At His Post on Maryland Heights: Eliakim Sherrill and his 126th New York Infantry

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.

Col. Eliakim Sherrill

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.”

6 Responses to At His Post on Maryland Heights: Eliakim Sherrill and his 126th New York Infantry

  1. ” 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.” Well written, I feel like I was there. Similarly brave, in Sept 1862 Union division commander General Stevens died carrying the flag of his old regiment, the 79th NY, in a charge at Ox Hill. Summer of 1862 was a meat grinder.

  2. Well, not quite. There was a breastwork, in front of which was a cleared area of about 50 or so yards with a border of abatis through which the South Carolinians had to emerge from, then cross the clearing under the rifle fire of the 126th New York farm boys who had just arrived at the ferry a few days before by train. Sherrill was wounded and the regiment’s command structure collapsed with James Bull, the Lt. Col, nowhere to be found in the record. Similarly, the companies of the 32nd Ohio Regiment who were in line to the left of the 126th, the line extending down the flank of the mountain, were under the command of a major named Hewett; Col Ford not being present, nor the regiment’s Lt. Col., E.H. Sweeney, who is missing from the record.

    Though the matter of the facts is complex, since Col. Miles allowed White to escape his duty as ranking officer on the scene, he should have “ordered” White to take command of all the troops on the Harpers Ferry side of the river, and he taken command of the troops on Elk Ridge. Both regimental colonels, novices at the art of war as they were, should have been managing their regiments on the battle line directly, with a clear chain of command and communications between themselves and the captains of the companies. Notwithstanding, the same outcome must probably would have occurred by the end of the day of the 13th, as it is not reasonable to think two regiments, one of which was composed of farm boys dressed in uniforms the day before, could avoid be overwhelmed by eight seasoned regiments of hard core men who had marched 100 miles from Richmond to be there.

  3. Lt. Col. Bull had permission to remain back in Ontario County to tie up some loose end in his business. He had not yet joined the 126th at Harper’s Ferry. The regiment’s next ranking officer, Major Baird, was later dismissed from the service for perceived cowardice on Maryland Heights. This was done on the recommendation of the Military Commission that investigated the Harper’s Ferry disaster. Approximately 7 months later, Baird was reinstated (with the help of a letter of recommendation sent to President Lincoln by Col. Sherrill) and was killed at Petersburg in 1864.

    1. The fact is that the “Special Commission” Lincoln established to fix blame for the surrender was purely political, Lincoln’s intent being to deflect blame from his personally endorsed brigadier-general, Julius White. The Commission’s “finding” that the position of the Naval Battery on the western slope of Elk Ridge was “feebly defended” and shamefully abandoned “too soon” is objective silliness, given the fact that Colonel Miles had but five regiments composed of troops with some months of field service available to him, to repulse some 25 Confederate regiments, 3/4 of which were concentrating to attack his position at Bolivar Heights and 1/4 of which were poised to attack his position on Elk Ridge.

      It is plain, too, that notwithstanding the absence of command control of the Union force on Elk Ridge, that Col Ford properly abandoned the position when the two Confederate brigades (eight regiments) had wrapped around both flanks of the Union line. Baird was not dismissed for “perceived cowardice” but for perceived incompetence in not holding the companies of the 126th NY in line when Sherrill acted recklessly and was rendered out of action, with no Lt. Colonel to step up. Ford, a politician like White, was also dismissed from service by Lincoln, and Miles. no one presenting his side of the story, was labeled “unfit for command.” This, notwithstanding the fact that Major-General John Wool testified that Miles “was the best officer” that he had, and that Miles had understood his order correctly, which was to hold the Ferry; i.e., that, in not transferring the entire Union force to Elk Ridge, as Saxton had done in May 1862, as French would do in June 1863, and as Sigel would do in July 1864, Col. Miles did exactly what Wool intended that he do. It appears that Wool’s reason for the order was not that he recognized General Lee’s objective was to eliminate the Union force as a threat to his line of retreat from Sharpsburg, but that, engaged in close business relation to Garrett, Wool was intent on protecting the railroad bridge from destruction.

      The only legitimate criticism that can be leveled against Miles is his passive acceptance of the role of acting as White’s stooge. On the morning of the 15th, Miles should have ordered White, who “commanded” the regiments and artillery aligned on Bolivar Heights, to bring the men to the mark and fight when the anticipated attack from Jackson came. Had Miles done this, the likelihood is great White would have asserted his rank, and ordered the surrender himself.

      Finally, given the objective facts, it is doubtful the Confederate attack would have materialized. During the night of the 14th, Jackson had received General Lee’s message telling him the day had gone against the Army and that it was necessary to retreat into Virginia. Jackson knew, too, that the success of the attack was doubtful and if success came it would be painful. Once the Confederate troops began to run over the last 400 yards separating them from the Union line along the Pike, the Confederate artillery batteries would have to cease firing, and Rigby’s and Potts’ guns would be throwing canister at the Confederate line as the men ran up the steep slope of hill to reach the Union works. His divisions already diminished from the battle at Manassas, Jackson could expect, whether the attack was successful or not, that he would lose another 10%-20%, a loss which he knew would prove disastrous for the Army’s chances of success in holding its own at Sharpsburg. Had Jackson intended to attack the Union works the morning of the 15th, he would not have wasted some four hours throwing artillery shells at it (first light was 4:00 a.m.); but, by 5:00 a.m., using the fog as cover before it lifted, he would have had Hill’s men on the run through the canister to grapple with the enemy.

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