The Ghosts of Harpers Ferry

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April 23 …

I confess: I can’t recall which river here I photographed. It could be the Potomac. It could be the Shenandoah. What I do feel confident to say is that I am Harper’s Ferry, W VA, where the two rivers converge. I was here, as a kid back in 1964. From the McManamy photo archives …

Scan 39 (1)

Note the head of hair, the erect carriage, the proud bearing, the facial aspect of a youth ready to take on the world.

It’s all a sham. I was posing for a photo, at the pleasure of my domineering dad. What the photo doesn’t reveal is how short I am, one of the shortest in my high school. I am also a hopeless nerd. By virtue of my late birth date, I am at least one year behind in my social development. Add another year to being a bell curve laggard, and some extra time owing to the dynamics of my strange family.

I literally went through high school in a trance, a comma, and it’s impact would resonate deep into adulthood and old age. One day, I’ll write about it. Wait, I already am. It all comes out in small bits and pieces. Anyway …

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Here’s a photo I took two or so blocks away and 52 years into my future. At the confluence of two rivers, which opened up transport to markets in the interior and on the coast, this was a logical place to situate a town. In no time, in the early 1800s, Harper’s Ferry became a leading industrial center. The catch was that the town’s greatest asset proved its greatest liability. Perennial flooding doomed the place to near-extinction. Now it exists as a museum piece, part of an historical National Park administered by the National Park Service.

But oh what a history. As every school kid knows, this was the site of John Brown’s raid on the Federal Armory, that helped kickstart the Civil War. The plan was to use the seized weapons to arm a slave uprising. Ironically, a stray bullet killed an innocent bystander, a free black man.

Give John Brown credit. With just 21 men, he pulled off the daring raid. But after that, he didn’t have a plan, other than just expecting a slave uprising to materialize on its own. A federal force led by Robert E Lee (then a US officer) easily put down the rebellion.

Because of its strategic location, the place changed hands eight times during the Civil War. In 1862, Lee, now leading a Confederate force about to invade Maryland, sent Stonewall Jackson to take the town. The Battle of Antietam that would eventuate soon after would get all the attention, both as the bloodiest single-day battle in American History and as the battle that gave Lincoln the political opening he needed to issue his Emancipation Proclamation.

But at Harper’s Ferry, we had the largest surrender of US forces during that conflict, more than 12,000 men.

In the meantime, the collaboration between man and nature was nothing short of spectacular. In the west, we tend to regard the scenery as a solo effort, God working alone, such as His Grand Canyon or Painted Desert or Redwood Forest. In the east, the Wow! effect comes from Man’s contribution to God’s handiwork: Iron bridges spanning rivers, stone walls through second-growth forests, derelict brick mill ruins along wooded streams, old barns in fields. As far as iron bridges over rivers goes, it’s hard to top this …

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And this view from on high …

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Note the church steeple. It’s the same one that appears in the background of my old family photo, albeit from a different angle. The ghosts of a distant past lie in this town, including my own.

 

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