“Stupendous…worth a voyage across the Atlantic.” Standing by giant blue-gray boulders perched precariously over a precipice, Thomas Jefferson gazed, awestruck, at the gap carved through the Blue Ridge Mountains by the cascading Shenandoah River, bonding with its big sister, the Potomac. It was 1783.
Millions of visitors have experienced the view from Jefferson Rock in the 225 years since the Virginia statesman first stood there. Today it is preserved as part of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, where I work as a historian, in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle. But natural beauty isn’t the only reason to visit Harpers Ferry. From 1794, when President George Washington designated it as the nation’s second federal armory (the first was in Springfield, Mass.) to the pivotal 1906 meeting of the Niagara Movement (precursor to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), the small town was uniquely positioned to play a big role in our industrial, civil rights and, especially, Civil War history.
The Civil War is still palpable on Maryland Heights, a remarkable vantage point across the Potomac from Jefferson Rock. The highest of three mountains surrounding Harpers Ferry, Maryland Heights’ 300-foot cliffs tower as guardians of the gap, standing like stone statues at the rivers’ confluence. Carved on a rock atop the bluff is this curiosity: “C.R. Parker, Co. K, 13th Mass. Inf., Sept., 1861.” I’ve often wondered how many bayonet points or knife blades Parker ruined while whiling away his day on picket duty, peering across the Potomac— then an international border— into Harpers Ferry and the Confederate States of America.
Parker was one of tens of thousands of Union soldiers who occupied Maryland Heights during the Civil War. They left behind fortifications, roads and encampments, whose ruins stimulate your historical imagination as you hike park trails traversing the mountain wilderness. I once found a shooting marble at a remote spring while exploring far away from the trails. I’ll never know the name of the Yankee soldier who dropped it, nor what he looked like, nor where he was from. But when I picked up that marble— knowing no hands had touched it since the Civil War—I “connected” with the soldier I’ll never know.
About 30 years after the Civil War, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad drilled a tunnel through Maryland Heights and built a steel-girder bridge across the Potomac. I used to cross the river via the rickety railroad plank walk attached to this bridge. Illegal? Certainly. Dangerous? Of course.
But I insisted on access to one of the best jogging trails in the East, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park towpath, and that bridge was my connection from my Harpers Ferry home. Indeed, on occasion, an adrenaline rush forced me to outrun a train, albeit moving only about 10 mph on this line. Since 1985, however, visitors have crossed this bridge via a National Park Service pedestrian walkway that offers spectacular views of three states— Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia—and connects to the Appalachian Trail near its midpoint between Maine and Georgia. Just downstream, ruins of massive stone piers testify to the violence of floods that have plagued the area. They also stand as silent sentinels, reminding us of the destruction that befell a town trapped between North and South during the Civil War.
John Brown helped launch that war. Leading his small band from Maryland into Harpers Ferry, crossing the original Potomac bridge, the fiery abolitionist opened his final assault against slavery on the dreary night of October 16, 1859. His attack on the U.S. armory and arsenal failed, but the brick building where he made his last stand still survives. Every day, for more than 10 years, from my kitchen window in the Master Armorer’s House, I gazed at “John Brown’s Fort.” Less than 100 yards from my home, America’s second revolution had commenced. A historian living so near to such history: perfection.
When I first moved into the home of the armory’s chief gunsmith as a 21-year-old ranger historian, I owned one piece of furniture—a picnic table. The 12-foot ceilings and 18-by-18-foot rooms made me feel like a king in my new palace. Even though the first floor was a visitor center—and still serves as the historic town information center today—the second floor was my historical sanctuary. Even better, to arrive at work, all I had to do was walk downstairs.
One of my greatest discoveries as a historian involved the Master Armorer’s House. While in Cleveland addressing that city’s Civil War Round Table, an audience member informed me that the unpublished 1864 sketchbook and diary of Civil War artist James Taylor was at the local Western Reserve Library. And it was full of Harpers Ferry images. I changed my schedule to view this gem, and eureka! Before me were unknown illustrations—including one of my house—showing great architectural details of the Ferry during the war.
Enthused beyond words, I began scanning Taylor’s handwritten notes, and then I struck historian’s gold. Taylor revealed that Ulysses S. Grant had spent the night in Harpers Ferry after meeting with General Philip Sheridan—and he had stayed in my home! Soon thereafter, I served as co-editor for An Artist With Sheridan in the Shenandoah: The James E. Taylor Sketchbook, one of the greatest thrills of my career. Incidentally, prior to moving out of the Master Armorer’s House, I spent a night in every room so that I could forever say, “I slept where Grant slept.”
Harpers Ferry’s Civil War history extends beyond the town proper. Battling to protect that land has been a priority for the past two decades, since much of the original national park did not include the surrounding battlefields and the area is undergoing rapid development. I vividly recall standing atop School House Ridge—where Confederate General Stonewall Jackson orchestrated the largest surrender of U.S. troops during the Civil War— with a local county commissioner lecturing me that “Nothing happened here, boy. Nothing.” Fortunately, this shortsighted perspective did not prevail and, in 2004, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-WV) asked me to testify before Congress in support of expanding the park boundary to include the battlefield. Today, School House Ridge, just west of Harpers Ferry, features public trails and exhibits, providing redemption for a forgotten past.
Whether you’re searching for history or natural beauty, ramparts or rivers, battlefields or beauty fields, landscapes or streetscapes, visionaries or vistas, human trials or animal trails, Harpers Ferry offers reflection for reflectors.
Originally published in the June 2008 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.