Colonel Thomas J. Jackson
Harpers Ferry, Virginia - May 6, 1861
As the thundering clouds of war began to gather across the tranquil country-side of Northern Virginia, a professor from the Virginia Military Institute was given the assignment by General Robert E. Lee to secure the town of Harper's Ferry and organize Confederate soldiers gathering in the area. Harpers Ferry was a key railroad link to Washington and produced thousands of rifles from its armory.
Wearing his old blue VMI uniform, Col. Jackson reconnoitered the mountainous heights surrounding the town in an effort to discover whether it was practicable to defend the location. In a letter to General Lee dated May 7, 1861, stressing the strategic importance of Harpers Ferry, Jackson used the information gathered in his reconnaissance to request a number of field pieces of artillery and as many troops as could be spared for the defense of the area.
Jackson's reconnaissance also helped him come to the conclusion that it was logistically impossible to defend the town as artillery could be placed on the heights above the city and easily rain down deadly fire on the helpless occupants. Being an artillery veteran of the Mexican War and professor at VMI teaching artillery tactics, Jackson now knew where to place his artillery if the time came that he would have to recapture the town. Below the cliffs of Loudoun Heights rested homes, buildings, and the firehouse where John Brown was captured. Spanning across the Shenandoah River was the covered wagon bridge that Jackson would blow up on June 14th as his troops systematically destroyed the lower part of the beautiful town to head for better ground to make a stand.
But Jackson would return in September 1862 and capture a 12,500 man Federal garrison at Harpers Ferry by a "great circle of artillery." It would be the greatest surrender of Federal troops in the Civil War. Also captured was a tremendous amount of supplies, 73 artillery pieces and 12,000 rifles, enough to equip a full army corps. Jackson's letter to General Lee had been right, Harpers Ferry was of great strategic importance.