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|TRAIN SPOTTING ON THE POTOMAC|
BY CHRIS POH
under the command of Major
General John Pope at Second Manassas during late August of 1862, Robert
E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia envision the possibility of
achieving a similar outcome on Union soil. On September 4th, four
advance Confederate brigades crossed the Potomac River into Maryland,
marking the South’s first invasion of the North. Lee believed that a
victory this close to Washington would sufficiently damage Northern
morale enough to bring about the defeat of Lincoln supporting
Republicans in the upcoming fall election of the United States House of
Representatives. And that with war weary Democrats in control of
Congress the President would be forced to negotiate an end to the
In order to maintain operations north of the Potomac, Lee would need to disrupt his opponent’s ability to resupply, while at the same time securing his own line of supply and communications back to Virginia through the Shenandoah Valley. This would precipitate the need to capture the Federal arsenal and the railroad lines at Harpers Ferry. On September 15th, Major General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson delivered both prizes to the Confederacy. There would be little time to celebrate this victory though. Leaving his subordinates to attend to the final details of the surrender, Jackson, on orders from command, proceeded to the vicinity of Sharpsburg, Maryland with all possible haste.
At sunrise on the 17th day of September 1862, Jackson’s tough battle-tested veterans engaged troops from General Joseph Hooker’s 1st Corps in a cornfield less than a mile from the Antietam Creek. The bloody brawl that ensued that morning marked the beginning of the deadliest day of warfare in American history. By nightfall both armies had been decimated by the unspeakable carnage. On September 18th, an improvised truce allowed both sides to remove their wounded from the blood soaked battlefields. On the following day, with the ever cautious Union Commander General George McClellan showing little sign of wanting to renew the contest, Lee moved most of his forces back across the Potomac to Southern ground and the relative safety of Virginia.
The scarred remains of Lee’s ill-fated Maryland campaign would be slow to heel. In June of 1863, the loyal sons of Virginia once more passed over the hallowed fields near Sharpsburg as they marched northward to invade Pennsylvania. The memories of that cruel September would be painfully revived as they gazed upon the still unburied bleached bones of their comrades and fallen foe. And by early July, Confederate forces were again prowling the streets of Harpers Ferry after Union troops were driven out and had moved north to join Major General George Meade’s army near Gettysburg. The grey clad soldiers found conditions to be much the same as when they had left them after Stonewall Jackson’s attack of the previous summer—most of Harpers Ferry remained an uninhabitable ruin. The town which had been instrumental in providing both sides with the means to wage war would ultimately become a permanent casualty of the conflict. Harpers Ferry would never again realize anything equivalent to its robust prewar industrial economy. The town which had boasted a population of better than three thousand at the breakout of hostilities in 1861 today has just slightly over three hundred residents.
For those generations of stalwart souls that continued to make Harpers Ferry their home after the Civil War, much of their own personal prosperity could probably be attributed to God and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. A considerable amount of the town’s commerce from the late nineteenth and well into the twentieth century was derived from the thousands of people who would come here each year to relax and delight in the area’s dramatic scenic splendor. For many that came to Harpers Ferry the journey was made by way of the country’s first common carrier, the B&O Railroad. Today, a good number of the town’s visitors come just to watch the trains—and the geography of the town provides a superb setting for one of the best rolling stock shows in America.
A BIRD'S EYE VIEW OF HARPERS FERRY FROM THE MARYLAND HEIGHTS. A CSX FREIGHT TRAIN RUMBLES OVER THE BRIDGE.
the intrepid train enthusiast, the best seat in the house is atop
the Maryland Heights overlooking the
confluence of the Potomac and
Shenandoah Rivers. And for the sake of this article, I want to thank
Terry Tabb personally for making the climb in order to get that shot.
There is though one major drawback to this particular vista—apparently
the National Park Service does not provide water, restrooms or pints of
Old Dominion at this location.
So my preferred vantage point for
catching a glimpse of CSX locomotives or Amtrak’s Capitol Limited,
while also being able to enjoy the aforementioned brews, is on the
outside deck at the Secret Six Tavern. For those that prefer to hear
something other than the wail of train whistles or the rumble of steel
wheels, there is always an ample supply of good conversation and some
occasional live music inside this warm and inviting rustic pub.
Brown’s initial actions were met with little resistance; but on the second day things would begin to unravel. The raiders were now being engaged by local militia, and the conductor on an eastbound B&O train, that had been temporarily detained the previous night, was able to telegraph word of the attack to the company’s master of transportation in Baltimore. From there authorities in Washington were alerted, and President James Buchanan ordered a detachment of U.S. Marines under the command of Brevet Col. Robert E. Lee 2nd U.S. Cavalry and his volunteer aide-de-camp Lt. James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart 1st U.S. Cavalry to return to Harpers Ferry. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad would provide the military transport, and by the morning of October 18, 1859, John Brown’s grand scheme to dismantle “the South’s peculiar institution” was brought to an end.
As for myself, I will always choose real peace over a negotiated accord. That is why I come to a place like Harpers Ferry and the deck of the Secret Six Tavern—a place where I can raise a pint of Old Dominion to all Americans—as the Capitol Limited passes by!
Special Thanks are in Order:
This particular article, like so many others that have appeared over the last three years would not be possible if not for those individuals that have provided additional images, information, insights and inspiration. But this time around the assistance was exceptional.
So first off, let me thank Terry Tabb for use of his outstanding photography. Take a look at some more: http://www.pbase.com/terry434
Also, Don Coker, a wonderful writer and painter who loves a good piece of rolling stock as much as I do. I was hoping that Don might have some railroad paintings from Harpers Ferry; but those trains are still in the roundhouse. Anyway, I thought it only fitting that we share a couple of his latest works. We have included a pair of his paintings below. Check out his engaging website, or contact Don via email. His address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.
And lastly, many thanks to Rick Garland of “O’ Be Joyfull” historical and ghost tours of Harpers Ferry. We invite you directly above to take a ride with Rick as he recounts the Civil War exploits of Major General J.E.B. Stuart.
"HERITAGE," A SOUTHERN RAILWAY BY DON COKER
"SLOW TRAIN DOWN SOUTH" BY DON COKER
SYLVANIA CENTRAL ENGINE WITH A JIM CROW CAR CROSSES A DIRT ROAD GRADE IN ZEIGLER , GEORGIA EARLY 1950'S.
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