What happened here?
On Oct. 16, 1859, abolitionist John Brown led 21 men on a raid on the federal arsenal in order to acquire weapons, with which he planned to arm slaves for a war against slavery in Virginia. The raid was quelled two days later by U.S. Marines led by Col. Robert E. Lee. Brown and seven of his raiders were later hanged, following trial for treason. This was also the site of the Battle of Harpers Ferry (Sept. 12–15, 1862), where Confederate soldiers under Maj. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson fought and captured the Union garrison in order to secure a line of supply for Lee as his army moved farther north.
Legacy and Aftermath
John Brown’s failed raid did much to put an already divided nation on a path to war by striking fear in Southern slave owners and by creating a martyr for Northern abolitionists. The battle for the town, almost three years later, was a major victory for the Confederates, who inflicted 217 casualties and captured more than 12,000 Union soldiers, as well as a large cache of weapons and supplies.
I really shouldn’t have gone running yesterday, I thought to myself, as I slogged my way up the steep, rocky trail to Maryland Heights, overlooking Harpers Ferry, W. Va.
We left Robert Morris University in the early morning and rode through a driving rainstorm all the way to this historic town at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah River. On the tour bus I was joined by 14 students in RMU’s Civil War Study Tour class, taught by Dan Barr, Ph.D., associate professor of history.
As we made our way down the PA Turnpike, I introduced myself to a woman named Kristen, a part-time student from Allison Park and the mother of four: a son, 17; and three daughters, 22, 14, and 12.
I asked her why she signed up for the class and tour.
“I hope to learn as much as I can, rather than in the classroom,” she said.
Kristen admits she knows very little about the Civil War. “I would consider myself a Civil War novice,” she said, sharing how the 2003 movie “Cold Mountain” had piqued her interest by giving her a look at the war from the home-front perspective. “That made it real to me,” she said. “I hope I can do the same for my own students some day.”
Like many of us, Kristen is intrigued by the war’s ability to still captivate us almost 150 years later. “I think our society is still obsessed with the Civil War because it was all about us,” she said. “It went to the heart and soul of who we were, and it continues to shape who we are today.”
We arrived at Harpers Ferry in the early afternoon, and within seconds of stepping off the bus, we knew we’re in the South. The muggy air smacked us in the face as gnats buzzed incessantly around our heads.
Our tour guide, Bill Sagle, seemed amused by our reaction to the heat. “You think this is bad,” he said, “you should come here in July.”
For the next two hours or so, Bill gave us an insider’s look at the town, going hour by hour through Brown’s raid and sharing details you won’t necessarily find in your text book. At one point we were all sitting inside the famed Engine House, a.k.a., John Brown’s fort, where the abolitionist held over 40 captives before being overtaken by U.S. Marines led by Col. Robert E. Lee.
When Bill finished his talk, we mentioned our plans to hike up the trail to Maryland Heights, where in 1862 fierce fighting took place in the Battle of Harper’s Ferry. “Good luck,” he said. “I highly suggest bug spray and snake repellent.”
That got the attention of some of the girls in the group.
“Snakes!” they exclaimed. “There’s snakes up there?” I’m not sure if it was fear of disturbing a sleeping rattler or just the stifling heat, but several of the students decided to forego the climb to the heights and instead explore the town. The rest of us took the footbridge across the Potomac to begin our ascent. Our group included one girl, Brie, the president of RMU’s History Club, who was wearing flip-flops and carrying a Prada bag.
On the way up the trail I got to talking with Matt, a grad school student currently doing his student teaching at Western Beaver. It turns out he’s also a Civil War reenactor with the Beaver County-based 63rd Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers, Company C.
“This is nothing,” Matt told me, as we started the 2.1-mile climb. “Last year we hiked Camp Allegheny, 12 miles, in full gear.”
I asked him his opinion on protecting history in places like Harpers Ferry. “Historic preservation is key,” he said. “It’s protecting what your ancestors did for you.”
As a future teacher, Matt sees the value in trips such as these. “You have to get out there and get your hands on history,” he said. “So many students think history is boring. But when you get them out there, and they can see it and feel it themselves…that’s how you can get them excited.”
Forty minutes later, we we’re at the top of the mountain. We paused briefly to catch our breath and gaze down at the rivers and town far below. Of the 10 of us who started the climb, seven make it all the way to the top, including Brie in her flip-flops.
On the way back down the hill, I started talking with Jordan, who is just finishing up his freshman year at RMU. I asked him how it went.
“Good,” he said, “although, my experience was a little different than the average freshman.”
Jordan joined the Army right out of high school and was stationed at Fort Polk in Louisiana. A cannon crew member in a field artillery unit, he spent 10 months in Afghanistan, returned home for one year, and then spent another 15 months in Iraq. He still serves in the National Guard today.
When Jordan came back from Iraq, he started looking around at different schools. That’s when he found out about RMU’s program for veterans and how, through the Federal Yellow Ribbon Program, he could attend the university for free. “That’s all I needed to hear,” he said.
Soon we were back in town and ready to call it a day. So we climbed aboard the bus to head down to Thornburg, Va., for the night.
Next stop, Richmond – the capital of the Confederacy.