Three Days of Rambling Through War, Wine and Wagon Stops - West Virginia and Maryland
Updated: Nov 9, 2020
Load up a three-day weekend with a balanced blend of Civil War history and a wealth of lighter engagements centered around the wonderful trail history tourism professionals of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia call “The Journey Through Hallowed Ground”
From Gettysburg to Monticello, this storied corridor features dozens of historic sites. The Outdoors Rambler checked out a few signature destinations along the trail one August, beginning in Harpers Ferry, W. Va.
Nestled in a steep hillside at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, Harpers Ferry is a wonderfully scenic little town with well-preserved historic charm.Thomas Jefferson visited Harpers Ferry in October 1783 and climbed the hillside for a better view of "the passage of the Patowmac though the Blue Ridge." A large rock formation, now bearing his name, was his platform. The vista inspired him to write, “This scene is worth a voyage across the Atlantic."
Harpers Ferry was a strategic location, with military, commercial and industrial importance. The United States Armory and Arsenal was established in 1799 and between 1801 and 1861, the Armory produced more than 600,000 muskets, rifles, and pistols. Meriwether Lewis drew weapons and hardware needed for his famed transcontinental expedition from the armory in 1803. The town was also the site of the convergence of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, the Winchester & Potomac Railroad, and the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal.
The town’s prominence in Civil War history began in October 1859, well before the first wartime shots were fired. Abolitionist John Brown and his "Provisional Army of the United States" seized the armory, intending to use the firepower to arm an uprising of slaves. By the third day, though, 10 of Brown's men were dead, 5 had escaped and Brown and 5 others were captured. Fewer than 10 days after capture, Brown and his men were convicted of treason and other crimes and hung in nearby Charles Town.
On April 18, 1861, less than 24 hours after Virginia seceded from the Union, Federal soldiers set fire to the Armory April 18, 1861. Control of this strategically-located town changed hands 8 times over the next 4 years.
The town has many small museums, souvenir shops, restaurants and more. Interpreters in period costume stroll about. Most historic park structures are in the lower section of town closer to the rivers. Stairways built into the hillside create almost vertical alleyways and enable shortcuts for those physically able to climb such steps. A winding, weather-beaten stone staircase leads to the beautiful vantage point near St. Peter’s Church and the footpath to the higher ground at Jefferson Rock.
Antietam – ‘The Bloodiest Day’
The crop-laden farm fields near Antietam Creek, just outside Sharpsburg, Md., were destined to become the bloodiest one-day battle of the Civil War. Nearly 23,000 men were killed, wounded or missing out of the nearly 100,000 who clashed during the 12-hour fight.
Nearly every stop along the well-marked Antietam National Battlefield articulates the horror associated with that particular patch of ground. The 24-acre cornfield near the Miller Farmhouse saw a Louisiana brigade lose 60 percent of its men in a half-hour. The West Woods attack by the Federals ended up with more than 2,200 Union soldiers dead or wounded in 20 minutes.
A sunken farm road was at the Confederate Center. Observers said words were inadequate to portray the number of dead at the scene. The road became known as “Bloody Lane.”
The Lower Bridge over Antietam Creek, depicted in numerous Civil War paintings, is tranquil today. The water flows clear. As Confederates defended the bridge for hours against Ambrose Burnside’s men, it’s easy to imagine, as some have described, the water flowing red.
The Antietam battle was one that saw innovations in the evacuation and treatment of wounded soldiers, with more effective field hospital positioning and triage. The Pry House on the battlefield, which served as a Union field hospital, is a most informative point to work into the tour.
Many Civil War battlefields are sprawling, but Antietam is compact, barely a couple miles long and easy to traverse in a half day.
The Battle of Monocacy
While not a part of the South’s 1862 campaign into Union territory, any battlefield tourism visit to the
Frederick, Maryland, area, merits a stop at the location of “The Battle that Saved Washington, D.C. The Monocacy National Battlefield, named for the Monocacy River flowing through the property, is one of America’s newest Civil War parks, opening in 1991. Congress approved the park in 1934, but didn’t fund land acquisition until 1975. A well-designed visitor center opened in 2007. A six-mile self-guided auto tour is the way to visit.
It was the summer of 1864 and Petersburg was under siege, a seeming last Union hurdle before the fall of Richmond. A Confederate victory near Lynchburg, though, had opened a pathway back toward Washington, D.C., and General Lee sent Lt. Gen. Jubal Early and 15,000 men back into Maryland.
As the Confederates neared Frederick, agents of the B&O Railroad tipped the Union of the advance and a force of 6,500 Federals formed, many of them “100-day” men from state militias. The defenders goal was to hold on as long as possible until reinforcements could arrive. The defenders held at each critical juncture during the attacks of July 9. A young Vermonter, 1st Lt. George E. Davis, was later awarded the Medal of Honor for his efforts leading small detachments of men in defending against a much larger force. The Confederates took 900 casualties compared to the nearly 1,300 suffered by the Federals. Usually the attacking force suffers more casualties.
Early, a seasoned commander who had also voted against secession, retreated to Virginia. According to accounts published by The National Park Service, Maj. Henry Kyd Douglas indicated Early expressed some satisfaction with the outcome. The general is said to have stated, "Major, we haven't taken Washington, but we scared Abe Lincoln like hell!"
The war was essentially over for the South in terms of any hope for a military victory.
No matter how many Civil War battlefields I’ve trekked as a tourist, or visited as part of some professional military development dissection of the battle, it’s impossible to completely divorce myself in a clinical fashion from the emotional experience that comes with reconciling the peaceful settings today with the abject horrors that transformed these usually pastoral settings in “historic” places.
Forget notions of military glory. Granting that past politics and practices created the conditions that allowed the war to occur, when I think of Americans doing this to each other it brings a shake of the head and a lump in the throat.
Heading out of the Antietam battlefield through the town of Sharpsburg on a beautiful morning, I stopped at Antietam National Cemetery. The mid-morning sun was climbing behind the formidable statue of a solider gazing northward. An inscription read, “Not for themselves, but for their country.”
Looking at the map depicting the layout of the cemetery, I noticed a small section where the Vermonters were buried. I grew up in Vermont before enlisting in the service of our nation, lived in several states during military assignments and have now lived in Virginia several years longer than any place prior.
I was alone in the cemetery as I wandered over to the 50 or so weathered headstones where men from the Green Mountain state lay. Several stones marked the graves of unknowns. Rising with eyes damp, I snapped a salute and bid them enduring peace, whispering, “God keep you, all of you.”
Eats, Sleeps & Treats
Some people can eat, drink and sleep Civil War history. Not me. Exploring our nation’s tales of strife and struggle creates a need for balance and any trip benefits from some side excursions that explore other facets of a region’s allure.
Here are some suggestions for a rounded trip in Maryland’s mountains and foothills.
There’s nothing like bed and breakfast attractions when taking in the rich history and scenic beauty in and around Maryland’s Cactoctin Mountains. The B&B known today as Stoney Creek Farm was built in the late 1700s. Just a couple miles outside Boonsboro and very close to the Antietam Battlefield, it makes for a relaxing spot to enjoy a glass of wine while planning out the next morning’s tour. The Equestrian Suite was superb.
Frederick, the fourth largest city in Maryland at 63,000, was a pivotal crossroads along the historic “National Road” that stretched from Baltimore to St. Louis. The intersection of Patrick and Market Streets has witnessed a particularly impressive array of events and travelers.
Frederick had many Southern sympathizers during the Civil War. Barbara Fritchie wasn’t one. Legend has it she hung her American flag out when Confederate troops marched by and yelled out, "Shoot me, if you must, this old gray head, but spare my country's flag." This event (some doubt the story’s authenticity) was memorialized in a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier's in 1864. Winston Churchill is said to have stopped at Fritchie’s house in 1943 and recited the poem from memory.
Frederick has a thriving downtown scene, but retains its historic charm. Frederick also has some great restaurants. If you love barbecue, The Black Hog at the edge of the downtown district is one of the best barbecue joints I’ve eaten at outside of Texas and Kansas City. The ribs and the Arkansas brisket were great. A generous sample of microbrew beers and ales at Brewers Alley makes for a nice dessert.
Between Sharpsburg and Frederick atop South Mountain’s Turner's Gap, the Old South Mountain Inn, offers fine dining in a historic setting.
Finally, after a morning of contemplating the ravages of war, spend an afternoon celebrating the rewards of wine. Sugarloaf Mountain Winery, a short trip south of Frederick makes superb Bordeaux style red wines and some lighter whites, like pinot grigio. Weekends see guests enjoying wine, cheeses and other snacks on the spacious patio while listening to live, acoustic music.