Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Prelude to Freedom: Commemorating the Battle for Harpers Ferry

I have a pretty unique job. I get paid to do things that I love doing and that most people don’t get to do. Now I know not everyone is the history nerd I am, but I feel like the Civil War is one of the historical events most recognized for its defining role in the formation of this country. The purpose of my job is to help people understand this significance and to connect the disparate elements of the war together into a more cohesive narrative. When I started this job in March we were already focused on preparing for the Maryland Campaign, the pinnacle of military action in the Eastern theater of the Civil War in the summer of 1862. The 150th anniversary of that campaign officially ended a few days ago on September 19, the anniversary of the Confederate Army of Northern  Virginia’s retreat across the Potomac out of Maryland and back into Virginia.

Two days before Robert E. Lee’s invasion came to an end the bloodiest single day in American history played out on the fields between and surrounding Antietam Creek and Sharpsburg, MD.  The sesquicentennial of the Battle of Antietam was the single biggest commemoration of 2012 and would have, on its own, been a profound experience. But this commemoration was further enhanced by falling in the context of other action occurring during the campaign, particularly in Lee’s attempt to capture the Union garrison at Harpers Ferry. Our office was tasked with covering, not only the events occurring at Antietam, but also those at South Mountain and Harpers Ferry as well. In order to do all this we left our office in Manassas on Thursday morning, September 13 and did not return until Tuesday, September 18. Much of that time was spent on the Antietam Battlefield and more on that experience can be found in my postings on The Cornfield and Changing the Trajectory of American Freedom.

Before I got to Antietam I spent two and a half days in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, helping to document the commemoration of the sesquicentennial of the three day battle (September 13-15) which culminated in the largest surrender of US troops (12,500) in the history of this nation, a record that remained until the American surrender to the Japanese on Bataan and Corregidor in 1942. 

Though much less well known than the Battle of Antietam, the Battle of Harpers Ferry was a critical piece of the Maryland Campaign, and without it Antietam would never had happened. It was very special to be a part of telling this story and honoring those who struggled over this ground 150 years before.
Ranger Stan leads the students in saluting the flag
I photographed numerous events at Harpers Ferry over the time that I was there, but some of the highlights included the events you see pictured below. One of the more unique programs consisted of two classes of 5th and 6th grade students leaving their respective schools, which happened to sit almost directly on the positions occupied by the Union and Confederate forces during the battle, and marching toward a meeting point in the middle. Each student was given a slip of paper about a particular soldier who served in either the Union 126th New York or Confederate 2nd Virginia regiments, two of those who saw action contesting the ground they were marching over. When they reached the meeting point the two classes shook hands in a sign of reconciliation and shared the stories of the soldiers they represented. It was a significant tangible symbol of honoring and remembering those who had struggled so valiantly over the same ground they had just walked. 

On our way up to Maryland Heights

I spent a significant portion of September 13 hiking up to the site of the fighting for Maryland Heights, overlooking the town of Harpers Ferry and one of the keys to the Confederate success. I had read about the importance of the heights and the fighting that took place there, but had not actually climbed up the trail before. It gave me a much deeper appreciation of both the importance of the site and what occurred there exactly 150 years earlier.

Harper  Ferry Chief Historian Dennis Frye

I also had the privilege of accompanying the chief historian of Harpers Ferry on a special Bus Tour around the battlefield.

View of the Potomac River from Camp Hill in Harpers Ferry

I thought I knew a fair amount about the battle going into the commemoration, but after listening to these programs I have a much wider perspective and understanding.

President of Harvard
Wildcat Regimental Band
The commemorative events also included a concert by the Wildcat Regimental Band, special lectures from historians including the President of Harvard University, and a living history presentation of the surrender and parole of the Union garrison on September 15.

 For more pictures of these events Click Here.



Confederates awaiting orders to parole the Union prisoners

Some of the events continued after dark. Harpers Ferry is a different place after the sun sets and I especially enjoyed the opportunity to  appreciate it on Thursday night when we slept right in the center of the historic town.
Lanterns lit for a lantern led tour

Torches lighting the central road through town
It was a fun event to be a part of and I greatly enjoyed the chance to spend some more time in Harpers Ferry. It is a beautiful town and area and has connections to all sorts of American history. It is definitely one of my favorite places to spend time here on the East coast.

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