The Battle of Harper's Ferry - A Union Account: Letter wri...Click the image to load the highest resolution version.
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DescriptionThe Battle of Harper's Ferry - A Union Account: Letter written by Oliver H. Walker, 13th Massachusetts Infantry. Includes a drawn Map of Harper's Ferry as well.
This 10 page letter written in pencil is headed, "Knoxville, Md. Oct. 24th, 1861". The first page is written on patriotic stationery with a large bust of Washington and the caption, "The Father of His Country". Oliver Walker was a resident of Boston, Mass. He enlisted in June of 1861 into Co. C of the 13th Mass. Writing home to his parents, he is a prolific and descriptive writer:
"A week ago yesterday, there were several hours when I did not think that you would see your boy again. We were opposed to a force of the enemy many times greater than our own, and but for the goodness and mercy of God who brought terror to our enemies, our little band must have been cut to pieces."
"You must know that after our arrival here to reinforce Companies T & K of one Regt., a large lot of wheat, some 30,000 bushels belonging to Government was brought into a mill in Harper's Ferry and there stored for delivery. As it was apprehended that the Rebels would like a portion if not the whole of it..."
"...Three Companies of the 3rd Wisconsin Regt. were ordered to the Ferry to act in conjunction with one Co. and serve as pickets along a line behind the village of Bolivar, the Headquarters of the outposts being on a wooded eminence known as Bolivar Heights, two miles from our landing at the Ferry. One Co. had taken possession of this position on Tuesday, the 8th, but were relieved by the Wisconsin boys. We of Co. C all went over the next Saturday, the 12th, and began the erection of a log fortification which we named Fort Jackson in honor of our Lieut. commanding. We worked on this all day Saturday and felt obliged to do something on Sunday; but did not exert ourselves very much. On Sunday afternoon we had our first skirmish."
"The pickets of the enemy had been observed several days before in a line of woods on the Halltown Road in a line opposite to that on which our pickets were stationed. A scouting party of nine men and a Corporal, I being of the number, started out, and by a series of good maneuvers drove in the pickets. Fifteen in number. Mounted on good horses, we pursued them a mile into Halltown and decided it was useless to chase them farther. They had fired upon us without effect, and we returned it when we obtained a good shot."
"The Company under Lieut. Jackson came out to support us as soon as we were fired upon. They let us go on after the retreating pickets and went off into the woods on our right, where they soon engaged a body of Cavalry and after some sharp firing, drove them off and brought in a sword, a rifle, and several other articles as trophies. All was quiet on Sunday night and on Monday we resumed work on the fort. Late in the afternoon we were visited by Col. John W. Geary of the 28th Penna. Regiment, and Gov. Sprague of Rhode Island who came up with a reinforcement of two Companies of Col. Geary's Regt. We were now at liberty to return to our quarters which we did right gladly, and the Penna. Companies took our place as pickets."
"Col. Geary who had reason to believe that a fight was on hand, ordered Co. C. across the river again. On Tuesday evening we quartered in the lower story of a fine Government dwelling house. We were soon followed by Co. K. who quartered in the upper story of the house. A further reinforcement of one company of the 28th Penna. soon arrived and were quartered near us. We were all on Shenandoah St. in the town of Harper's Ferry."
"We had previously been reinforced by two pieces of the 2nd Rhode Island Battery, who were posted on Maryland Heights. We were just getting breakfast on Wednesday, the 16th, when a scout passed rapidly down one street saying that our pickets had been driven in and that Fort Jackson was occupied by a strong force of the Rebels."
"The order to "fall in" was at once given by the 1st Sergeant, the highest officer present. The Lieuts. being both on the Maryland side. We soon started off, our ears being saluted by repeated discharges of cannon that boomed in an ominous manner from a Battery on Loudon Heights."
"We were joined when a half mile off by Lieut. Jackson, who was received with great applause by the Co. Taking his orders from Col. Geary, he marched us on to Bolivar. We were assigned the centre. One Penna Co, was on our right, and the three Wisconsin Companies on our left."
"The right was first engaged. A long fire being poured in upon them from the woods on Bolivar Heights. Co. C. came in next and steadily advanced up the main Street, being as much covered by the houses and fences as possible. The battle became general. The enemy brought his Cavalry (Ashby's) out and charged toward our center, but was received with such a furious fire that they turned and ran precipitately up the hill to the cover of the woods. The enemy now advanced his artillery and at the same time a body of infantry advanced in splendid order barring a secession flag. Our fire soon drove them helter-skelter into the woods, abandoning one piece of artillery."
"A gallant but rash charge was made by a small body of the Wisconsin boys, and a few of one Co. under lead of Capt. Bertram, but although they were nearly succeeding in spiking the abandoned gun, they were obliged to fall back with a loss of five killed and one prisoner. The Rebels again advanced and again fell back taking their cannon with them."
"Co. C was now in advance, but the fire was so heavy that Lieut. Jackson reluctantly gave the order to withdraw to a better cover than the brick house, which we had held within 300 yds. of the enemy's post. In a short time, we were again attacked by the enemy who charged upon the left flank and the center, but were gallantly repulsed with great cheering. We again advanced to the brick house but being shelled desperately we retired some 300 yds. farther down the street where we awaited ammunition and cannon."
"We were now under good cover, and the enemy's canister and shell which were poured briskly upon our position had no effect save to cause remarks upon their good aim. The desired cannon come at last and was received with wild cheers."
"Our Co. now took the right, the Wisconsin's the center, and the Pennsylvanians the left, and while our cannon shelled the enemy's position, we advanced, deployed as skirmishers into the woods, in season to find the enemy in full retreat. Our left of Co. C took the lead, and we advanced in single file along the woods, and at two P.M. were on the ground where stood Fort Jackson."
"We were the captors of the enemy's piece of cannon, a fine 32-pounder and two ammunition wagons left behind in their haste retreat. Some of us mounted the gun and cheered loudly, and we were soon joined by the other Companies who, though not having half our distance to traverse, were far behind us in our occupancy of Bolivar Heights."
"The enemy sent a couple of shells into our position as he left, but he gladly left us in quiet when our cannon replied warmly. A few shells were sent into the woods near Halltown (the scene of our skirmish on Sunday) and dispersed the few who were left to observe our movements. The day was ours and we sat down to rest, and to murmur our thanks that we were so greatly preserved."
"The enemy's fire was fearful, and I think I never shall forget the whistling of the bullets about my ears. The enemy's force was at least three thousand men, infantry, and Cavalry, and seven pieces of artillery. Our force at the greatest did not exceed four hundred and fifty men and three pieces of artillery. That we were not utterly routed is a mystery."
"The entire loss was four killed, nine wounded and two prisoners. The Rebel loss is stated to have been from 100 to 150 in killed and wounded. We captured the Chaplain to the Rebels [Rev. Nathaniel Green North] whom they are very desirous to exchange. But he is of too much importance."
"We all crossed the river the same night and before dawn were all in our quarters, leaving one dismantled works to any who might choose to occupy. The only errand in throwing out our pickets into Virginia was to cover the transportation of the wheat which was in the flour mills. It was all brought over before the fight was ended, and when on Friday last the Rebels came down and burned the mill, they could find nought but chaff to destroy."
"We have had a number of alarms since the battle, and while the mill was burning on Friday, were ordered under arms and expected an attack, but I fancy that the taste we gave them of our quality is enough to prevent their attacking us again. We are not very strong now, and the cannon are all gone, but we should make a good fight. Our Co. is now at Knoxville about three miles below the Ferry and are doing picket duty on the river bank in place of the Penna Companies who have gone to Point of Rocks in consequence of the advance of Gen. Banks on Leesburg."
"I send you on the other side a diagram of our battle which will give you some idea of our position. Remember me to all friends and believe me ever your loving son, Oliver"
Next Oliver includes an explanation of his diagram:
Explanation of Diagram
A.Village of Harpers Ferry
B.Village of Bolivar
C. R. I. Battery
D. Rebel Batteries
E. Position of Penn. Co. C at final charge
F. Position of Wis. Co. C at final charge
G. Position of Co. C at final charge
H. Brick House held by Co. C at 300 yards from the enemy
I. Smallwood's house Co C.'s shelter while being shelled by the Rebels
J. 32-pounder captured by Co. C
K. Quarters of Co. C, I & K
L. Point where Co. C entered the wooded Heights, the left in front
M. Position of Co. I & K during the Battle
Condition is fine. Having such a great map makes this letter very special. Oliver would go on to serve as a 2nd Lieut. in the 24th Mass. Infantry and died of wounds he received at the Battle of St. Augustine, Florida. From the Calvin Packard Civil War Battlefield Letter Collection
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