Harpers Ferry

After our day spent at Antietam Battlefield, we spent Memorial Day at another site important to the history of the Civil War: Harpers Ferry.  We had actually attempted to visit Harpers Ferry last Summer as part of our road trip.  That plan had to be abandoned because of torrential rain.  This was our second chance to visit and we hoped we would not be rained off again.

The whole town of Harpers Ferry (which did once have an apostrophe) is contained within the National Historical Park.  As such, parking is seriously limited and nowhere near the centre of town.  We, therefore, parked up at the Visitors Center (being sure to stamp our National Parks passport) and took the shuttle bus down into town.  It is a system that works well and is no doubt effective in preserving the integrity of the town.  The town is historically important largely because of its geographical situation.  It is built on an area of land where the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers meet.  All of that water generated power and that power could be harnessed for industry.  Upon visiting the area, George Washington determined it should become the site of a Federal Armory and Arsenal.  It was the presence of this facility that led to it become the scene of John Brown’s Raid, an event that contributed to the tinderbox of causes that sparked the Civil War.

Since the shuttle bus had just offloaded a whole pile of people at once, we decided to steer away from the town centre for a bit and instead headed towards the river, following its course around to the railway bridge.  This bridge crosses over to a mountainous area named Maryland Heights.  The bridge is, of course, an example of the town’s industrial heritage.  We learned that – as was true in many places – there was competition between the railroad companies and the canal.  The canal reached the town just one year ahead of the railroad which ultimately led to the demise of the canal.  We walked across the railroad, contemplating hiking up the mountain to take in the breathtaking views.  Tempting as it was, we decided it would eat up way too much time, energy, and goodwill from the children to scale the mountain.  Instead, the wander across the rail bridge was worthwhile to the kids because they found a baby turtle sitting on a tree branch above the water.

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Our first stop in the town was John Brown’s Fort.  The building (originally a fire engine house) is inauthentic, having been relocated and rebuilt on a slightly different site but it illustrated the town’s most famous event.  In October 1859, abolitionist John Brown and a band of men raided the town with the intention of inspiring a slave rebellion.  Not only did the slaves not readily join the group but Brown and his comrades made several strategic errors that doomed them to failure.  They managed to capture the Armory on the first evening but by the following day they were besieged in the engine house.  It all went horribly wrong from there.  The President ordered the Marines in to end the siege.  They were commanded by none other than Robert E Lee – wearing mufti since he was on leave at the time.  That brought the raid to an end.  Harpers Ferry suffered massively during the Civil War.  The same geography that had been advantageous meant it was strategically important to the armies of the north and south and thus it switched between the Confederacy and the Union eight times.  Further, when the Federal garrison surrendered to the Confederates in 1862, it was the largest military surrender in US history until World War II.  In the 2oth Century, poor Harpers Ferry was subjected to a battering from the environment as storms and floods destroyed much of the town that was situated on the flood plain and brought its industry to an end.

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That harsh history was evident in the layout of the town.  The buildings closer to the water and at a lower elevation were preserved for their history but definitely had a worn and abandoned look to them and most of the industrial buildings lining the riverside were nothing more than rubble and rocky outlines.  The buildings that lined the roads that ran uphill, however, were in a much better state of preservation and were still being used as dwellings and as shops and eateries.  I loved the architecture of the place as different strategies had been used to manage the steep incline and the heights of the buildings.  We bought the boys ice cream and wandered up and down the street.

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We then popped into a confectionery shop.  This turned out to be a fascinating little place and another genre of history still – edible history.  The owners had researched historic recipes and had experimented with ingredients and methods in order to replicate candies and other sweet treats from throughout history.  The store was arranged chronologically so it was like a timeline of sweeties.  There was marshmallow root that would have been snarfled up by the ancient Egyptians but most of the goodies dated from the 1700s onwards.  I actually felt pretty nostalgic in the 20th Century section.  Even though I didn’t live through most of that century, my Gran used to take me to an old fashioned sweet shop in Edinburgh so I was familiar with sweet traditions older than me, tastes from bygone eras.  We each picked out a bag of sweeties by way of a souvenir of our day and look forward to sampling them and using our tongues and tummies to travel through time.

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Mr Pict and the 11 year old hopped on the shuttle bus to go and retrieve our car.  Meanwhile, the three other kids and I decided we would walk along the canal side.  It was a pleasant walk – though we did have to tread carefully since there was goose poop and squelchy mud everywhere – and very peaceful since few people were walking that stretch.  The stroll afforded us the opportunity to see more of the industrial ruins of the town.  I would have liked to have crossed over the bridge to Virginius Island to see the ruins there but we were short on time so that will have to wait for a future visit.  The kids were more excited about our wildlife encounters along the Shenandoah Canal.  We saw loads of geese with their fluffy goslings swimming around in the algae covered water and there were turtles sunbathing on branches jutting out above the surface of the water.  The walk was a restful way to end our trip to Harpers Ferry.

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Antietam

Last weekend was Memorial Weekend here in the United States.  Memorial Day commemorates members of the country’s armed forces who have died in service.  As such, it seemed apt that we spent Memorial Weekend touring Civil War sites.  Our first stop was Antietam, in Sharpsburg, Maryland.

Confederate General Robert E Lee moved his army from Virginia towards the north and into Union territory.  Around the same time, Union General George McClellan moved the Army of the Potomac into Frederick, Maryland.  On 17 September 1862, these two forces collided on the Antietam Creek in what would be the bloodiest single day battle of the Civil War – and indeed the bloodiest day in American military history.  Of the approximately 100,000 soldiers involved in the battle, there were 23,000 casualties.  Ultimately Lee was repulsed back into Virginia and the Union held the area.

We started our tour at the Visitor’s Center where we chanced upon a small reenactment group marching and firing guns.  The Visitor Center itself offered a useful synopsis of the battle as there was a short movie to watch and some exhibits.  I found both to be particularly handy since – as I have explained before – I am not all that keen on military history.  The documentary fixed the broad stroke events of the day in my head while the exhibits in the small museum helped me engage with the subject through seeing things like medical field kits, uniforms, and drums.  What I learned (or relearned since Mr Pict has told me this several times) is that Antietam was a pivotal battle in the Civil War and not just because of the Union victory.  It was also significant because it led to Lincoln issuing the Emancipation Proclamation and prevented Britain and France from getting involved in the conflict.

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Mr Pict decided to lead us around the site according to the chronology of the battle.  We, therefore, started at what was once woods and cornfields.  I look at the landscape of a battlefield and really cannot engage with it.  It’s just landscape to me.  I need features and clear narratives.  I need the human side of things rather than tactics.  I, therefore, left Mr Pict and the kids to wander around the fields while I headed into the Dunker Church.  The Church, belonging to a pacifist German sect, had been on site for just ten years before it became a focal point of the bloody battle.  Being inside I was reminded of what I had read of the townspeople.  They hid in basements and caves during the battle and emerged to find their properties destroyed (one deliberately) and scenes of horrific slaughter.  While there was not a civilian casualty in the battle, the soldiers malingered in town long enough to spread disease to the civilian population.  Always finding the social history angle on the military history.

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Our next stop was the dramatically named “Bloody Lane”.  This was a sunken road that cut through the farmland.  The Confederates were using the built up land around the road as a parapet and were able to fire down upon the Union soldiers who were moving across the farmland and were funneled into the narrow sunken road.  The result was absolute carnage as illustrated by the photographs of Alexander Gardner.  Knowing those photographs as I do, I found it quite haunting to be walking along Bloody Lane.  I could actually visualise the horror of the scene.  We emerged from the sunken road at an observation tower.  As much as I appreciate a good view, I took one look at the narrow and open iron staircase inside and decided against ascending.  Instead, I waved from the bottom at my husband and children at the top.

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I would have loved to have moved on to the National Cemetery because I love cemeteries.  However, it started to rain hard.  We were wearing our raincoats so were largely protected from the rain but the grass was slippy under foot and it was muggy and sticky which feels gross when wearing waterproof layers.  And everyone was protesting about visiting a cemetery so there was that too.  We, therefore, hoofed it back to the car and drove to the next destination and battle point: the lower bridge, also known as Burnside Bridge.  Once there, 50% of our troops refused to trek down to the bridge so Mr Pict, the 10 year old and I plodded on with our reduced numbers.  On the day of the battle, the bridge was being held by Confederate troops (from Georgia if I am remembering the video accurately) who were able to pick off the approaching Union soldiers with ease from their position on the bluff overlooking the bridge and the road approaching it.  After being in the sunken road, it would appear that the theme of the day had been carnage in narrow spaces.

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The highlight of my 10 year old’s trip to Antietam was “befriending” a millipede.  At least, unlike his brothers, he actually saw all three key sites.  I have decided that one day they will look back and appreciate that their father and I dragged them on all of these trips to historic places.

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