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?


Marching BACK through Loudoun: Return of the Army of the Potomac

Careful you don’t get whiplash as I shift between theaters. Last month I offered a series of posts detailing the movement of the Army of the Potomac through Loudoun. But let’s not forget the Army of the Potomac came back through Loudoun during the later half of July 1863. My research into that movement is not as thorough, however, as the Edwards Ferry crossings in June. At some point in the future, I’ll resolve that deficiency. But for now, let me call out movements from 150 years ago today (June 17) and mention the bridging operations that facilitated that movement. And just as during the June crossings going north, the bridges were vital to the return going south.

We last discussed the pontoon bridges, the engineers took them up at Edwards Ferry on June 28. About a thousand feet of bridging, from a set not used at Edwards Ferry, followed the Army into Maryland. Orders were to remove the rest of the bridging for refit in Washington. But the bulk of equipment remained at the crossing site until July 4. Damage to the C&O Canal, inflicted during Major-General J.E.B. Stuart’s crossing at Rowser’s Ford, prevented the timely movement.

Brigadier-General Henry Benham, commanding the Engineer Brigade, and Army headquarters exchanged frequent messages from July 4 through July 15 about the bridging equipment. At some point I need to offer a detailed analysis of those. But the bottom line is that Benham had repairs to make, lacked transportation, and contended with a turbulent rise of the Potomac. I don’t think the engineers could have laid any pontoon bridges earlier than completed in mid-July.

Between July 15 and morning of July 17, the engineer brigade put in bridges at Harpers Ferry (over both the Potomac and Shenandoah) and at Berlin, Maryland. On July 15, Brigadier-General Gouverneur Warren reported a “bridge over the Potomac will now let troops pass into the Shenandoah Valley.” Engineers built a pontoon bridge and repaired the railroad bridge along with a “wire bridge” at that point. Warren then turned the engineers to build a bridge over the mouth of the Shenandoah River. “We are at it,” Warren related.

Lieutenant-Colonel Ira Spaulding reported one bridge over the Potomac at Berlin was complete on the morning of July 17. The span measured 700 feet. Spaulding complained of damaged material in use that required replacement and repair. Later that day Spaulding built a second bridge there, at about the same place the engineers put in spans the previous fall to facilitate another pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia. The map below shows the operational area with key locations highlighted and yellow lines (small yellow lines) for the bridge locations.


Using Harpers Ferry and Berlin afforded the Army two good crossing sites separated sufficiently to reduce congestion, while keeping units close for mutual support.

When the Army of Northern Virginia escaped across the Potomac, Major-General George Meade began shifting the Army of the Potomac to pursue. This pursuit resembled the slower pursuit offered by Major-General George McClellan the previous fall. The infantry corps moved back towards South Mountain on July 15. By July 17, the Third and Fifth Corps camped along the Potomac.

The first movement orders putting the Army’s infantry back in Loudoun came at 2 p.m. on July 17. Major General William French, commanding the Third Corps at that time, received orders to move “by the Harper’s Ferry Bridge, and across the Shenandoah at its mouth, and proceed up the Valley of Sweet Run some 3 or 4 miles, and bivouac for the night.” This was a leisurely move compared to the crossings of June. Orders urged French to bring up supplies, to include replacement equipment for the troops. By 7:40 p.m. French reported going into camp just over a mile from the Shenandoah Bridge.


Although I don’t have particulars, the Fifth Corps moved across the bridges at Berlin around the same time, reaching Lovettsville on the Virginia side. So that night, 150 years ago, two Federal infantry corps were camping in Loudoun… again.

And also out that evening were marching orders for July 18. The Third Corps would move out to Hillborough, followed by the Second Corps, which was to cross at Harpers Ferry early that morning. The Twelfth Corps would hold at Harpers Ferry waiting orders to move forward.


The Fifth Corps would advance from Lovettsville out to the Waterford-Hillsborough Road (the old Vestal’s Gap Road if you are following here). The First Corps received orders to cross at Berlin and march to Waterford. The Reserve Artillery would cross after the First Corps, but then fall in behind the Fifth Corps. Headquarters relocated to Lovettsville. Both Eleventh and Sixth Corps would hold at Berlin waiting instructions to cross. Lastly, the tired cavalry troopers would cover the crossing on the Maryland side.

The only major deviation to these orders came mid-day on July 18. Brigadier-General John Buford’s cavalry division slipped into line in front of the Eleventh Corps and crossed that afternoon at Berlin. Otherwise, the army spent a relatively uneventful day marching. The remainder of the Army crossed the Potomac on July 19. The Army of the Potomac stayed much shorter on this visit to Loudoun. By July 24 all of the major combat elements moved south and cleared out of the county.

Three days to cross in June. Three days to cross back in July. And some of the bloodiest fighting ever seen in between.

Antietam Resources and The Guns at Antietam Map

Are you getting ready for another day of sesqucentennial events?  I am.  Heading out to Harpers Ferry and Antietam this morning.  Both parks – their highly professional staffs, I should say – are hosting all day events in observance of the anniversary.  One-hundred and fifty years ago today, the nation fought over those fields and hills.  Today we remember.

For those of you readers who are unable to attend these events, as I’ve done with other 150th anniversaries, allow me to offer some “virtual” resources to at least wet the appetite.

Start out with the Civil War Trust’s Antietam battlefield page, with a wealth of historical facts and resources.  The CWT also offers an animated battle map and a 360 panoramic tour.  That panoramic tour is perfectly suited for those of you who can’t visit the battlefield itself today.  Also, the Trust’s Antietam Battle App rolled out this week.  While it is geared for those “on location”, I’ve found the resources and maps rather useful even off the battlefield.

Here on this blog, one of the first battlefield by markers projects I took on was Antietam.  The page has the markers arranged in sets by the tour routes, by topic, by organization, and by state.  The list also includes Antietam campaign markers (which need to be updated with several new additions of late).   I did the same for Harpers Ferry, and provided links to several blog posts.  Many of those posts were my “trip reports” for walks up Maryland Heights, Loudoun Heights, and Schoolhouse Ridge as I examined the works that defended Harpers Ferry.

Another resource I like to post around the 150th anniversaries is the map showing the location of the cannons displayed on park grounds.  Here’s the map for Antietam:

My apologies here.  This is not the detailed accounting you are used to.  I’m a bit rushed of late and don’t have the registry numbers or photos attached to the map.  I’ll work to clean that up.  And I promise something similar for Harpers Ferry in the near future.

But for now, I hope you will excuse me as I rush out the door and start the short (for me) drive to Sharpsburg!

Harpers Ferry and Virginia Secession

Today I made the short drive over to Harpers Ferry to attend the sesquicentennial observances. While my pal Robert Moore is “live blogging” the events, let me pass along some images from, and perhaps some thoughts of, Harpers Ferry today.

Looking back 150 years, on April 17, 1861, Virginia’s secession convention passed a resolution in favor of secession.  Formally, this resolution required a state-wide vote, but the wheels were set in motion. Earlier former Governor Henry Wise convinced (I use that word since “ordered” would be technically incorrect) Turner Ashby and John Imboden to prepare for a move on the US Arsenal and Armory at Harpers Ferry.

Harpers Ferry 008
Large Arsenal Foundation Trace

The next day, a force of Virginia militia, although numbering just over 300, moved to seize the military stores and machinery there.

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Virginia Militia Reenactors in Early-War Uniforms

At Harpers Ferry, thirty US soldiers defended the depot.

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Guards in Front of the Small Arsenal Building

Outnumbered, Lieutenant Roger Jones set fire to the arsenal and armory.  On the morning of April 18, Jones’ detachment stuffed mattress ticking with gunpowder creating improvised incendiary devices. Lighting a trail of powder leading back to bags, Jones’ men set the arsenal ablaze.

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Display at Harpers Ferry - Burned Musket at Bottom

As result, 15,000 small arms burned. The detachment also set fire to the Armory factory buildings, but those facilities proved less flammable.

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Old Armory Grounds

Townspeople and Virginia militia managed to suppress the fires at the armory, but the arsenal was a loss. The secessionists would put that equipment to use over the next few years producing weapons for the Confederacy.

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Stephensons Hotel

Following those fires, the town of Harpers Ferry saw scarcely a peaceful day for the next four years.

Aside from chatting with Robert Moore, the highlights of the day included an excellent interpretive program from the park staff, along with author presentations from Tom Clemens and Scott Mingus.  The weather made for a good day at Harpers Ferry, much improved over yesterday.  With all the rain over the last 24 hours, the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers were cresting high.

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Shenandoah River Rising

Normally, I consider the Potomac and Shenandoah, while with respect, less “angry” than the big rivers in the mid-west, of which I am more familiar.  But today, the rivers reminded me of those turbulent currents along the Mississippi.

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Confluence of the Rivers at the "Point"

Most dramatic, the rapids on the Shenandoah upstream from Harpers Ferry must have bumped up their whitewater rating.

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Rapids of the Shenandoah

Rough waters… consider that in context to events 150 years ago today.

Harpers Ferry – Marines Take the Fort

Earlier this morning we made the drive up to Harpers Ferry to observe the Sesquicentennial events recalling John Brown’s raid of 1859.  With weather shading from “crisp” to “miserable,” I didn’t want to keep my four-year-old traveling partner out too long.  As most of the events planned were oriented to older audiences, we focused on “The Final Assault” event where the Marines are depicted storming John Brown’s Fort.  The event was timed to occur at roughly the 150th anniversary to the hour.

But of course, the “location” is a little out of place.

Original Location of the Armory Fire Engine House
Original Location of the Armory Fire Engine House

With changes to the railroad lines after the Civil War, the fire engine house was first torn down and used at various venues as an attraction.  Later the “fort” stood on the grounds of Storer College west of the original site.  In 1968 the Park Service brought the structure back to Lower Town, but about 100 feet from the original location.

John Brown's Fort Today
John Brown's Fort Today

Standing in front of the “fort” in this view are several living historians and U.S. Marines dressed in period uniforms.  Moments later, a USMC Gunnery Sergeant began a presentation detailing the events which unfolded on October 16-17, 1859.

Marine Presentation.  Hoohaa!
Marine Presentation. Hoohaa!

There’s something which Gunnery Sergeants learn along the way which allows them to “command” attention.   And it was a real treat to hear from a Marine, about actions taken by Marines.  The Gunny explained the background behind John Brown and the key events.  But his tone and focus was directed toward the military aspects of the raid and response. Particularly Gunny pointed out the arrival of Virginia Militia (some of which came from Loudoun County BTW) and later a detachment of US Marines on October 17.  The Army, of course, was represented by one Colonel Robert E. Lee and a Lieutenant Stuart using the moniker J.E.B.

Shortly into the presentation, a reenactor portraying John Brown stepped forward to offer his interpretation.

John Brown Speaks
John Brown Speaks

When the reenactor returned inside the “fort,” the Gunny then explained the events that unfolded on the morning of October 18.  Colonel Lee, faced questions of jurisdiction among those tactical problems presented by John Brown with his hostages.  At first Lee turned to the militia, then he asked the Marines to storm the building.  The Marines used axes in their first attempt to break down the door.

Axes Against the Door
Axes Against the Door

Not a good action shot, as I just missed the timing of the click.  But the two Marines front and center of the door were swinging axes, were we pretended the doors were shut.  Our narrator noted that the Marines then grabbed a ladder to use as a battering ram.

Ladder Against the Door
Ladder Against the Door

This, the narrator pointed out, turned out much more effective and soon the Marines were able to break into the “fort.”

The Marines Go In
The Marines Go In

Note one casualty laying to the left of the door.  This was Luke Quinn, killed as the party stormed into the engine house.  Our Gunny narrator pointed out the storming party was told that those who held their hands up were hostages.  Those who were holding weapons were obviously raiders.  Sort of simple rules of engagement, if you ask me.  (Perhaps another topic for another time!)

Shortly the Marines emerged with John Brown in custody, and the hostages set free.

John Brown Captured
John Brown Captured

Thus concluded the final assault.  The Gunny related some details of Brown’s trial and execution.  Then as a closing note, he pointed out that Harpers Ferry was, to the Marine Corps, sacred ground – one of the Corps’ battlefields where some of their number shed blood.

As related earlier, with the weather less than pleasant today, we cut our trip short.  Earlier in the day we’d stopped at Loudoun Heights to converse with Robert Moore, a.k.a. Cenantua, concerning the engagement fought there in January 1864.  So all told my “aide” and I were out in the elements for about 3-4 hours.  Yes, let me again say it’s rather convenient living in Loudoun County when planning Civil War related day trips!

So the Sequi is off and running.  I’ve had a week that has included a presentation from Ed Bearss, local author book fair in Leesburg, and finally the observance at Harpers Ferry.  I’m looking forward to the events as they start up again next year, and particularly over 2011-12.  This week was a good start!

Harpers Ferry Old Armory Grounds

Harpers Ferry National Historical Site opened the grounds of the old armory earlier this year following some years of archeological work.  A short trail, on the ground between the Potomac Street berm and the railroad line features interpretive waysides, several with 3D features.   Henry T. McLin of Hanover, PA cataloged most of these earlier in the year, adding to our coverage of Harpers Ferry.

The story of the Armory began in the 1790s with a bill passed by the US Congress approving the establishment of armories and magazines.  President George Washington selected Harpers Ferry as the second (the first being Springfield, Massachusetts).  With the purchase of 125-acres in 1796, and construction commencing in 1799, the “United States Armory and Arsenal at Harpers Ferry” took shape.  Activity at the Armory passed through several highs and lows.  By 1810, small arms production reached 10,000.  However by the 1840s the production facilities lapsed into less functional states, suffering from limited funding.  The War Department improved facilities over 1845-54 with new workshops, machinery, mill works, and increased staffing.  At the time of John Brown’s Raid in 1859, the facility employed 400 workers.

Displays at Harpers Ferry today, in the “industrial exhibits” building, show examples of the equipment used at the armory and musket factory.

Duplicating Lathe for Stocks
Duplicating Lathe for Stocks
Rifling Machine
Rifling Machine

The Arsenal produced several generations of small arms ranging from the early flintlocks, to Hall pattern breechloaders, to the percussion cap muskets at the eve of the Civil War.   Some sources credit the arsenal for housing some 100,000 weapons by 1859, in readiness for issue in the advent of a war.  Most readers will recall, the Armory was the initial objective of John Brown’s Army which attacked Harpers Ferry on October 16, 1859 – specifically those muskets which Brown intended to use to arm freed slaves and others who joined his war of abolition in the mountains.  Thus, one might say the “war” came to the muskets, instead of the muskets going to war.  Of course, events did not turn out as planned in 1859, and the muskets were not used for THAT rebellion.

In April 1861, with the announcement of the secession of Virginia, the Armory lay within grasp of that state’s militia.  On April 18, 1861, 1st Lieutenant Roger Jones at Harpers Ferry sized up the situation and determined the Arsenal must be destroyed to prevent capture.  He reported burning up most of the facilities and 15,000 stand of arms.  A later report prepared by Lieutenant Colonel William Maynadier of the Ordnance Department detailed the loss of “20,507 arms of different models in store,” $270,235 worth of machinery, $109,560 worth of tools, and $193,616 of parts and materials.  [OR, Series I, Vol. 2, Serial No. 2, pp. 4-6]

However, some of the equipment was salvageable.  Confederates sent tools and machinery south to seed a fledgling armaments industry.  But with Harpers Ferry untenable in the face of threats from Maryland Heights, in June 1861 the Confederates (under a Colonel Thomas J. Jackson) withdrew from the town, leaving behind a burned and pillaged Armory.

Photos from 1862 indicate at least some of the buildings survived.  One looks at the Armory from the east, down what is today Potomac Street.

Armory Ruins, 1862 (Historic Photo Collection, Harpers Ferry NHP)
Armory Ruins, 1862 (Historic Photo Collection, Harpers Ferry NHP)

From another view looking at the Armory from the west, at a higher elevation, the damage is much more apparent.

Overlook of the Armory, 1862 (Historic Photo Collection, Harpers Ferry NHP)
Overlook of the Armory, 1862 (Historic Photo Collection, Harpers Ferry NHP)

After the war, the Government sold off the site, with portions becoming a paper mill.  By the 1930s, even that endeavor had grown stale.  The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad purchased easements and improved the rail lines into what had been the Armory.  Three different rail lines (the original used in 1836-1893, a second used 1894-1930, and the last dating to 1931) have traversed the grounds.  Today only portions of the once vital Armory remain uncovered by the rail lines.

Armory Site from the Berm
Armory Site from the Berm

The armory canal, which provided water power to the engines and machinery, is visible upstream, west of the modern train station.  But around the main Armory area seen here the course is covered by the berm left by the second rail line.

Railroad Berm
Railroad Berm

However, the old wall along the Potomac River remains.

River Wall
River Wall

Along the wall are a few depressions, lined with carefully laid stones – the remains of tailraces.


The output flow of water from the turbines passed through these holes and out to the Potomac.

Output Hole in a Tailrace
Output Hole in a Tailrace

The site is, as mentioned above, well marked and interpreted.  Locations of structures are roped off to help the visitor visualize the foundation traces.

Trace of the Forging Shop
Trace of the Forging Shop

The larger wayside type markers feature three-dimensional displays which aid the descriptions of items found during archeological excavations or historical research.

Examples of Artifiacts
Examples of Artifacts

My four year old “Aide-de-Camp” liked these displays in particular, providing something to touch and ask questions about.  Much more so than the standard photos and illustrations.

Replica Lockplate
Replica Lockplate from 1855 Rifle

The trail is not much more than a few hundred feet, but just enough off the beaten path at Harpers Ferry it is overlooked by many.  I would suggest visitors mark this as a “must see” site, allocating 10-15 minutes on their itineraries.  I have included the markers in this area within a related set at the Historical Marker Database.

School House Ridge, Part II

In the Harpers Ferry Historical Park, US 340 bisects the park’s School House Ridge unit. I covered the northern half in an earlier post. The southern half is less developed, and certainly off the beaten path, but offers a few points of interest for the battlefield walker.

From the northern half parking lot off Bakerton Road (CR 27), the trail head of the southern half is reached by way of a crossing of the busy US 340. Bloomery Road is a continuation of (CR 27) and follows the valley between School House Ridge and Bolivar Heights, down to Millville, WV. The parking lot is roughly a half mile south of US 340.

Schoolhouse Ridge Trailhead

And yes, there is a “one room visitor center” on site.

Two trails, to the northwest and south west split out from the trail head. The northwest trail offers a view of Bolivar Heights and the other Heights beyond, with a historical perspective. The interpretive marker at this point details the use of signal flags to coordinate General Jackson’s activities during the siege operations.

Schoolhouse Ridge Signals

The southwest trail passes several post-Civil War ruins. Almost all are fenced off and appear near collapse. Queries with the park service has needed little background information regarding these structures. Continuing south, the trail drops down along Flowing Springs Run. A.P. Hill staged his division in this area prior to moving out to the Murphy Farm area on Bolivar Heights.

Outside of the park, further south on Bloomery Road at Millville is Keys Switch. The railroad here makes a turn around School House Ridge with branches to the south (Winchester) on a siding and west (Charlestown). The town was along A.P. Hill’s line of march. A Sons of Confederate Veterans obelisk at the switch marks the location of a skirmish on April 15, 1865 involving Col. Mosby’s Confederate Rangers and a detachment of Federals.


The markers for Schoolhouse Ridge both north and south sections are here: List Map. Overall the trails on the southern half of the ridge are easy walks, with only a few steep grades. I managed to take in Loudoun Heights and walk the southern trails as a “cool down.”

One additional note, School House Ridge was in the news recently regarding a nearby training facility for the US Customs and Border Protection Agency.

Other related articles:

Developers illegally dig at School House Ridge.

CWPT Buys Land on School House Ridge.