Brig. Gen. Joseph E. Johnston to Col. Robert S. Garnett on Disposition of Forces at Harper’s Ferry

13 12 2020



O. R. – Series I – VOLUME 2 [S #2] CHAPTER IX, pp. 889-890

Harper’s Ferry, Va., May 28, 1861.

[Col. Garnett:]

Colonel : I reported to you on the 26th instant, for the information of the Commander-in-Chief, that the troops under my command are observing the river from Williamsport to the Point of Rocks. I will now give what was then omitted—the precise disposition of these troops:

Colonel Allen is opposite to Williamsport, thirty miles above, with his own regiment, two companies of Colonel Hill’s, and a section of artillery. The position cannot be defended by such a force, the ferry at Williamsport being at the vertex of a horseshoe, five or six miles in length, having another at each heel. A company of cavalry and a section of artillery guard the bridge at Shepherdstown. There are two companies of infantry, two of cavalry, and six field pieces, with their men, at the bridge at the Point of Rocks, twelve miles below, and a company of cavalry at the Berlin Bridge, halfway to the Point of Rocks. Preparations have been made to break each of these two bridges and the railroad bridge here. It is more than forty miles from Williamsport to the Point of Rocks. A detachment of three hundred and fifty infantry occupies a point on the Maryland Heights, one and a half miles from the near end of the crest of the ridge, and two and a half miles from Harper’s Ferry. The crest of the ridge beyond the Shenandoah is guarded by two companies of infantry.

In the present state of the river no force that could be detached from this place could prevent its passage by an enemy. In a few weeks, or even days, when fords will be numerous, an army will be necessary to guard the Potomac above, as far as the western line of Berkeley. With this point occupied, as it is, some five or six thousand men, judiciously placed between Martinsburg and the line, and a reserve of about the same force within striking distance of each, invasion would be difficult. As matters now are, the enemy can easily seize Martinsburg, in the heart of a disloyal population, and nearer than Harper’s Ferry to Winchester.

If the Commander-in-Chief has precise instructions to give, I beg to receive them early. I have prepared means of transportation for a march. Should it be decided that the troops should constitute a garrison, this expense can be reduced.

Your obedient servant,


P. S.—I submit a memorandum by Major Whiting, C. S. Engineers.


Harper’s Ferry, Va., May 28, 1861.

Consultation on the condition of Harpers Ferry and its defenses reduced to writing.

The plan of the enemy, indicated by his movements, seems to be a cautious approach to, and entrance of, disaffected districts, securing his advance, if possible, by securing the sentiments of the people. In the district to the northwest of Harper’s Ferry these tactics will be the best he can follow, on account of known Union proclivities and the vicinity of the frontier.

Large bodies of troops are gathering at Carlisle and Chambersburg, the number already reported (probably exaggerated) being fifteen thousand. When ready to move they will occupy Martinsburg, crossing at Williamsport and Shepherdstown. Martinsburg is well known to be disaffected. His line, established from Martinsburg towards Shepherdstown, has an excellent base, and communications very difficult to interrupt by the Hagerstown and Cumberland roads, and very seriously threatens, not only Harper’s Ferry, with its present forces and conditions, but our whole line of operations. Martinsburg is nearer to Winchester than the Ferry, and access easy. Our holding Winchester is necessary to maintain the Ferry. To hold this post, then, either as a fortress, a point d’appui, or as a condition of the defense of the Virginia Valley, we require a force of from twelve to fifteen thousand men, of which two regiments should be cavalry. The force now at the Ferry (about five thousand effectives) might remain as at present, while the main body should be posted centrally, as at Burns’ Ford, on the Opequan, where a strong position might be selected, and, if necessary, defended by lines. The strengthening and re-enforcement of this force, as now constituted, seems to have ceased when most necessary. It is essential that supplies of ammunition (especially of equipments of shoes) should be forwarded in quantity, otherwise, without the arrangement designated, we are so deficient in ammunition that this force must, on the advance of the enemy, move out from the Ferry and maneuver, to prevent being shut up in a cul-de-sac.

The plan sketched above will absolutely force the enemy to very great delay and vastly extended preparations. It continually (by way of Leesburg and the eastern slope of the ridge) threatens the District of Columbia. If, however, he is beforehand with us (besides the present disastrous results), he gains what may take time, means, and men, on a similar scale, to recover.

Very respectfully,

Major of Engineers.



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