Harper’s Ferry scenes for locked-down Civil War buffs

Albeit relocated since 1859, John Brown’s Fort is the main attraction for people visiting Harper’s Ferry National Historic Park in West Virginia. (Brian F. Swartz Photo)

If not for John Brown, not many Americans would ever hear about Harper’s Ferry in West Virginia.

The two railroad bridges crossing the Potomac River at Harper’s Ferry enter a tunnel beneath Maryland Heights. Both bridges are utilized today by CSX. (BFS Photo)

Nestled in the hole where the Shenandoah River meets the Potomac River, Harper’s Ferry was an important transportation hub prior to the Civil War. The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal curved beneath Maryland Heights across the Potomac, and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad reached a wye at Harper’s Ferry. One track swung northwest toward the Ohio River; the other track followed the Shenandoah southwest toward Winchester in the Valley.

A Civil War site lacking the passion of Gettysburg and rural beauty of Antietam, Harper’s Ferry National Historic Park attracts fewer visitors. Just getting into Harper’s Ferry is a headache; most people park at the visitors’ center off Route 340 and catch a shuttle bus into the topographically compacted downtown.

Once there, visitors can stroll the streets — Potomac, High, and Shenandoah, to name most — lined with mid-19th century buildings. The Appalachian Trail parallels the Shenandoah River into town before descending the Stone Steps by the Harper House and crossing the Potomac on a footbridge attached to the 1894-constructed steel-girder CSX Shenandoah Subdivision bridge.

Two visitors ascend the Stone Steps rising from High Street (background) at Harper’s Ferry. The steps carry the Appalachian Trail into the town made famous by the Civil War. (BFS)

Harper’s Ferry National Historic Park is “temporarily closed” due to COVID-19, but the accompanying photos will recall better times, when visitors could browse through a bookstore or check out an eatery on High or Potomac streets.

During the Civil War centennial, the Union-dominated histories portrayed John Brown as an ardent abolitionist (true), but ignored his psychopathic penchant for butchering people. He and his ragtag miscreants (including two Mainers) crossed from Maryland to Harper’s Ferry on the B&O bridge and immediately killed Heyward Shepherd, a free black working for the railroad.

If Brown was really interested in freeing black slaves and fomenting a rebellion against slavery, shooting a black man was not a smart way to start the revolution.

Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart, Israel Greene, and some United States Marines soon stormed the engine house (now dubbed John Brown’s Fort) and captured Brown and his surviving followers. Brown later swung at Charles Towne, an interesting place to visit.

Civil War buffs know that Confederate troops captured Harper’s Ferry a few times during the war and that “Stonewall” Jackson compelled a mass Union surrender here prior to Antietam. Visitors should stop at Bolivar Heights and Schoolhouse Ridge just to the west; in deploying his troops on the ridge, Jackson sealed the Union garrison’s fate.

At least four parking areas access Bolivar Heights and Schoolhouse Ridge, and trails wind across the terrain.

Located next to the Appalachian Trail just west of downtown Harper’s Ferry, Jefferson Rock once was much larger. Passersby have taken souvenir samples from the rock over the years. (BFS)

From the area around Jefferson Rock, Harper’s Ferry visitors can see the Route 340 bridge spanning the Potomac River. (BFS)

Although it lies off the beaten path, Harper’s Ferry is readily accessible from Route 340 (the William L. Wilson Freeway) via the National Park Service shuttle-bus service. Route 340 runs north to traffic-entangled Frederick, Maryland and southwest into Virginia.

Representing Confederate artillery, two cannons stand on Schoolhouse Ridge west of Harper’s Ferry. (BFS)

West of the Harper’s Ferry visitors’ center, Route 230 spins off Route 340 and runs north to Shepherdstown, just across the Potomac River from Sharpsburg, Maryland. Civil War buffs can schedule a pleasant day trip encompassing Antietam National Battlefield and Harper’s Ferry; the places are closely linked by the Antietam Campaign.

An alternative day trip could include Harper’s Ferry and historic Charles Town, a short drive southwest on the well-maintained Route 340. Among the interesting sites at Charles Town are the Jefferson County Museum and the John Brown execution site, located on private property, but visible from the street.

Many buildings dating to the Civil War era line the downtown streets of Harper’s Ferry. (BFS)

If you enjoy reading the adventures of Mainers caught up in the Civil War, be sure to like Maine at War on Facebook and get a copy of the new Maine at War Volume 1: Bladensburg to Sharpsburg, available online at Amazon and all major book retailers, including Books-A-Million and Barnes & Noble. —————————————————————————————————————–

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.


Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.