Harpers Ferry is located where the Potomac River cuts through the Blue Ridge Mountain and meets the Shenandoah River. In the days when travel around our young country was best done on water, George Washington chose this spot as the site for the US Armory. It became much more: our first military industrial complex. The rushing water not only brought raw materials in and manufactured products out, but it powered the factories where the products were made. Before the Civil War, 3,000 people lived and worked in the prosperous industrial town. Benefitting from abundant natural resources, this area was advertised as “one of the best situations in the United States for… factories.” The town’s largest source of industry, the United States Armory, had over 20 factory buildings and 400 employees. In 1859 abolitionist John Brown seized the armory in an attempt to arm the slaves and spark rebellion. Although his scheme was poorly planned and quickly squelched, his attempt alarmed the Southern slave holders who were already nervous about slave rebellion. Some historians argue that this incident was the spark that began our Civil War. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal also provided a steady flow of people and commerce throughout the town. These assets made the town strategically important to both sides during the war. The town changed hands eight times but remained under control of the Union for 80% of the war. The same rushing waters that caused the formation of this important town, also caused its ultimate destruction. A series of catastrophic floods in the early 1900's destroyed the downtown, washing away entire buildings and washing in sewage from surrounding farms. It never returned to its former glory.
Today Harpers Ferry is an interesting mix of national park and a real town. We took a shuttle bus from the visitors center in West Virginia into the reconstructed historic-looking town along the rivers in Maryland. Some of the restored buildings looked like they did back in the day both inside and out and others were locations where we watched information videos about all that happened there. We thought the historic-looking railroad station was a museum, until a real vista cruiser stopped and real passengers boarded to enjoy the scenic dome car, restaurant car and perhaps spend the night in one of the berths. Some of the restored buildings ended up being great places for lunch. The Appalachian trail also comes through the area and we saw hikers bowed low beneath their knapsacks.
You can spend months visiting Civil War battlefields in this area. They are generally not our cup of tea, but the 50º temperatures and strong, gusty winds kept us off our bicycles today. Antietam was only ten miles from Harpers Ferry, so we put it on the list. The film showed in the visitor center provided us with the basic knowledge of what happened here, but it was hard to follow the action. Many small groups from both sides who came from various states came together here. It was hard to imagine how everyone knew where everyone else was. A major part of the battle took place in a corn field. Maybe the stalks weren't planted as thickly as they are today, but in the film the soldiers couldn't see a thing. There isn't much to see in the national park today except a few monuments, but you can drive around to the spots where 12,000 Unions soldiers and 10,000 Confederates died in a single day. Here General Lee, who had been having victory after victory, pressed his luck too far by trying to invade north into Maryland on his way to Washington DC. His tactical withdrawal here encouraged Lincoln to write the Emancipation Proclamation which freed all the slaves in the Confederacy; a real turning point in the Civil War.