For a summary of events in Harpers Ferry 1860 – September 1862, see HERE
The landscape of Harpers Ferry was so drastically changed since pre-war times. According to Charles E. Phelps of the 7th Maryland Infantry, “Churches have become hospitals; gardens and pleasure grounds – graveyards; private residences, barracks and stables. Most of the inhabitants of the inhabitants have fled… Only nature is as calm and magnificent as ever.”
Despite the defeat at the hands of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson in mid-September of 1862, the Federal army did reoccupy Harpers Ferry on September 19th. The commander of the Army of the Potomac at the time, Major General George McClellan, hoped that the city at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac would become his base of operations. Commander of all Union armies, Henry Halleck, disagreed, despite McClellan’s insistence of “the permanent and secure occupation of Harpers Ferry as a military necessity.” It would simply take too much time, money, resources, and manpower to accomplish any kind of fortification as McClellan intended. He did, however, managed to construct “Fort Duncan”, a rectangular fort across from Bolivar Heights on the Maryland side of the Potomac River. Also, the more temporary sandbag fortification atop Maryland Heights was made more permanent with earthen walls. Even higher up, “Stone Fort” was carved from massive rocks into a blockhouse, which can still be visited today.
By October, 60,000 Union troops were encamped in and around Harpers Ferry as the next campaign decisions were being hashed out. Harpers Ferry became the second most populated city in Virginia, next to Richmond. As can be imagined, the huge population of troops created numerous problems not limited to shortages of supplies and forage, issue of where to shelter them all, and rampant camp diseases and pests. The sick were sent to Virginius Island to an old cotton factory thus named “Island Hospital” where nurses like Harriet Dada, Susan Hall, Annie bell, Sallie Dysart, and Elizabeth Tuttle grappled with the many patients that kept them busy night and day. Conditions only became worse as the troops when into their winter quarters.
McClellan’s General Order no 25 instructed the provost marshal of Harpers Ferry to keep a written record of every house, every permanent resident, and all transient residences. Any of those who were “not showing honest occupations or a lawful reason for their presence will be sent across the river.” It made no exceptions, especially for anyone who did not have the best interests of the army at heart – like gamblers and bootleggers. In the meantime, they also worked on the previously mentioned Maryland Heights fortifications. Even as the army moved south, work continued and 12,000 troops of the 12th Corps was left to guard Harpers Ferry.
By summer of 1863, Harpers Ferry was under the command of Brigadier General Daniel Tyler. Confederate commander Robert E. Lee was making a push for the Union border after his victory at Chancellorsville. Like other commanders before him, Tyler knew that Harpers Ferry had to be held at all costs. Lee raised the most alarm for Harpers Ferry when he crossed the Potomac just 40 miles upstream from the town. It spooked the troops enough to evacuate to Maryland Heights with plans to cut off all the river crossings in and out of the town to deter Lee. As Lee continued on a northern trajectory, Tyler was forced to shift his troops from facing south to facing north. This required that 33 guns atop Maryland Heights be repositioned and over 10,000 men to trek to the other side of the mountain. As history will tell, Lee completely bypassed Harpers Ferry and made a beeline for Pennsylvania.
General Joseph Hooker lobbied that Harpers Ferry be liquidated to pursue Lee, but the War Department did not agree with the man whose defeat resulted in Lee’s advance. Hooker resigned and George Gordon Meade was put in his place. Meade was given complete control and he ordered the same thing as Hooker, only that Maryland Heights be abandoned and the troops be put in charge of protecting Meade’s rear in Frederick, Maryland. They were gone by July 1st for the job, and Major General William French took over command of the 12th Corps. The artillery had to, once again, be moved from the mountain. Whatever couldn’t be taken with them was spiked and tossed down the heights.
As the 12th Corps moved out of Harpers Ferry, the 12th Virginia Cavalry moved in, once more putting the town under Confederate occupation. This didn’t last too long as Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg had him backpedaling for Virginia. It was assumed that he would take Harpers Ferry as his escape hatch into the Shenandoah Valley, so Meade’s aim was to intercept. Six days after their evacuation, the Federals reoccupied Maryland Heights on July 7th. French destroyed the railroad bridge that spanned the Potomac – not the first time this has happened – and unleashed armored railway cards to shell the cavalry rebels out of the town. Heavy rains had made the rivers swollen and uncrossable until July 20th when 40,000 troops passed through the town in pursuit of Lee, who had taken another route through the mountains to flee into the Valley.
The remainder of 1863 passed uneventfully. Charles Moulton, who would serve as a clerk in the provost office in Harpers Ferry for the remainder of the war commented that the town had, “Splendid landscape scenery for the artist – but now is all desolated and utter ruin; war has had its effect and laid every thing waste and barren… the entire place is not actually worth $10.” In that time, a military ball was held that added some liveliness to the town, but an outbreak of smallpox dampened the fun. 2,500 rebels were also taken prisoner in the first quarter of 1864. A flood swept through town in April of that year and the army struggled with the river rising all the way into May. Mail at the provost office was intensely scrutinized. Many letters were opened and read for any seditious or possibly sensitive military information. Primarily, the provost marshal dealt with managing the soldiers, civilians, deserters and prisoners within Harpers Ferry. John Brown’s Fort was used as a small, makeshift prison – as you can’t fit many in there.
At the time, the Emancipation Proclamation had already been enacted (Jan of 1863) and many former enslaved families found refuge in Harpers Ferry. The American Missionary Association sent W.W. Wheeler and his wife Ellen as the first teachers of the newly designated black school in the town. With the support of Union General Franz Sigel – now in charge of operations in the Shenandoah Valley for 1864 – the school was able to keep 65 pupils, hosting day and night classes. As expected, there was harassment and opposition from the citizens of Harpers Ferry who did not like the idea of blacks being educated in their town.
In July of 1864, Confederate General Jubal Early was on a mission to infiltrate the north and make a run for Washington. Under newly appointed Brigadier General Max Weber, the Federals first moved south along Bolivar Heights to defend the town, but upon feeling the pressure from Early, began to slowly back out. On July 4th, the Federal forces in Harpers Ferry (you guessed it!) evacuated to Maryland Heights. They retracted the pontoon bridges and burned the railroad bridge that had been repaired since their last skedaddle. Franz Sigel arrived to aid in the action and warned the town’s civilians to evacuate before the shelling began. Some didn’t heed the warning and were in for a rough day.
For four days, Early continually tried to dislodge the Federals with no luck. Not wanting to waste anymore time, he left and moved around the town to enter Maryland. This would be the last time that Harpers Ferry was threatened by Confederate troops. It’s often attributed that the one-day battle at Monocacy had stalled Early just long enough so more troops could be shuttled into the Washington defenses, but hardly anything is said for the 4-day delay at Harpers Ferry.
Later that year, Phillip Sheridan was put in charge of the Shenandoah Valley by Ulysses S. Grant. His job was to inflict total war upon the Valley and its population, just as William Sherman made his infamous “March to the Sea.” With 50,000 troops, he swarmed into the Valley and contended with Early, while using Harpers Ferry as his main checkpoint for supplies, transportation of troops and prisoners in and out of the Valley. The government employed 289 civilians in the town, working 35 different jobs to support Sheridan’s campaign in the fall of 1864. For each of Sheridan’s victories in the Valley, a 100 gun salute was fired.
At the same time, the garrison at Harpers Ferry had to contend with Confederate guerilla bands, such as John Singleton Mosby, the “Gray Ghost”. Brigadier General John Dunlop Stevenson policed the area and kept a strict hold over the civilians to ensure that there was no leakage of sensitive information to the Confederates, as well as taking aggressive action against the guerilla bands. Prisoners of war were filed through Harpers Ferry to be sent to prison camps in Maryland like Point Lookout. Island Hospital, once used for the sick was repurposed as a temporary prison until the captives could be sent off. Unlike earlier in the war, these prisoners would not be paroled and would not be exchanged until Federal soldiers were officially traded out of camps down south. Sheridan’s campaign depleted almost 1/3 of Early’s army.
By December 1st, Sheridan had accomplished his task and was ordered to Petersburg to assist Grant and the Army of the Potomac. The Confederacy was in its death throes by now, and Harpers Ferry fell silent.
No one could foretell the exact time and day that the Civil War would end as 1865 dawned upon Harpers Ferry. So when the news came of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, orders were sent up to Maryland Heights for the batteries to unleash a celebratory salute of cannon fire to mark the occasion. The town had changed hands eight times before the final surrender. Of course, the news of Lincoln’s assassination made such victory over the Confederacy bittersweet. Every minute for an hour, 20 guns let out a volley, and then a single cannon every minute until sunset.
But what was to become of Harpers Ferry? Instead of returning to its former role as the US arsenal – with all the machinery and buildings gone – it became a headquarters for the Freedman’s Bureau. Reverend Nathan G. Brackett took his new position as teacher of the freeman’s school in Lockwood House, the home of a former enslaver, a hospital for the wounded, and a refuge for runaways. Storer Normal School, named after the benefactor, John Storer, opened on the grounds formerly called Camp Hill, where the soldiers camped and drilled during the war.
But for the rest of the civilians at Harpers Ferry, life would never be the same. The economy and infrastructure of the area struggled for decades as the town came to grips with the devastation of the war and the numerous floods that nearly drown the town right off the map. The Niagara Movement (NAACP) brought some attention to the town in August of 1906 when their first convention was held at Storer College. In 1945, Harpers Ferry was named a National Monument – later Historic Park – for its heavy involvement in the Civil War.
Visiting Harpers Ferry
Today, you can visit Harpers Ferry and walk the same streets where both Confederate and Union soldiers marched for four years between 1861 and 1865. If you plug in “Harpers Ferry Visitor Center” in your GPS, it’ll take you to the visitor center, but that is not inside the town. In order to maintain a historic aesthetic and also land visitors close to some of the trails that lead to battlegrounds, the visitor center is located just southwest of the actual town. Don’t worry, shuttles arrive early beginning at 9am and end between 5:45pm and 6:45pm, depending on the season. The Visitor Center will have a schedule of the specific hours.
For those who enjoy a hike, I recommend setting off on the Murphy-Chambers Farm Trail. This is NOT the only trail available for the Harpers Ferry location, but it covers a lot of ground (1-3 miles with optional side trails). It’ll take you to a gorgeous view of the Shenandoah River, a former site of John Brown’s Fort before it was moved back to Harpers Ferry, and the location of A.P. Hill’s artillery flanking position in September of 1862. Ask the ranger at the Visitor Center for the exact location of the trail head to get started. You’ll want to allow for about 2 hours, just to be safe. Pack plenty of water and go to the bathroom before you trek off.
For more trail options, visit Harpers Ferry’s National Parks website or ask a ranger at the VC for more info with maps. (Website Here)
Once you’re done on the trail, take the shuttle bus to the Harpers Ferry historic town. You’ll pass by Virginius Island and be given a short audio tour about Harpers Ferry along the way. Once there, be sure to inquire about any tours or presentations taking place in the town. Rangers, guides, and interns will be everywhere and ready to answer questions or give you more info about the town and its history.
The main street has been revitalized to it’s mid-nineteenth century appearance. You are free to roam inside the stores and stroll through the museums at leisure. Each building is dedicated to a particular trade or business that would have been set up in pre-war times, including a tailor, jeweler, general store, the provost office/post office, a confectionary, a tavern, the arsenal, and a hotel. One building is completely devoted to displaying how archeologists and historians excavate and interpret a site. Another is totally committed to telling the story of John Brown’s infamous raid in 1859. The videos in this museum are set to begin at certain times. It’s best to start at the “Harpers Ferry: A Place in Time” interpretive center nearest the shuttle bus stop. From there, explore and learn!
As you make your way down Shenandoah Street, you’ll arrive at John Brown’s Fort and a trail that veers to the right. Stand at the confluence of the rivers and see the remains of the old railroad bridge that they burned and rebuild numerous times during the war. You’ll also get to see the site of the old arsenal that was destroyed in the first year of the war.
From the main town, you can take a couple of different trails. One that runs along Shenandoah River can take you to Virginius Island. Another, at the bottom of the hill from St. Peter’s Church, can take you to Jefferson Rock, which provides a stunning view of the town, rivers, and the three heights that were so contested over during the war. Even further, one can visit the site of Camp Hill at an elevation of 538 feet. For the brave adventurer, there are trails that go up these heights as well. No, I didn’t take that hike and if I did, I’d probably die. I have little endurance.
The question that gets asked frequently is if people still live in Harpers Ferry. Yes, they do! While no one is living in the historic park, there are neighborhoods, shops, restaurants, etc. further to the west and away from the major flood zone that caused the town so many problems.
One can spend an entire day at Harpers Ferry National Historic Park and I recommend you at least reserve a full day, if not a day and a half for the trails and the museums. It’s not to be overlooked and maybe once you get your feet on the ground and stare up at the magnificent heights around the town, you’ll be able to fully grasp why both armies fought so hard to secure this place. True to the words of John D. Smith of the 19th Maine Infantry, “In future years traveler and tourist will eagerly resort [here]… and history will point out [this] as the spot where many acts in the great tragedy, not yet closed, took place.”
Below is a slideshow of some of the pictures from my visit to Harpers Ferry
For further reading
Harpers Ferry Under Fire: A Border Town in the American Civil War by Dennis Frye
Six Years of Hell: Harpers Ferry During the Civil War
Faces of Union Soldiers at South Mountain and Harpers Ferry by Joseph Stahl & Matthew Borders
America’s Good Terrorist: John Brown and the Harpers Ferry Raid by Charles P. Poland Jr.