Trip Report: Maryland Heights re-visit… and some perspective

Because of our close proximity to the Potomac River, Harpers Ferry is a frequent weekend day-trip destination for us.  On Saturday, the aide-de-camp and I drove over with the objective of “climbing as far as we can” up Maryland Heights (with the promise of an ice cream if we attained the summit).   I’ve not hiked the trail up Maryland Heights in several years.  The trail was one of my first “features” here on the blog.  I sort of cringe looking back at those early posts, well before I sorted out how best to compose a blog post.

The hike is not an easy one.  The Park Service website rates it “Difficult (steep and rocky in places), 4.5 or 6.5 miles round trip, 3 to 4 hours.”  But the view from the top and chance to examine fortifications makes that effort worthwhile.  The trip up on Saturday gave me a chance to see what changes were made by the park over the last few years.  I noticed this most around the Six-Gun Battery just below the top of the mountain.  In 2007 the magazine location was cluttered by deadfall:

Maryland Heights 22 Sept 211

As was the line of the works:

Maryland Heights 22 Sept 213

On Saturday, we noticed the site was much improved by clearing, making the magazine and line of works easy to make out… and thus making the magazine that much more impressive to the visitor:

Maryland Heights 412

Same for the interior line of works:

Maryland Heights 413

From the exterior, the visitor can better make out the ditch:

Maryland Heights 416

I don’t recall if this walkway over the works was in place back in 2007, but the one there on Saturday looked relatively new (using fiberboard):

Maryland Heights 418

Certainly makes access to the works easier… and ensures the works will still be around for some years to come.

Most who hike up the mountain spend the most of their time at the overlook of Harpers Ferry, on the south end of Maryland Heights, for good reason.  But don’t forget, particularly if you are into the Civil War history of the heights, the overlooks on the east side of the mountain.  Particularly looking down the Potomac:

Maryland Heights 426

This overlook is near the 100-pdr Battery location.   Do you recognize any features?

If not, let me mention some.  First off, to the immediate center-right is the north end of Short Hill Mountain, known as Buzzard Rock.  South Mountain’s southern terminus is out of view due to the trees.  Snaking through the center of view is the Potomac.  Notice the bridge at Brunswick (wartime Berlin), Maryland, where the Army of the Potomac twice put up pontoon bridges.  Beyond in the distance are the Catoctin Ridge and Sugarloaf Mountain.   Just under Sugarloaf Mountain is a saddle in Catoctin Ridge (Maryland section) where a Federal signal station operated at times during the war.  Here’s an annotated version of the photo above:


This view-shed is historic.  Across this “air” traveled some of the important messages from multiple Civil War campaigns. To demonstrate that, let us go to the maps.  First a map from 1861 showing the location of Federal signal stations:


I placed a red box on the left to show the location of a Federal signal station on Maryland Heights.  Follow the line to the right and you see Sugarloaf Mountain on the map.  Although telegraph lines followed the railroad down the Potomac to Harpers Ferry, that was sometimes problematic and vulnerable to Confederate interdiction.   So the wig-wag stations offered a reliable alternative.

This link was maintained through much of the war.  Thinking of the Antietam Campaign, when the station at Sugerloaf Mountain was captured by Confederates, they also severed the “air line” we see in the photo, which is depicted on the map by the red line.

Moving to the summer of 1863, and using the signal maps of the Gettysburg Campaign, we see the same “red line” augmented by several “spurs” from Sugarloaf Mountain:


Once again, the “air line” between Maryland Heights and Sugarloaf Mountain was critical.  Reports of Confederate movements into Maryland and Pennsylvania came to Major-General Joseph Hooker by way of Maryland Heights… and had to pass through Sugarloaf Mountain and thence to Washington (telegraph) before getting to Hooker.  Furthermore, Sugarloaf provided the “air line” to communicate to locations such as Leesburg or Poolesville.  So we have to ask, where was the best location for Hooker to command the army at … say… June 25, 1863?

The blue lines and boxes are stations related to the return from Gettysburg.  The signal stations provided coverage at the Berlin crossing site.  Point of Rocks, or Trammelstown depending on which report you read, was a secondary station used earlier in June, but took added importance coordinating the flow of supplies in July 1863.

All of these “air lines” depend upon the view-shed from Maryland Heights.  At critical phases of the Civil War, vital information “few” across that line of sight to leaders beyond.  Those leaders made key decisions, then communicated the details back across that “air.”  We can find reports and orders now consolidated in print within the Official Records which “flew” across the view in the photo above.

Consider this a vital dimension to add to your next battlefield visit. Imagine, if you will, those red lines through the sky.  How did the communications flow, from headquarters to the troops?  And where was that?

Such also adds a new dimension to our preservation discussions.  Do you see why preservationists should be sensitive to encroachments into the view-sheds?

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

One thought on “Trip Report: Maryland Heights re-visit… and some perspective

  1. I, too, am close to Harpers Ferry and have made a few trips there lately. I’ve also recently been reading about the fighting on Maryland Heights in September 1862. One strange thing I noticed regarding the interpretation on the heights is that there really isn’t much of any info about where the fighting actually occurred in September 1862. I haven’t found any mention of the lookout, abatis or breastworks that are mentioned in many of the descriptions of the fighting there, nor troop positions. And the resources (books & Internet) I’ve searched haven’t yet pinpointed any spots for me.

    In your travels, have you found any interpretation about or been able to find any of these locations?

    If you ever decided to do a blog entry concerning the location of the fighting on Sep. 12 & 13 on Maryland Heights, I would be most interested in reading about it.

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