Saturday, October 6, 2012

"To the Last Extremity"

The 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Harpers Ferry

Yes, some time has past since my last blog post--but for good reason.  More on that later.  In the meantime, I have some catching up to do on my writings here.  There is no better place for me to begin than the 150th anniversary of the Battle for Harpers Ferry.  I had the opportunity to extend my work time with the National Park Service this season.  Following my summer at Gettysburg, I and fellow ranger Cas Rosiecki were detailed to Harpers Ferry for nearly two months to assist with some big sesquicentennial events.  I was able to mix things up and bit and was allowed to deliver ranger programs on Bolivar Heights and in Harpers Ferry's historic Lower Town.

The big commemorative events kicked off on the morning of September 13--the anniversary of the fight for Maryland Heights between the Confederates of Lafayette McLaws and the green recruits of the mysterious Colonel Dixon Miles.  I accompanied approximately sixty visitors and park ranger David Fox on a two and a half mile hike up the mountain across the Potomac River from town.  At one of our first stops, pictured above, David helped set the scene by describing the situation at Harpers Ferry.  By 1862, the occupied town was in ruin.  All but 100 of the town's 2,500 inhabitants had abandoned their homes since the war began.  But in the meantime, approximately 16,000 others had poured into the community.  14,000 of them were Federal troops.  2,000 of them were escaped slaves seeking refuge within the Union lines.  (A portion of this slave "Contraband Camp" was recreated above.)  But there were even more practical reasons the area became a target for Confederates.

The high real-estate value of Harpers Ferry had much to do with its geographic position and infrastructure.  Much like an interstate today, the town was pivotal for transportation.  The Point, pictured above, was the intersection of two major rivers, the C&O Canal, and the B&O Railroad.  Furthermore, whoever controls Harpers Ferry largely controls the northern head of of the Shenandoah Valley--the breadbasket of the Confederacy.  For these reasons and more, Colonel Miles was ordered to hold the town "to the last extremity."  He planned to go nowhere.

Robert E. Lee was caught off guard by Miles' reluctance to abandon Harpers Ferry.  He thought the disgraced army veteran would consolidate with the main body of the Union forces in Maryland, but he did not.  This situation forced Robert E. Lee to pen Special Orders 191, a risky plan that divided his army into four sections, with three of those columns marching to Harpers Ferry to capture it.  Above, Ranger Fox stands at the site of the former Union pontoon bridge that spanned the Potomac at the time of the battle.  Here, 1,500 Federal cavalrymen under Colonel Benjamin Grimes Davis covertly escaped Confederate capture into Maryland. 

After a strenuous hike up Maryland Heights, David presented the story of the battle that took place there 150 years earlier to the day.  From the outset, the inexperienced Union soldiers were in above their heads.  Having been in the armed forces for less than a month, they found themselves facing off with the most formidable fighting force on earth: "Stonewall" Jackson's men of the Army of Northern Virginia.  The Yanks had constructed fairly formidable trenches with hundreds of yards of fallen trees in front of them serving as an obstacle course, but the southerners under William Barksdale outflanked them.

Many of the Federals fell back to the Naval Battery beneath the crest of Maryland Heights.  Here, Miles made another catastrophic blunder.  He placed his most experienced troops here in reserve rather than on the front lines.  Amidst all the confusion of battle, orders became garbled and the Union men were told to retreat orderly back to the town.  Outraged at this situation, Miles pointed up to the smoking hill and exclaimed, “God Almighty!  What does that mean?  They are coming down!  Hell and damnation!”

Believe it or not, the majority of this Civil War battlefield on Maryland Heights is not owned by the National Park Service.  Most of it is within private property and remains unprotected.  Perhaps another endeavor for the Civil War Trust?

The Federals who escaped Maryland Heights reformed within Harpers Ferry and on its outskirts.  Fought mostly with artillery, the battle went on until the morning hours of September 15.  Cut off from four different directions, the northern garrison had no feasible choice but to surrender.  Amidst the final shots of the fight, Colonel Miles was mortally wounded.  His troops fared only slightly better, with 12,700 of them becoming prisoners of war--the largest surrender of U.S. troops until the fall of Bataan and Corregidor eighty years later.  Paroled and let go, the unfortunate Federals (known as the "Cowards of Harpers Ferry") became prisoners at the hands of their own men in Chicago until they were absorbed back into the army in 1863--finding themselves at Gettysburg shortly thereafter.  The fight at Harpers Ferry, although often overlooked, set the stage for the bloodiest day in American History at Antietam two days later.

Accordingly, there was no shortage of special events and activities for people of all ages at the park for the anniversary weekend.  That Friday, the park was swarmed with school students to participate in education programs and displays.  Here, Ranger Stan McGee shows some young "recruits" how a Civil War soldier prepared his daily serving of rations.

Visitors were also greeted with a special evening concert featuring the Fort McHenry Fife & Drum Corps, which played duty and drill tunes heard by Civil War soldiers everyday.  These were not fanciful or parade songs, but practical beats meant to convey orders and movements.  Nevertheless, there was still a harmonious melody to it all.


That same evening, a unique lantern-led tour entitled The Desperate Hour described the tense situation for soldiers, townspeople, and escaped slaves on the eve of Harpers Ferry's capitulation to "Stonewall" Jackson.


As with many living history events at the park, signs, wagons, and various props were carefully placed to add an additional immersive quality to the event.  Here, the Lower Town's Provost Marshall's office is covered with military notices, wanted posters, and government proclamations.

Naturally, reenactors add another nice dimension for visitors.  Here, some of Jackson's men march triumphantly through town after capturing their prize.

As if all of that were not enough, the Harpers Ferry Historical Association had a number of discussion panels, guest lectures, and book signings throughout the anniversary weekend.  Gettysburg National Military Park historian Scott Hartwig was there signing copies of his new book To Antietam Creek, which covers the Battle of Harpers Ferry extensively.  Harpers Ferry chief historian Dennis Frye (right) was also there signing his new book Harpers Ferry Under Fire.  Due to my work schedule, I had the pleasure to call both of these guys my bosses at the same time!

 
Park leaders were very pleased with the wide variety of special events and the huge numbers of visitation throughout the week.  Above, scores of visitors await to board buses to take them to the Lower Town from the visitor center.  I was glad to discover that the simultaneous events at Harpers Ferry and Antietam were not working against each other, but in tandem with each other.  The Park Service marketed the regional events quite well in my view.

I had the honor of delivering the last ranger program of the anniversary events.  Here, I implemented a new canvas map made by some of the great park volunteers.  This allowed me to have visitors represent columns of troops moving into different positions.  This can allow for additional visualization, comprehension, and humor in a program for general audiences.  The gentleman standing on the map represents Dixon Miles (who is about to be surrounded from all directions by other audience members).  NPS photo courtesy of Autumn Cook.

I greatly enjoyed my time at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.  The place is most assuredly one of the most historically significant sites in the country--having so many levels of history from colonial times to the present.  A big thank you goes out to my supervisors and colleagues for giving me this opportunity!

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