harpers ferry, west virginia

Friday, January 13: On a beautiful Friday in January, just before I was to begin teaching a 7-week session at VIU, I decided to drive to Harpers Ferry National Historical Park in West Virginia for a morning outing.  Before this job dropped into my lap, I had made a schedule for myself that included taking a photo outing every Friday.  Despite getting the job at the last-minute and having to prepare two syllabuses and lesson plans, I went out anyway, determined that I wouldn’t allow this job to ruin my personal goals.  In the end, the outing caused me a great deal of stress over the weekend.  It turned out I would never have time for another Friday outing during the entire 7-week session.

I was glad I went even though it took me longer to drive there than the 1 hr 9 min estimated by MapQuest.

At the Visitor’s Center, I was told there was a 2 1/2 mile hike to the river bluff or a shuttle into the town of Harpers Ferry, where I could get some lunch.  I only had time for one or the other, and I was hungry, so I opted for the town.  The town is supposedly closed off to cars, so I was required to take the shuttle despite having my car.  Later, as I walked through the town, I saw cars driving through, so it was obviously NOT “closed off to cars!”

I was dropped by the shuttle on Shenandoah Street, from which I could see St. Peter’s Catholic Church on the hill overlooking the town.

St. Peter’s Catholic Church

I walked down the quiet street, looking at the preserved shops from the 1800s.

Shenandoah Street
Shenandoah Street
Philip Frankel & Co.

At the end of Shenandoah Street, I got a glimpse of the John Brown Museum.  I didn’t go inside because I didn’t want to take that much time.

The story is this:  In October 1859, determined to arm enslaved people and spark rebellion, John Brown and his followers seized the armory and several other strategic points.  The raid failed, with most men killed or captured.  Brown’s trial and execution focused attention on the issue of slavery and propelled the nation toward civil war. (National Park Service pamphlet)

John Brown Museum

I walked up High Street, which has shops and restaurants.  As it was lunchtime and I was hungry, I searched for a place to grab a bite.

High Street

I stopped by the train station to watch some of the trains barrel past.

I ducked into Hannah’s New Orleans Seafood & Southern BBQ for some lunch. It was bright and cheery, and the Bubba Gump Louisiana shrimp fried in Cajun cornmeal was delicious. 🙂

A lunch stop
Tenfold fair trade collection

After lunch, I walked back down High Street.

High Street

I took the path up to Jefferson Rock.   First I came face-to-face with St. Peter’s Catholic Church.

Irish laborers flooded into the Harpers Ferry area during the 1830s to build the Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) Canal and the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) Railroad.  St. Peter’s Catholic Church symbolizes America’s melting pot tradition and the customs, habits, and religion of the early Irish immigrants.

St. Peter’s Catholic Church

During the Civil War, to protect the church from Union and Confederate shells, Father Costello flew the British Union Jack flag as a symbol of the church’s neutrality.  St. Peter’s escaped the war relatively unscathed. The church was remodeled in 1896 and Mass is offered here every Sunday.

St. Peter’s Catholic Church

Further up the path, I found the ruins of St. John’s Episcopal Church, one of Harpers Ferry’s five earliest churches.  Built in 1852 with money provided by church fairs, St. John’s served as a hospital and barracks during the Civil War and suffered considerable damage.  It was rebuilt afterward, but was abandoned in 1895 when a new Episcopal church was built in the upper town.

Ruins of St. John’s Episcopal Church
Ruins of St. John’s Episcopal Church

Above the ruins sat a pretty house with a grand view.

a fancy house on the path to Jefferson Rock

This is how Thomas Jefferson described the view from Jefferson Rock during a visit to Harpers Ferry in 1783:

“On your right comes up the Shenandoah, having ranged along the foot of the mountain a hundred miles to seek a vent.  On your left approaches the Patowmac [Potomac], in quest of a passage also.  In the moment of their junction they rush together against the mountain, rend it asunder, and pass off to the sea … This scene is worth a voyage across the Atlantic.”

Looking from the hill to St. Peter’s and the Potomac River

Around 1860, the U.S. armory superintendent ordered red sandstone supports places under “Jefferson Rock” because it was “endangering the lives and properties of the villagers below.”

Jefferson Rock

Going back down the hill, I passed the ruins again.

The ruins again
Looking down at St. Peter’s and the Potomac
St. Peter’s Catholic Church
The John Brown Museum below

At this juncture of the Potomac and the Shenandoah rivers, George Washington envisioned military strength and chose Harpers Ferry as the site for a U.S. Armory.   By the early 1800s, the rivers powered the armory complex and commercial mills.  The revolutionary method of manufacturing with interchangeable parts was perfected at the Halls Island rifle factory.

Below is Arsenal Square and the John Brown Museum.

The John Brown Museum
The John Brown Museum and St. Peter’s

I followed part of the Appalachian Trail from the end of Shenandoah Street across the footbridge to the C&O Canal and Maryland Heights.

Potomac River at Harpers Ferry
Potomac River at Harpers Ferry
bridge across the Potomac River at Harper’s Ferry
Walking bridge across the Potomac River
Where the Potomac River merges with the Shenandoah

There is a lot of train activity at this juncture of the rivers.

Rail transportation in the United States began in Baltimore, Maryland on July 4, 1828, when Charles Carroll, the only living signer of the Declaration of Independence, laid the cornerstone of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.

On the same day, President John Quincy Adams turned the first spade of earth along the Potomac River for the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.

The race was underway as the progressive railroad and the traditional canal struggled to become the first to connect the Ohio Valley with the east coast.  Harpers Ferry was one of the first milestones of that race.

Trainspotting

Work on the railroad and canal progressed slowly at first, but by 1834 both companies had completed construction to a point opposite Harpers Ferry. The canal had won the race to this point, and it continued up the Maryland side to the Potomac.

The B&O Railroad, plagued by land disputes with the canal, crossed the Potomac at Harpers Ferry in 1837 and rapidly pushed on.  By 1842, it reached Cumberland, Maryland, and a decade later, the railroad was open to Wheeling on the Ohio River.

the bridge

Business boomed at Harpers Ferry with the arrival of the railroad.  Refrigerated cars brought oysters and other luxuries to the town.  Thousands of travelers visited Harpers Ferry as it became a gateway to the Ohio Valley.

The Civil War shattered Harpers Ferry’s prosperity.  Much of the town was destroyed, and Confederate raiders constantly sabotaged the railroad.  Despite the war, the railroad escaped permanent damage, and the B&O survives today as a main artery of transportation in the United States.

bridge shots

On the other side of the footbridge, I saw the path along the C&O Canal, but I didn’t have time to explore it further.

The C&O Canal was burdened by a lack of building supplies and a scarcity of skilled labor and thus encountered serious financial problems.  It did not reach Cumberland, Maryland until 1850 — eight years after the railroad reached that point.  Plans to continue further westward were abandoned.

Made obsolete by the faster and less expensive railroad, the C&O Canal never attained any great measure of economic success, but it did transport coal, flour, grain, and lumber to Washington for nearly 90 years.  Canal operations ceased in 1924 when a flood devastated the Potomac Valley, leaving the canal in ruins.

the path continues
steps to the other side
playing with color

Today’s view of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers passing through the water gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains has changed little from Meriwether Lewis’ view in 1803.  Lewis hoped to find a similar, accessible trade route on rivers passing through the Rocky Mountains.

The first mode of travel consisted of a primitive ferry established in 1733 by Peter Stephens.  Stephens sold his business to Robert Harper in 1747, and Harper and others carried settlers and supplied across the waters until 1824 when a bridge constructed across the Potomac made ferryboat operations unnecessary.

In less than a decade after the bridge was completed, the iron horse and the mule brought the transportation revolution to Harpers Ferry.

Potomac River at Harper’s Ferry

In 1848, the building now known as John Brown Fort was built as a fire-engine house for the U.S. Armory.  On October 16, 1859, it served as a stronghold for John Brown and his raiders, as they were penned into the building by the local militia.  U.S. Marines stormed the building at dawn on October 18th and captured Brown.  Convicted of murder, treason, and inciting slaves to rebellion, he was hanged in nearby Charles Town on December 2, 1859.

John Brown

The Fort escaped destruction during the Civil War, but from 1861-1865, it was vandalized by souvenir-hunting Union and Confederate soldier and later travelers.  In 1891, it was dismantled and transported to the Chicago Exposition, and in 1895, it was rescued from conversion to a stable and brought back to Harpers Ferry to be exhibited on a farm.  Then in 1909, it was purchased by Storer College and moved to campus.  Finally, in 1968, it was moved by the National Park Service to within 150 feet of its original location.

John Brown Fort
Philip Frankel & Co. with St. Peter’s on the hill behind
Looking up at Jefferson Rock
St. Peter’s Catholic Church

After my fun excursion, it was sadly time to return home and get to work on preparing for my classes.  I could have explored a lot more.  Sadly, it would have to wait for another day.

the final attack trail at antietam, the antietam creek aqueduct & return to virginia

Sunday, November 15:  Finally, we embark on our last hike at Antietam, the Final Attack Trail.  This afternoon is gorgeous, cool but not too cold or windy, with the sun shining in full force.  This is my favorite hike at Antietam with its rolling hills and grand vistas.

After capturing the Burnside Bridge, over 8,000 Union soldiers crossed Antietam Creek.  They marched across the fields where the trail is located for the final advance to drive the Confederate Army from Maryland, only to be turned back by A. P. Hill’s final Confederate counterattack.  It’s disturbing to realize how many lives were lost in this place with no decisive victory in the end.

This part of the battle lasted from 3:00-5:30 p.m. and saw five times as many casualties than there were in the action at the Burnside Bridge.  These final 2 1/2 hours of combat concluded the 12-hour struggle of the bloodiest day in American history.

Starting off on the Final Attack Trail
Starting off on the Final Attack Trail

As we proceed along the trail, we find exceptional views of the Antietam Valley and the series of ridges and farms that the Union 9th Corps advanced across.  Across the valley is the Sherrick Farm, built in the 1830s by Joseph Sherrick Jr. and leased to Leonard Emmert at the time of the battle.

View of Antietam Valley and Sherrick Farm
View of Antietam Valley and Sherrick Farm
The Final Attack Trail
The Final Attack Trail

Next we head toward Otto Lane and make a stop at the 11th Ohio Monument, where we stop to admire the views.  This entire trail traverses the Otto farm. After the battle, the Otto and Sherrick Farms served as field hospitals.

Otto Lane
Otto Lane
path leading to Otto Lane
path leading to Otto Lane
path leading to Otto Lane and the 11th Ohio Monument
path leading to Otto Lane and the 11th Ohio Monument
Mike at the 11th Ohio Monument
Mike at the 11th Ohio Monument
Otto Lane
Otto Lane

The gully next to Otto Lane was used as a respite from the terror of war by the Union soldiers.

ravine
ravine

Next we head down the trail to the 40-acre cornfield.

Taking the Final Attack Trail to a 40-acre cornfield
Taking the Final Attack Trail to a 40-acre cornfield
Final Attack Trail
Final Attack Trail
Final Attack Trail
Final Attack Trail

In the head-high corn of the 40-acre cornfield, Maj. Gen. Ambrose Powell (A.P.) Hill made the Confederate’s final attack.  Hill’s approximately 3,500 men, who had been tending to the surrender of the Union garrison at nearby Harpers Ferry, left Harpers Ferry at 7:00 a.m., marched 15 grueling miles, waded across the Potomac River and arrived about 4:00 p.m.  Three of Hill’s five brigades, about 2,500 men, would arrive in time to attack, according to a National Park Service pamphlet: The Final Attack Trail.

Final Attack Trail to the 40-acre cornfield
Final Attack Trail to the 40-acre cornfield
Cornfield on the Final Attack Trail
Cornfield on the Final Attack Trail
Final Attack Trail to the ridge
Final Attack Trail to the ridge
hilly ground
hilly ground

The huge hackberry tree below marks the extreme southern end of the battlefield.  It was at this end of the field that A.P. Hill’s Confederates made their counterattack to support D.R. Jones’ division that was being pushed back to Sharpsburg.

the hackberry tree at the extreme southern end of the battlefield
the hackberry tree at the extreme southern end of the battlefield
climbing to the ridge for the Final Attack vista
climbing to the ridge for the Final Attack vista

At the top of the ridge, we can see one of the best battle panoramas at Antietam.  From this spot, we can see most of the ground covered in the Union 9th Corps advance and A.P. Hill’s counterattack.  The Union army stretched for close to 3 miles to the north, slowed by the difficult terrain and the corn.   In the end, the entire 9th Corps collapsed from left to right and fell backwards toward the bridge.

Along the Final Attack vista
Along the Final Attack vista

Artillery Ridge was used by the artillery of both sides.  Union soldier Charles Cuffel remembered that “the cannonading was very heavy, each side appearing to employ all the guns at their command, and to use them with utmost vigor.  The air seemed to be filled with shrieking missiles, and there was ocular evidence on every hand that somebody was getting hurt.” (National Park Service: The Final Attack Trail).

We continue walking across Artillery Ridge and return to where we started the hike.

Me with cannon at Artillery Ridge
Me with cannon at Artillery Ridge

Burnside’s advance and A.P. Hill’s counterattack concluded the twelve hours of fighting on September 17, 1862. On this end of the battlefield, the Union men fell back to where we started our walk.  The difficult terrain, the confusion of battle, and a timely Confederate arrival all combined to stop the Union army and led to a tactical draw.

General Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia held their ground on the 18th, then withdrew back across the Potomac River to Virginia.  The battle ended the first Confederate invasion of the North and provided Abraham Lincoln an opportunity to issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.

Sherrick Farm
Sherrick Farm

After leaving Antietam shortly after 1:00 today, we go to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal (the C&O Canal) built originally from 1828-1850 to create a navigable waterway from tidewater at Georgetown (Washington, D.C.) to the Ohio River.   By the time 1850 rolled around, progress had left the C&O Canal behind and canals were obsolete.  Cost overruns, labor problems, and rocky terrain delayed building the canal, but new railroad technology had made great strides.  The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad completed the link to the west, while the canal stopped far short or reaching the Ohio River (National Park service pamphlet: Chesapeake and Ohio Canal).

After closing in 1924, the canal sat abandoned for 30 years.  Now bypassed by freight and commerce, the canal was soon discovered by people with different goals.  The canal’s nearly level towpath ran 184.5 miles along the Potomac River.  In 1971, Congress established the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park.  Today, hikers, campers, bicyclists and others can explore the Potomac River valley’s rich history, wildlife and geology.

I’ve been on different parts of the C&O Canal during my many years living in northern Virginia. You can read about some of the other places of interest here: https://catbirdinamerica.wordpress.com/2014/03/16/great-falls-park-the-patomack-canal/ and https://catbirdinamerica.wordpress.com/2015/11/08/a-november-rock-scramble-on-billy-goat-trail/.

Today, we go to the C&O Canal to visit Antietam Creek and the Antietam Creek Aqueduct, begun in 1832 and completed in April 1835.  The C&O Canal used 11 navigable aqueducts to carry the canal over rivers and streams that were too wide for a culvert to contain (Wikipedia: Aqueducts on the C&O Canal).

Antietam Creek Aqueduct
Antietam Creek Aqueduct
Antietam Creek Aqueduct
Antietam Creek Aqueduct

By the time we arrive for lunch at 2:15 back in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, we’re famished.  We decide to try out the Mexican restaurant at Mi Degollado II.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Mike at Mi Degollado

Mi Degollado II was built in the old Yellow Brick Bank in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. It even has the old bank vault in it.

After lunch, it’s sadly time for our anniversary weekend to come to a close.

Mi Degollado
Mi Degollado

We drive back a couple of hours home to northern Virginia, happy to have celebrated our 27th, or 20th (whichever you want to call it), anniversary on such a beautiful weekend. 🙂

breakfast at the inn & the cornfield trail at antietam

Sunday, November 15:  After having a wonderful breakfast at the Jacob Rohrbach Inn, we walk around inside and outside to take pictures before checking out and heading to Antietam National Battlefield.

Jacob Rohrbach Inn
Jacob Rohrbach Inn

When we get to Antietam, our first stop is the Dunker Church, possibly one of the most famous churches in American military history. This historic structure began as a humble country house of worship constructed by local Dunker farmers in 1852. During its early history the congregation consisted of about half a dozen farm families from the local area (National Park Service: Who were the Dunkers).

Dunker Church
Dunker Church

The Dunker movement began in Germany in the early eighteenth century; the name derives from its method of baptism by full immersion. However they were more commonly known as the German Baptist Brethren.

According to National Park Service: Who were the Dunkers: Dunkers practiced modesty in their dress and general lifestyle. Other Christian principles which the Dunker’s stress are: pacifism, members both North and South refused military service; the brotherhood of man, including opposition to slavery; and temperance, total abstinence from alcohol. A typical Dunker Church service supported their beliefs in simplicity. Hymns were sung with no musical accompaniment from organ, piano or other instruments. The congregation was divided with men seated on one side and women on the other. The churches were simple with no stained glass windows, steeple or crosses.

Inside the simple Dunker Church
Inside the simple Dunker Church

During the battle of Antietam the church was the focal point of a number of Union attacks against the Confederate left flank. At the battle’s end the Confederates used the church as a temporary medical aid station. At least one account states that after the battle the Union Army used the Dunker Church as an embalming station. One tradition persists that Lincoln may have visited the site during his visit to the Army of the Potomac in October 1862 (National Park Service: Dunker Church).

After our brief visit to the Dunker Church, we embark on the 1.6 mile Cornfield Trail, beginning at the North Woods.  The trail covers most of the area where the first three hours of the battle took place. More than 25,000 men in blue and gray struggled mightily for control of this northern end of the field. There were more casualties in and around the Cornfield than anywhere else on the battlefield, with as many as 8,000 men killed or wounded from dawn until 9:00 a.m. during two major Union attacks and a Confederate counterattack.  This is actually an agricultural area; the National Park Service issues permits to local farmers who plant crops and pasture animals that help the park maintain its rural landscape  (National Park Service pamphlet: The Cornfield Trail: September Harvest of Death).

We park near the J. Poffenberger farm and explore that for a bit.  It’s beautiful with the bright blue sky as a backdrop.

J. Poffenberger farm
J. Poffenberger farm
J. Poffenberger farm
J. Poffenberger farm
J. Poffenberger farm
J. Poffenberger farm
J. Poffenberger farm
J. Poffenberger farm
Mike at the J. Poffenberger farm
Mike at the J. Poffenberger farm

We begin at what was then the North Woods.  Over the years, local farmers used the wood for fences and firewood.  The Park Service is trying to restore the land to how it looked the day of the battle and has planted trees in this and other areas of the park.

What was once the North Woods
What was once the North Woods

From this point, Major General Joseph Hooker’s Union forces moved out.  After marching through the North Woods and into the open fields beyond, the Union soldiers were met with devastating artillery fire from Confederate guns (The Cornfield Trail: September Harvest of Death).

For the next 100 yards, we walk along the edge of the East Woods.  Part of this will be replanted by the Park Service.  All of the wooded areas were important as staging and rallying areas for both sides.

Along the edge of the East Woods
Along the edge of the East Woods

Hooker ordered two artillery batteries to move to the high ground and fire point-blank at the Confederates in the Cornfield, clearing the way for Hooker’s infantry.  Then three 1st Corps brigades moved through the area.  One commander was wounded and another panicked and ran away, delaying two of the brigades.  General Abraham Duryea’s Brigade of about 1,000 men advanced alone into the Cornfield at about 6:00 a.m.  In the 30 minutes before the other two delayed units joined them, almost half of Durban’s men would be killed or wounded (The Cornfield Trail: September Harvest of Death).

view of the Cornfield
view of the Cornfield
the edge of the East Woods
the edge of the East Woods

The 12th Massachusetts went through the Cornfield where they collided with Gen. Harry Hays’ Louisiana Brigade.  During the struggle, the men from Massachusetts had 67% casualties (dead and wounded), the highest percentage of loss for any Union regiment that day (The Cornfield Trail: September Harvest of Death).

There are two main types of historic fences – the five rail vertical and the stacked snake rail. Fences like these at Antietam represent fence lines that were here during the battle.

Me on a peaceful day in the Cornfield
Me on a peaceful day in the Cornfield
fences in the Cornfield
snake, or worm rail, fence in the Cornfield

We traipse across the open cornfield, trying to imagine the mayhem and noise and the smell of death on that horrible day.  It really is hard for us to imagine such devastation, especially on such a perfect and calm day.

Here, we’re walking in the footsteps of the Iron Brigade, who pushed through this field at about 6:30 a.m.  These were all midwestern boys from Wisconsin and Indiana and Major Rufus Dawes describes the carnage: “Men I cannot say fell; they were knocked out of the ranks by the dozens.”

the Cornfield looking back at the East Woods
the Cornfield looking back at the East Woods

Later that morning, Confederate soldiers under Gen. John Bell Hood’s command counterattacked back through the corn all the way to this northern edge.  By 9:00 a.m. the Cornfield changed hands too many times to count.

looking across the Cornfield to the Miller farm
looking across the Cornfield to the Miller farm
the Cornfield
the Cornfield
the Cornfield and snake, or worm, rail
the Cornfield and snake, or worm, rail

After numerous battles and casualties on this spot, the 1st Texas Infantry charged through the Cornfield, losing 82% of their men (killed or wounded), the highest percentage for any Confederate unit in any battle of the Civil War.

the Cornfield looking west toward the Miller farm
the Cornfield looking west toward the Miller farm

Though the history tells of many attacks and counterattacks in this area, I won’t go into great depth here.

The battle not only killed soldiers but it devastated the community.  The town of Sharpsburg’s population at that time was about 1,200.  For every person in town, there were almost 100 soldiers present.  The battle destroyed not only fences and crops, but houses, barns and the residents’ livelihoods.  After the battle, the 80,000-man Union army remained for two months as uninvited guests, according to the National Park Service pamphlet: The Cornfield Trail: September Harvest of Death.

the Miller farm
the Miller farm

David R. Miller owned the farm that included the Cornfield.  Like other residents, he ran to escape the terror of war only to return to a farm that would never be the same.  He submitted a damage claim of $1,237 to the federal government for damage, and the U.S. Quartermaster General reimbursed him $995 in 1872, ten years later (The Cornfield Trail: September Harvest of Death).

Diseases also ravaged many of the local families.  David’s brother Daniel died just after the battle.  Another brother wrote “diarrhea was a very common complaint…” adding to the horrors of war (The Cornfield Trail: September Harvest of Death).

Mike and I continue our hike today down the Hagerstown Turnpike past the Miller farm, where we encounter a very curious flock of sheep.

sheep at the Miller farm
sheep at the Miller farm
curious sheep
curious sheep
the sheep approach
the sheep approach
just north of Miller farm
just north of Miller farm
the sheep at Miller farm watch us closely
the sheep at Miller farm watch us closely

After leaving our sheep friends, we continue on the loop and head back toward the North Woods and the J. Poffenberger farm where we parked.

me on the path back to the North Woods
me on the path back to the North Woods
Mike heading to the North Woods
Mike heading to the North Woods
the trail to the North Woods
the trail to the North Woods
autumn trees
autumn trees

The landscape along this trail was the scene of some of the most terrible fighting in the history of the United States.  General Joseph Hooker wrote, “In the time I am writing every stalk of corn in the northern and greater part of the field was cut as closely as could have been done with a knife, and the slain lay in rows precisely as they had stood in their ranks a few moments before.  It was never my fortune to witness a more bloody, dismal battlefield.” 

“Incredibly, the fighting in the Cornfield represented only one-third of the day’s action at Antietam.  At the end of eleven hours of battle, more than 23,000 men were killed, wounded or missing.  General Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia held their ground on the 18th, then retreated that night across the Potomac River and back into Virginia.  This battle ended the first Northern invasion by the Confederacy and provided Abraham Lincoln an opportunity to issue his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation,” says the pamphlet: The Cornfield Trail: September Harvest of Death.

After we finish hiking the Cornfield Trail it’s only 11:40 a.m., too early to eat, so we decide we’ll hike the 1.7-mile Final Attack Trail before grabbing lunch back in Shepherdstown.