“Up to the present time no assault or attempt to seize the Government property here has been made, but there is decided evidence that the subject is in contemplation, and has been all day, by a large number of people living in the direction of Charlestown; and at sun-down this evening several companies of troops had assembled at Halltown, about three or four miles from here on the road to Charlestown, with the intention of seizing the Government property, and the last report is that the attack will be made to-night. I telegraphed this evening to General Scott that I had received information confirming his dispatch of this morning, and later to the Adjutant-General that I expected an attack to-night. I have taken steps which ought to insure my receiving early intelligence of the advance of any forces, and my determination is to destroy what I cannot defend, and if the forces sent against me are clearly overwhelming, my present intention is to retreat into Pennsylvania.”
First Lieutenant Roger Jones, Mounted Rifles, U.S. Army, reporting on the situation at Harper’s Ferry, 18 April, 1861.
Days after the fall of Fort Sumter, the vulnerable military outpost at Harper’s Ferry was on high alert. Lieutenant Jones had been growing increasingly pensive as reports arrived of groups of Southern troops arriving in the vicinity intent on seizing government property. His concerns were quite legitimate. The Union army at this point was still woefully undermanned for any significant combat operations (perhaps explaining why a First Lieutenant was commanding the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry). Additionally, the historic arsenal was surrounded by high ground: the Maryland Heights to the east, and the Loudon Heights to the south. Harper’s Ferry was, in the words of historian James M. McPherson, a “trap waiting to be sprung by any force” that could place artillery at those locations.[i]
Of course, much has been written about these earliest days of the war. What I want to draw attention to here are these words of Lieutenant Jones above: “I have taken steps which ought to insure my receiving early intelligence of the advance of any forces…” This statement demonstrates the reality of military intelligence operations during the Civil War era. For most of the conflict, intelligence operations were the responsibility of the commanding officer. There was no institutional support for such activities, and the successful use of intelligence rested almost exclusively on the skill and disposition of the officers in charge. If the officer had little ability or faith in intelligence (as demonstrated by many military leaders of the time), then his operations usually would benefit his forces little, or actually impede battlefield success.
It would appear the Lieutenant Jones’ home-spun intelligence network was effective in this case. Shortly after the above dispatch was sent to Washington, Jones became convinced that he could not defend Harper’s Ferry. “Immediately after finishing my dispatch of the night of the 18th instant,” he informed Winfield Scott, ”I received positive and reliable information that 2,500 or 3,000 State troops would reach Harpers Ferry in two hours…” He set out immediately to destroy some 15,000 arms within the arsenal in an attempt to deny their use by the rebels, then evacuated his command to Carlyle Barracks, Pennsylvania. But the next four years of combat would reveal just how inconstant Union and Confederate leaders would be in the effective direction of intelligence operations.
[i] James M. McPherson, Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 106-110.
Quotes of Lt Jones taken from the official records of the Union and Confederate armies. / Series 1 – Volume 2.