KABOOM! Artillery demonstrated at Bolivar, W.Va., park

August 11, 2008|By DAVE McMILLION

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. - A cool breeze blew beneath towering trees at the top of Bolivar Heights Sunday and the views of nearby mountains were so vivid it seem they could be touched.

A pleasant place to be on a hot summer day.

But it was not such a nice place 146 years ago.

That's when Confederate Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson oversaw the capture of 12,500 Union troops in the Civil War.

On Sept. 15, 1862, a line of Union troops was stationed along Bolivar Heights, which is off Washington Street in Bolivar, W.Va.

The soldiers were soon faced with overwhelming pressure from the Confederates.

Southern troops advanced from the west, from the side at what was called the Chambers farm and in front of them on Loudoun Heights and Maryland Heights.


Jackson's men had pushed 70 cannons into place around Bolivar Heights and when the artillery was fired on Union troops, it was no place for man to be, according to historical experts interpreting the story at the site Sunday.

Artillery that was used - including three-inch rifled cannons - shot explosives that rained chunks of iron from the sky, the interpreters said.

Park ranger Robert Grandchamp described the ordnance as "shrieking" as it landed.

"If you were a Union soldier up here, you would want to dig a hole and bury your head. That's how bad it was," Grandchamp told dozens of park visitors gathered under a tree.

The 12,500 Union troops who were captured represented the largest military capture until World War II, said John King, chief historic weapons officer for the park.

Following the surrender, Jackson marched his troops to join Gen. Robert E. Lee in Sharpsburg, leaving Gen. A.P. Hill at Harpers Ferry to handle the Union soldiers, park officials said.

On Saturday and Sunday at Bolivar Heights, park officials performed artillery demonstrations to give visitors the feel for the fire power in the 1862 takeover.

Artillery firings at noon, 2 p.m., and 3 p.m. were conducted and historical experts talked about the ammunition used during Jackson's raid.

The three-inch ordnance rifle was considered to be a more refined cannon, capable of sending its explosives two miles away, King said.

When a cannon was fired, a deep boom rocked the hilltop.

Just before it was fired, rangers warned spectators they might want to cover their ears, grab their children and adjust hearing aids.

"Imagine 70 artillery pieces spitting out all that," said one ranger.

"This was a living hell on Earth," Grandchamp said.

At the 3 p.m. firing, the cannon was lit just ahead of threatening thunderstorms.

The rains hit, sending spectators onto an awaiting park bus.

One of the visitors was Phil Sibrell of Charles Town, W.Va., who said he has never witnessed artillery demonstrations like Sunday's and rarely comes to the park.

But Sibrell joined relatives who were in town visiting and who wanted to go to the park for the event.

"I think it's pretty impressive," Sibrell said.

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