The Battle of Bolivar Heights

October 16th 1861

Town of Bolivar Heights

View of the Town of Bolivar and Gap of Harper's Ferry; 1889.  Storer College, for colored students, founded after the war sits in the center of the picture.  The photograph was taken by Thomas D. Biscoe and his brother Walter S. Biscoe and is found in an album of photographs from a trip through Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania that primarily depicts Civil War Battlefields and Cemeteries.  The digital collection can be viewed at Southern Methodist University, DeGolyer Library.

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More excitement came to this outpost in October.  Abraham Herr, proprietor of Virginius Island, (called Herr's Island) adjacent to Harper's Ferry, offered up a large quantity of un-milled wheat to the federal government.  Herr's mill was damaged by departing Union troops early in the war so Confederates could not make use of it.  The grain in storage was going to waste.  The government accepted Mr. Herr's offer, and Major Gould made arrangements to boat the grain for transport to Washington where it would be used to bake bread for soldiers.   Confederate cavalry was active in the region so re-enforcements were called up, (including Company C from Monocacy)  to watch for the enemy while the soldiers loaded the wheat onto transports.  The work began on the 8th or 9th of October.  On the 16th,  the second anniversary of the John Brown raid,  Lieutenant-Colonel Turner Ashby suddenly appeared with 300 Confederate Militia and 2 companies of Cavalry to put a stop to the work.  The Battle of Bolivar Heights ensued;  Colonel John W. Geary commanding the Union forces.  Four Union men were  killed, 7 wounded and 2 captured.  Lt.-Col. Ashby (C.S.A.)  reported one man killed and 13 wounded.  During the fight, Company C charged the enemy, through the town of Bolivar, with members of the 3rd Wisconsin Regiment, and gained quite a reputation among their comrades for their part in the battle.  Companies I & K, positioned closer to the mill were not engaged - but were shelled by enemy artillery.  The day after the battle Captain Blackmer, Company K, resigned his commission and went home.

2nd Lt. Charles B. Fox     It is interesting to note that all 3 of the detached companies would soon  have new captains.  Captain John Kurtz, Company C, was the first to leave.  He resigned at Monocacy, September 25th, to accept a Lieutenant-Colonel's commission with the 33rd Mass.   He was replaced by First Lieutenant William H. Jackson.  Captain William P. Blackmer, Company K, resigned directly after the battle of Bolivar Heights, his sincerety and courage questioned by his comrades.  And lastly, mysterious Captain R.C. Schriber of Company I, would soon leave for greener pastures.  He was eventually drummed out of the service for fraud.

The voice of Second Lieutenant Charles B. Fox, Company K, is introduced on this page, via 3 letters home to his father.  In many ways, Fox was the consience of the regiment.  Though very capable, he considered himself an un-popular officer because he didn't hesitate to tell the men what he thought; but in his own opinion, he believed the men recognized him as an honest man.  The memoirs of Austin Stearns, Company K, and the letters of John B. Noyes, Company B, corraborate this opinion.  Fox was a brave officer who believed in honor and duty first.  He remained true to these principles even after the horrific battles of 2nd Bull Run and Antietam.  Lt. Fox wanted to do more for the war effort than he could as a lieutenant in the 13th Mass., where chances for promotion were slim.  His chance came in 1863.  He eventually  became brevet-Colonel in the famed 55th Mass., Colored Regiment.  His journal was used to write the history of that unit.

     Picture Credits:  Lt. Charles B. Fox, Lt. William H. Jackson, Corporal George E.  Marshall, Lt.  David L. Brown, &  Priv. Chandler Robbins, from Army Heritage Education Center, (AHEC) Carlisle, PA;  Panoramic of Harper's Ferry by John Hamil 2008, (titles added by Brad Forbush);   Images of Harper's Ferry, The Engine House, Bell Cupola, Marines Storming the Engine House, Lock 33, Canal Boats, Virginius Island, and Herr's Mill, from Historic Photo Collection, Harper's Ferry NHP;  Company C from my private collection;  Photo of the John Brown Bell Tower & scan of Joseph Barry's book cover by Brad Forbush; Lauriman H. Russell from the Marlboro Historical Society; His map from John Buszek's "History of Marlboro" website; Major J. P. Gould downloaded from the web;  Col. John White Geary & all other images, Library of Congress.  All images have been altered in Photoshop.  Painting of John Geary attributed to artist J.M. Boundy, circa 1867, from the State Museum of Pennsylvania, PA Historical and Museum Commission.  Used with permission.

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The Battle of Bolivar Heights; Herr's Mill

Herr's Mill; Catalyst for the Fight

     In 1840 a large mill was built on Virginius Island, adjacent to Harper's Ferry.  It replaced a smaller flour mill destroyed by fire a year earlier on the same site.   Abraham Herr, a native of Pennsylvania acquired the mill in 1848.  In 1850, the mill employed 5 people, and produced over 20,000 barrels of flour.  The 5 mill employees earned $27.50 a month on average - surpassing all other wages earned on Virginius Island.

In July of 1854, Herr added to his holdings the property of the bankrupt Harper's Ferry & Shenandoah Manufacturing Company for the price of $25,000.00.  By 1855 Abraham Herr was sole proprietor of Virginius Island and all its industry.

Virginiius Island, Herr's Mill

In 1860 the mill employed 10 men, and produced 32,000 barrels of flour annually, valued at $233,400.00.  Herr’s iron foundry employed 3 men; his cooperage which packaged flour from his mill employed 14 men.  All this industry came to a standstill in the chaotic early days of the war.  The loyalties of the people at Harper’s Ferry were divided, and the goods produced by the local industry were desired by both sides.

On April 17th 1861 delegates to the Virginia convention passed an ordinance of secession.  The next day all industry in the town of Harper’s Ferry came to a standstill.  The place was wild with excitement.  About 2,000 Virginia militia started for the town to seize the federal arsenal and the arms stored there.  The few federal troops in town to protect this property, under orders, destroyed the government buildings with fire & gunpowder, then retreated north across the river to safety.   Confederate militia occupied Harper’s Ferry the next day and declared martial law.  It was an uneasy time for citizens with Union sympathies.

While the Confederates controlled the town, an armed posse detained the mail train one evening, and seized mail bags from the government agent.  The mail was taken to headquarters and used as evidence to arrest citizens suspected of having Union sympathies.  Abraham Herr was arrested and sent to Richmond, but he was soon released on parole.  On June 14th 1861 the Confederates abandoned Harper’s Ferry after a stay of 2 months.  They destroyed the railroad bridge across the Potomac before leaving.  On June 28th some Confederates returned and burned Hall's Rifle Works on Virginius Island.

In July, Union troops returned under Brigadier-General Robert Patterson.  July 25, General Nathaniel P. Banks relieved Patterson and moved Union Headquarters to Sandy Hook, Maryland on July 31st.  During this very brief stay of six days, Banks ordered Abraham Herr’s mill to be disabled by federal troops - so as not to be of use to the Confederates.  The order was carried out by Lt.-Col. Andrews, 2nd Mass. Infantry, brother of  John Andrews,  the Governor of Massachusetts.

In early October 1861, Abraham Herr approached Major Gould of the 13th Mass, Provost Marshall at Sandy Hook, and offered large quantities of un-milled wheat stored on his property to the government.  Major Gould informed General Banks, commander of all troops in the region, and Banks accepted the offer.  The wheat would be bagged and sent to Washington D.C. to make flour for the soldiers.

Re-enforcements were called up to assist in the harvest and on October 8th Major Gould began supervising the removal of the wheat. Pickets patrolled the area while soldiers (and impressed citizens) sacked the wheat at the mill.  Joseph Barry writes “the citizens were promised a liberal per diem, but that, like many other good promises and intentions, form a part of the pavement of a certain region where it never freezes.”

Confederate forces learned of the operation and decided to put a stop to it.  On the morning of October 16th, the 2nd anniversary of John Brown's raid, Lt.-Col. Turner Ashby, C.S.A., suddenly showed up in force.  The Battle of Bolivar Heights commenced.  It was a heavy skirmish where both sides claimed victory, though both retreated at night.  Before retiring, Col. John Geary commanding Union forces concluded that Confederates were using Edward W. Miller's iron foundry a couple of miles up-river at Shenandoah City to make shot and shell, and ordered it burned the same night.

The next day, Major Gould wrapped up operations relating to the mill.  Nearly 15,000  bushels* of wheat were saved for the Union. *(source, Major J. P. Gould's testimony before the War Committee, January, 1862.)

Herr's Mill after the fire 

Ruins of Herr's Mill

On October 18th, some Confederates returned dressed in citizens clothing and burned the mill.  Harper’s Ferry Historian Joseph Barry writes that the machinery at the mill had only been disabled by the federal soldiers, and could have easily been repaired in a couple days time, but the burning of the mill destroyed it completely. 

In 1866, Abraham Herr submitted a claim to the U.S. government for rent due for the use of his property  by Federal troops during the war. With the exception of the ruined mill, he claimed the several buildings on his 12 acres of property remained in excellent condition until troops occupied them in February 1862.  They were still occupied in February, 1866.  Despite endorsements from Union officers, that he was a loyal Union man, and board of officers assessment that $17,288.53 was fair compensation for use of his property, the balance was reduced by the War Dept., which reasoned that the military occupation "perserved the buildings from destruction by the rebels."  It is uncertain if Herr ever collected on the $6,886.25 recommended for payment.  The claim was still under consideration in 1893.  Mr. Herr sold his property in July, 1867.

William R. Warner's Account of the Engagement.

William R. Warner mustered into Company K, as sergeant in July, 1861.  He finished up his 3 year enlistment as 1st Lieutenant of Company K.  He turned his war journals into a post war memoir.  This document is still carefully preserved by  his descendants.  Charles E. Davis, Jr. used the manuscript as a primary source when he wrote the regimental history in 1893.  Warner was very active in post war activities related to the regiment.

This entry is interesting for the reference to Captain Shriber's unusual command, during the fight at Bolivar Heights. Davis referenced this in his description of Shriber, (see section above).  

The photo of Warner is dated January 27, 1864, it has been cropped & retouched.

Lt. William R. Warner, January, 1864Wednesday, Oct. 16th 1861

The first action in which any portion of the Reg't. has taken part, was fought today on Bolivar Heights, above Harper's Ferry.  This morning, a little after daybreak, the rebs attacked our outposts with infantry and artillery and drove them into the village, where they were reinforced and made a stand.

A skirmishing fight of seven hours duration followed during which the rebs were driven back with the loss of their 24 pndr[?] which they were unable to remove.

Co. K remained in reserve in morning; but, about the middle of the forenoon was sent to the ruins of Hall's rifle works on the Shenandoah River to prevent a flank movement in that direction.  The Enemy attempted to shell us out from the Loudon Hills; but, were unable to depress their guns low enough.

From this point, Co. K was ordered to the support of the 28th Penn. Co. on the right.  The rebs showed no disposition  to renew the fight.  Late in forenoon, the guns of 9th N.Y. were brought over and [did?] good [work?]and in the afternoon the other guns of the Section reported at the Ferry.  The R.I.  guns were fired from Md Heights to the manifest danger of both Union and rebel forces.

The order given by Capt. Schreiber while Cos. I and K were on their march to the Rifle Works, as the first shell from Loudon  whisked over their head. "Co.  I run" was a byword in the Regt  for a long time.  The Union loss was four killed and seven  wounded, all from 3rd Wisconsin and two from Co. C.  slightly wounded.  The rebel loss is [unanimously?]  reported much larger.  One, at least, of our killed, was stripped and bayonetted.

As night approached, we began to look about for a camping ground.  A place was selected on the brow of the hill in the edge of the woods.

No rations were brought to us, and we dispatched a couple of pigs, and a yearling calf, eating them about midnight.  Col. Geary complemented the troops very highly, saying "this was no skirmish; but, a hard fought battle".

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News Reports of Events Leading Up to the Battle

Members of Company C had a skirmish with Rebel Scouts on October 9th.

Boston Saturday Evening Gazette
October 19, 1861 (p. 2 col. 6)

Thirteenth Massachusetts.
Sandy Hook, Oct. 15, 1861.

On Wednesday, Oct. 9th, Major Gould (commanding three companies of the Mass. 13th, stationed on the North side of the Potomac,) gave orders to Lieut. Jackson, commanding Co. C, to cross the river, and throw out a guard between Harper's Ferry and Bolivar, which he accordingly did, and established his line from the Potomac to the Shenandoah. Late in the evening we were relieved of the Wisconsin 3d, and came back from quarters. Lieut. Jackson then received an order to establish a range of pickets on the ridge beyond Bolivar. He gave orders for an early breakfast and start, and by four o'clock next morning we were in the boats and commenced crossing. The river had risen some four feet during the night, which rendered crossing rather slow. When about half way over, firing was heard from the Wisconsin boys, and hurrying our crossing, we went double quick time to the scene of action. When we arrived we had found the enemy had left, but not before one of them was killed and three wounded.Lieutenant William H. Jackson, Co. C

It seems that about fifty of the cavalry, thinking we all had crossed the river, came down to see what we had been about.  Finding the pickets, commenced firing upon them but were repulsed. We then went forward and established our pickets, making it impossible for them to advance without our knowing it.  Lieut. Jackson (pictured) ordered the main portion of the company to stay at the turnpike, and for security to construct a little log fort, which the boys named "Fort Jackson," in honor of their commander.  The fort will hold two hundred men and keep a thousand at bay.  It required some hard work, but the boys went willingly at it. One of the Wisconsin companies camped about a quarter of a mile from us, as a reserve.

On Friday we were relieved from picket duty, and occupied the fort as a reserve, keeping still at work upon it, as it was not completed.  In the meanwhile the boys had been out on scouting parties, bringing in horses, sheep, fowls, &c., for our commissary department. Finding out the position and strength of the enemy, we remained quiet until Sunday P. M., when corporal Stimpson, after dinner, received permission to take some men and reconnoitre Shenandoah, as all our scouting had been on the Potomac.  He started out with ten men, and Lieut., Jackson watched the woods with a glass, noting their movements, when he saw some cavalry trying to get to the rear of them and cut them off.  He seized a rifle and fired a shot at the enemy. Finding that they were noticed, they opened fire upon the party, which Stimpson returned.  We had been previously ordered to fall in, and instantly went to his assistance.  He drove the rebels, advancing as skirmishers, as coolly as if he were on parade. We met at the turnpike, he still advancing. The rebels had fled before him.

Lieut. Jackson took the occasion to order a drill in the wood, and we deployed as skirmishers, advanced through the woods, took cover as skirmishers, and performed other practical maneuvers. The woods ran at a right angle with the turnpike, therefore parallel to the line of pickets and about a mile from them. The country is clear between, so we could be seen all the way by our own men. When we arrived at the end of the woods rest was ordered, preliminary going into camp. In the meantime it was learned from a negro where the enemy entered the woods. While listening to the negro, Lieut. Jackson's attention was directed to a distant object, which he made out by his glass to be a large body of rebel cavalry.  He rallied us and told us to be close  In about two minutes the rebels came filing into the wood, and when they had advanced a little beyond our front, the report of our commander's rifle the signal to commence, and instantly every gun was discharged-not as a volley, but as they could take sight.  But two of them returned our fire; the rest scampered off, like sheep, up a narrow lane, followed by our bullets. We followed them in good order, firing when ever we could get sight at one of them. We emptied four saddles, but they managed to carry off the dead and wounded. We chased them some half mile, but they finally got under the cover of some thick trees, dismounted, and laid behind a stone wall, when they dared us to come half way across an open field.  Our commander thought that discretion was the better part of valor, and concluded we had done enough. We then were joined by the Wisconsin boys, who wanted to give them fight; but we did not know the country, and it was feared we might be cut off; therefore it was decided upon that we should go back to quarters, hoping they would follow us, when we would try them again, but they did not dare to do it.  We picked up a sword, gun, spurs, hats, blankets, &c., upon the first battle-field of Co. C., Mass. 13th. The boys behaved splendidly, and our commander, Lieut. Jackson, showed a discrimination, coolness and courage that evinced his fitness for command.

I have heard that the party which attacked us was Col. Ashby's troops, considered the best in the country. They are armed with Hall's breech-loading rifles and U. S. sabres. We are waiting for more active service.       Yours,

(From the defunct website, "Letters of the Civil War")

A Westboro Correspondent mentions the aforementioned skirmish in the following report home, and tells of the preparations made to transport the wheat at Herr's Mill to Washington.  Re-enforcements were called up to keep a look out for the Rebels while the wheat was harvested.

October 19, 1861.

Regular Army Correspondence, No. V.

Harper’s Ferry, MD
Oct. 12th 1861

Messrs. Editors. – Not being chained as you are to the post editorial, my perhaps ‘mightier weapon than the sword,’ the pen, has grown rusty from inaction.  I may, however, claim pardon for my remissness, as others, with more fertile imaginations, have kept you posted about Co. K.

Since my last our book of military experience has been written still farther beyond the preface, in the constant guard duty and the vast amount of fatigue work done, and our occasional slight skirmishes with the Nimrods of ‘Secesh.’

The place now shows well from the improvements that have been lavished upon it; while comfort has been consulted, and our quarters made suitable for winter occupation by the erection of bunks, and are furnished with stores obtained in Harper’s Ferry.

We are now on the qui vive for a Grand Advance Movement of the Army, and ardently hope to take a part in it.

On Tuesday we were unexpectedly re-inforced by two pieces of rifled cannon of the 2d R.I. Battery, direct from Banks’ Headquarters at Darnstown.  This battery was in the Bull Run rout, in which they lost five of their six pieces.  Quarters were soon provided for them, and acquaintance scraped, our men being eager to talk with those who had been so actively engaged in battle.  They are all evidently right true men, whole souled and whole hearted as soldiers should be, and a sample of the boys Little Rhody has sent to the field.

On the next morning three companies of the Wisconsin 3d Reg’t  arrived, - picked men, it is said.  They are all stout and hardy, and evidently bent on ‘jumping new claims’ in  Virginia.  Our three companies of the 13th, ‘I.,’ ‘K.,’ and ‘C.,’ (the latter having been with us ten days) then crossed the river and advanced as far as Bolivar when a guard was stretched from the Potomac to the Shenandoah, - a distance of two miles  from that place – and all communications between Harper’s Ferry and the country beyond cut off.   During the day a ‘rope ferry’ was constructed across the river (now swollen by recent rains), and the three Wisconsin companies quickly transported across; at night they relieved our guards, who returned to Sandy Hook.  The next day, all, (with the exception of a small guard left to protect the quarters), re-crossed, and occupied an advanced position.

A small scouting party of rebel cavalry fired upon one of our guards, and a squad of Co. C’s men, who were held in reserve, returned the fire, whereupon the rebels hastily retreated, supporting one of their wounded upon his horse, and leaving behind them a rifle and pistol.

The order has been read before the companies, that there shall be no fireing upon the enemy’s pickets unless first fired upon by them, - in which latter case we reciprocate their favors, you maybe very sure.

Yesterday our cannon were transported across the river, and placed in position up on the heights of Bolivar.

We hear it rumored that still more troops are on the way here, but whether for a farther advance, or as a necessary addition to our present force, we know not.

A large lot of wheat – between 20,000 and 30,000 bushels – has for several months been stored in a mill, whose working power was destroyed by Col. Gordon; and this has been taken possession of and is to be transported to Washington.  Only a portion of it is in bags, and Co. I are now engaged in measuring up and hauling it to the river side, and Co. K, are reloading it into canal boats.  It is the property of a Unionist firm, who can do nothing with it in its present position, and they are afraid it will fall into the hands of the rebels.  Quite an amount of it is injured by weevil.

Although no baggage or stores have been moved across the river, the days of our sojourn in Maryland are evidently near their close.  We are anxious to get away from the river for several reasons, - one of which is that the company are suffering materially from fever and ague and diseases of like ilk common to this region; some ten or twelve being daily on the sick list. We are desirous to see some signs of the ‘grand advance’ which is to enable us to spend Christmas at home.

The mail from the Camp (at Darnestown) makes us an occasional visit, (once in a week or ten days,) but it ignores the maxim that ‘Order is Heaven’s first Law,’ for it often brings letters and papers within a few days of date, in advance of others that have been weeks on the way.

The Paymaster is anxiously looked for every day, and his arrival will be opportune to many depleted pockets, and carry delight to the hearts of the pie, cake, and fruit venders who swarm the place.

     Yours for the War - .

(digital transcription by Brad Forbush).

A short note from Company K, in the midst of the wheat harvest.

October 19, 1861.

A letter from a member of Co. K, not intended for publication, has been shown us, which corroborates in nearly every particular our regular correspondence.

     The writer says :

The 3 Wisconsin companies are encamped in Virginia, directly opposite us, to keep guard while we are moving the wheat.'   (See 'War-'s letter.)  'Yesterday, the 12th, we got 3,400 bushels across the river, and loaded it on the canal boat, to send to Washington.  The transportation of this wheat is three weeks work for us, (and the hardest work we have yet seen), for which we get extra pay.  Yesterday the Major ordered Capt. Blackmer to keep his men at work till midnight ; but the captain sent back his refusal, saying that the men must have rest.  So we turned in at 7 1/2 P.M., but were too tired and cold to sleep.'

'We have more or less of a skirmish with the rebels about every day ; in the last but one, it is said, one of the Wisconsin boys had his moustache and a portion of his ear shot away' !  (Rather close work that.)

(digital transcription by Brad Forbush).

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Battle of Bolivar Heights; Newspaper Reports

 The Map Below is on Display at Harper's Ferry National Park.  Click on a map to view larger.

Battle of Bolivar Heights, Map 1 Battle of Bolivar Heights, Map 2

At 700 AM on October 16, 1861, Colonel Turner Ashby's Confederate forces attacked the Union skirmish line on Bolivar Heights.  The Union troops were forced back into the town of Bolivar as Confederates occupied the heights. (Map designed by Gene Thorp 2000).

After more than six hours of fighting, Colonel John W. Geary ordered a flank attack on the Confederate left.  This action, coupled with a frontal assault on the Confederate center, forced Asby's troops into a mass retreat, thus ending the Battle of Bolivar Heights.

The following is an excellent report on the engagement from the Washington Star.

(date unknown)
This account comes from "A Diary of American Events" by Frank Moore.

     On the morning of the 16th instant, at half-past eight o'clock, Colonel John W. Geary, of the Twenty-eighth Pennsylvania regiment and about four hundred men, composed of fractions of Companies A, D, F, and G, of the Twenty eighth Pennsylvania; C, I, and K, Thirteenth Massachusetts; A, C, and H, Third Wisconsin, aided by two "amateurs,” (Judge Daniel McCook and Benjamin G. Owens of Illinois,) were attacked by twenty-five hundred or more of the rebels, including the celebrated cavalry regiment of Colonel Ashby.  The rebels had six pieces of artillery—four of them upon Loudon Heights south, and two upon Bolivar Heights west, upon the Charlestown road, midway between the Potomac and the Shenandoah Rivers, and a mile and a half back of the ferry.  The rebels first drove in our pickets from Bolivar Heights, and then began a cross fire upon us, which lasted for several hours. Their cavalry charged into Bolivar, but were driven back by the Third Wisconsin boys, aided by shells from Capt. Tompkins' battery which was upon the Maryland Heights east of the ferry.

Two Wisconsin companies, led by Captain Henry Bertram, made a desperate charge upon the enemy's guns and took a thirty-two pound columbiad, but were driven back by a cavalry charge and heavy firing from the vicinity of Smallwood's woods.  Shell then fell around as thick as hail, and making a noise over us about like a train of cars when crossing a bridge. Capt. Tompkins at this time turned his guns upon Loudon Heights, silenced all their guns there, and scattered the enemy, who were seen in great numbers.  The two rebel guns upon Bolivar Heights kept up a constant fire with shell and canister until about five P. M., and our men were gradually advancing upon them under cover of the houses, breaking down the fences as they went, to the west end of the town, when Lieut. Martin, with a piece of artillery belonging to the Ninth New York regiment, came to our aid, and fired upon the enemy with terrible effect, advancing at intervals, accompanied by Colonel Geary in person.  The men flanked right and left, considerably in advance of the piece, and deployed obliquely.

The Wisconsin men, commanded by Captain H. Bertram, were on the left; the Massachusetts men, under Lieut. Jackson, a Pennsylvania company, and one of the "amateurs," composed the right wing.  Colonel Geary, Judge McCook, and the balance of the Pennsylvanians were in the centre. Our brave band, with a universal shout for the Union, stormed the heights of Bolivar, drove the enemy in the wildest confusion from Smallwood's woods, recaptured the thirty-two-pounder and two ammunition wagons, disabled several of the enemy's horses, took four prisoners, including Chaplain "Billy North," of Jefferson County, Va.  The rebel colonel's cap was among the trophies; he was shot from his horse, but remounted and made his escape.  The rebels could not stand the fire of our artillery and Enfield rifles, so they fled to the woods near Halltown, and began shelling us with the only remaining available gun they had left; but our shells soon silenced it—one of them striking the rebel caisson caused a great explosion. When we reached the heights, we found the axle of the “new convert” considerably damaged by a shell, and also found that the rebels had used great industry during the day by making extensive additions to our works there, from which they had driven our pickets in the morning.

The rebels disgraced themselves more than ever by taking off the clothing, rifling the pockets, and then running their bayonets through the Federal killed !

A team of a dozen horses was brought up from the ferry with remarkable expedition, and the big gun was conveyed across the river, placed in a position commanding Harper's Ferry and the mouth of the Shenandoah, and was there, by one of the "amateurs," named "The New Convert to the Union."  As the gun moved down the street toward the Maryland side, we met Major Tyndale and Adjutant Flynn, with a reinforcement of five companies, to wit, B, C, I, K, and M, of the Twenty-eighth Pennsylvania, who had just arrived from Point of Rocks.  The cheering of these troops was most vociferous, and the Virginia ladies of the place gave strong proof of their love for the Union, by waving their handkerchiefs and joining the general jubilee. About five p. m. one or two other cannon of the New York Ninth crossed the river, ascended Bolivar Heights, and then the woods in the direction of Halltown, as well as Loudon Heights, were completely shelled, but with no reply.

     Our loss was four killed and eight wounded.  Theirs must have been very heavy, as they had all the wagons of the neighborhood busy in hauling off the slain.  Two wagons were seen full of the killed.  Their chaplain admitted the loss to be very heavy, and much blood was found upon the hill from which they were driven. Colonel Geary displayed much skill and great bravery during the whole of the engagement.  This was my first day upon the battlefield, and my venerable friend Judge McCook fully sustained the high reputation of the '' McCook fighting family."   This was not a “Bull Run,” but a rebel-run affair.  The rebel colonel during the next day sent down a flag of truce, offering to exchange the only prisoner they took—a Pennsylvania corporal—for the chaplain.  A few of their cavalry also appeared back of Bolivar, but were promptly shelled and dispersed by the Rhode Island battery.  Great praise is due the surgeons of the Third Wisconsin and the Thirteenth Massachusetts for skill and attention to the wounded, and to Corporal Myers of Company A, Third Wisconsin, for efficient aid in bringing the captured gun off the field.  Colonel Geary was ordered by Major-General Banks to cross the Potomac at Harper's Ferry, in order that he might capture a large quantity of wheat, most of which was stored in a mill belonging to a gentleman by the name of Herr.  The order aforesaid was obeyed, and twenty-one thousand bushels of wheat were taken.  The object of the mission was accomplished before the battle began.

(digital transcription by Brad Forbush).

The Burning of the Mill on October 18 is reported in the Philadelphia Inquirer

The Philadelphia Inquirer October 18th report of the battle is rife with errors, however this additional report of the burning of Herr's Mill is more accurate.  It appeared in the paper on the same date.

October 18, 1861

Baltimore October 18. – A gentleman direct from the vicinity of Harper’s Ferry announces that the rebels again appeared on Loudon and Bolivar Heights, this morning, and renewed the attack of the Union forces, who were under the command of Major Gould and supported with artillery.

Major Gould fired upon them with canister from the columbiad, which was captured from the rebels on Tuesday, and drove them back, but not until the vandals had burned the mill of Mr. A. H. Herr, and took the miller prisoner, whom they charged with giving information to the Union troops of the twelve thousand bushels of wheat being brought there to grind.

The firing was in progress when our informant left.  The women and children were fleeing in great terror to the Maryland shore, in anticipation of the town being burned.

Major Gould was throwing shot and shell from the Maryland heights after the rebels, and was confident that he could keep them off until his reinforcements could reach him.

Colonel Geary’s wound is only a slight cut in the calf of his leg, caused by the explosion of a shell.

Baltimore, Oct. 18 – The following despatch has just been received:

Sandy Hook, Oct. 18 – The mill of Messrs. Herr & Walsh, at Harper’s Ferry, was burned to-day, by the rebel forces under Col. Ashby, after our troops had taken 20,000 bushels of wheat from there, and retired to their original position opposite the Ferry, after the  victorious engagement at Bolivar, Va.

Major Gould, in command of the post, ordered his three companies, C, I, and K, and a detachment of Col. Geary’s Pennsylvanians under arms.

Capt. Tompkins, of the Rhode Island Artillery, opened from the Maryland Heights with his battery against the rebels, while Capt. Schriber, of the Thirteenth Massachusetts Volunteers, with his two 12-pounders and the captured 32-pounder, attended to those appearing on Loudon mountain.

The rebels were driven back so as to prevent the further destruction of Harper’s Ferry, which is threatened by Col. Ashby.

The families remaining in Harper’s Ferry are fast emigrating to Maryland.

(digital transcription by Brad Forbush).

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Battle of Bolivar Heights, Official Reports

Colonel John Geary and Staff at Harpers Ferry

General John White Geary, 6 foot 6 inches tall, towers over his staff in this Harper's Ferry 1862, 

Photo.  Among the staff, the third man from left, holding a sword, has been identified as Captain Thomas Hollingsworth Elliot (Source: L.C. Wagner, 2007).  The third man from the right is James Gillette (Source: Amy Jones, 2011).  Library of Congress.  [I have heavily touched up this image].

Report of Colonel John W. Geary, 28th Pennsylvania; Commanding Union troops.

Official Records (O.R.) of the War of the Rebellion; Series 1; Volume 5.

Report of Col. John W. Geary, Twenty-eighth Pennsylvania Infantry.

Camp Tyndale, Point of Rocks, Md., October 18, 1861.

Sir:  On the 8th instant Maj. J.P. Gould, of the Thirteenth Massachusetts Volunteers, acting under orders of Major-General Banks, crossed the Potomac at Harper’s Ferry to seize a quantity of wheat held by the rebels at that point.  Three companies of the Third Wisconsin Volunteers, and a section of the Rhode Island battery, under Captain Tompkins, were ordered to report to Major Gould, for the purpose of assisting in and covering the necessary movements of the operation.

On the 10th instant the major called on me to aid him with men and cannon, but as the necessity for them seemed to have vanished, the order was countermanded.  Again, on Sunday, the 13th I received reliable information that the rebel forces were concentrating in the direction of Harper’s Ferry and I also learned from Major Gould that he required assistance. In the evening, accompanied by Governor Sprague, of Rhode Island, and Colonel Tompkins of the Rhode Island Artillery, I went to Sandy hook, with two companies of my regiment and one piece of cannon.  On Monday I entered into Virginia, and on that day and the following one aided in the removal of the wheat, and held in check the gathering forces of the enemy.

The troops under my command were four companies (A, D, F, and G) of the Twenty-eighth Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers, three companies (C, I, and K) of the Thirteenth Massachusetts Volunteers, and three companies of the Third Wisconsin Regiment, numbering in all 600 men, and two pieces of cannon, under command of Captain Tompkins, of the Rhode Island Battery, and two pieces of the Ninth New York Battery, under Lieutenant Martin.  About 100 men of the Massachusetts regiment were left on the north side of the Potomac River, and the two pieces of the Rhode Island Battery were placed on the Maryland Heights, one of the New York guns on the railroad opposite Harper’s Ferry, and the other to command the approach from Pleasant Valley, in Virginia, where three companies of rebel cavalry were stationed. The command of all the troops thus left I confided to Major Gould.

The object for which the river had been crossed having been accomplished, on Tuesday night I had determined to recross the river on Wednesday and permit the troops to return to their various regiments; but about 7 o’clock on the morning of the 16th my pickets stationed on the heights above Bolivar, extending from the Potomac to the Shenandoah River, about 2 miles west of Harper’s Ferry, were driven into the town of Bolivar by the enemy, who approached from the west in three columns, consisting of infantry and cavalry, supported by artillery.

I was upon the ground in a few minutes, and rallied my pickets upon the main body of our troops in Bolivar. In a short time the action became general. The advanced guard of the rebels, consisting of several hundred cavalry, charged gallantly towards the upper part of the town, and their artillery and infantry soon took position upon the heights from which my pickets had been driven.  The enemy’s three pieces of artillery were stationed on and near the Charlestown road where it crosses Bolivar Heights.  They had one 32-pounder columbiad, one steel rifled 13-pounder, and one brass 6-pounder, all of which were served upon the troops of my command with great activity, the large gun throwing alternately solid shot, shell, and grape, and the others principally fuse shell.

While these demonstrations were being made in front a large body of men made their appearance upon Loudoun Heights, with four pieces of cannon and sharpshooters stationed at the most eligible points of the mountain, to bombard our troops, and greatly annoy us in the use of the ferry on the Potomac.  The commencement of the firing upon our front and left was almost simultaneous.

In order to prevent the enemy from crossing the Shenandoah, I detached a company of the Thirteenth Massachusetts Regiment, under command of Captain Shriber, for the defense of the fords on that river.  He took position near the old rifle works, and during the action rendered good service there. There then remained under my immediate command about 450 men. With these the fierce charge of the enemy’s cavalry was soon checked and turned back.  A second and a third charge was made by them, increasing in impetuosity with each repetition, during which they were supported, in addition to the artillery, by long lines of infantry stationed on Bolivar Heights, who kept up a continuous firing.  They were repulsed each time with effect. Under this concentrated fire our troops held their position until 11 o’clock, when Lieutenant Martin, by my order, joined me with one rifled cannon which had been placed to cover the ferry, he having crossed the river with it under a galling fire of rifleman from Loudoun Heights.

     I then pushed forward my right flank, consisting of two companies (A and G) of the Twenty-eighth Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers.  They succeeded in turning the enemy’s left near the Potomac, and gained a portion of the heights. At the same time Lieutenant Martin opened a well-directed fire upon the enemy’s cannon in our front, and Captain Tompkins succeeded in silencing some of the enemy’s guns on Loudoun Heights. These services, simultaneously rendered, were of great importance, and the turning of the enemy’s flank being the key to the success of the action, I instantly ordered a general forward movement, which terminated in a charge, and we were soon in possession of the heights from river to river.  There I halted the troops, and from that position they drove the fugitives with a well-directed aim of cannon and small-arms across the valley in the direction of Halltown.  If any cavalry had been attached to my command the enemy could have been cut to pieces, as they did not cease their fight until they reached Charlestown, a distance of 6 miles.

Immediately after the capture of the heights Major Tyndale arrived with a re-enforcement of five companies of my regiment from Point of Rocks, two of which he ordered to report to Major Gould at Sandy Hook, and soon joined me with the others on the field.  The standard of the Twenty-eighth Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers – the flag of the Union – was then unfurled on the soil of Virginia, and planted on an eminence of Bolivar Heights, and under its folds we directed the fire of our artillery against the batteries and forces on Loudoun Heights, and soon succeeded in silencing every gun and driving away every rebel that could be seen.

The victory was complete. The loss of the enemy in killed and wounded is generally conceded to be about 150, which they carried back in wagons and on horses as rapidly as they fell. We took 4 prisoners, among whom is Rev. Nathaniel Green North, chaplain of Colonel Ashby’s command.  He is said to have been present at every battle that has occurred in Virginia. The fine 32-pounder columbiad, mounted on an old-fashioned gun-carriage, was captured, together with a quantity of ammunition for it, consisting of ball, shell, and grape shot, for the transportation of which a wagon was used as a caisson.  These were immediately transferred to the north side of the Potomac, and the gun is placed in position against its late proprietors. One of their small guns used at Bolivar Heights was disabled, having one of the wheels shot from the gun carriage by a well-directed shot from Lieutenant Martin.  They succeeded in dragging it from the field.

Our loss is 4 killed, 7 wounded, and 2 taken prisoners, a list of whom is hereto attached. (Nominal list omitted.) The greater part of the loss occurred in the Wisconsin companies, who gallantly sustained the position of our left flank throughout the contest.  One of the soldiers taken by the enemy was Private Edgar Ross, of Company C, Third Wisconsin Regiment, who was wounded in the action.  The other, Corporal Beniah Pratt, of Company A, Twenty-eighth Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers, was accidentally taken by a few of the enemy, whom he mistook for Massachusetts men, their uniform corresponding in all respects to that of the later. The four men who were killed were afterwards charged upon by the cavalry and stabbed through the body, stripped of all their clothing, not excepting their shoes and stockings, and left in perfect nudity.  One was laid in the form of a crucifixion, with his hands spread out, and cut through the palms with a dull knife. This inhuman treatment incensed my troops exceedingly, and I fear its consequences may be shown in retaliatory acts hereafter.

     I visited the iron foundry at Shenandoah City, and ascertained that it was used by the rebels for casting shot and shell of all kinds. I ordered it to be burned, which was done the same night.*

The acts of individual gallantry are so numerous in the whole command that it would be impossible to give each an appropriate mention, but I do not hesitate to say that every corps behaved with the coolness and courage of veteran troops.

It affords me pleasure to mention that Hon. Daniel McCook, father of General McCook, as an amateur soldier, gun in hand, volunteered and rendered much service during the engagement. I also mention like service rendered by Benjamin G. Owen, esq., of Saint Louis. Both of these gentlemen were greatly exposed during the action.

     I am informed by authority deemed reliable that the enemy’s forces consisted of the following troops, viz: The Thirteenth and Nineteenth Mississippi Regiments, the Eighth Virginia Regiment of Infantry, Colonel Ashby’s regiment of cavalry, and Rogers’ Richmond battery of six pieces and one 32-pounder columbiad, all commanded by General Evans in person.

Bolivar Heights were taken at 1.30 p.m.  I directed our troops to rest there until 12 o’clock at night, when we fired a farewell shot into Halltown, and as there was no longer any necessity to remain on that side of the Potomac, our errand having been crowned with the fullest success, I marched my command to the Ferry, and in five hours it was safely landed in Maryland.  There being no immediate apprehensions of the enemy there, I ordered the Wisconsin companies to report to Colonel Ruger, their commander, in Frederick, and returned to this place with part of my regiment and the two guns of the New York battery, leaving Captain Tompkins’ guns and one company of my own regiment with Major Gould, to guard against any further outbreak.

A flag of truce was sent to me on the morning of the 17th by Colonel Ashby, commander of the rebel cavalry, with a letter dated at Charlestown, inquiring concerning Rev. Mr. North. He stated that, as Mr. North’s horse had gone home wounded, his family feared he had been killed.  The colonel requested that, as he was a non-combatant, he hoped I would release him. The testimony against him from other sources not being quite so satisfactory, I have determined to retain him, and forward him with others to such destination as the general may designate.  I received assurances from the bearer of the flag of truce that Corporal Pratt was well, and that every attention was being given to the wound of Private Edgar Ross, and that he did not consider his case a dangerous one.

On this morning a few of the enemy in citizens’ dress came secretly to Harper’s Ferry, by way of the Shenandoah road, burned Herr’s mill, from which a great portion of the wheat had been taken, and immediately retired.

The foregoing is a correct official statement of the engagement at Bolivar Heights October 16, 1861. 

                                                                                         JNO. W. GEARY

Colonel Twenty-eighth Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers.

Capt. R. Morris Copeland,

           Acting Assistant Adjutant-General.

*NOTE:  Shenandoah City is 3 miles up stream from Harper's Ferry, in Virginia.  The iron foundry Col. Geary ordered burned for making Confederate shot, belonged to Edward W. Miller.  The following information was provided by Harper's Ferry Park Historian David Fox:

 "Edward W. Miller filed a petition of claim on November 14, 1872, for $11,611.01 in damages to several structures in Shenandoah City (National Archives Record Group 217, Records of the U.S. General Accounting Office)." Miller was part owner of SC Mill Property before the war and sole owner as of 1868. He noted 18 buildings in his petition, among them a foundry, 70 x 30, a "total wreck" worth "$700.00, cost to construct of $2,000.00." BUT, the report goes on; "No claim was made for the destruction of the foundry, which had been burnt in1861 by order of General Geary, "when the three months men were there."

Did Miller know he wouldn't get any $$$ for the foundry because of what was made there for the CSA during the war!

Report of Major Jacob Parker Gould, 13th Mass. Vol. Inf.

Map of Bolivar Heights, and Vicinity

The flippant comment "Let Ceasar have his own," at the end of Major Gould's report is reaction to the reports printed in the Baltimore and Philadelphia newspapers.  They are full of comment on the brave Col. Geary and his 28th Pennsylvania Volunteers.  There is little mention of Major Gould, commanding the outpost at Harpers' Ferry.  Gould's letter to Col. Leonard, found later on this page, explains his work at the Ferry.

Official Records (O.R.) of the War of the Rebellion; Series 1; Volume 5.

Report of Maj. J. P. Gould, Thirteenth Massachusetts Infantry.

    SIR:  At your request I write you what I saw and heard on Wednesday, October 16, [1861], the day of the Bolivar skirmish.  On the night previous – a delightful moonlight night – I went out on our line of picket guards, and did not return to the mill till 12 o’clock, when I bunked down in the counting-room and remained till 6 in the morning, when I arose, examined the remaining grain of the mill, the quarters of Company I, Thirteenth Massachusetts, near the mill; quarters of Companies K and C, near the ferry.  I then went upon Camp Hill, and visited all the public buildings where the Wisconsin and the Pennsylvania troops were quartered, and observed all things quiet, and was informed by the officer of the day that all had been quiet during the night.  Captain Bertram had served as officer of the day.

I then came across the river to the Maryland side to supervise the further progress of the boating of the wheat and laying the large cable across, for greater conveniences. Whilst taking breakfast at my quarters I heard a cannonading, and immediately sent an agent to learn of it; the firing was being done by our troops.  I was soon informed that the enemy were advancing.  I sent a telegram to the Point of Rocks to hold all cars in readiness to take troops here. I then repaired to the locks, and gave orders in regard to the boating, laying the cable, and relative to firing the cannon, if opportunity offered.  By order of the colonel, sent for Captain Meyer’s company, and passed over the other side to supervise with regard to arrangements then necessary at the landing.  I then received the order from the colonel to order up Major Tyndale and his force.  I returned and gave this order by telegraph.  At this time, learning that the cavalry were advancing from the woods, I ordered Captain Tompkins’ battery to fire upon them.  Again I passed over to Virginia, and passed most up Camp Hill, when I received an order by the colonel to send over two horses and more ammunition.  This order I returned to execute. While effecting it Major Tyndale came up with his force.  I took the liberty, as I said to him, to order over the river two-thirds of his force. He asked what the exact orders of the colonel were, for he wished to be governed by the colonel’s orders strictly, but afterwards the colonel sent for this part of the force.  Whilst this force and the ammunition were passing the river the rebels fired upon them from the Loudoun Heights by rifle shots.  I ordered one of our iron guns to fire upon them with canister; two shots silenced them.  I ordered one iron gun to play upon the guns on Loudoun Heights, from which they were throwing shells on to and over the mill, with slugs, and I learn that it seemed to have some good effect.  A large body of cavalry was seen in Loudoun, opposite Sandy Hook.  I ordered down half of a company of the Pennsylvania men, and the cavalry dispersed.  The shells were thrown regularly from Loudoun Heights, till their cessation, over the mill and Hall’s Rifle Works, where were posted Company I and part of Company K of the Thirteenth Regiment.

At past 2 o’clock, after the firing from Loudoun Heights had ceased, the colonel ordered over the New York battery.  This order I received while going up Camp Hill to go on to field at Bolivar. The Rhode Island Battery continued to fire until I learned that his shell were falling short of the enemy and among our own men, when I ordered a close.

This comprises what I actually saw at a distance – the retreat and advance of our right.  It seemed to be a premeditated attack.  Indeed, I learn since that it was much of a concerted affair. The names of the killed and wounded I have been unable to obtain.

J. P. GOULD, Major.

Earlier I should have sent this statement; but, besides being quite unwell, there was much necessary and pressing business connected with the closing up of this adventure, every part of which needed my personal attention. But, from the accounts I see in the papers, I infer that there is no Major Gould at this post, and, if here, he is only an intruder; nor had he anything to do with getting the wheat.  Indeed, his name does not occur in a long whole-column article of to-day’s Baltimore paper. Let Caesar have his own.

Most obediently,
                                                                                                       J. P. GOULD.


Report of Captain Henry Bertram, 3rd Wisconsin Infantry, Company A.

The 3rd Wisconsin bore the brunt of the attack and suffered all the casualties. Captain Bertram survived the war.  He became Colonel Bertram of the 20th Wisconsin, later, Brevet Brig-Gen Bertram.

Official Records (O.R.) of the War of the Rebellion; Series 1; Volume 5.

Report of Capt. Henry Bertram, Third Wisconsin Infantry.

 FREDERICK CITY, MD., October 18, 1861.

Colonel Henry Bertram

COLONEL:  I have the honor to report that on the 16th instant, while Company A, Third Regiment Wisconsin Volunteers, under my command, was in quarters at Harper’s Ferry, cannonading was heard early in the morning in the direction of Halltown; and soon after our pickets were driven in by the advancing enemy.  I formed company immediately, and moved out toward Bolivar; was there met by Colonel Geary, who ordered me to protect the left flank and road on the Shenandoah.

In obedience to this, I deployed company as skirmishers, left resting on the Shenandoah, the enemy mean time throwing shells upon us from Loudoun Heights.  Having but limited range of observation, I ascended the hill under which my men were covered, and, reconnoitering, saw a column of the enemy’s infantry, with Confederate colors flying, marching down the road to Bolivar, followed by a corps of artillerymen with a heavy piece of artillery.  On bringing forward my left flank I sent in a galling fire, just as the enemy had planted their cannon, covered by a large brick house from the fire of our battery on the Maryland Heights.  After sustaining our fire for some fifteen minutes the enemy retreated, taking with them their cannon. I followed in pursuit, a heavy ground and deep gully being between me and the enemy.  On coming to the road, I was joined by Lieutenant O’Brien with Company C, Third Regiment Wisconsin Volunteers, and moved on together under a heavy fire from our right and front, and took possession of the brick house, one company of the Thirteenth Massachusetts being in our rear.  After half an hour, the house not affording a favorable position to fire with much effect upon the enemy, we advanced upon the road toward the enemy, who had retreated to a ridge covered with timber; saw the enemy’s cannon in the road; charged upon it with parts of Companies A and C (about 40 men in all).  As we commenced, the enemy attempted to haul off their gun, but in their hasty attempt broke the axle-tree.  As we approached the gun we saw one of the men spiking it and the others left it and sought cover, when a tremendous fire upon us from a masked breastwork compelled us to seek cover.  We sustained and answered the fire for some fifteen minutes, saw our men falling, and were obliged to retreat, closely pursued by the enemy’s cavalry. We rallied, after falling back some 50 rods, and fired upon the enemy’s cavalry, driving them back and covering the retreat of our wounded and those who were aiding them off the field; then slowly retreated to the main body.

Company H, Third Regiment Wisconsin, having joined us, we formed a complete line of skirmishers from Bolivar main street to the Shenandoah, and awaited the arrival of artillery.  At 1 o’clock p.m., the artillery having arrived, we moved the line slowly forward, by command of Colonel Geary, firing as we advanced, at the enemy slowly falling back.  On our arrival at the outskirts of Bolivar we advanced rapidly, the enemy having retreated behind the hill; and passing in our advance the gun which had been disabled, we established our line on Bolivar Heights, the enemy having retreated to a belt of wood about three-quarters of a mile away in the direction of Halltown.  Captured the chaplain of one of the enemy’s regiments and sent him, along with the captured gun, to the ferry, by order of Colonel Geary.

In the charge upon the gun the following-named men of my command were killed and wounded, which was the only losses suffered by us in the action. (List shows 2 killed and 3 wounded).

I take this occasion to make favorable mention of the fearless and judicious conduct of Lieut. Ed. E. Bryant, of Company A, Third Regiment Wisconsin Volunteers, in the action.

I am, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
                                                HENRY BERTRAM,

              Captain, Commanding Company A, Third Reg’t Wis. Vols
Col. JOHN W. GEARY, &c.

Report of Captain George J. Whitman, 3rd Wisconsin Infantry, Company H.

Official Records (O.R.) of the War of the Rebellion; Series 1; Volume 5.

Report of Capt. George J. Whitman, Third Wisconsin Infantry.

I have the honor of making the following report to Colonel Geary, commanding at Harper’s Ferry October 16, 1861:

On the morning of October 9, 1861, at 4 o’clock Company H, with Companies A and C, of the Third Wisconsin Volunteers, left camp at Frederick City, and marched to the Junction, and took the cars for Sandy Hook; arrived there at 8 o’clock a.m.; crossed the river to Harper’s Ferry, and were quartered in Government buildings.  On the morning of the 10th had a slight skirmish with a company of cavalry.  The company was employed in moving wheat across the river and doing picket duty.

October 15, 30 men were detailed to do duty at the mill, and 23, under my command, detailed to act as a reserve, and stationed near the outposts on the Charlestown road.  On the morning of October 16, being officer of the day, went to headquarters, leaving First Sergeant J. T. Marvin in command.  At 7:30 o’clock the pickets were fired upon by the enemy advancing on the Charlestown road.  The reserve went to their support, and joining a company of the Pennsylvania Twenty-eighth, (Captain Copeland), [F], engaged the enemy’s cavalry, firing and falling back through the timber.  During this time the enemy were throwing shell from the hill beyond, which fell in their midst, and their infantry, advancing up the road, cut them off from their camp, and were obliged to leave their overcoats and blankets, which fell into the hands of the enemy.  Advancing up through Bolivar with the rest of the company (Wisconsin), joined by the reserve, deploying to the right and advancing up the hill, intending to flank under the protection of one battery on the other side of the river, but were ordered back to the village by Colonel Geary and then to fall back across the ravine.  Soon after were ordered to take position on the Shenandoah, to cut off the enemy’s advance on our left under continual fire from the enemy’s battery on Loudoun Heights until it was silenced by the battery on Maryland Heights. Remained there until the arrival of the New York Ninth Artillery, when we were ordered to join the line, and advanced to the ridge formerly occupied by our pickets, the enemy retreating over the ridge beyond; lay on our arms until 11 o’clock, when we were ordered back to and across the river.  Marched to Sandy Hook, and remained, waiting for a train to take us to Frederick, until 5.30 p.m.; took the train, and arrived at Frederick at 8 o’clock p.m.  October 17, 1861.

Very respectfully,
                                                                    GEO. J. WHITMAN,

                             Captain Company H, Third Regiment Wisconsin Volunteers.

Report of Lieutenant Moses O'Brien, 3rd Wisconsin Infantry, Company C.

Part of a Harper's Ferry Panoramic dated 1915.

Official Records (O.R.) of the War of the Rebellion; Series 1; Volume 5.

Report of Lieut. Moses O’Brien, Third Wisconsin Infantry.

                                                                                                October 18, 1861.

COLONEL :  I have the honor to report that on the 16th instant the company under my command – Company C, Third Regiment Wisconsin Volunteers – was quartered in town at Harper’s Ferry, and at about 7 o’clock a.m. a cannonading was heard, appearing to emanate beyond the heights known as the Bolivar Heights.  I forthwith ordered the company to prepare for action, and [as] soon as in ranks, I moved out upon the road in the direction of the firing.  Meeting Colonel Geary, was ordered by him to protect the left flank to the right and rearward of Captain Bertram’s Company (A), Third Regiment Wisconsin Volunteers, my right on the Halltown turnpike ; company into skirmish line.  Then, on reconnoitering, I observed a column of infantry and also a squadron of cavalry advancing toward Bolivar from the Shenandoah road, and also another column of infantry and cavalry and a heavy piece of artillery.  The enemy’s right was bearing down towards Captain Bertram.  I then advanced at double-quick to his assistance.  At this time the enemy commenced shelling us from a battery on Loudoun Heights.  The enemy gained the outskirts of the town of Bolivar and planted their gun behind a large brick house, well covered from our batteries, and supported by a large force of infantry.  I opened fire upon them just as they began [to] retreat from the house under a heavy fire from Captain Bertram; then advanced, and my line connected with Captain Bertram, as we gained possession of the brick house.  The enemy opened a heavy cross-fire upon us as we advanced upon the house from our right and front, their skirmishers being deployed along and behind a ridge northward of Bolivar.  Our musketry not having effect upon the enemy from the cover of the brick house, we deployed again to the left, and advanced along the turnpike toward the enemy.  Advancing, observed their gun planted ahead of us in the road and watched by artillerists; charged upon it, in concert with Captain Bertram, which the enemy perceiving, endeavored in haste to haul off their gun.  In so doing the axle-tree was broken, and they were forced to leave after spiking.

As we drew near the gun, the enemy being strongly intrenched to our right upon the ridge, opened upon us a terrible fire of musketry and rifle, under which we were forced to seek shelter of trees and hillocks and to lie upon our faces.  Not being supported, and the right flank not closing in to dislodge [the] enemy, we fell back out of the fire.  As we commenced retreat, the enemy’s cavalry dashed upon us, almost surrounding a portion of our small force.  I saw their danger, and ordered [the] foremost in retreat to rally to repel cavalry and cover [the] flight of our men.  They did so gallantly, and poured a volley into the cavalry that threw into confusion and drove them from the field, several saddles empty.  We then retreated into Bolivar upon main body, and held our ground under cannonade from enemy from Loudoun Heights and from high ridge beyond the town.  We waited the arrival of artillery, which came to our assistance. We then advanced in skirmish line toward enemy by Colonel Geary’s command. The enemy fled back under the fire of our artillery, and we advanced rapidly upon their position, they falling behind the ridge.  In our advance we passed the gun the enemy could not remove, and occupied the position on the ridge.  The enemy fell back upon Halltown, and were out of sight.

In our advance upon the brick house, Private Steward E. Mosher, Company C, was killed; and in the charge upon the gun, Private Henry Raymond, Company C, was killed, and Corporal George Gray and Corporal William H. Foster, of Company C, were each wounded in the leg, and Private Edgar Ross, of Company C, was wounded and taken prisoner, and Private Thomas Hader, Company C, slightly wounded in the leg, which comprise the whole loss of my command.

I was the only commissioned officer in the company.  My men behaved gallantly, evincing great bravery and coolness under galling fire.

I am, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
                                                            MOSES O’BRIEN,
                              First Lieutenant of Company C, Third Wisconsin Volunteers.

Col. JOHN W. GEARY, &c.

Report of Lieutenant J. W. Martin, Commanding Battery K, 9th Regt. N.Y.S.M.

     The following report was extracted from the book "Diary of American Events" by Frank Moore.  The notation indicates it may come from the O.R., Series I, Volume 3, but I am not sure of this.

Point Of Rocks, Md., Oct. 17.

Captain T. B. Bunting, Commanding Light
Battery K, Ninth Regiment N. Y. S. M.:

Vol. III.—Doc. 16

I have the honor to submit for your consideration the following report of an engagement which occurred at Harper's Ferry and Bolivar, Virginia, on Wednesday, 16th instant:

On Sunday, 13th instant, I received orders at six P. M. from Col. Geary, commanding this post, to hold the section under my command in readiness to march at a moment's notice. At eleven p. m. we left this post by railroad, and arrived at Sandy Hook at one o'clock on Monday morning, 14th inst.  I should here mention that the order for the moving of the entire section was afterward so changed as to refer to one piece only, without caisson.  As soon as possible after arriving at Sandy Hook, the piece (the one throwing the Hotchkiss projectile) was  placed in battery, commanding Loudon Heights and raking the road running along the base of those mountains.  Although an attack was expected on the forces, consisting of companies of the Twenty-eighth regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers, of the Third regiment Wisconsin Volunteers, and of the Thirteenth regiment Massachusetts Volunteers, who, under the personal supervision of Colonel Geary, were removing stores of wheat from Herr's mills, situated on Shenandoah Street, in Harper's Ferry, every thing remained quiet, and no anticipations of an immediate action were entertained until Tuesday evening, when Col. Geary sent me orders to be particularly on the alert. The night passed away quietly, however. On Wednesday morning at eight o'clock, heavy cannonading and sharp musketry fire in the direction of Bolivar Heights told us that work was at hand. A battery of four guns, stationed on Loudon Heights, also opened with shell.  This was immediately replied to, and subsequently silenced, by a section of the Rhode Island First battery, which, on Monday morning, 14th inst., had been withdrawn from its position at Bolivar and stationed on Maryland Heights. At half-past nine A. M. an order from Col. Geary arrived to take my piece immediately over the river and report to him.  Previous to doing so, by order of Major Gould, of the Thirteenth Massachusetts Volunteers, I had telegraphed to Point of Rocks for the balance of the section. While crossing the river a brisk fire was opened on us by riflemen stationed on Loudon Heights, but happily doing no injury. We immediately passed up the street, which runs in almost a direct line from the destroyed Government buildings to Bolivar Heights, under a scorching fire of shell, canister, and Spherical-case shot, which the enemy poured in upon us from a thirteen-pound rifled gun and an iron thirty-two-pounder, stationed on the street running around Bolivar Heights.  The enemy's aim was remarkably accurate, not one of their projectiles striking more than twenty feet from us while coming into battery; one of their shells fell but two feet in front of the lead horses of the gun, and simultaneously another passed over the ammunition chest on the limber. While loading for the first time an unexploded canister passed just over the piece and between the cannoniers.

After taking our position in the middle of the street, we opened a sharp fire on the enemy with shell; and news reaching Col. Geary, who was but a few paces from us on our right, that the enemy were falling back, he ordered me to advance, firing as we did so. We moved forward about one hundred and fifty yards, when the order to cease firing and move forward to Bolivar Heights reached me.  On our movements to that point we passed the thirty-two-pound gun (which I subsequently ascertained we silenced on our second round, the shell striking and exploding on the axle-body of the carriage) in possession of the infantry, and on which Col. Geary was writing his first despatch.

As soon as we made our appearance on the brow of the hill the enemy again opened on us with shell from the rifled gun, which they had posted on the Halltown road, at a point where it enters and is screened by the dense woods through which it passes. The third shell from our gun struck their piece on the face of the muzzle, and glancing, tore away the entire wheel, effectually silencing the piece.  The enemy's cavalry were easily to be discerned in the woods; but a few shell soon dispersed them.  Being notified that the other gun of the section was coming up the street, Col. Geary ordered me to meet it, and take a position near the Shenandoah, where I could bear upon Loudon Heights on the battery stationed there, and on the infantry stationed in the woods on the heights.  I threw five shells, without, however, meeting with any response. The gun was then ordered to Bolivar Heights, with the rest of the section.  At eleven o'clock p. m. I was ordered to throw a shell into Halltown and immediately march to the river—the firing of the gun being the signal for the remainder of the forces to fall into the line of march.  Four hours were consumed in transporting the section over the Potomac, the only facility for crossing being on scow, guided by cables stretched from bank to bank.

The men under my command acted nobly and untiringly, both during the action and whilst we were transporting the section.  They had no food nor rest for twenty-four hours; but with the entire force, as well, I heard nothing like complaint.  It was the hour for the morning meal when the transportation of the section was completed, and, after tasting their first food since the preceding morning, they were called to their guns, on attack being looked for from the Loudon road.  At twelve o'clock M. to-day I received orders to return by rail to this place, and arrived here at four o'clock, and they are now enjoying the first rest which they have had since Tuesday night, the 15th instant.—I feel it my duty to mention the different effects produced by the James and Hotchkiss shell before I close. The Hotchkiss was used entirely during that part of the action before the enemy finally retreated.  The James was that used in shelling Loudon Heights.  The former did not fail in producing the effect desired but once, and that was caused by a failure to explode, and not by any separation of the leaden band from the projectile.  The latter, (the James,) however, in this as well as other actions—at Pritchard's Mills, Berlin, and Point of Rocks, at which I have used them, and the results of which I have reported to you heretofore—worked very badly. Of the five shells that I threw at the enemy on Loudon, two failed to explode; and, as an instance of what great deviation is caused by the lead flying off from the shell, which is always the case with this projectile, I need only remark that, with the same elevation, one shell struck half way up the mountain, the other clean over it. The leaden band would sometimes leave the projectile whole, and at others would fly off in small pieces—in one case not ten feet from the gun.  You will at once see how little reliance can be placed on these shot and shell.

In concluding this hastily written report, I have to remark that I fired thirty Hotchkiss shell and five James shell, a total of thirty-five rounds, and that we came off the field and arrived at this post with no damage to either men, horses, or pieces.

I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant

J. W. Martin,
Lieut. Commanding Sect. Battery K.
Ninth Regiment N. Y. S. M.

Confederate Lt. Colonel Turner Ashby's Report.

View to Bolivar Hill with HF Gap beyond

Pictured is Bolivar Hill, center middle-ground, with the Gap of Harper's Ferry Beyond, from the turnpike to Charlestown  This is the approach as Lt-Col. Ashby would have viewed it.  Maryland Heights is on the left, and Loudoun Heights is on the right.  Photograph taken August 2nd 1884 by Thomas D. Biscoe and Walter S. Biscoe.  SMU Golyer Library Digital Collection.

Official Records (O.R.) of the War of the Rebellion; Series 1; Volume 5.

Report of Lieut. Col. Turner Ashby, C.S. Army.

CAMP EVANS, NEAR HALLTOWN, VA., October 17, 1861.

MY DEAR SIR:  I herewith submit the result of an engagement had with the enemy on yesterday (the 16th) at Bolivar Hill.  The enemy occupying that position have for several days been committing depredations in the vicinity of their camp.  Having at my disposal only 300 militia, armed with flint-lock muskets, and two companies of cavalry (Captains Turner’s and Mason’s) of Colonel McDonald’s regiment, I wrote to General Evans to co-operate with me, taking position upon Loudoun Heights, and thereby prevent re-enforcement from below, and at the same time to drive them out of the Ferry, where they were under cover in the buildings.

On the evening of  the 15th I was re-enforced by two companies of Colonel McDonald’s regiment (Captain Wingfield’s), fully armed with Minie rifles, and mounted; Captain Miller’s, about 30 men mounted, the balance on foot, armed with flint-lock guns.  I had one rifled 4-pounder gun, one 24-pounder gun badly mounted, which broke an axle in Bolivar, and I had to spike it.  My force upon the morning of the attack consisted of 300 militia, part of two regiments commanded by Colonel Albert, of Shenandoah, and Major Finer, of Page.  I had 180 of Colonel McDonald’s cavalry (Captain Henderson’s men), under command of Lieutenant Glynn; Captain Baylor’s mounted militia; Captain Hess, about 25 each.  The rifled gun was under command of Captain Avirett, the 24-pounder under Captain Comfield.

I made the attack in three divisions, and drove the enemy from their breastworks without loss of a man, and took position upon the hill, driving the enemy as far as Lower Bolivar. There the large gun broke down, and this materially affected the result.  The detachment from the large gun was transferred to the rifled piece, and Captain Avirett was sent to Loudoun Heights with message to Colonel Griffin.

The enemy now formed and charged with shouts and yells, which the militia met like veterans. At this moment I ordered a charge of cavalry, which was handsomely done, Captain Turner’s in the lead. In this charge 5 of the enemy were killed.  After holding this position for four hours the enemy were re-enforced by infantry and artillery, and we fell back in order to the position which their pickets occupied in the morning.  The position which Colonel Griffin held upon Loudoun was such as to be of very little assistance to us, not being so elevated as to prevent them from controlling the crossing.

My main force is now at Camp Evans, while I hold all the intermediate ground. The enemy left the Ferry last night, and are encamped upon the first plateau on Maryland Heights.

My loss is 1 killed and 9 wounded. Report from the Ferry states the loss of the enemy at 25 killed and a number wounded.  We have 2 Yankee prisoners and 8 Union men co-operating with them.  We took a large number of blankets, overcoats, and about one dozen guns.

I cannot compliment my officers and men too highly for their gallant bearing during the whole fight, considering the bad arms with which they were supplied and their inexperience.  I cannot impress too forcibly the necessity of perfect organization of my artillery and the forwarding at a very early day of the other guns promised. These guns are drawn by horses obtained for the occasion, and are worked by volunteers.  We are in want of cavalry arms and long-range guns, and would be glad to have an arrangement made to mount my men.

I herewith submit Surgeon West’s report, (NOT FOUND) and cannot compliment him too highly, and respectfully submit his name as one worthy of an appointment. He is temporarily employed by me as a surgeon.

Casualties:  Wounded, 13.

            Your obedient servant,
                                    TURNER ASHBY,
            Lieutenant-Colonel, C.S. Army, Comdg. In Jefferson County.

Hon. Mr. Benjamin, Acting Secretary of War.

P.S. – I am without ammunition for rifled cannon (4-pounder rifled to Parrott), also without friction primers.  I am without a regular quartermaster, and consequently have my movements greatly embarrassed.  If I am to continue with this command I would be glad to have the privilege to recommend for appointment, so that I can organize according to what I believe most efficient condition.

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Bolivar Heights; Letters from Company C

1862 Photo of Company C.

Company C at Williamsport, Md. photographed by George Crosby, Co. F.  This photo was in W.H. Forbush's diary.

This first battle made an impression on the boys of Company C, 13th Mass., who participated in the charge through Bolivar with the Wisconsin companies.  Boston Newspapers printed some descriptions of the battle from correspondents' letters home.

Boston Saturday Evening Gazette, October 26th 1861.

October 26, 1861.

(Letter transcriptions taken from the now defunct web-site "Letters of the Civil War").


            Sandy Hook, Oct. 17th, 1861

In my last I gave you an account of Co. C’s battle; to-day I am able to give you the particulars of the hard fought battle of yesterday, in which Co. C figured largely.  About 7 A.M. we heard the booming of the rebel guns driving in our outposts, and our company was soon formed awaiting orders.  Col. Geary came dashing down ordering us forward to the centre, which was the town of Bolivar.  We moved up the turnpike, meeting one of the Wisconsin and one of the Philadelphia companies retreating. We moved steadily on.  Lieut. Jackson urged us, as we marched forward, to remember that now was the time for Massachusetts to show herself, and to do our duty.

When we arrived at the square, we saw the rebels entering the town.  We were immediately deployed and ordered to cover ourselves as much as possible.  In a moment we opened fire upon them from behind fences, houses, trees, stones, and every conceivable cover.  We steadily advanced, being supported by two companies that had before retreated. On, on we went, pouring in the deadly hail, the enemy slowly retreating before us, until, finally, they broke and fled into the woods.  There they rallied.

We had advanced beyond the town, and they answered our fire in good earnest.  We were ordered to move back under the cover of houses.  The rebels then gave a cheer and advanced upon us, their infantry on the turnpike, supported by cavalry on their right flank.  We slowly retreated before them, until we came to a cross street with a brick house on either corner.  We were ordered to enter the houses and fire from the windows, as we must make a stand there.  Just then Twitchell was wounded in the elbow, and Lieut. Jackson, sheathing his sword, took his gun, prepared to make it tell.  We made our stand, and poured a deadly fire into the infantry.  They had their flag flying, and were advancing in column.  Our bullets told every time, and they began to waver.  They then turned and fled into the woods. The cavalry were met by Co. A of the Wisconsin regiment, who were just coming up.  They also turned and fled, and the Wisconsin boys with a cheer followed them, our company with answering cheers joining in the pursuit.  I thought the day was ours, when a most withering fire came from the woods, and we were forced to fall back to our former position.  The Wisconsin company was considerably cut up, but we escaped, with the single exception of Corporal Stimpson, who was wounded in the foot by a musket ball.  It was a miracle that no more were not hurt, for the bullets seemed to fill the air, and lodged in the fences and houses all about us. Then there was a lull in the battle, which did not last long.  The infantry started out again and engaged us, while the cavalry tried to outflank us.  The enfields began to speak again, and Co. A, Pennsylvania, engaged the cavalry on our right flank, while the Wisconsin boys held the left.  The Colonel came riding up telling us to hold on a little longer, for reinforcements were coming.  We gave a cheer and drove the enemy to the woods, where they ceased firing upon us, and we were glad enough to rest.  They then began to shell us, the missiles skipping down the street.  We only laughed at them. They fired some twenty rounds at us, which were harmless, when were heard the rattling of chains coming up the street.  It was our cannon and reinforcements.  We gave a cheer and the gun spoke for itself.  We were then deployed, our left resting on the gun, our right swung around to sweep the woods.  Their gun was silenced by the second discharge from our own, and we steadily advanced.  Closing upon their center they retreated before us, and the day was ours.  We saluted our victory with three rousing cheers.

We were then ordered to half-left wheel, double quick, and as we came upon the brow of the hill we saw them leave across the valley. We gave them a parting volley, rallied upon the centre, and were first upon the ground the enemy had held.  We gave three more cheers, which made the woods ring out a merry peal.  The gun was immediately advanced and poured destruction upon the retreating columns.  They left a 24-pounder upon the field and a wagon load of ammunition.  The fight lasted eight hours by the watch, and we burnt on an average forty ounces of powder !

The Colonel said he had been in fifteen battles and never saw so hot as one before.  Several times it looked blue enough.  There we were, three companies of infantry fighting six times our number, and they supported by cavalry and artillery.  Our boys fought like tigers; not one backed down; every one did his best.  I have since learned that there were 2000(?) infantry, 500 cavalry and three pieces of artillery- one rifled, one smooth, and the smooth 24 – pounder which we took.  It is no wonder we had to fight, and the greatest wonder is how we held our own.  They also had artillery on Loudoun Mountain, it kept pouring in shot and shell upon us, and at one time our own artillery on Maryland Heights shelled us, as we were falling back, thinking we were the enemy.

There were many side scenes. Stimpson had a hand – to – hand fight with one of the cavalry, who he bayoneted, illustrating the bayonet drill in which the company has been exercised.  Corporal Marshall was chased by a mounted officer while he was assisting one of the wounded Wisconsin boys off.  The officer proved to be Col. Ashby, the commander of the rebels, which accounted for the lull in the battle alluded to.  We have since learned the he was not killed, but will probably have to keep in the house for some time.  There were many other similar scenes.

We have heard there were 150 of them killed and wounded.  The enfield rifle is the piece that tells.  I heard one of the rebels exclaim, “I wish to God we had their guns!”  We found the men they had killed in their charge upon the Wisconsin Co. A, stripped and stabbed through and through with bayonets. That is the way they desecrated the dead.  So much for the chivalrous Virginians !  We vowed vengeance if we ever meet with them again.

We camped upon the field, lying down just as we were, and it needed no rocking to put us to sleep.  At midnight we were aroused, and ordered to move over the river.  As we heard the enemy had received large reinforcements we took their gun with us, and it is now ready to vent its spite upon its former master.

Twitchell and Stimpson are the only two hurt, and the doctor says they are not very seriously.  The Wisconsin boys suffered most.  They had six killed, ten wounded, and one is missing.  Companies I and K were not engaged, and did not burn a cartridge.  They were on the Shenandoah.  As we gathered around our camp-fires, almost every one having a bullet mark upon his clothes to show, I could not help thanking the God of Battles for his mercy towards us.  It seems more like a dream than a reality, as I look back over the scenes of yesterday.  The 16th of October will long be remembered by us all.  It was just the end of three months service;  a kind of quarterly settlement, and the Paymaster came to-day to balance accounts and make our previously useless pocket-books once more serviceable.  It is doubly a settlement day, for we settled the account of the rebels and the United States settled ours, but in a very far more pleasing to us and our poor washerwomen, who has been looking for that never coming next week, until she, like ourselves, began to think it was the next week after never.


* Corporal Stimpson is the correspondent of the Boston Saturday Evening Gazette, who writes over the signature "Gaspard."

Boston Daily Courier, October 22, 1861

October 22, 1861.

(Letter transcriptions taken from the now defunct web-site "Letters of the Civil War").


                Harper’s Ferry, Oct. 17, 1861.

Dear Father:
    As you probably received the news of the Battle we have just had at Bolivar, I write to inform you that I was in it, and came out of it without even a flesh wound.  We went at it early in the morning, and were under fire all day.

The town (or village) of Bolivar is situated in a hollow, and the enemy occupied the wooded heights on all sides, except the rear.  When the battle commenced, we had nearly two hundred and fifty men, all told, and in the end of the contest five hundred, having been reinforced during the fight.  The enemy had the 2d Mississippi Rifles, with five hundred calvary and seven hundred reserve, and three heavy pieces of artillery. But with our little force, it was “Victory or Death,” for we could not retreat, and as we charged up the streets, the Minnie balls, shot and shell were whistling about our ears and bursting over our heads and among us.

But we didn’t mind the shot and shells, for we could hear and see them coming, and dodge them, especially the round shot, which were fired at us from Loudon Heights. – for the guns from which they were fired were about a mile off, and the force of the balls was nearly spent when they reached us.  And we could see, by the same which hung to them, about where they would strike.  It was the Minnie balls that did about all the mischief, and, as we, Co. C, ran up the street to gain the shelter of a brick house, these Minnie balls whistled about our heads, and pattered about the houses and fences like hailstones.  It seemed as though the hands of Providence was in it, that no more of us fell.

I found one poor fellow who had been shot, and after he was dead, had been stripped of all his clothing and then stabbed three of four times in the breast, with bayonets, otherwise hacked up!

While some of us were behind a brick house, firing as we could get chances, a fellow got too far around the corner when a bullet took him right in the heart, and he fell and stiffened out and died without a groan.  Just after that, a company of calvary rode passed, “in grand style,” and we gave them the honor of a “salute,” that emptied a good many of their saddles.

Under cover of the woods, we took a thirty-two pounder of the enemy.  It was a splendid victory.  We occupied the ground that night, and this morning recrossed over to the Maryland side of the river; and as the enemy have been largely reinforced, we are expecting every moment to be shelled out of this place.

Our lost in the battle is four killed outright, two missing and nine wounded.  The loss of the enemy, estimated by a woman who saw the bodies of the dead and wounded, that were carried past her house, was not less than 150.

Thinking it might be interesting to you, I have thus given you a little account of this battle.

                Your son,

Chelsea Telegraph and Pioneer, November 9, 1861

November 9, 1861.

(Letter transcriptions taken from the now defunct web-site "Letters of the Civil War").

November 9, 1861.


HISTORY OF A SECESSION BULLET.Corporal George Marshall, Co. C

Was probably stolen from one of Uncle Sam’s arsenals, and fired by a  traitor from a purloined rile, also the property of our loyal uncle; it was aimed at the life of Corporal Marshall, of Company C, 13th Regt. Mass. Volunteers, (Corporal George E. Marshall, pictured, right) while gallantly fighting for his country at the battle of Bolivar; but, instead of tearing the flesh or drinking the blood of the brave soldier, it stuck his invulnerable rifle, and became flattened on one side of its cone; then, glancing off from the corporal’s rifle, it passed through the edge of Serg’t Sanderson’s cap, and, striking a stone, fell, by  the law of gravitation, like a Confederate bond, buried in secession mud.  It was picked up by private Seabury, and has been sent home by Corporal Marshall, together with several other trophies of the fight (such as Odd Fellows’ Regalias, saddlebags of a certain Dr. Claggett, surgeon in a rebel regiment), and is now on the editor’s table, a very harmless piece of lead. All of which aforesaid history is certified by Lieut. Jackson, Comm. Co. C, 13th Reg’t. M.V.

Addenda. – We learn that Corporal Marshall was, previous to the war, a conductor on the Chelsea Horse Railroad.  During the engagement above referred to, Col. Ashby, a S. Carolinian, attempted to cut down Corp. M. with sword; but his trusty rifle saved his life a second time, by bringing the rebel officer to the ground, corpse. 

Letter of Captain Jackson, Company C, to Colonel Leonard.

Captain Jackson and Company C, were the first local heroes of the regiment; lauded for their participation in the “Battle of Bolivar Heights;” the first engagement between Confederate troops and the '13th Mass.'  The camp at Williamsport was named “Camp Jackson” in their honor. 

     At Williamsport, Austin Stearns of Company K, wrote,

"Company C were the lions of the hour, not enough could be said in their praise.  Chaplain Gaylord preached on the following Sabbath, [Nov. 3rd] taking for his text Co. C.   He could hardly find words to express the fullness of his love and gratitude for that noble company.  "I thank God for Co. C.," he said; not a word did he utter about I and K, who had labored hard and exposed their lives in an equal degree with the favored company.  The reason for this was [that] we did not belong to the "Fourth Batt."  That fever was raging very hard at this time.

 Capt. Jackson writes Colonel Leonard about the performance of his company at the battle.

"GLC03393.22  W.A. Jackson to Colonel Leonard, 21 October 1861.  (The Gilder Lehrman Collection. Not to be reproduced without written permission.)"

W.  H.  Jackson
Sandy Hook
 Oct 21, 1861

My Dear Col.Lieut. William H. Jackson, Co. C.
        I am happy that you are pleased with the manner in which, we conducted ourselves on the 16th, long to be remembered to all who participated in that hard fought Battle.  My boys behaved more like old veterans than raw troops. Not one of them flinched, and at one time we made an advance through an open field under the direct fire of the enimy.  Everyone, loaded and fired the same as on drill, our Cool dareing, struck terror into the enimy, for the moment we opened fire they fled like sheep.   They can’t stand our enfileds.  I heard one esclaim I wish to God we had their guns.  Would’nt we lick them.  At one time it did’nt seem possible for us to hold them (the Rebels) in check.  They advanced upon us Infantry in the Centre Colors flying, (The first rebel flag I have seen flying), on the right the Cavalry, on the left the Artillery.  1.24 to 1.6 to Smooth 1.68 rifles the Manner they moved showed they were determined.  We waited until they were about 100 yds off when the enfields began to speak from every window, post, tree, corner, stone, and even some of my boys laying flat in the street, they wavered, the officers tried to encourage them to advance. But no they turned and fled.  The Cavalry seeing the infantry retreating and Co A Wis empting the saddles rapidly, they turned and fled also, and the way the Artillery left double quick would have pleased you.  We advanced up to the edge of the woods when a most terrific fire poured out, we all layed flat upon our faces, if we had stood up, their would have been some recruiting to do in Company C.  We gradually fell back into the town, as we found our rifles were best at long range.  We could shoot them when they could not hit for the simple reason that most of them had the old flint musket which fired 1 bullet & 3 buck shot and would not kill at over a hundred yards while our own would kill them at five hundred.  I have not the space to go into further details  Suffice it to say that it was little hotter than is healthy for a man of my build, this laying on our faces and firing is a new tactic to the Southerners, they thought they had killed us when we layed down but soon found their mistake.  I must speak of our last advance because it was good. When the cannon arrived the Col ordered me to take the right.  I deployed my men on left file, and advanced my right making a faster step which gave the Company a slow left-wheel the left only advancing as the Cannon did.  The Wisconsin boys, did the same on the left and three of Col Gearys Comps (companies) which had just arrived the Centre. When we had advanced with the piece within two hundred yds of the enimy I gave a left- wheel double quick.  Away went the enimy, three cheers they are retreating said I, and we made the woods ring with the Merry Sound, still pouring our deadly hail into the retreating Columns.

I then rallied on Centre, and advanced double quick and won the field.  Company on the ground the enimy had so recently occupied.

(digital transcription by Brad Forbush).

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Major Gould & Colonel Geary

John White Geary    Colonel Leonard placed Major Gould in command of the 13th Mass. detachments (C, I & K) at Sandy Hook.  Gould reported directly to Major General Nathaniel Banks, Department Commander, at Darnestown, and considered his post an independent command.  But Colonel John W. Geary of the 28th Pennsylvania Regiment commanded all Union troops between Point of Rocks, Md., and Antietam Ford.  This included Major Gould’s detachment, which put the Major in an embarrassing position. 

Jacob Parker Gould     He saw Colonel Geary as an ambitious self-promoter, and a headline grabber.  The Baltimore and Philadelphia newspapers championed Geary and his regiment, the 28th  PA Vol. Inf., in all stories covering this region.  Major Gould and his troops are nominally mentioned.  Thus, there is the reference in Major Gould’s report on the skirmish at Bolivar Heights to “let Caesar have his own.”  Notwithstanding the brave Major’s opinion, Colonel Geary’s accomplishments were impressive.

In 1856, at age 36, Geary was appointed Governor of ‘Bloody Kansas.’  In three months time, using Federal troops, he was able to put an end to the bushwhacking & murder prevalent in that territory since 1854.  Prior to this appointment he was the first mayor of San Francisco.  There he performed a similar task in bringing order to the streets of that city where vigilante gangs roamed freely.  In the Mexican War he led a charge at Chapultepec.  Perhaps it was these accomplishments that brought him so much newspaper attention in the fall of 1861 as Colonel of the 28th Pennsylvania Volunteers.

In the following letter Major Gould expresses his dissatisfaction with the chain of command to Colonel Leonard.

Letter of Major Gould to Colonel Leonard

"GLC03393.04  Major Gould to colonel Leonard, 23 October 1861.  (The Gilder Lehrman Collection.  Not to be reproduced without written permission.)"

Harpers Ferry Locks Md.
Oct. 23, 1861

Col. Samuel H. Leonard,

     I have received letters by the hand of Lieut. Brown and by Mail.

     The news of the Edwards Ferry Battle yesterday much affected us.  Col. Geary’s Command was ordered to the Point of danger.  He left four Companies on picket for his whole line, and one Company of my command to replace his at Knoxville.  I have ordered C. Co. down there, And that Co. went on picket thru last night in part, So that my little force here is much extended.

     I have as yet no intimation that the line of general Command here is to be changed.  Tho Col. G. ordered me to picket to Knoxville, I have done so in obedience to his orders.  Since I have been here I have received some orders from you and have deemed my duty to report our condition as a corps to you.  Col. Geary has required a daily report to him, of all things seen, heard and done, and he has given most of my orders.  Gen. Banks has asked me to report to him and he has sent me quite frequent orders.  During the Wheat season, that is during our harvesting, he required me to report to him daily.  He gave me the orders to take the grain after I had informed him that it was there.  Col. G. knew nothing of it.  And he did not come up here till Monday morning, when the Wheat had been mostly bro’t over.  Gen. Banks has sent me orders as tho this was a distinct Military Post.  It ought to be, - but Col. G. has called it a detachment under his especial Charge.

     I am now the only field officer between Antietam and above and below Point of Rocks.  For the reason that this has not been a Post by itself really, it has been very embarrassing.   Should this section be placed in your division it would be much better, save that from the surface of Country it is now naturally connected with the down river department.  If you had telegraph connected with Frederick, you could communicate here, and vs. for I have a machine and operator at my Hed Quarters.

     My rations are to be drawn from Col. Geary’s Quartermaster still, Altho the camp there is broken up.

     The most that I can say about this post is, that it has been a very busy one.  I have worked constantly at the business of it for three weeks for from 16 to 20 hours per day.  The men have worked hard and nobely and uncomplainingly.  With regard to who wants our glory and credit, I would say you are aware there are two classes of men in our little world.   One goes quietly and faithfully to the performance of his duties.  Another blusters about, and sets all sails, imagines that his presence sustains the world, and that everybody else puffs to fill his sails.  If one half of what is said in the Newspapers were true, this is certainly a great country we live in.

     I merely say to this, what I have said before, deliver me from much Newspaper comment.  Yet every man should have his due.  ‘Give to Ceasar the things that are Ceasars.’

    I take the liberty to say that the battle was won by the hard laber of the Wisconsin boys and the Mass men.  The Pa. men inclined to fall back.  And but for our men the battle would have been lost.  And yet the papers speak only of the Pa.  No one of the 13th had anything to do with it. 

     Who was ordered to take the grain, and metals, who did the work, and made the necessary arrangements. Who fought of the day of battle – who stood a shelling from Loudon Heights for several hours, who had command of all the Artillery.

     Who was it that didn’t fall back.  Where were the killed and wounded?  A correct answer to these questions would solve the whole question of the fight.  And yet I was getting over some wheat on the next day, and the next day and had the Confederates not come in on the morning they did, I should have removed all I had intended to remove.  I only employed citizens at the mill after the day of battle.  I should suppose that on that day when the Confederates came in the second time, that some body would have claimed the credit and yet rebels were beaten off from doing their hellish designs.  Who did it then.  A brave man should…

(The last part of this letter is unfortunately missing from the collection.)

There is some truth to Major Gould’s allegations of headline grabbing, for Lieutenant Charles B. Fox of Company K complained about the same thing in a letter to his father.  Oddly enough, Fox thought Major Gould might be guilty of this same behavior.  More likely it was Captain Shriber seeking to make a name for himself in the papers.  The Philadelphia Inquirer article, October 3rd, (posted above in the John Brown Bell section of this page)  is probably what set off the ire of Lt. Fox and his men.  The following article of Sept. 17, regarding the Pritchard's Mill engagement,  relates to that which  Major Gould complained.

The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 17, 1861

September 17, 1861.

Affairs On The Lower Potomac

     Colonel Geary Repulses a Rebel Attack.

     Point of Rocks, Sept. 15 – About three o’clock this afternoon a force of five hundred Rebels attacked a portion of the troops under Colonel Geary, stationed about three miles above Harper’s Ferry.  Colonel Geary commanded in person, and the fight lasted about three hours.

     The enemy were driven from every house and breastwork, and no less than seventy-five of them are reported as killed and wounded.

     Our loss is one killed and a few slightly wounded.  Our troops behaved like veterans.  Companies B, D, and I of the Twenty-eighth Pennsylvania Regiment, and two companies of  the Thirteenth Massachusetts, were engaged in the conflict.

During the fight a Rebel was seen taking aim at Col. Geary, when the Colonel grasped a rifle from a soldier, and shot him on the spot. Our troops are in fine spirits.

Col. Geary’s Official Despatch.

(digital transcription by Brad Forbush).

Letter of Lieutenant Charles B. Fox, October 6th, 1861.

     Charles Barnard Fox to Rev. Thomas Bayley Fox, letterbook, 6 October 1861, Fox Family Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society; used with permission.

Harper’s Ferry Lock Oct. 6th/61.

Reports are made to Col. Leonard without names and I presume he has no idea whether I have been working myself sick – which is about the case – or whether I have loafed all the time.  There is a regular system of puffing here which I will have nothing to do with.  Friday the Baltimore Clipper had an article, written probably at the hint of some officer, claiming for Co. I, Capt Schriber, and Maj. Gould, the credit for seizing the cannon at this Post and the erection of breastworks and defences.  Major Gould was hardly once at the Post, in fact part of the time he was not in command, Capt Schriber selected some of the sites for the defenses and some I recommended and he concurred in, but four fifths of the work, including all the earthwork and the two principal breastworks, was done by Co. K.  the guns were taken and moved by Co. K, and are now worked by them, and all this, with the exception of moving one of the guns, under my direction.    Some of our men were mad enough especially when the same thing appeared in a Frederick City paper, and wanted me to correct it.  I told them that I should remain a 2d Lieut. to eternity, if I could not get reputation except by publishing through myself or friends that I had simply done my duty -  Skirmishes here are magnified into battles in print, be-[cause] Captains wish to be Colonels or Colonels – Brigadiers.  Next accounts, and the whole vanishes.  Don’t think that this troubles me at all.  I laugh in my sleeve at it, but just such things keep us this side of the Potomac.

Colonel Geary did indeed make a name for himself during the war, becoming first, an impressive fighting General and after the war, Governor of Pennsylvania.  Major Gould and Lieutenant Fox continued to serve their country quietly & honorably; Major Gould eventually sacrificed his life for the cause in July 1864, when he was Col. Gould of the  59th Mass. Vol. Inf. 

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Three Captains

        It is interesting to note that each of the three detached companies, C, I, & K, soon had new captains appointed.  Captain John Kurtz of Company C, was the first to resign, to accept a Colonel's commission with the 23rd Mass. Vol. Inf.  He resigned September 25th, while the company was at Monocacy.  First Lieutenant William Jackson, of the same company, replaced Kurtz as captain.  He quickly earned glory and respect at the Battle of Bolivar Heights. His captain's commission was quickly approved.

     I've already described Captain R. C. Shriber.  He left the company for a staff position, while awaiting promotion, in October. The original captain,  First Lieutenant Moses Palmer, was acting captain of Company I, from that time forward.  Palmer's official promotion came nearly a year later dated August 15, 1862.

     Methodist minister William P. Blackmer,  was a leading figure in the town of Westboro and helped organize the rifle company which became Company K.  Blackmer was elected captain.  Blackmer proved to be more of an orator than soldier, and quickly resigned the day after the Battle of Bolivar Heights, his character questioned by his company, and others.  The loss of Blackmer proved fortunate for Company K, as one of the most experienced and capable officers in the regiment,  1st-lieutenant Charles H. Hovey of Company D,  was soon appointed captain in his place.

Letter of Captain Blackmer, October 5th 1861.

October 5th, 1861.

     Letter from Capt. Blackmer. – The Captain has written a letter to Zion’s Herald, from which we make some extracts, showing the character of the man, and the spirit which actuates him in this contest:

     ‘Our journeyings up and down the state of Md. have reminded me of the travels of the ‘Children of Israel,’ while wandering in the wilderness, only that no bread was collected in the fields about the camp morning after morning as it was by them; and which led, preserved and fed them, as our guide preserver and support.’

     ‘The evidences of the destruction of public property at Harper’s Ferry lie directly under my eye as I write:  the blackened walls of buildings and the charred timbers of bridges present a truly desolate appearance.  We have begun to feel the force of the fact that we are not merely playing soldier.  We have had some of the din of battle and smell of powder, though we have achieved no remarkable victory.  Squadrons of the enemy’s cavalry venture over the hills and down to the river opposite our picket guards, firing upon them frequently; and we return the fire, - of course.’

     Much complaint has been made by friends writing home about our scanty fare.

     I am satisfied it has been all that could have been expected under the circumstances.  With a regiment of inexperienced men and officers, to a great extent without practical knowledge of their whole duty, it is not to be expected that every thing will be as well arranged as it other-wise.  But as the company officers become acquainted with what is expected of them in supplying their companies, and the men learn to appreciate rather than curse the Quartermaster, the thing will be all made right.'

     'From morning till night (and from night till morning some of the time), my whole time and powers are taxed to their utmost.  But think not there is no time for rest, and for mental and moral culture.'

     'I feel a greatly increased interest in the interests of the church, and hope I may be spared to give full proof of my ministry in the work to which God has seen fit to call me, and for which the church has set me apart.  I cannot describe to you the sacrifice it seems to me to be so separated from all those Christian sympathies and associations, as well as religious privileges to which I have been so long accustomed.

     'I often think of the dear little flock in Westboro and pray for their prosperity.  If I can be spared to return it would be a great satisfaction to me to labor among them as I used to do only more faithfully."

(digital transcription by Brad Forbush).

     The day after the battle at Bolivar Heights Captain Blackmer, Company K, resigned and went home.  His hasty departure brought into question his character.  Austin Stearns wrote about Blackmer in his memoirs, “Three Years with Company K” (p. 12):

      “Of Captain Blackmer, I have but a word to say.  He entered at the big end of the horn, with a loud flourish, declaring he would “wade in blood to his ears,” and then in three months came out at the little end, from a hole too small to be seen with the naked eye.”  

Another passage, (p. 37):

      “I have said that the courage of our officers was not to be questioned, neither do I now intimate any such thing, but the day after the fight spoken of above [Bolivar Heights] our Capt. sent in his resignation and left immediately for home, without waiting for it's acceptance or even telling his own brother that he was going.

     We as a company was glad to get rid of him, for he was on of the smallest specimens of an officer I ever saw and in the three years I saw some pretty small ones”

     Second Lieutenant Charles B. Fox, Company K, seemed to agree with Stearns’ assessment of Captain Blackmer's character.  He mentions the captain in some letters home to his father.

Letters of Lt. Charles B. Fox, Oct. 19th, 1861.

2nd Lt. Charles B. FoxCharles Barnard Fox to Rev. Thomas Bayley Fox, letterbook, 19 October 1861, Fox Family Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society; used with permission.

Harper’s Ferry Lock Oct. 19th 1861.

     Capt. Blackmer has resigned his commission and returned home- Before this reaches you he will probably be in Westboro.  The reasons which he assigns for this act are connected with his ministerial position, and if valid now, should have prevented him from accepting office at all.  There never has been any sympathy between Capt. B. and myself.  I have always, and I think with good reason, doubted his sincerity in many ways.  The resignation is no benefit to me as Lieut. Bacon is too young to receive a Captain’s Commission and the appointment will therefore come from another company.   I feel very anxious about the result, for I think the position and success of our men as a company, depends on their having a firm, decided and strict officer, one who they can respect.  I am sorry the promotion does not take a different course, as I might have made a chance for John.  I sent you yesterday by Adam’s Express $70. – I sacrificed about $36 – because I would not certify on honor that I had not employed a soldier as a servant.  The pay rolls were made out allowing us for a private servant, but we were required to certify as above, which I would not or rather, could not do, so I let the amount slide, in the opinion of other officers, foolishly.

Letter of Lt. Charles B. Fox, Nov. 4th 1861.

Charles Barnard Fox to Rev. Thomas Bayley Fox, letterbook, 4 November 1861, Fox Family Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society; used with permission.

Williamsport, Md. Nov. 4th 1861.

We are, as you will see per journal, part of the Advance Guard of the Army of the Upper Potomac – but our nearest railroad and express is Hagarstown, six miles distant, on a branch of the Penn. Central R.R.  Our mail comes to this point daily, and I hope to receive letters without quite so much delay.  You some what miss understood the case of my servant.  Warren is a soldier, regularly enlisted, sworn and mustered, and receives his pay, clothing and rations from the U.S.  Before we can draw the above items for a private servant, we are required to certify on honor, that we have not employed a soldier in that capacity – Of course I did not draw the pay, for in so doing I should have done just what the Government intend to prevent, drawn double pay for the same work.  The reasons of my severe remarks concerning Capt. Blackmer are, that he “did declare on his honor” that “he had not during any part of the time employed a soldier as a servant” when he had done so during the whole of it; and that his constant habit of making vulgar and obscene jokes and remarks before his officers and the young men around them, prevented me from respecting him as a man or clergyman.  I have lived a rough life in many respects, but I can appreciate and honor an honest man, and fully as heartily can despise and denounce a hypocrite.  Capt. Blackmer has been reported to Hd Qrs. As “absent without leave” and will either be ordered to rejoin his company or dis-honorably discharged.  Young Rice, to whom either you or mother referred is a fine fellow, one of the most intelligent and best boys in our company, always ready for duty, and always performing it to the best of his knowledge and ability.  During the Bolivar fight Co.I, was for the most part with us, not being in the thick of the rifle fight, but taking their shells quietly with us in the morning-  Promotion, which you speak of, of course pleases every one, but I had much rather do my duty faithfully in my present position, that fail, even if only in my own estimation in a higher.  Jackson has received his commission as Capt. of Co. C.

Austin Stearns concludes his narrative of the nine weeks spent at the ferry:

“Nothing more of an exciting nature happened during our stay at the Ferry.  The weather was now quite cool, fires were needed.  Stoves were procured from the Ferry, and coal from the boats as they passed along down the canal.  Quite a number of the boys were sick with chills and fever.  The labor we performed was immence.”

On Thursday, October 31, 1861, the three detached companies re-joined the rest of the regiment at Williamsport, Maryland.

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Page Updated October 25, 2016.

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