Learning Lessons of History at Harpers Ferry
Since it has only a few hundred year-round residents, Harpers Ferry has had a rather outsized impact on U.S. history. It was the site of abolitionist John Brown’s ill-fated attempt in 1859 to free slaves in western Virginia.
What we learned on a recent trip there is that Brown’s efforts were not necessarily in vain. As pointed out in one historical recap, his actions inflamed emotions nationwide. Just two and a half years later Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter, South Carolina, touching off the Civil War.
And, as folks around where we live know, two years after the war began western Virginia residents seceded from the state to join the Union. Thus, West Virginia became the first of two states (Nevada the other) to form during the war.
Bucket List Trip
Our recent trip to the northeastern panhandle was our first venture into that part of the state. For anyone who considers themselves a history buff, Harpers Ferry should be at the top of your bucket list.
Having not had time to do any research before we went, I didn’t realize that the national park there is unlike any other in the nation.
I thought we would pay our fee to visit the park, but it turned out the town is the park. For $20, you leave your car at the park office and ride a shuttle downtown (which is a wise idea in an area with quite limited parking).
“Quaint” is a good word for Harpers Ferry. It has the kind of laidback feel that attracts visitors from Washington, D.C., just 85 minutes away via commuter train. It also has the historical flavor that offers a richer view of the U.S.
Ironically, the two most moving experiences of our trip came in neighboring Maryland, another neutral border state during the Civil War.
First was Antietam near Sharpsburg, where 23,000 soldiers died in 12 hours of fighting. The battle ended the Confederate Army’s first invasion of the North. It soon led to Abraham Lincoln issuing the Emancipation Proclamation.
But what caught my attention on the self-guided auto tour of the various sites was Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Order 191.
A copy of it spelling out Lee’s plans for the battle wound up in a Union soldier’s hands. He took it to General George McClellan, who used it to effectively fight the Confederates.
“Wow,” I thought as we read about this lost battle plan. “That’s real hand-of-God stuff.”
While Antietam ended up as a draw, less than nine months later the two sides fought another vicious battle at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, which helped turn the tide in the Union’s favor.
Losing the War
During our trip, we also toured another site operated by the U.S. Park Service: the Battle of Monocacy near Frederick.
In this key combat, the Confederates were en route to Washington, D.C., hoping to capture the White House and throw the Union into disarray.
While the South’s 15,000 troops greatly outnumbered the 6,600 Union soldiers, the North put up enough resistance at Monocacy to delay the South’s advance toward the nation’s capital by one day.
That 24 hours was enough for the Union to move more troops into the District of Columbia and prevent the Confederates from seizing control of Washington. The South won the battle, but lost the war.
Learning about these two key episodes reminded me of the fragility of the state of our nation. With modern-day extremists urging another civil war, I pray that cooler heads will prevail. As our newest Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson has said, it is a “great nation.”