The dark night and the dense foliage atop Maryland Heights made it difficult for the green soldiers of the 126th New York to discern–for the first time three weeks after their enlistment–their enemy in front of them. But they knew they were there. Scattered skirmish fire punctuated the night’s silence. The noise only grew louder as the rising sun lit up the broken landscape on the top of the mountain.
Then, at 6 a.m. on September 13, 1862, the mustering long roll of the enemy was heard in the New Yorkers’ front. Voices of Confederate officers forming their men for the attack caused the Empire Staters to grip their rifles tighter as they awaited their first combat. “Charge bayonets” rung out from the tree line and broken lines of men in gray uniforms sprung toward the 126th New York and their fellow Maryland Heights defenders.
Colonel Eliakim Sherrill was new to warfare, too. The former United States Congressman and New York State Senator was not even the first choice to lead the regiment. Yet the refusal of two other men to accept regimental command spurred Sherrill to this leadership role. With his revolver in hand, Sherrill prepared to show his as yet untested mettle to the enemy, and to his men.
For four hours on the morning of September 13, Sherrill’s men, flanked by Marylanders and Ohioans, ably held off the veterans of the Army of Northern Virginia intent on seizing Maryland Heights, the key terrain feature overlooking Harpers Ferry. From behind a stout breastwork, the Federals traded shot for shot and casualty for casualty with the more exposed Confederates. The stalemate had to be broken somehow.
As cliff-scaling Confederates sought a path to flank the Union line, Sherrill bravely stood his ground and ordered his men to do the same. He climbed atop the breastwork to expose himself and rally his men. “God damn the exposure,” he yelled to a safety-minded man telling the colonel to get down. “No rebel ball can hit me.” Almost famous last words. While handing cartridges to his men, a ball did find him. It struck him in the lower jaw and sent a piece of a shattered tooth into his tongue.
Blood spurted from Sherrill’s wound. His men could not help but notice. The worsening situation–they had no food or water–was bleaker now. Without Colonel Sherrill, the 126th New York “was a new regiment,” admitted one member. The Union line broke, and the green New York regiment bore the brunt of the blame for the Federal failure to hold Maryland Heights, abandoned later that afternoon. Few troops could have been expected to do more in their situation. Two days later, they became prisoners of war when the Harpers Ferry garrison surrendered on September 15, 1862.
Sherrill’s wound granted him a pass home rather than to a Northern prison alongside his men. It was a grievous wound that Sherrill never recovered from, though he tried to hide his slow recuperation. He returned to the regiment off and on until returning full time in February 1863. Sherrill had the chance at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863, to show that a rebel bullet had taken away his lower jaw, but not his bravery and that of his unfortunate men. Another bullet struck him there during Pickett’s Charge. He died the next day. Sherrill lived up to his dying words: “Tell them I died at my post–I died doing my duty.”