The Hatpile of Hagerstown
After a protracted breakfast, we began the day at 11:30 and headed away from Winchester on Route 7. We rolled through rolling countryside and a half hour later found ourselves in West Virginia, on one of its little nubs. Our destination: Harpers Ferry, made famous by John Brown's 1859 abolitionist raid on its US Armory. After Brown's raid, Harpers Ferry continued to be an important stronghold during the Civil War, sitting at the confluence of two states at the war's beginning and three by war's end.
Sitting on the tip of West Virginia and separated from heights in both Maryland and Virginia by rivers, Harpers Ferry is now a historic town, with cobblestone streets, a mix of carefully preserved and even more carefully reconstructed buildings, and a fascinating terrain. Its strategic location has made its history complex - before the Brown raid, the location was selected by George Washington himself to be the location for the US Armory - essentially the Fort Knox of weaponry for the United States government.
The rivers there were so important as a jumping-off point that Lewis and Clark stopped there en route to the West. One of their favorite boats - a collapsable boat - was eventually ditched because it couldn't handle the waters they found themselves in, but a replica proudly stands near the Potomac.
Harpers Ferry continued to serve as the armory through the Civil War, which made it a common location for raids and battles as the supplies changed hands. After Virginia seceded, General "Stonewall" Jackson secured the supplies by placing cannon on the heights that surround it, and sent the supplies further south to be used by the Confederacy.
All in all, Harpers Ferry changed hands eight times during the course of the war. Later in the war, General Jubal Early did battle at Harpers Ferry, but in doing so, lost too many men to continue on. The usually aggressive Early did not know that there were not enough men to stand between his army and Washington, D.C. ... a route that, if taken, could have prolonged the war.
Harpers Ferry, with its heights and twists and turns, is a small but geographically interesting town. The iron moorings that once latched a pontoon bridge across the Potomac River are still in place, embedded in stone structures on the river's shore. Grimes Davis, a southerner who sided with the Union and the commander of the Union cavalry, once used the pontoon bridge to escape back into Maryland.
I had to navigate some wary geese, their droppings, and what appeared to be a mud-quicksand mix, but I found my way from the heights where the railroad used to go down along the stone infrastructure, which held the curved iron bars solidly at its base. Successful, and about to turn back, a train blasted its horn twice as it chugged across the Potomac on a railroad bridge of slightly newer construction.
Another quirk of Harpers Ferry was the John Brown building, probably the least important building in the town until his raid. Originally on the heights, quite near the pontoon bridge moorings, it was of enough historical significance that the whole thing was moved and displayed at the Chicago World's Fair. When it returned, the residents were rather disinterested in the building and now stands about 50 yards from its original location, which now has only an obelisk to mark its original foundation site. (It could not be moved back to its original location due to the proximity of the railroad ... which has since been re-routed over the river.)
It was there that John Brown was wounded in an exceptionally peculiar way. When the troops had surrounded the shed he'd barricaded himself into, he busted out - probably resigning himself to death. The soldier that he first encountered thrust his sword into Brown's gut ... only to have it hit his belt buckle and bend upwards, as the sword was made of a soft material. Thus, the soldier did what any soldier would do in that situation: bang John Brown over the head with the thing.
We explored all of Harpers Ferry that we felt like, then headed back to the car. Our next stop was along a famous route, one that connected Harpers Ferry to the bloodiest single day of the Civil War: Antietam.
But getting to Antietam isn't as straightforward as one might imagine. After getting to Maryland, roads hook around and follow the Potomac on the Maryland side. They were quaint, historic, and vertigo-inducing. Going from the Potomac - roughly sea level - up through mountainous terrain to Antietam was an absolute chore. The road bent this way and that, going up and down on blind curves, hitting you with blind entrances, and wavy hills that would make you feel weightless and twice your weight in the span of about five seconds.
The roller-coaster road was seventeen miles, and played an important role in the battle of Antietam.
We finally made it to Antietam - although I'm not sure my inner ear has caught up yet - and poked around the visitor's center, watching a film about the battle as narrated by the golden tonsils of James Earl Jones. Most of it - well, all of it - was already in my dad's head. He'd be an excellent park ranger, as he's read up enough on Civil War history to go toe-to-toe with any ranger. (In fact, he knows more about the Civil War than most of them know about it - or even the backs of their own hands. Fortunately, the historically ignorant on the payroll are generally stuck in the tiny admissions booths at the entrance to the various parks.)
We then began the driving tour around Antietam, crossing over and paralleling Confederate and Union lines. The Confederacy had invaded Maryland in the interest of bringing the war to Union soil in order to destroy what was left of the Union troops' morale, legitimize the Confederacy in the eyes of European powers, and bring the war to an end. After a skirmish or two, the armies collided around Antietam Creek, near the town of Sharpsburg. The carnage in about a two-mile area outnumbered the total casualties of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Mexican-American War combined.
And it all happened in one day.
Dunkers Church, behind the Confederate lines, was damaged by the hail of bullet fire, which contributed to its collapse in a wind storm just a few decades later. (It has since been rebuilt, though it is no longer used.) General J.B. Hood led his notoriously rowdy Texans to save the day at Dunkers Church when the Confederates were being pushed back by the Union. (Hood would lose functionality in one of his arms at Gettysburg in 1863, and would lose one of his legs entirely at Chickamauga later in the same year.)
Three of the bloodiest areas were the Cornfield, Rohrbach Bridge, and the Sunken Road. Rohrbach Bridge which has since been renamed to Burnside Bridge after Union General Ambrose Burnside, whose impressive and precariously manicured facial coiffure let to the coining of the term "sideburns." (More on Burnside in a moment.)
The Cornfield is not a large area, but it was an absolute bloodbath. The date of the battle - September 17, 1862 - meant that the cornstalks, though dead, were still high and thick. When the armies clashed, confusion rippled through the lines. All you could hear was the din of cannon fire, and all you could see were the guys to your right and left and the flag of the regiment somewhere in front of you. Shooting blind, control of the Cornfield went back and forth as casualties piled up. One of the survivors - Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. - went on to become a Supreme Court Justice.
Now, as promised, more on Burnside. The only thing that could outshine Burnside's sideburns was his incompetency as a commander. At Rohrbach Bridge, he was tasked with taking the other side. With a wide river and a steep hill on the other side, his men were forced to cross the river on the one bridge available. This may have worked if his men had charged and overwhelmed the thin Confederate line, but he sent his men off in smaller groups, which were handled by the Confederates. After enough waves, the Confederates were eventually worn down, but not before Burnside had wasted an unnecessary amount of manpower.
(This, however, does explain the tactic that Burnside used in December of that year at Fredericksburg, when he sent wave after wave of his men at the high ground held by the Confederates at Marye's Heights.)
A third bloody part of Antietam was the Sunken Road, visible to this day. The Confederates, under the command of North Carolinian D.H. Hill, post-war Davidson College professor, and his subordinate John Gordon, who got shot five times at the Sunken Road and only survived because his hat kept him upright just enough to keep him from choking on his own blood. He got hit four more times through the rest of the war and manage to see the end of the war alive and without having lost a limb or an eye.
Backed up against the river and with no place to go, Robert E. Lee had to think about the possibility of his invasion strategy backfiring and ending the war then and there, before Gettysburg occurs. But A.P. Hill's famous Light Division, so named because they could out-march anyone else, marched the seventeen miles of hilly terrain between Harpers Ferry and Antietam - on the same road we traveled on - in one day. Like a moment in a Hollywood script, his reinforcements held off the Union.
But the Union still had a chance to annihilate Lee's Army of Northern Virginia ... if they'd simply attacked on the very next day. But the Union, under the command of notoriously cautious, extremely egomaniacal, inexplicably popular, and newly reinstated General George McClellan, didn't push onwards, allowing Lee to slink back into Virginia, preparing a second invasion that would end up on the fields of Gettysburg less than a year later.
After that tour, we went back through Sharpsburg - which had a parade going through it when we passed through earlier - and looked for something to eat. The only place we saw looked like a bar, so we kept pressing on to Hagerstown, home of the Hagerstown Suns, a single-A minor league team affiliated with the Washington Nationals. They were playing the Asheville Tourists at 7:00. We entered the park at around 6:00, got free hats in their Memorial Day giveaway, purchased a medium-sized pennant for the ever-expanding Basement Collection, and got some food. I got a Cheddar Jalapeño hot dog (not as spicy as you might think) while my parents ate burgers.
We got some seats underneath some cover. It sprinkled a little bit and the wind brought a few drops to our legs, but these passed. Before the game could begin, the National Anthem was sung ... by two little girls.
They had heart, and they had the lyrics down (which can't be said of most adults who sing it), but they were both badly off key and in different keys - the closest they got to singing in unison was a wavering quarter-tone dissonance. Still, their attempt was valiant, and they were applauded greatly.
Since my parents had entered the park with hats, and they had given all of us hats upon entrance, a hatpile was a must. We piled five caps on my dad's head.
The Hagerstown faithful got into their hometown team, cheering the Suns on with all manners of whooping and hollering. One large black fellow had a proclivity to shrilly whistle the notes that precede the "charge!" cheer, much to the annoyance of a great many people in our section, including myself.
The Suns, from a better farm system than Asheville, scored early and then poured it on from there. Two triples with two outs helped them to a six-run lead. We split chicken tenders and fries and split before it got too dark, as we needed some light to get our way out of Hagerstown.
This early exit was necessary, as we had to navigate one-way roads in the less savory parts of Hagerstown in order to get to I-81, which got us to Pennsylvania a little after 8:30. Before 9:00 we arrived in Chambersburg and settled into our room.
Tomorrow: we're still planning the route. We're debating when to to Valley Forge - now, or on our way back. The route still isn't settled and likely will not be until the morning, but we're trying to figure out the fastest route to Connecticut and Rhode Island without having to navigate traffic-choked places like New York City.