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November 10, 2011
A Slight Demonstration (9)By Greyhawk
Abraham Herr's Mill (center) on Virginius Island, as seen from Harper's Ferry, with Shenandoah River and Loudoun Heights (Loudoun County, Virginia) in background (Lithograph circa 1857)
October 16, 1861 was the second anniversary of John Brown's raid on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia - the intervening years had not been good ones for the town. Once a center of industry (the Shenandoah flowed rapidly downhill to meet the even more rapid Potomac there, providing abundant water power) Harper's Ferry was fast becoming a ghost town in more ways than one.
But Joseph Barry, one of the remaining citizens, found himself "employed" that day. By that point in the war "The baking of pies and the smuggling of whiskey" - mostly to soldiers of whichever army was the easiest to reach on any given day - "were the principal employments" of those citizens who hadn't abandoned their homes for safer climates North or South, Barry later recalled. "The whiskey business was exceedingly profitable and it was embraced by all who were willing to run the risks attending it (for it was strictly interdicted by the military commanders of both sides) and who were regardless of the disgraceful nature of the employment" - but he himself was performing more honest labor today.
Unfortunately, he wouldn't be paid for it.
Early in October Mr. A. H. Herr, proprietor of the Island of Virginius and the large flour mill on it, having a large quantity of wheat which he could not grind into flour -- his mill having been partially destroyed by some federal troops under Lieutenant Colonel Andrew, brother of the governor of Massachusetts, in order to prevent the confederates from using it -- and being a union man at heart, invited the government troops to remove the grain to Maryland. There being no bridge across the Potomac at the time, a large boat was procured and a company of the 3rd Wisconsin regiment impressed the few able-bodied men then at the place into the service of the government to take the wheat from the mill to the boat and ferry it across with the aid of the soldiers. The citizens were promised a liberal per diem, but that, like many other good promises and intentions, forms a part of the pavement of a certain region where it never freezes.
Hard times were upon them. "John Brown, on the day of his capture, prophesied the destruction of Harper's Ferry, to take place in a short time," Barry claimed - and whether the fiery abolitionist had made such a prophesy or not, no one could deny it had come to pass.
Burning of the federal arsenal, April, 1861
The destruction of the arsenal had been the first blow. Alerted to the approach of Virginia militia immediately following the state's secession, the federal troops had burned it before departing. Though the Confederates had salvaged much of the machinery from the flames, all of that had been sent off elsewhere, as it was correctly determined that more than a river should separate one nation's weapons manufacturing facilities from an enemy nation's army.
The county, like most in western Virginia, had sent Union men to the secession convention, and there was no shortage of Union sympathizers in the town. Leaders of the Confederate forces who'd moved in from elsewhere in the state - and soon enough from several other states - decided to correct that perceived deficiency. Barry recalled the first example - "a gigantic Irishman named Jeremiah Donovan, who immediately shouldered a musket and stood guard at the armory gate" when the commander of the federal troops there called on local citizens for aid. But after the soldiers had left and the militia arrived, Donovan was still in town...
Just at 12 o'clock on the night of April 18th, 1861, the southern forces marched into Harper's Ferry. Poor Donovan was seized and it is said that a rope was put 'round his neck by some citizens of the place who held secession views, and who threatened to hang him instanter. A better feeling, however, prevailed and Donovan was permitted to move north and seek employment under the government of his choice. The forces that first took possession of Harper's Ferry were all of Virginia and this was lucky for Donovan, for the soldiers of that state were the most tolerant of the confederates, which is not giving them extravagant praise.The remaining Union men of the town would not be so foolish as to display their sentiments so obviously in the future, so someone soon came up with another method to identify the unfaithful:
One evening the mail train was detained and the mail bags were taken away from the government agent by an armed posse. The letters were sent to headquarters and many of the townspeople to whom friends in the north and west had written freely denouncing secession, were put under arrest and some were in imminent danger of being subjected to the utmost rigor of military law.
As if the attention of their fellow Southerners wasn't enough, large numbers of Lincoln's "90 day men" were beginning to gather on the opposite side of the Potomac - most of them had no idea of the subtle political currents flowing on the south bank. The Fourth of July was celebrated that year with a minor skirmish across the river about a mile east of town. Barry gave the casualty figures as "Two men were killed on the Maryland bank and at least one was wounded on the Virginia side" - in a brief exchange of long-range gunfire that "effected little beyond putting the few old people who still clung to their homes at the place into a most uncomfortable state of alarm."
Civil War-era view of Harper's Ferry from Maryland, including ruins of Potomac railroad bridge
And so things went for Harper's Ferry. Before they left for Manassas, (taking a few of the town's more notable "Union men" away with them as prisoners) the Confederates destroyed the railroad bridge across the Potomac. Shortly thereafter they sent a small force back to destroy the Shenandoah bridge, too - along with a few railroad cars and a rifle factory.
"Destruction of railway cars at Harper's Ferry by the Mississippians"
(From the July 20, 1861 Harpers Weekly - which was not published in Harper's Ferry.)
The Yankees passed through shortly after that, and likely noticed the town was no longer worth keeping. Still, "Patterson's army occupied Harper's Ferry for several days," Barry wrote, "and helped themselves to most of what was left by the rebels. Whatever may be said of their exploits on the field of battle their achievements in the foraging line are certainly worthy of mention in this and all other impartial histories of that period."
There followed a brief period of quiet for the town - or rather, what was left of it. But that ended soon enough when men in blue began appearing once again across the Potomac. Joseph Barry could never bring himself to appreciate the men of the 13th Massachusetts who now camped on the opposite shore.
These men were uncommonly zealous in shooting at rebels as long as they -- the 13th -- were on the Maryland side of the river with the broad Potomac between them and the enemy, or rather between them and Virginia for, now, it rarely happened that a Confederate soldier appeared anywhere within gun shot of them. Crouching under the buttresses of the ruined bridge on the Maryland side of the river in the now dry bed of the canal, or among the thickets and rocks of the Maryland Heights, the gallant 13th kept up a constant fire on the few inhabitants of Harper's Ferry, suspecting or affecting to suspect them of being rebels. Everything that moved about the streets they shot at vindictively. The appearance of even a mullein leaf swaying in the wind elicited a volley from these ever vigilant guardians of the nation, and it was lucky for the place that they were indifferent marksmen, else it would have been wholly depopulated. They had field glasses through which they watched the motions of the inhabitants and there is no exaggeration in saying that they shot at weeds set in motion by the wind, for it frequently occurred that volleys were fired at bushes which in no way could hide an enemy and which were noteworthy only because they were set in motion by the breeze.
"The writer is not prone to saying harsh things," Barry added, "but he cannot forget the many bullets shot at him by the above regiment and that a whole platoon of them once opened fire on him and a young lady in whose company he was at the time, actually cutting off with their balls portions of the lady's headgear."
By 16 October the federals and their new friends in Harper's Ferry had been busy for several days emptying Herr's Mill of several thousand pounds of wheat, and boating it across the river. (Abraham Herr had been one of those Harper's Ferry residents hauled off to Richmond for being a Unionist after having his mail examined a few months before, but had been paroled shortly thereafter.) Joseph Barry - who years later would compose a history of his town - participated in the great effort.
Even the sacred person of the future historian of the town was not spared, and many a heavy sack did he tote during several days, under the eye of a grim Wisconsin sergeant who appeared to enjoy immensely the author's indignation at his being put to this servile employment. Like the recreant soldier at Sing-Sing, the historian derived no benefit on this occasion from the smattering of different languages with which he is credited, while the sergeant was indifferent as to the tongue in which the writer chose to swear or to the number of anathemas he thought proper to vent against the world in general and soldiers in particular, he took care that the hapless author did his full complement of the work.
"Suddenly, on the 16th of October -- the second anniversary of the Brown raid -- while the citizens and soldiers were busy working at the wheat, a report reached them that Colonel Ashby, at the head of the Virginia militia, was approaching from Charlestown to put a stop to their work," Barry wrote. "The news turned out to be true..."
Map of Harper's Ferry, star on location of Herr's flour mill
(Part ten is here...)
Barry, Joseph, The Strange Story of Harper's Ferry, with Legends of the Surrounding Country (1903)
Posted by Greyhawk / November 10, 2011 3:37 PM | Permalink
November 26, 2010
I think anyone who's ever pondered the "comment" option - once only available on blogs and bulletin boards, now ubiquitous on almost any web site - will appreciate this:
The so-called faculty of writing is not so much a faculty of writing as it is a faculty of thinking. When a man says, "I have an idea but I can't express it"; that man hasn't an idea but merely a vague feeling. If a man has a feeling of that kind, and will sit down for a half an hour and persistently try to put into writing what he feels, the probabilities are at least 90 percent that he will either be able to record it, or else realize that he has no idea at all. In either case, he will do himself a benefit.
That's wisdom from the past, captured for posterity at the US Naval Institute, shared via the web on the institute's 137th anniversary.
From their about page:
"The Naval Institute has three core activities," among them, History and Preservation:
The Naval Institute also has recently introduced Americans at War, a living history of Americans at war in their own words and from their own experiences. These 90-second vignettes convey powerful stories of inspiration, pride, and patriotism.
Take a look at the collection, and you'll see it's not limited to accounts from those who served on ships at sea, members of the other branches are well-represented.
I'm fortunate to have met USNI's Mary Ripley, she's responsible for the institute's oral history program (and she's the daughter of the late John Ripley, whose story is told here). She also deserves much credit for their blog. ("We're not the Navy nor any government agency. Blog and comment freely.") We met at a milblog conference - Mary knew (and I would come to realize) that milbloggers are the 21st-century version of exactly what the US Naval Institute is all about. Once that light bulb came on in my head, I mentioned a vague idea for a project to her - milblogs as the 21st century oral history that they are.
"Put that in writing," she said (of course - see first paragraph above!) - and here's part of the result.
Shortly after the first tent was pitched by the American military in Iraq a wire was connected to a computer therein, and the internet was available to a generation of Americans at war - many of whom had grown up online. From that point on, at any given moment, somewhere in Iraq a Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine was at a keyboard sharing the events of his or her day with the folks back home. While most would simply fire off an email, others took advantage of the (then) relatively new online blogging platforms to post their thoughts and experiences for the entire world to see. The milblog was born - and from that moment to this stories detailing everything from the most mundane aspects of camp life to intense combat action (often described within hours of the event) have been available on the web...
And et cetera - but since you're reading this on a milblog, you probably knew that. And you know that milblogs aren't just blogs written by troops at war, that many friends, family members, and supporters likewise documented their story of America at war online in near-real time, as those stories developed.
The diversity in membership of that group is broad, the one thing we all have in common is the impulse to make sense of the seemingly senseless, and communicate the tale - for each of us that impulse was strong enough to overcome whatever barriers prevent the vast majority of people from doing the same. Everyone at some point has some vague idea they believe should be shared - we were the people who, from some combination of internal and external urging, found and spent those many half hours persistently trying to write it down.
But where will all that be in another 137 years? Or five or ten, for that matter. That's something I've asked myself since at least 2004 - when I wrote this:
Membership in the ghost battalion has grown in the years since, and an ever growing majority of those abandoned-but-still-standing sites are vanishing. Have you checked out Lt Smash's site lately? How about Sgt Hook's? If you're a long-time milblog reader you know the first widely-read milblog from Operation Iraq Freedom and the first widely-read milblog from Afghanistan are both gone from the web. If you're a relative newcomer to this world you may never even have heard of them - or the dozens upon dozens of others who carried forth the standard they set down.
If you have a vague notion that something should be done about that, (a notion I've heard expressed more than once...) then you and I and the good folks at the US Naval Institute are in agreement. Preserving the history documented by the milbloggers is just one of the goals of the milblog project, the once-vague idea that we're now making real.
And it's a big idea, if I say so myself - too big to explain in one simple blog post, so stand by for more. Likewise, it's too big a task to be accomplished by just one person. So if you're a milblogger (and exactly what is a milblogger? is a topic for much further discussion on its own) I'm asking for your help. All I'll really need is just a little bit (maybe just one or two of those half hours...) of your time, and your willingness to tell the tale.
We've already made history, it's time to save it.
(More to follow...)
The Mudville Gazette is the on-line voice of an American warrior and his wife who stands by him. They prefer to see peaceful change render force of arms unnecessary. Until that day they stand fast with those who struggle for freedom, strike for reason, and pray for a better tomorrow.
Furthermore, I will occasionally use satire or parody herein. The bottom line: it's my house.
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Original content copyright © 2003 - 2011 by Greyhawk. Fair, not-for-profit use of said material by others is encouraged, as long as acknowledgement and credit is given, to include the url of the original source post. Other arrangements can be made as needed.
Contact: greyhawk at mudvillegazette dot com