benefit of the rifle pits was demonstrated, for our boys all got into them and many a life was thereby saved.
I said we had started to get our horses into a safe place when the enemy opened upon us. I told Colonel Hixson to take mine and I would go back to see after the regiment. I had to stop twice as I returned. So complete was the crossfire that there seemed to be no way to get through it, but by watching the change in direction of their fire and taking advantage of it, I got back to the regiment without accident, and found it all safe with one exception. It was on this return from getting his horse away that Adjutant George M. Barrere had his hand shot so that it had to be amputated. The ball that struck him passed through a tree twelve inches thick before it hit him. The whole face of the hill around Rigby’s Battery seemed to be covered with exploding shells and solid balls plowing up the ground, and it seems a very astonishing thing that our loss was not greater than it was.
This kind of firing was kept up till half past 7, when Colonel Miles appeared and seeing how it was, called a council of brigadiers and decided to surrender at once. He started along the brow of Bolivar Heights with a white flag in his hand. When he got about halfway to where we were, he was struck on the calf of his leg by a piece of a shell and mortally wounded. Colonel Trimble then caught up the flag and on his horse carried it to Rigby’s Battery. The enemy ceased firing for a moment, but only for a moment, when they opened on us with more fury than ever. During this firing Colonel Trimble was very much exposed and it is a wonder he escaped at all. Soon after, an orderly was sent forward with another flag, which he fastened to one of Rigby’s guns. When the enemy saw it, they checked their firing, though it did not stop altogether for an hour, but kept firing random shots though without injury to us.
Recollect that all this time the Rebels were not within gunshot of us, so that we had to remain quiet and be shot at by them without even the satisfaction of shooting back. Soon after the firing ceased, General A.P. Hill came riding into camp in his shirtsleeves and with General Julius White drew up the articles of capitulation, which were very liberal. Officers and soldiers were allowed to keep all personal property, which was more than we expected. Soon other officers came into camp and finally Rebel soldiers, the most distressed and destitute-looking set of men I have ever seen. The South Carolinians and Georgians, officers and soldiers, were courteous and considerate of our feelings, but “old Virginia officers” put on airs and were a little insulting.
Longstreet commenced passing into Maryland Heights with his forces about dark on Monday night and it took him until next morning at daylight. His artillery train was said to be from five to six miles long. We left Harper’s Ferry Tuesday about 11 o’clock. Our march from there to Annapolis you already have. We arrived here on Friday last without accident, and are in better quarters than we have seen since we have been in the service. We will remain here until exchanged and then we may probably be sent down the river. There is not much probability of our being sent northwest to fight Indians. 
Letter from Major Joseph K. Marlay, Highland Weekly News (Ohio), October 23, 1862, pg. 1
 Joseph K. Marlay was born June 9, 1823 and commissioned major of the 60th Ohio Volunteer Infantry September 28, 1861 and served with it through four engagements before being caught up in the surrender at Harper’s Ferry. He was mustered out November 10, 1862. He moved to Nebraska after the war and died April 15, 1897. He is buried at Wyuka Cemetery in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Post a Comment