Colonel Dixon S. Miles (USA)

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Dixon Stansbury Miles

Birthdate: (58)
Death: September 16, 1862 (58) (mortally wounded on15 September 1862 in the Battle of Harpers Ferry )
Immediate Family:

Son of Aquila Miles and Elizabeth Miles

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About Colonel Dixon S. Miles (USA)

Dixon Stansbury Miles (May 4, 1804 – September 16, 1862) was a career United States Army officer who served in the Mexican-American War and the Indian Wars. He was mortally wounded as he surrendered his Union garrison in the Battle of Harpers Ferry during the American Civil War.

Early life and military service

Miles was born in Maryland. He graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1824 and was commissioned a brevet second lieutenant in the 4th U.S. Infantry regiment, but was transferred immediately to the 7th U.S. Infantry, with which he served until 1847. He served on the western frontier and became adjutant of the 7th U.S. He was promoted to captain on June 8, 1836, and fought in the Seminole Wars in Florida from 1839 to 1842. At the start of the Mexican-American War, he received a brevet promotion to major for his "gallant and distinguished conduct" in the defense of Fort Brown, Texas. He fought in the Battle of Monterrey and the Siege of Veracruz, which he then governed as military commandant for four months. He was appointed a brevet lieutenant colonel for "gallant and meritorious conduct in the several conflicts at Monterrey, Mexico."

Miles spent the years before the Civil War on frontier duty battling Indians. In 1857 he fought against Indians along the Gila River, New Mexico, and against the Navajo in 1858. In 1859 he was promoted to colonel and commander of the 2nd U. S. Infantry, stationed at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

Civil War

When the Civil War started, Miles was recalled to Washington, D.C., and briefly commanded a brigade in the division of Maj. Gen. Robert Patterson before being transferred to the army of Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell, in which he commanded a division of two brigades. During the First Battle of Bull Run, his division was in reserve, but he was accused by Brig. Gen. Israel B. Richardson of being drunk during the battle. A court of inquiry validated this accusation; and, after an eight-month leave of absence, he was reassigned to what should have been a quieter post. In March 1862 he commanded a brigade that defended the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and, in September 1862 he was given command of the Federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry.

Harpers Ferry

During the Maryland Campaign, in which Confederate General Robert E. Lee invaded the state of Maryland, Col. Miles's garrison at Harpers Ferry stood directly on Lee's supply line through the Shenandoah Valley. He was ordered by General-in-chief Henry W. Halleck to hold the important Federal arsenal and railroad bridges until he was relieved by Union forces under Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan. Lee sent columns converging from three directions to surround Harpers Ferry. Unfortunately, Miles apparently treated his orders to defend the town too literally and stationed most of his 14,000 men just outside of the town to the west, on Bolivar Heights, neglecting the commanding heights to the northeast (Maryland Heights) and to the south (Loudoun Heights). When his token defensive force on Maryland Heights was defeated, the town was surrounded and virtually indefensible. When Confederate Maj. Gen. Stonewall Jackson began to bombard the town on September 15, 1862, from the heights he had seized, Miles held a council of war with his brigade commanders and decided to surrender. Before the white flag could be raised, he was struck in the left leg by an exploding shell, mortally wounding him. Some of his men accused him of being drunk on duty again and were so thoroughly disgusted by his inept defense that it was said to be difficult to find a man to carry him to the hospital. Miles died the next day and is buried in St. James Episcopal Church Cemetery in Monkton, Maryland. Some historians have concluded that Miles was struck by artillery deliberately fired by his own men, but there is no conclusive proof. The resulting surrender of 12,419 men was the largest number of U.S. soldiers surrendered until the Battle of Corregidor in World War II. The court of inquiry into the surrender denounced Miles for "incapacity, amounting to almost imbecility."


Colonel Dixon S. Miles' 43-year military career ended in disgrace at Harpers Ferry on September 15, 1862. His professional life before the Civil War did not foreshadow such an unfortunate end. Born in Baltimore County, Maryland, in 1804, Miles began his military training at West Point at the age of 15. He devoted his life to the army and entered the Mexican War as a captain in 1846. He earned two promotions for bravery and was one of only 22 colonels in the U.S. Army when the Civil War began in 1861. At the first battle of Bull Run, however, Colonel Miles was accused of drunkenness. The charge was dismissed, but the damage to his reputation was severe. While at home on leave, the 58-year-old army veteran received new orders to command the Railroad Bridge at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Miles' weak defense and eventual surrender of Harpers Ferry led to bitter accusations of treason against him. His death in the last moments of the battle silenced the only voice that might have been able to clear his name.


Civil War Union Army Officer. Graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1824, and was posted to the 7th United States Infantry, serving as part of that unit from 1824 until 1847. He spent a number of his early years on frontier garrison duty in the West before become a Staff Officer and Adjutant of the 7th US. Promoted to Captain in 1836, he fought in the Seminole War in Florida from 1839 to 1842.

When the War with Mexico started in 1846, he was at the very beginning of it, receiving a brevet to Major for his part in the defense of Fort Brown, Texas in May 1846. He served throughout the rest of the Mexican War, fighting in the Battle of Monterey and the Siege of Vera Cruz (where after the successful siege he was governed as Military commandant for 4 months). His efforts there won another brevet to Lieutenant Colonel, and he was advanced to full-rank Major of the 5th United States Infantry in 1847.

He spent the intervening years between the Mexican and Civil Wars almost exclusively on the Frontier battling Indians. In the summer of 1857 he led the southern column of United States forces against Indians along the Gila River, New Mexico, and against the Navajo Indians in 1858. Promoted to Lieutenant Colonel of the 3rd United States Infantry in 1851, and to Colonel and commander of the 2nd United States Infantry in 1859, he was stationed at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas when hostilities with the Southern states erupted in 1861.

Recalled to Washington, he was briefly assigned to command a brigade in Major General Robert Patterson’s forces in Northern Virginia before being transferred to the command of Brigadier General Irwin McDowell’s Army near Washington,. DC, and placed in command of a division consisting of two brigades. In the subsequent Battle of First Bull Run, his division saw no real action, but had been placed in a reserve position that tied up Confederate forces. However, Colonel Miles had been accused of being drunk during the battle. He was detailed to await orders a few days after the battle, and was kept without an assignment until March 1862, when he was given command of a brigade that defended the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and, in September 1862, the important Union bastion at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (the town’s forces were commanded by Brigadier General Julius White, who deferred his command to Colonel Miles due to his lack of knowledge of the terrain and its defenders). 

When General Robert E. Lee’s September 1862 Maryland Campaign threatened the garrison, Colonel Miles called for re-enforcements, which never came. While Lee’s forces were engaging Union General George B. McClellan’s forces at South Mountain and Antietam, he had detached General Stonewall Jackson to capture Harper’s Ferry. On September 16, 1862 General Jackson compelled Colonel Miles to withdraw his forces from Maryland Heights overlooking the town, and then placed artillery on the spot. Colonel Mile’s move, which has been roundly criticized for being hasty and unnecessary, made the Union hold on the town untenable, and he surrendered the 11,500 man Union force (it would be the largest capitulation of United States Army troops until Corrigidor fell to the Japanese during World War II). While surrendering Colonel Miles was mortally wounded by a Confederate artillery shell (supposedly while waving a white flag), and died in the hands of the Confederates. His death spared him from being arrested and tried by Union military authorities for his inadequate and incompetent defense of the town, which was the fate of some of his surviving subordinates in the affair. The quick capture of Harper’s Ferry allowed General Jackson to send troops Sharpsburg, Maryland, where the helped to turn the tide of the Battle of Antietam from a near-defeat into a tactical draw. (bio by: Russ Dodge)

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Colonel Dixon S. Miles (USA)'s Timeline

May 4, 1804
September 16, 1862
Age 58