Week In Review: October 13-20, 2019

This week has been almost all about John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry for the 160th Anniversary with lots of posts and lots of perspective. You’ll also find posts on Fort Harrison, the Battle of Cedar Creek, and more… Continue reading

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Ball’s Bluff National Cemetery

Balls Bluff Cem 01Way back in 2011, I had the privilege to walk the Ball’s Bluff battlefield with historian Jim Morgan and talk about his book on the battle, A Little Short On Boats, just then released. (You can read that interview here and a review of the book here.)

During that conversation, Jim also told me about Ball’s Bluff National Cemetery, located on the eastern edge of the cleared portion of the battlefield. With 54 soldiers buried in 25 graves, it’s the third-smallest national cemetery. “There’s one’s at the Hampton, Virginia, Virginia, medical center that has 22 graves,” Jim told me. “In D.C., in Rock Creek Park near Fort Stevens—it’s called Battleground National Cemetery—there’re 41 guys there. I’m not sure, in terms of physical area. This is 48-feet square.”

I set aside the portions of our conversation about the cemetery with the intent to do a story, separate from my interview about his book, about the cemetery. Alas, as innkeeper Barliman Butterbur frequently said, “One thing drives out another,” and I never got around to the cemetery piece.

Until now. Continue reading

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155 Years: Cedar Creek

October 19, 1864 – one hundred fifty-five years ago – saw battlefield surprises in the Shenandoah Valley. First, the Confederates under General Jubal Early launched a surprise attack on the Union army and managed to drive three corps from positions. Then, after a dramatic journey, Union General Phil Sheridan arrived, helped rally the army, and counterattacked, driving back the Confederates. Cedar Creek’s fight marked the last major Confederate offensive in the Shenandoah Valley. With hindsight, it’s also a battle that helped Lincoln win reelection in November 1864.

For the anniversary, we’ve collected some blog posts from our archives about this important battle and also added a American Battlefield Trust’s animated battle map for Cedar Creek which provides a great overview. Continue reading

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The Reason for Harpers Ferry and Why John Brown Raided It

While working as a ranger at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, I often began my tours about the United States Armory with this simple question to visitors: “Why are you here today?” Common answers included vacation, an interest in history, get out of the house, or wanting to explore an incredibly scenic place. Those answers are not wrong, I told them before holding up one of the many firearms manufactured throughout the armory’s 59 years of existence. “This is the reason you’re here,” I’d say.

John Brown’s Fort can be seen on the left side of this famous image of the Harpers Ferry Armory.

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Mapping the Philippi Battlefield

Jon-Erik Gilot did a fantastic job at the 2019 Emerging Civil War Symposium filling in on short notice to give a talk on the battle of Philippi, see the video here. With limited time to produce another map, I’m grateful he chose a topic with perhaps the simplest troop layout. The bloodshed in what would become West Virginia paled in comparison to later fights. Some would even refer to the June 3, 1861 engagement as the “Philippi Races”—perhaps more fitting than calling it a battle. Without having to worry about laying out detailed troop positions, I opted to show a map that showed what the Union expedition hoped to attain and the lesser result they attained.

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ECW Weekender: John Brown Museum in Harpers Ferry

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park offers a plethora of historical narratives through the old buildings, markers, and interpretive tools. From Colonial and Federalist Eras to Lewis and Clark to Civil War and beyond, this historic town offers a lot to explore. And there’s plenty of hiking in the area for the outdoor enthusiast, too. (Just ask Sarah or Chris and Terry…)

John Brown and his fight in the streets of Harpers Ferry is one of the violent pages of the town’s history, and one that must be explored to understand the outbreak of the Civil War (officially two years later). You can explore the sites of the old armory buildings, stand at the site of “John Browns Fort”, see a reconstruction of that engine house, and see parts of the old bridges. But to really explore the history of the fateful days of 1859 and how and why they happened, you’ll want to visit the John Brown Museum. Continue reading

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John Wise (The Governor’s Son) Responds To John Brown’s Raid

Twelve-year-old John Wise watched history happen. He would later recall “The End of An Era” in a book with the same title, detailing his memories of growing up in Antebellum Virginia, living through the Civil War, and actually embracing many of the changes that came through Reconstruction. As one of Governor Wise’s sons, young Johnny was often “in the know” about exciting events and mid-October 1859 was no exception.

Much of what he knew about the actual events in Harpers Ferry came from second sources, but his description of the day the new arrived in Richmond and a young boy’s response lend perspective and interest to the narrative of Virginia’s response to John Brown’s Raid: Continue reading

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Heyward Shepherd Memorialized (Sort Of)

John Brown's Raid

On one hand, it’s fitting that a monument commemorates Heywood Shepherd. A night watchman at Harpers Ferry, Shepherd stumbled across John Brown’s raiders on the night of October 16, 1859. They called to Shepherd to surrender, but he refused, and the raiders shot him down. Civilian casualties like Shepherd don’t often get the attention they deserve, and so the marker provides some measure of recognition to an unfortunate innocent bystander whom history might otherwise have forgotten.

On closer inspection of the monument, though, it becomes apparent that Shepherd’s is not the only story this marker recounts. Erected with much controversy in 1931 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the monument has a more insidious story chiseled into its granite.

Heyward Shepherd monument.jpg

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A Lost Opportunity: Fort Harrison

Fort Harrison, looking soutwest from outside the northeast corner of the fort, photograph by author

During the summer of 1864, Union General U. S. Grant made several attempts to break Lee’s lines by attacking both sides of the James River, hoping to stretch the Confederates to the breaking point. In July, he sent troops to the north bank of the James and attacked (First Deep Bottom). That effort failed, as did the disastrous attack at Petersburg that today is known as the Battle of the Crater. In August, he tried a similar strategy, attacking across the James (Second Deep Bottom) and in Petersburg. Again, no advantage was gained.

By early September Grant was thinking of sending troops south to Cape Fear to close the port there, but the commander of the Army of the James, General Benjamin Butler, had another idea. With the information gained from spies like Elizabeth Van Lew, he believed there were only about 3,000 Confederate troops north of the James, and many of those were “home guard,” government clerks, invalids or men too old for the draft. The estimate was off… there were actually about 8,000 total troops, but only half of those were veterans. Butler proposed to Grant that he would send his 10th and 18th corps from his Army of the James north of the river, make a surprise attack, and capture Richmond. While no fan of Butler, the commanding general figured there was nothing to lose. Butler’s plan might work, and it would at least pull troops away from Meade, who was commanding the Army of the Potomac in front of Petersburg. Perhaps the final breakthrough could be made. Butler was told to draft his plans, but he must attack in late September. It was an election year and victories were needed quickly to secure Lincoln’s re-election. Continue reading

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Governor Wise’s Response To John Brown’s Raid

Henry Wise, Library of Congress

When violence broke out at Harper’s Ferry, Henry A. Wise was governor of Virginia. In the aftermath of the raid, Virginians were on edge: fears of slave revolt were everywhere and the feeling grew that the Federal Government could not protect them.

Following the raid, Governor Wise ordered Virginia militia to guard Harper’s Ferry as well as other key sites in Virginia. He also wrote President James Buchanan. He sums up widespread sentiment on the raid, and criticizes the arsenal’s lack of security, which “made that arsenal a positive danger instead of being a protection to the surrounding country . . .” Wise goes on to state that, “there was no watch worth naming kept at the arsenal, and no military or civil guard whatever. Finding, on Thursday morning last, that the U. States Marines, under Col. Lee, had been ordered away from Harpers Ferry, and that there was no guard left there, I organized a corps of volunteers, to watch and guard the confines of Virginia contiguous to & around the arsenal & grounds attached thereto, ceded to the U. States, and incidentally to afford protection to the same as well as to the people and territory of Virginia . . .” Continue reading

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