Tensions between the aristocratic, plantation-based culture of eastern Virginia and the independently minded mountain people of western Virginia had simmered for years prior to the Civil War. Sharp disagreements over slavery, voting rights, and economic issues finally boiled over when Virginia seceded and federal troops moved rapidly into this mountainous region to secure it for the Union. The ensuing armed struggle resulted in the state of West Virginia being admitted into the Union on June 20, 1863.
Prelude to War in Harpers Ferry
Let’s back up several years and tell this story from the beginning. Just after sundown on October 16, 1859, John Brown led 21 men across the Potomac River to capture a cache of weapons stored at the U.S. Arsenal in Harpers Ferry. Their immediate goal was to free and arm slaves, who Brown believed would eagerly join their abolitionist ranks to forcibly fight the oppression. It didn’t go as planned. Federal troops, under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee, cornered the invaders in a small fire engine house until they finally surrendered. This event further inflamed already passionate tensions between the North and South.
Now, we fast forward to Harpers Ferry in the 21st century as we begin our tour of West Virginia’s Civil War sites. Moderate spring temperatures in the 80s envelope my wife, Karen, and me as we ride our Honda ST 1300 into Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. Our journey back in time is made all the more real by docents in period costumes, restored 19th century buildings, the reconstructed fire engine house, museums, and shops.
Motorcycle & Gear
2004 Honda ST 1300A
The Federal Armory, at a stop along the B&O Railroad on a spit of land at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, made Harpers Ferry a strategic military objective for both sides. During the course of the Civil War, the town changed hands several times. John Brown’s raid and the ensuing wartime conflicts are richly chronicled here. Even today, archeologists continue unearthing artifacts.
The Battle of Shepherdstown
Bakerton Road leads us on an off-the-beaten-path trajectory to Shepherdstown. Overhanging tree limbs create a green tunnel of lush vegetation. Rounding a curve, though, we’re forced to a sudden stop. The previous night’s thunderstorm has left a tree in our path. Although traffic is backed up, we squeeze the Honda through a small opening and continue on while drivers fume over the delay. The route is hugging the banks of a lazily flowing stretch of the Potomac River. With about a mile to go, we see signage indicating a historical location up ahead.
Before the Potomac was dammed, armies and others forded the river. After the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862, General Lee’s retreating army crossed here. Union troops were in hot pursuit and clashed with remaining Confederate forces in what became known as the Battle of Shepherdstown.
Today, however, Sheperdstown is a quiet college town. Specialty shops, coffee houses, and eateries occupy antique buildings spread along German Street. Visitors stroll along the sidewalks, taking in the outstanding weather and the village’s 19th century ambiance. Since it’s now lunchtime, we head for the Bavarian Inn, which specializes in tasty German fare.
Belle Boyd, Confederate Spy
After lunch, we take Scrabble Road west. The narrow two-laner twists, turns, rises, and falls like a “Little Dipper” rollercoaster ride. It’s thrilling, but it finally pops us out at our next stop in Martinsburg.
On July 4, 1861, Union soldiers confronted Maria Isabella “Belle” Boyd and her mother at their home in Martinsburg for flying a Confederate flag. When a (reportedly drunken) soldier cursed at the two ladies, an enraged Belle shot him dead. Although she was exonerated by the Union commanding officer, this event served to launch the 17-year-old girl’s career as a Confederate spy. The tall and attractive Belle would repeatedly charm information out of Union officers and pass it on to Confederate commanders.