Driving Through History

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park
By Christina Breda
  |  Gorp.com

The battle that took place at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, from September 12 to 15, 1862, was not a major conflict of the Civil War. However, Harpers Ferry is noteworthy for the role it played in preparing the South for its next major battle—the Battle of Antietam—and for its many layers of history, before and after this battle.

The town changed hands, from North to South, eight times between 1861 and 1865, giving it a colorful tale to tell. Its mixture of history and natural beauty makes it an ideal stop along the Civil War driving-tour route, if only for a few hours.

The Battle of Harpers Ferry took place in September 1862 as part of the Maryland Campaign. Wishing to capture the Union garrison stationed here, General Robert E. Lee divided his army into four columns, three of which converged upon Harpers Ferry. With Confederate artillery in place on Loudoun and Maryland Heights overlooking the town, Union Commander Colonel Miles was forced to surrender 12,500 soldiers on September 15 to Confederate Major General Thomas J. Jackson.

The defeat gave the South the war's largest capture of troops and freed up Confederate forces to provide much-needed backup for their counterparts at Antietam. Two months later, the Union returned to Harpers Ferry and fortified the surrounding heights. In 1864, Union General Philip H. Sheridan used Harpers Ferry as his base of operations against Confederate troops in the Shenandoah Valley.

What to Do

Located at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers on the borders of Virginia and Maryland, Harpers Ferry is a notable change from its farmland-battlefield brethren Manassas, Antietam, and Gettysburg. This is a town rather than a sprawling field, and its convincingly restored (if slightly corny) buildings, quaint shops, and riverside location make it a pleasant stop for an afternoon break.

The park itself covers 2,343 acres, including the Historic Lower Town District, Virginius Island, Loudoun Heights, Bolivar Heights, and Maryland Heights. The visitors' center is located on Cavalier Heights and houses a Civil War museum that details Civil War action in the area. From the visitors' center, a shuttle bus takes tourists to the Lower Town District, where buildings have been maintained and restored to reflect the Civil War era. Just outside park boundaries, boutiques and restaurants line the lower town's streets.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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