Four-Acre Slice Of Civil War History Saved At Harpers Ferry National Historical Park

The structures on this property will be removed and the landscape rehabilitated so it reflects its appearance in September 1862. This shot towards the Murphy Farm was taken from Bolivar Heights. Joy Oakes photo.

Though not quite 4 acres in size, a parcel of land on the western end of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park long has been treasured by the National Park Service for the Civil War battle that raged on that land. Today that land has been protected from development and eventually will be added to the park.

The 3.89 acres, site of the September 1862 Battle of Harpers Ferry that resulted in the largest Union surrender of the war, was protected from development by the Civil War Trust and the National Parks Conservation Association. The groups announced Monday that the purchase of the acreage was made possible by a mix of federal funds, a major gift from an anonymous donor, and a number of smaller private donations.

“It wasn’t all that long ago that this land was being talked about as a location for a gas station or mini-mart,” said Trust President James Lighthizer. “Today, thanks to a partnership among NPCA, NPS and the Bank of Charles Town, these critical acres will remain forever protected, preserved and pristine to honor the brave soldiers who fought and fell on these fields.”

Joy M. Oakes, NPCA's Mid-Atlantic senior director, said the acquisition near the park in West Virginia was important for the history it protects.

“More than 250,000 visitors travel to Harpers Ferry each year to walk in the footsteps of Civil War and civil rights leaders, and contemplate the history and sacrifices made here," she said.

A number of national and local organizations and local community leaders have worked for years to protect Harpers Ferry’s historic character. The most recent additions to the national park are located along Route 340, immediately adjacent to the Jefferson County Convention and Visitors Bureau facility.

“We couldn’t be happier with this preservation victory,” said Harpers Ferry Superintendent Rebecca Harriett. “Thanks to the work of the National Parks Conservation Association and Civil War Trust, the western gateway to the park will be protected and ultimately transferred to the National Park Service.”

Harpers Ferry NHP Chief Historian Dennis Frye noted the acreage's role in the fighting on Bolivar Heights on September 15, 1862.

“Resting along the primary road on Bolivar Heights, control of these properties was essential to the U.S. forces defending Harpers Ferry,” Frye said. “Confederate artillery on the heights surrounding Harpers Ferry bombarded the turnpike and its adjoining fields to disrupt movements and set the stage for Stonewall Jackson's flanking maneuver that ultimately forced the Union surrender. Fifty years later, these lands witnessed a pilgrimage by early civil rights leaders from Storer College to John Brown’s Fort, made famous when abolitionist John Brown’s raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry helped spark the Civil War.”

The Bank of Charles Town also played a key role in the preservation of the properties along the western gateway, agreeing to sell its 2.39 acre parcel to the Civil War Trust for eventual transfer to the NPS. In addition, the Trust acquired the two Drumheller tracts, totaling 1.39 acres, immediately adjacent to the Bank of Charles Town tract.

“Since its establishment in 1871, Bank of Charles Town has had strong roots in both Harpers Ferry and Jefferson County,” Bank of Charles Town President and CEO Robert F. Baronner said. “It is gratifying to see this property preserved, and we are proud to play a part in working with the Civil War Trust and its partners on making the transfer a reality. In keeping with BCT’s longstanding philanthropic commitment to our community, the property was sold to the Trust at a discount to bring all interested parties to the table in a combined effort to preserve the property for generations to come.”

Earlier this year, the Trust announced a national fundraising campaign to preserve the three tracts. Thousands of private donors, large and small, contributed to the effort. The most generous donation came from NPCA, due to the generosity of an anonymous contributor, who provided $345,000 toward the acquisition.

“America is losing at least one million acres a year to development, and NPCA’s members work in many ways to protect and enhance our national parks for our children and grandchildren,” said Ms. Oakes. “This member has provided critical financial support to protect historic lands for their history and meaning.”

The historic pedigree of the three properties being preserved is beyond question. The preserved properties were traversed by the historic Harpers Ferry-Charles Town Turnpike, an important thoroughfare and Confederate military target during the battle.

Due to its strategic significance, Captain Benjamin Potts’s Ohio Battery moved to this location to reinforce Captain Silas Rigby's First Independent Indiana Battery, in order to confront Confederate Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill’s forces to the west. From these properties, Potts and his men would fight a brave delaying action to prevent the Confederates from gaining the Turnpike.

The Battle of Harpers Ferry, fought September 12-15, 1862, was one of the most dramatic moments in General Robert E. Lee’s first invasion of the North. In a daring operation, General Lee divided his outnumbered army into four columns in order to surround and besiege Harpers Ferry. On September 15, soon after the fall of Bolivar Heights to Confederate forces, the 12,000-man Union garrison was forced to capitulate. It was the largest surrender of U.S. forces during the Civil War.