Harpers Ferry National Historical Park

Harpers Ferry

(Photo credit: Harpers Ferry, courtesy SteveSloj, Flickr Creative Commons)

The Battle of Harpers Ferry started on this day in 1862. It lasted four days around the town and included a clash at nearby South Mountain. The decisive engagement took place at Bolivar Heights, WV, on the heights to the west of Harpers Ferry, the town best known as the target of John Brown’s famous botched abolitionist raid of 1859. When we stayed in the town in 2010, we visited the small but important battleground site almost as an afterthought. Prior to the visit, I’d known about the town’s association with the John Brown abolitionist raid but I actually hadn’t realized a significant Civil War battle had been fought near there as well.

The town and the battlefield site make up Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. It’s run by the National Park Service, which really discourages visitors from parking in the town itself. Instead, you’re directed to a big parking lot and tiny visitor center outside town , where you have to pay a fee ($6 in 2010). Most visitors go there and then get bussed into town. When we visited we actually didn’t realize this at first; since we were staying overnight in the town itself, we were allowed to park there. It was only when we started driving around the wider park the next morning that we were sucked toward the visitor center and forced to pay the additional fee. The fee collector wasn’t interested in hearing my excuse that we’d already made our contribution to the local economy by having paid to stay in one of the town’s few B-and-B’s.

Harpers Ferry itself (note there’s no longer an apostrophe in the town’s name) is a center of interest for Civil War buffs. The town is situated at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, where the states of Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia meet. The main purpose of the town prior to the Civil War had been to serve as a federal armory, and it had served that function ever since being established by President John Adams in 1799. This of course made it a key strategic target for the South. In fact, Harpers Ferry changed hands numerous times during the Civil War.

The park service’s John Brown Museum is interesting enough, but nothing special. It really is set up for school groups—I noted, for example, that there was an automatic four-minute gap between the ending of the first interpretive video and the beginning of the second, even though the two seated areas next to the video screen were less than 20 feet apart. Someone had obviously concluded that four minutes was the minimum amount of time required to move a typical school group 20 feet and get them settled down again! Fortunately no school groups were there during our visit, but neither were there any rangers in attendance; the place was in fact empty, apart from a maintenance guy that appeared from nowhere just as we were leaving. Yes, it was early in the morning, but as we were visiting at the end of May—not peak season, but hardly the off-season either—this was a bit odd.

One very cheesy highlight of our visit had nothing to do with the park service. This was the John Brown Wax Museum in town. The “museum”—and it’s a bit of a stretch to call it that—was situated in a big, old, dark, ramshackle house, creepy in places. The backbone of the museum was a series of fusty old dioramas, with push-button narration, representing key periods in Brown’s life. They were kind of static—except when the occasional wax head or arm or sets of lungs actually moved, which always startled me. The finale was Brown’s execution exhibit. Good, cheesy fun.

A lot of the factory buildings from the Civil War period have unfortunately been lost. The original fire house used for the last stand by Brown’s group still exists (though it’s been moved from its original location). But nearly all the original federal armory buildings were burned down and destroyed in 1861—not by invading Rebel forces but by Union troops to prevent them falling into Rebel hands. Probably a good idea at the time, as it turned out, but their loss is a real shame. At least most of the town’s central buildings have been preserved, mainly around Shenandoah St.

I should note that this was my second visit to Harpers Ferry. Back in the summer of 1995 I’d been a student mentor and counselor with Upward Bound (a program dedicated to preparing disadvantaged high school students for college) at Potomac State College in nearby Keyser, WV, and we’d taken a day trip to Harpers to see the sights. That’s when I first heard about the notorious John Brown raid. Remember, I’m an immigrant so this was just one more event in U.S. history I’d never learned about in school. The name of John Brown did ring a bell from my childhood—somewhere along the line I’d heard the song about John Brown’s body lying a-moldering in the grave, but I’d had no idea about the context of that song, which inspired the Battle Hymn of the Republic. I also remember being impressed to find out that the federal forces that entered the town to crush the Brown raid in 1859 were led by none other than Robert E. Lee, who went on to become commander of the Confederate army in the Civil War; at the time he was one of the few combatants in that war I’d heard of.

By 1862 Lee was doing his best to defeat the Union to which he’d once owed his allegiance. September saw Lee invade Maryland with his Army of Northern Virginia in order to try to outmaneuver and cripple George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. While Lee kept his main invading force in Maryland, he sent a smaller Confederate force, under Stonewall Jackson, towards Harpers Ferry. The Battle of Harpers Ferry, fought on Sept 12-15, 1862, turned out to be a debacle for the Union forces, who were completely unprepared for the Confederate advance on their positions. By Sept. 15 Col. Dixon Miles, with his Union forces concentrated uselessly in the town itself and surrounded by enemy-occupied high ground, realized his position was untenable. He therefore surrendered his entire 12,000-strong Union garrison and gave up the town—a bit of an eyewatering defeat for the North. The victorious Jackson then rushed off to Antietam, where his arrival helped stop the Union momentum and prevented Antietam from becoming a clear Union victory. Instead, that bloodiest battle day in American history—on Sept 17, Constitution Day—proved inconclusive.

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