This is the 10th of a series of posts on the aftermath of Antietam – this one again from the pen of George F. Noyes. This member of Doubleday’s staff writes in this excerpt of a trip to Harpers Ferry that he states as occurring on October 10th.
Having some business at Harper’s Ferry, fourteen miles distant from our camp, I rode thither to-day, followed by my sergeant, and accompanied by one of our aids, a smooth-faced son of New York, cool and brave in battle. The ride was one of the pleasantest I ever enjoyed. Through all this portion of its devious course the Potomac has elbowed the Maryland hills out of its way, leaving only space enough at their base for the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, and a narrow roadway partially scooped out of the side of the mountain. The Virginia bank is more level, less bold and striking, relieving the view with glimpses of green fields and fertile farms. The yet youthful Potomac is not yet far enough from its birthplace among the Alleghenies to be very sedate and quiet—is indeed quite turbulent and frisky at times, only to be cured of these fevers of youth when at Harper’s Ferry it weds the pleasant Shenandoah, after that growing calmer and more dignified every day, as they glide on to the ocean together.
A canal is in general about as commonplace an object as can well be devised, but this section of the Ohio and Chesapeake looked anything but commonplace today. On one side overhung by mountains, cut out, in fact, at some points from their rocky base, on the other fringed with a narrow belt of tall, o’erspreading trees, its waters undisturbed by the nondescript half- vessel, half-box canal boat, its locks all closed and silent, it was actually picturesque in its many windings. The road was so crowded with army wagons, and withal so dusty, that we were glad to quit it for the shaded canal pathway. The little belt of trees between us and the river was picketed by our troops, snugly ensconced in the shade, and ready to give the alarm should the enemy attempt to cross.
… and so we found ourselves about noon riding under Maryland Heights, opposite the town of Harper’s Ferry. The shallow, foaming river boiled and bubbled between us and this little elevated angle thrust out at the point of junction of the Potomac and Shenandoah, and frowned upon, buttressed by, absolutely pent in by mountains. On its left Maryland Heights overlook the town, on its right and front are Loudon Heights, with Bolivar Heights in its rear, every one of these now crowned by our batteries and whitened with our camps. It adds to the aggravation caused by the late capture of this spot, with its garrison of ten thousand men, to see how carefully the stable has been locked now that the horse is stolen. It will not do to think of this, however, or we shall lose all pleasure in our visit. < Of course, Noyes is speaking here of the capitulation of the town on 9/15/1862 – largely due to the inept leadership that failed to fortify and secure these very heights. >
The river is here some five hundred feet wide, and we crossed it at the ford, to enter by a gateway into the government inclosure, with its workshops, arsenals, and storehouses all in ruins and black with fire. Near the main entrance, the engine-house wherein John Brown and his little party defended themselves still stood uninjured, as also the gate which afforded him a temporary barrier. We also paused to take a look at the now ruined bridge, the scene of other impressive incidents in this exciting tragedy.
I have never been able to unite in the wholesale praise or the wholesale denunciation which has surrounded the name of John Brown. He was a compound of the old Puritan of Cromwell’s time and Don Quixote de la Mancha, walking ever in the felt presence of his God, and fighting with his Bible in one hand and his musket in the other, as did the one, and yet imbued with that native chivalry of soul, that self forgetting spirit of knighthood, exaggerated, half-frenzied, regardless of practical consequences, or unable to foresee them, which make the old Spanish knight one of the sweetest and best-beloved of all real or imaginary characters. The old man stood before me in actual bodily presence as I paused at this spot—this spot which is to be hereafter classic ground, as time throws into shadow the more rash and Quixotic features of his undertaking, to bring into the foreground his deeply religious spirit, his wonderful devotion to what he deemed his God-given duty, his real greatness of soul. < It is interesting to see how Noyes takes a middle of the road evaluation of John Brown – I suppose, understanding and applauding the abolitionist fervor, yet critical of the impractical nature of his actions. But Noyes is certainly correct in anticipating the John Brown “fortress” would become a classic place of interest and visitation in the future. >
Harper’s Ferry is a little, narrow-streeted, dusty, dirty hamlet. There is only room on the little plateau at the apex of the angle for one main street; it was now crowded with sutlers’ shops and with military visitors, and I was glad to mount the heights in rear to be rewarded with a fine view of the Shenandoah and a glance down the Potomac. < Here is a picture of the angle of view which he describes. I often see this picture as listed as 1865, but have always been skeptical of that – believing the destruction would be worse at that time … therefore thinking the picture is earlier. >