A visit to Harpers Ferry provides an excellent opportunity to explore the historical significance of this area, from its role in the Civil War to the stories of those who fought and died here. There is no better way to get an intimate look at the events that shaped our country than through a visit to the battlefields surrounding the area.
Anyone keen to learn more about this quaint town’s role in the war while staying at a local vacation home rental will enjoy visiting the three major battlefields in the area, including; Bolivar Heights, Antietam, and the Harpers Ferry Battlefield. This is your guide to these storied historic landmarks.
Harpers Ferry American Civil War History
Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, is the location of numerous important events relating to the American Civil War. Now a peaceful, charming small town nestled in the beautiful Appalachian Mountains, Harpers Ferry wasn’t always so quiet.
A Strategic Location: North Meets South
Situated at the confluence of the Potomac River and Shenandoah River and seen as the spot where the North met the South, Harpers Ferry was a key strategic location that both sides wished to control. Numerous armories and rifle works made Harpers Ferry even more desirable, as well as the fact that it was a hub for transportation by boat and train. Due to its strategic location, Harpers Ferry changed hands eight times during the course of the Civil War.
The Battle of Harpers Ferry
The Battle of Harpers Ferry occurred in September of 1862 and resulted in the largest surrender of the war when over 12,000 Union soldiers were captured by Confederate General Stonewall Jackson. The site of this battle is now the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and is widely considered one of the best spots for history enthusiasts to visit in the region.
Jackson’s Bolivar Heights
The rolling hills of Bolivar Heights, just outside Harpers Ferry, were the location of numerous battles and skirmishes and were often used as a campground for traveling armies when it was not a battleground. Jackson first used its sweeping slopes during the spring of 1861 when he encamped and drilled the 1st Virginia Brigade, which became the famous “Stonewall” Brigade.
A portion of the Battle of Harpers Ferry was fought here, and Robert E. Lee blasted Bolivar Heights from nearby Maryland Heights during his 1863 advance towards Gettysburg.
Battle of Antietam
Less than 20 miles north of Harpers Ferry is another key Civil War battleground, the Antietam Battlefield. Famous for being the deadliest one-day battle in American history, the Battle of Antietam occurred in 1862, two days after the Battle of Harpers Ferry. The result of the battle was in the Union’s favor and is considered a turning point of the war.
The Battlefields of Harpers Ferry
The Battle of Bolivar Heights took place on October 16th, 1821. This was an early battle of the Civil War and resulted in a Union victory. Although this was a relatively small battle, it is still an interesting and educational spot to visit. It was also the location of part of the 1862 Battle of Harpers Ferry and Robert E. Lee’s 1863 advance to Gettysburg.
The Bolivar Heights battlefield is just outside Harpers Ferry on the town’s west side. This beautiful park is easy to explore on foot, and there are numerous walking trails throughout the park.
What to See
As you walk, you will come across many informational signs that will tell you the details and history of the battles and skirmishes that have taken place on this site.
Along the trail system, you will find Civil War cannons and earthworks. This great location packs a big punch of history, views, and educational signage that doesn’t require a lot of walking. It is great for the whole family, including young children, and leashed dogs are also welcome.
Harpers Ferry Battlefield
The Battle of Harpers Ferry took place from September 12th to 15th in 1862. Under General Stonewall Jackson, the Confederate forces surrounded and defeated the Union troops stationed at Harpers Ferry. This was the largest single capture of Federal forces in the entire war.
Whether driving in from the north or south, the park is just a short distance from the major highways of Harpers Ferry. If you’re coming from D.C., take the scenic route via the Frederick, Maryland, exit off of I-70.
What to See
The battle took place all around and through the town of Harpers Ferry, with major assaults taking place at Schoolhouse Ridge, Camp Hill, Murphy-Chambers Farm, and Maryland Heights. The Harpers Ferry National Historical Park Visitor Center is centrally located near all the battle sites.
Consider hiking the popular Maryland Heights Trail to see the location of the initial assault. This 6.5-mile loop winds up the mountain, offering incredible views over Harpers Ferry and the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah.
Head over to Schoolhouse Ridge to see the battlefield from the Confederate’s perspective. There were over 10,000 soldiers in this spot. There are Civil War cannons along the trail, a reminder of the violent history of the now-peaceful and scenic area.
Take the Murphy-Chambers Farm Trail to see numerous historical sights. Here, the final assault of the Battle of Harpers Ferry took place. You can also see one of the locations honoring the abolitionist John Brown, the John Brown Fort. Civil War cannons and earthworks are scattered along the trail, providing numerous places to stop and admire the scenery and ponder the history that was made here.
The Battle of Antietam occurred on September 17th, 1862, just two days after the nearby Battle of Harpers Ferry. This large battle was fought between Union troops under General George B. McClellan and Confederate troops under General Robert E. Lee.
The Battle of Antietam is notorious for being the bloodiest day in American history, with 22,000 dead, wounded, or missing soldiers. It concluded with a Union victory and marked a major turning point in the war. It ended the Confederate’s first invasion of the North and prompted President Abraham Lincoln to issue the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.
This historic site is a wonderful visit for the whole family, including your leashed dog, and is easily reached by those staying in Harpers Ferry. Located just 30 minutes from Harpers Ferry in the neighboring town of Sharpsburg, Maryland, the Antietam National Battlefield is a great day-trip option for history enthusiasts.
What to See
There is hiking, a visitor center, monuments, and a cemetery, meaning there is plenty to see and do during your visit.
The Antietam Battlefield is considered one of the best-preserved battlefields in the country and offers a wide range of unique locations to visit. Start at the visitor center to gather information on the area and plan what to see first.
The Antietam National Cemetery was dedicated in 1867, five years after the battle, and is the resting place of over 4,700 Federal soldiers. A walk through this now quiet and peaceful area is a somber reminder of the extreme violence that took place here.
You can likely guess how Bloody Lane got its name. What was known as the Sunken Road before the battle, this dirt farm road was the meeting place of thousands of soldiers, resulting in a bloody 4-hour battle that left 5,500 dead. This is a must-visit spot for anyone exploring the Antietam Battlefield.
The Pry House Field Hospital Museum is a fantastic exhibit on the important work of Civil War medics and nurses. Learn more about medical techniques of the time and about some of the unsung heroes of the Civil War.
You won’t run out of things to see and do during your visit to Antietam Battlefield. Consider joining one of the park rangers for their battlefield talks, an enlightening and educational experience that will enrich your visit.
For anyone hoping for a more in-depth tour of the area, be sure to take advantage of the self-guided driving tour of the park. There are 11 stops on the tour, beginning at Dunker Church, which will ensure that you see all the top sights at the battlefield.
There is also great hiking through and around the site, such as the Snavely Ford Trail or Sherrick Farm. Groups with children will love the free battlefield scavenger hunt, which is a great way to see the top sites at the battlefield with a fun, competitive addition.
Taking in the Civil War History of Harpers Ferry
Anyone interested in learning more about the Civil War must visit this scenic mountain town, which allows one to visit multiple battlefields and other important sites.
Booking a beautiful cabin in Harpers Ferry gives you the perfect base to explore the region and an ideal place to relax after a long day of dipping into the fascinating history of the Civil War. Pack your bags and prepare for a historic journey in Harpers Ferry!