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This is marker #23 in a series of obelisks erected in 1910 by the Jefferson County Camp, United Confederate Veterans to mark locations of engagements and other significant Civil War events in Jefferson County. The engagement of October 16, 1861 was the first military battle at Harpers Ferry, although the town had been occupied previously by both Union and Confederate forces. Confederate militia under Colonel Turner Ashby attacked Union forces at Bolivar Heights after they had been working several days to secure wheat stores from the town. The battle was mostly a draw, although both commanders viewed their side as holding victory.

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Harpers Ferry changed hands numerous times during the Civil War and was constantly in the path of both Union and Confederate troops. This began immediately in April 1861 when Virginia declared its secession from the United States. Virginia seceded on April 17, 1861 and the next day Virginia militia marched on Harpers Ferry to seize the federal arsenal, causing the retreating Union garrison to torch as many buildings and supplies as possible to keep them from Confederate hands.

Harpers Ferry was occupied by the Confederates from April to June 1862 and by the Union in July and August 1862. The battle of Bolivar Heights on October 16, 1861 was the first real military engagement at Harpers Ferry. For a few days preceding the battle, Union troops had been operating around Harpers Ferry, on both sides of the Potomac River, to secure a stockpile of wheat. Unionist Abraham Herr who owned a mill on Virginius Island invited Union Colonel Jonathan W. Geary to take the twenty thousand bushels of wheat he had to avoid it falling into the hands of Confederates. When the Union troops had evacuated Harpers Ferry in August, Major General Nathaniel Banks ordered Herr’s mill disabled to prevent its used by Confederates. Herr still held the summer harvest of wheat, however, and when he heard that Confederate militia under Colonel Turner Ashby was approaching Harpers Ferry, he contacted Geary about taking the wheat.

Major J. Parker Gould with companies of the 13th Massachusetts started loading up the wheat stores on October 8 but found the job too big and called for additional help. With Turner’s force approaching, Geary sent reinforcements to protect Harpers Ferry and impressed civilians into helping bag and load the grain from Herr’s mill. The operation to secure the wheat finished up during the evening of October 15 and Geary planned to withdraw his force from Harpers Ferry on October 16. However, before the Union could withdraw, Confederate militia under Colonel Turner Ashby attacked the Union position on Bolivar Heights around 7:00AM on October 16th. Ashby’s force succeeded in pushing the Union pickets back and taking Bolivar Heights. The Confederates made several charges against the Union line, until Geary received reinforcements and was able to retake the Heights.

At the end of October 16, 1861 Ashby’s Confederate force was positioned near Halltown and Geary’s Union line held Bolivar Heights. Geary held his position until late at night when he recrossed his men into Maryland, the mission of securing the stores of wheat being successfully completed. In their reports, both Colonel Ashby and Colonel Geary considered their actions successful. After the engagement of October 16, 1862, Harpers Ferry remained quiet for a few months until the Union again occupied the town in February 1862. 

About the Monuments:

This series of monuments and accompanying tour pamphlet were part of an initiative from the Jefferson County Camp, United Confederate Veterans to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Civil War. In 1910 Col. R. Preston Chew and the Jefferson County UCV raised the funds to place 25 concrete obelisks in Jefferson County to mark locations of engagement or other significant events. The following year the Camp published a pamphlet to accompany the obelisks and give more information about each location. This was Military Operations in Jefferson County, Virginia (Now West Virginia), 1861-1865 published in 1911. The pamphlet has been reprinted several times by the Henry Kyd Douglas Camp, No. 199 of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Because the monuments and accompanying pamphlet were done by Confederate veterans it is likely that the locations and descriptions are biased towards or favor the Confederate view and experience of the war. 

Original Text from the 1911 Pamphlet:

"Marker Number Twenty-Three

Col. Turner Ashby’s Brilliant Exploit at Bolivar Heights

The following is a report by Col. Turner Ashby of the fight of the 16th of October 1861 with Federals on Bolivar Heights.

Camp Evans, Halltown, Va., Oct. 17, 1861

My Dear Sir:

I herewith submit the result of an engagement had with the enemy on the 16th at Bolivar Hill. The enemy occupying that position for several days, had been committing depredations in the vicinity of the camp. Having at my disposal three hundred militia armed with flint lock muskets and two companies of cavalry, Turner’s and Mason’s of Colonel McDonald’s regiment. I wrote to Genl. Evans to cooperate with me, taking position on Loudoun Heights and thereby prevent reinforcements 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 reenforced by two companies of Colonel McDonald’s regiment (Captain Wingfield), fully armed with minie rifles and mounted. Captain Miller’s about 30 men mounted, the balance on foot and with flint lock guns. I had one rifled four-pound gun and one 24-pound gun badly mounted which broke an axle in Bolivar, and I had to spike it. My force on the morning of the attack consisted of 300 militia, part of two regiments commanded by Colonel Albert of Shenandoah and Major Finter of Page. I had 180 of Colonel McDonald’s cavalry (Captain Henderson’s men) under command of Lieut. Glenn, Capt. Baylor’s mounted militia, Capt. Hess about 25 men.

The rifled gun was under command of Capt. Averitt, the 24-pound gun under command of Capt. Canfield. I made the attack in three divisions and drove the enemy from their breast works without the loss of a man, and took position upon the hill, driving the enemy as far as lower Bolivar. The large gun broke down and this materially effected the result. The detachment from the large gun was transferred to the rifled piece, and Captain Averitt was sent to Loudoun Heights with a 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 five 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 their pickets occupied in the morning. The position Colonel Griffin held upon Loudoun Heights was such as to be of very little assistance to us, being so elevated as to prevent them from controlling the crossing. My main force is at Camp Evans while I hold all of the intermediate ground. The enemy left the ferry last night and encamped on the first plateau on Maryland Heights. My loss was one killed and nine wounded. Report from the ferry states the loss of the enemy at 25 killed and a number wounded. We have two Yankee prisoners and eight Union men co-operating with them. We took a large number of blankets, overcoats, and about a dozen guns. I cannot compliment my officers 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 the 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 N. G. West’s report, and cannot compliment him too highly, and respectfully submit his name as one worthy of an appointment. He is temporarily employed by men as surgeon. Casualties, wounded 13.

Your obedient servant,

Turner Ashby

Lieut. Col. C. S. Army, Com’d’g. in Jefferson county.

Hon. Mr. Benjamin, Acting Sec’y. of War

P. S. I am without ammunition for rifled cannon (4-poinders 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 conditions."

Bushong, Millard Kessler. A History of Jefferson County, West Virginia. Charles Town, WV: Jefferson Publishing Company, 1941.

Engle, Stephen Douglas. Thunder in the Hills: Military Operations in Jefferson County, West Virginia, During the American Civil War. Charleston, WV: Mountain State Press, 1989.

“Harpers Ferry – Bolivar Heights.” National Park Service. December 12, 2017. Accessed February 14, 2021. https://www.nps.gov/places/harpers-ferry-bolivar-heights.htm.

“Harpers Ferry and the Civil War Chronology.” Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. National Park Service. July 24, 2019. Accessed February 14, 2021. https://www.nps.gov/hafe/learn/historyculture/hf-civil-war.htm.

Hearn, Chester G. Six Years of Hell: Harpers Ferry During the Civil War. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996.

Military Operations in Jefferson County Virginia (and West Va.) 1861-1865. Published by Authority of Jefferson County Camp U.C.V. Farmers Advocate Print, 1911. Accessed January 20, 2021. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc2.ark:/13960/t4vh5gp6c&view=1up&seq=5.

“Report of Col. John W. Geary, Twenty-eighth Pennsylvania Infantry.” The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series.1:vol.5, p. 239-243.

“Report of Lieut. Col. Turner Ashby, C. S. Army.” The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series.1:vol.5, p. 247-249.

Image Sources(Click to expand)

"John W. Geary." Wikipedia. Accessed February 15, 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_W._Geary.

"Turner Ashby." Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Library of Virginia. Accessed February 15, 2021. https://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.php?b=Ashby_Turner.

"Federal Troop Train at Harpers Ferry, W. Va." West Virginia History OnView. West Virginia & Regional History Center. Accessed February 15, 2021. https://wvhistoryonview.org/catalog/006611.

"The Battle of Bolivar Heights." Head Quarters 13th Regt. Rifles, Mass. Vol." Accessed February 15, 2021. http://13thmass.org/1861/bolivar_heights.html.

The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series.1:vol.5: p. 239. Accessed February 15, 2021. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=coo.31924077730194&view=1up&seq=3.

The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series.1:vol.5: p. 240. Accessed February 15, 2021. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=coo.31924077730194&view=1up&seq=3.

The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series.1:vol.5: p. 241. Accessed February 15, 2021. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=coo.31924077730194&view=1up&seq=3.

The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series.1:vol.5: p. 242. Accessed February 15, 2021. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=coo.31924077730194&view=1up&seq=3.

The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series.1:vol.5: p. 243. Accessed February 15, 2021. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=coo.31924077730194&view=1up&seq=3.

The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series.1:vol.5: p. 244. Accessed February 15, 2021. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=coo.31924077730194&view=1up&seq=3.

The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series.1:vol.5: p. 245. Accessed February 15, 2021. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=coo.31924077730194&view=1up&seq=3.

The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series.1:vol.5: p. 246. Accessed February 15, 2021. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=coo.31924077730194&view=1up&seq=3.

The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series.1:vol.5: p. 247. Accessed February 15, 2021. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=coo.31924077730194&view=1up&seq=3.

The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series.1:vol.5: p. 248. Accessed February 15, 2021. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=coo.31924077730194&view=1up&seq=3.

The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series.1:vol.5: p. 249. Accessed February 15, 2021. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=coo.31924077730194&view=1up&seq=3.