On my way out of the South, I stopped for a few days at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, the site of both John Brown’s raid and a Civil War battle. As with most things about the Civil War, I learned a lot that was left out of my history lessons back in the day. As a native Californian, I can tell you all about the gold rush of 1849 and the racist role of the missions. But ask me about specifics of the Civil War and chances are I’d come up blank. Consider this post, then, me sharing that late-in-life learning in case you, too, don’t understand the role Harper’s Ferry holds in US history.
Going in chronological order, first up is John Brown and the raid on Harpers Ferry. An abolitionist, John Brown and 19 supporters entered the village of Harper’s Ferry on the evening of October 16, 1859, hoping to raid the federal armory and provide guns and ammunition to enslaved people, who would then join his cause and spread the revolution throughout the countryside. It didn’t quite work out that way.
Less than 24 hours later, Colonel Robert E. Lee (not yet a Confederate soldier) and US troops attacked Brown’s refuge in the engine house. Brown was captured and then convicted of treason against the state of Virginia, murder, and slave insurrection. Brown was hanged on December 2, 1859.
1862 Civil War Battle
US and Confederate forces squared off at Murphy farm, a mile or so from the village proper. This is the long view across the fields that were teeming with soldiers and cannons in 1862. Lee, now a Confederate General, split his troops, sending some to Harpers Ferry and the rest on towards Sharpsburg.
After three days of fighting, hopelessly outgunned and surrounded, the Union forces waved the white flag, making Harpers Ferry the largest surrender of Federal forces during the Civil War. From here, the Confederate troops marched on to Sharpsburg to join in the battle at Antietam.
I stayed at the Harpers Ferry KOA because it was the closest campground to Harpers Ferry. I didn’t realize till I got there that it is located on land that was part of the 1862 battlefield. My Alto trailer backed up to one of the Confederate infantry lines (that ditch and path on the left side of the photo). There were markers throughout the area calling out other positions, so a walk around the campground provided both exercise and education.
Taking a break from history, I added a half mile to my tiny collection of day hikes on the Appalachian Trail (AT). From the village of Harpers Ferry, it’s a short walk to the footbridge (a converted railroad bridge) across the Potomac. At this rate, I think I’ll complete the AT by the year 2075.
From the footbridge, you get a beautiful view of where the Potomac and the Shenandoah Rivers meet in a gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Three iconic geographical features in one place, not bad for a quick walk and a great way to end a day’s exploration of the area.
If you go…
Harpers Ferry is a small place, actually, with the requisite souvenir and ice cream shops. Much more interesting, at least to me, is the historic Chambers Farm where the actual battle took place. Oh, and the AT bridge is worth it just for that view.
Parking at the lot closest to Harpers Ferry requires a National Park pass or a day pass, or you can park at the Visitor Center and take the shuttle over to the town. There’s no shuttle to Chambers Farm, but it’s a short walk from the Visitor Center and there is also a small parking lot on site.
When it comes to the Civil War, all of our popular understanding, our popular history and culture, our great films, the subtext of our arguments are in defiance of its painful truths… And so the history is ignored, and fictions are weaved into our art and politics that dress villainy in martyrdom and transform banditry into chivalry, and so strong are these fictions that their emblem, the stars and bars, darkens front porches and state capitol buildings across the land to this day.”