Testimony and Findings of Surrender
In the wake of the Maryland Campaign the United States War Department issued Special Orders No. 256 on September 23, 1862 establishing a military commission in the city of Washington, pursuant to the facts pertaining to the evacuation of Maryland Heights and the surrender of Harper's Ferry in the conduct of Colonel Thomas H. Ford and the late Colonel Dixon S. Miles. Appointed to hear the proceedings were: Major General David Hunter, Major General George Cadwalader, and Brigadier General Christopher C. Auger.
The Confederate defense of the three gaps, Crampton, Fox, and Turner's at South Mountain caused stubborn resistance for the army under Major General George McClellan, buying sufficient time for Major General Thomas J. Jackson's divisions to surround the ten thousand man federal garrison at the Ferry forcing it to capitulate on the 15th of September.
The night prior to the surrender, however, Thomas Noakes had guided Lieutenant Colonel Hasbrouck Davis' 12th Illinois Cavalry out of Harper's Ferry leading it all the way to Greencastle, Pennsylvania to avoid detection. It was the only part of Miles' command that got out that night as that the road taken was too difficult for infantry and artillery to march out on.
As Major General A. P. Hill had assigned his first brigade commander, Brigadier General L. O'B Branch to accept the surrender paroling the garrison by the rolls, he turned to Colonel D'Tussy addressing him with the assumption that he understood that his brigade was not to take up arms for his government until properly exchanged. The colonel emphatically denied such knowledge thinking his government had every right to send his troops out west to fight Indians if it so desired. Branch was in agreement on this issue, but his appeal on behalf of his federal counterpart was denied by Hill.
The proceedings began in early October, and already established through the Adjutant General's office that certain command decisions pertinent to the surrender were only discussed by the post commander, Colonel Miles at the brigade level. All regimental commanders forced to muster their regiments before General Branch had not known nor had given advice regarding capitulation.
Colonel George L. Willard of the 125th New York Volunteer Infantry was placed on the left of the Union line facing Bolivar Heights. In his testimony he felt the key to defending the town itself laid within the defense of Maryland Heights, having expressed astonishment when it was evacuated. Facing a large force from the front and enduring enfilade fire from the left on Loudon Heights, giving up the Maryland side to the rebels made any further resistance futile. On the evening of the 13th he recalled in the midst of a conversation with Brigadier General Julius White, that Colonel Dixon S. Miles arrived exasperated stating that "Ford was stampeded." Having given him discretionary orders, he felt Ford would have put up a fight, in defense of the Maryland side of the river, but he had hardly done so, when the federal troops were scampering off the mountain.
Major Sylvester M. Hewitt of the 32nd Ohio Infantry by written order, unable to be produced at the time of the inquiry, stated that Colonel Miles had sent him up to Maryland Heights with a bundle of combustibles to be lit off by the last man should evacuation of the heights become necessary. This would signal to the federal batteries to open a destructive fire across Maryland Heights. He observed that the 126th New York Infantry were not able to withstand the pressure of combat and broke from the line. Word was sent to Colonel Ford about this, yet he remained at his headquarters far below any viable observation point and was no where to be found directing the troops. As the troops had no other choice but to abandon the position, the last man neglected to light off the combustibles and no signal was given.
Colonel Maulsby, commanded the 1st Maryland Regiment Potomac Home Guard and assigned to Maryland Heights. In General White's line of questioning during the proceedings, he stated that he felt that Maryland Heights could have put up a defense against the force then opposing but did not think it feasible to re-occupy the heights once lost. It became his opinion as well that Colonel Miles had considered Colonel Ford's evacuation to be premature and with it, collapsed all federal resistance within the town itself.
Colonel D'Tussy was likewise upset over the evacuation of Maryland Heights. It was he who Colonel Miles sent up there to give him a report of the ground and whether its commanding position could be successfully defended. It was his opinion as an officer that it was rather impregnable, including provided fire for Bolivar as well as Loudon Heights. He too was shocked to find that Colonel Ford had abandoned his post.
The discussion between he and Colonel Miles even suggested retaking the position, but Miles deferred only to await word from Ford as to why he left it in the first place. Colonel D'Tussy returned to Maryland Heights only for the purpose of rescuing what powder and guns he could. The Federal skirmish line that attempted to feel for the enemy, and reported to have caused Colonel Ford to abandon the position, were no where to be found.
Both Loudon and Maryland Heights commanded the town. The divisions of Thomas J. Jackson had no less than seven batteries in position facing the town from Bolivar Heights and an additional three from Loudon. The evacuation of Maryland Heights surrounded the town and the batteries from three areas raked the Union line from flank and rear.
Captain Silas F. Rigby's 1st Indiana Independent Battery had expended all but 21 rounds of canister in their artillery chests and exhaustion of long range artillery ammunition for the guns became the disappointment of all. The story was the same with the entire battalion commanded by Major Henry B. McIllvaine, there was nothing left to put up a resistance to the overwhelming pressure.
After a month of listening to various testimony brought before the commission the board of appointed officers published the conclusions that General White having just recently arrived with his command from Martinsburg, Virginia having no knowledge of post, defensive positions or armament to defend, and deferring command to his junior in rank, Colonel Dixon S. Miles, proved to act with decided capability and courage. Colonels D'Utussy likewise commanded with great merit.
Colonel Thomas H. Ford, it was proved was given discretionary orders to defend or abandon the heights, the commanding officer of the garrison leaving it to his better judgment. With the forces thus provided, the question remained whether he had made proper defense to hold the heights until driven by the enemy. The evidence overwhelmingly showed that the force on Maryland Heights was not well managed at all. After the commanding officer of the 126th New York was wounded, the heights had no battlefield manager, in that Colonel Ford was not even present to restore order or encourage the men. The heights then had in fact been prematurely abandoned. Having time to spike the guns and the minimal amount of personnel casualties proves this finding. Likewise, the new commander of the 126th New York, Major William H. Baird having been guilty of bad conduct in the face of the enemy allowing his regiment to abandon their position on the heights prematurely, was recommended for dismissal from the service.
The late Colonel Dixon S. Miles, placed in command by Major General John Ellis Wool, with orders to build a strong defense upon Maryland Heights, neglected to do so by repeated failures to answer the requests of Colonel Ford. Miles had plenty of time to assist Colonel Ford in fortifying the heights between the 5th of September and the 13th, yet his failure to do so resulted in criminal neglect. Immediately previous to and pending the siege of Harper's Ferry, Colonel Miles paroled a number of rebel prisoners sending them back to the enemy's headquarters resulting in passing intelligence along that the position was weak and ammunition low. This fact was proven by a paroled rebel officer, named Rouse who was captured, given a private interview with Colonel Miles, paroled, then found at the head of his own column when the garrison surrendered.
Upon the conclusion of the Harper's Ferry commission with their findings published, the War Department issued General Orders No. 183 on November 8, 1862. Colonel Thomas H. Ford of the 32nd Ohio Volunteers for abandoning his post on Maryland Heights without sufficient cause thus demonstrated a lack of military capacity in the eyes of the commission was directed by the President of the United States to be dismissed from any further service in the army. Likewise, Major William H. Baird of the 126th New York Volunteers was found to be a disgrace for his bad conduct and likewise was dismissed from further service by President Lincoln.
Over the course of a month, the commission sifted through over 900 pages of testimony regarding the loss of Harper's Ferry, September 15, 1862. The federal garrison of ten thousand facing an enemy on front and flank, lost all hope with their backs up against two rivers and their rear, Maryland Heights, so thoughtlessly forfeited. Nothing more could have been expected of these men, yet in an era where honor was everything, it was an event where none who survived were found proud to associate themselves with.
Editors Note: Mr.Moran is a feature writer on the US-Civilwar.com writers staff. He may be contacted with your questions, ideas and requests at email@example.com