Six Years of Hell: Harpers Ferry During the Civil War

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During the war, the lower town along the river was destroyed, rebuilt, and destroyed again.

The crucial Baltimore and Ohio bridge was blown up or set afire and rebuilt nine times. Relying heavily on records left by the townsfolk who weathered the war and the soldiers who garrisoned the town, Hearn treats the civilian experience as fully as he does military activities. He makes continual reference to the people who attempted to stay in their homes, protect their possessions, and get along with the soldiers during the conflict.

As Hearn clearly demonstrates, for those stouthearted individuals, the Civil War was truly six years of hell. One searches in vain, however, for something that would elevate the book beyond a mere chronicle of hard times at Harpers Ferry—some interpretive insight that would transcend the local level and endow the study with broader significance. Mostly this is a military account, notwithstanding dustjacket claims that "the civilian experience" receives equal coverage. There are references to vagrancy, looting, prostitution, and refugeeing; but these occur sporadically and receive little development.

Six Years of Hell

The organization is chronological, and the fact that Harpers Ferry changed hands frequently throughout the war produces a narrative that is inherently fragmented or episodic. A kaleidoscopic array of military figures shuffles in and out as events shift from occupation to raid to skirmish to evacuation to reoccupation, with only the locale providing continuity.

Hearn, Chester G. 1932-

Much of the military story is, apart from the fact that it occurred near Harpers Ferry, obscure and inconsequential, for events there were seldom of "headline" importance. The exceptions were the Brown raid and Stonewall Jackson's envelopment and capture of the town and its garrison during the Sharpsburg campaign, both of which receive ample coverage.

Too often the reader, or at least this reader, is left to wonder why we need to know this or that detail, apart from the fact that it happened where it did. One example is the author's penchant for listing the units and commanders of military forces deployed in the area, even to the level of regiments and companies; another is the extended quotation of dialogue and dispatches where a brief summation would better serve. Sharper analytical focus toward some larger interpretive purpose would strengthen the book.

Some examples: "may" is repeatedly used for "might" e. Certain other sentences are complete but still confusing. Not until July 1, , did the remnants of General Robert H. Milroy's command, defeated during the Second Battle of Winchester in mid-June, withdraw when pressed by Confederate cavalry. Confederate success was short-lived as Union soldiers regained control eight days later.

By this time, Harpers Ferry was no longer in Confederate territory; West Virginia was admitted to the Union as a state on June 20, Union troops only momentarily lost control of the town on July 4, , when Confederates, under General Jubal A. Early, forced them to withdraw.

After Early withdrew four days later, Union troops took control and would not relinquish Harpers Ferry for the remainder of the war. Sheridan 's newly created Middle Military Division and the base of operations for his splendid campaign that finally wrested the Shenandoah Valley from Confederate control.

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Six Years of Hell: Harpers Ferry During the Civil War

Even amid the natural beauty that Thomas Jefferson once stated was "worth a voyage across the Atlantic" to observe, Harpers Ferry stood as a testament to the destructiveness of war. The site of one major battle in the autumn of , it had changed hands twelve times.


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Still, the citizenry rebuilt it in the immediate postwar years, although, sadly, their hard work was undone by a flood in After the waters receded, some wondered whether John Brown had cursed the place that had brought about his demise and foreshadowed the Civil War. Thank you!

Woodard on Hearn, 'Six Years of Hell: Harpers Ferry during the Civil War' | H-CivWar | H-Net

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Noyalas Harpers Ferry, in what is now West Virginia, lies at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers and serves as the gateway to the Shenandoah Valley. John Brown's Raid Following the bloody encounters in Kansas in the mids, John Brown—a radical abolitionist who had been fighting against pro-slavery forces in Kansas—decided on a plan to end slavery.

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Arsenal there in an attempt to start a slave rebellion. Five men are killed four white and one black. Lee, capture Brown, who is. October 17, - A contingent of ninety U. Marines, under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee, arrives in Harpers Ferry at 11 p.

Harpers Ferry during the Civil War

October 18, - U. Brown is wounded in the struggle. December 2, - After a gripping trial held in Charles Town in which John Brown is found guilty of conspiracy, of inciting servile insurrection, and of treason against the state, he is hanged. April 17, - Delegates at the Virginia Convention in Richmond pass an Ordinance of Secession by a vote of 88 to Thirty-two of the "no" votes come from trans-Allegheny delegates, who are more firmly Unionist than representatives from other parts of the state.

April 18, - Lieutenant Roger Jones burns the arsenal buildings at Harpers Ferry and moves his command north to Carlisle, Pennsylvania. April 27, - Colonel Thomas J. Jackson takes command of Virginia's military forces at Harpers Ferry. May 24, - General Joseph E.

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