Harpers Ferry prepares for 150th anniversary celebration

September 13, 2012|By RICHARD F. BELISLE |
  • Harpers Ferry National Historical Park ranger Melinda Day prepares Thursday for the weekend activities at the park. She portrays a townsperson who could have been used by the federal army to provide aid and comfort during the Civil War era.
By Kevin G. Gilbert/Staff Photographer

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. — Large crowds are expected in Sharpsburg this weekend for the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam to see thousands of re-enactors, visit the annual Sharpsburg Heritage Festival and participate in a commemorative 3-mile Antietam Remembrance Walk linking Sharpsburg and Shepherdstown, W.Va.

On Monday, Sept. 17, 150 years later to the day, Antietam National Battlefield will officially note “America’s Bloodiest Day.”

Todd Bolton, spokesman for Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, said not many of those attending the private events, like Saturday’s huge re-enactment in a field near Sharpsburg, will attend the solemn ceremonies commemorating the battles that claimed more than 23,000 lives at Antietam and the smaller battles leading up to it.

Re-enactments are not allowed on National Park property.

“We’re trying for a bigger picture here at Harpers Ferry,” Bolton said. “This anniversary is more than guns and soldiers. It’s not just about the battle, it’s more on relevance, about why we should care what happened here 150 years later.

“Sure the fighting, the blood and the casualties are a story, but what about the result of all these men losing their lives? An enslaved people were freed and the Union was saved. That’s what makes the story relative to us today. It brings us to where we are,” Bolton said

To tell the story, park employees lined up a slate of respected and well-known historians who will lecture on the events of the time today, Saturday and Sunday.

The weekend lecturers include Drew Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard University and award-winning Civil War historian; D. Scott Hartwig, supervisory historian at Gettysburg National Military Park; William A. Blair, director of the George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center at Penn State University; Lincoln scholar Allen C. Guelzo; and authors Kathleen Ernst and James K. Bryant II.

A highlight will be a panel discussion on “Harpers Ferry 1862: Beyond the Battle.”

Log onto to for the schedule of events.

A new Civil War Trails marker detailing the Battle of Maryland Heights on Sept. 13 was unveiled Thursday on the front lawn of the Brownsville Church of the Brethren on Md. 67.

The marker overlooks Elk Ridge, which leads to Maryland Heights and the first Civil War battle in Maryland, said Dennis Frye, chief historian at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.

Frye said Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee was after Harpers Ferry because of its strategic importance. It was garrisoned with more than 12,000 federal troops. Lee sent 2,000 troops south along a narrow trail atop Elk Ridge, easily visible today across Pleasant Valley and Md. 67 from the new marker. The Rebels walked south toward Maryland Heights and swept the federals off the high ground.

From there, Fyre said, about 8,000 troops, including Confederate cannoniers on Maryland Heights, in conjunction with Rebel guns on School House Ridge and Loudoun, had an easy field of fire to the town below and the federal garrison. The fight ended with the capture of 12,700 Union troops and paved the way for Lee to send his army north to Antietam and that fateful Sept. 17.

Among speakers at Thursday’s unveiling was Ailiene Shields of Columbia, S.C. Her great-grandfather, Confederate Pvt. Thomas Marion Shields, and his brother, David Andrew Shields, fought in the battle for Maryland Heights.

David Andrew Shields was killed there. Thomas Marion Shields was wounded and sent to a hospital in Richmond, Va., she said.

“He was wounded a second time at Chancellorsville in Virginia, but he survived the war,” she said.

Thomas Marion Shields fought at Gettysburg, at Chickamauga in Georgia, Chattanooga in Tennessee, The Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse and Cold Harbor in Virginia. He was captured by federal troops and pardoned in March of 1865, Shields said.

Her book, “The Legacy of a Common Civil War Private Thomas Marion Shields,” was based on letters written to his family back home.

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