Civil War Sites Near Washington, D.C.

In the spring of 1861, a huge stump of marble sat forlornly on a hill not far from Abraham Lincoln’s White House. The unfinished Washington Monument seemed to symbolize the plight of the young nation, which had begun with such promise and now appeared to be broken in two.

War was in the air, and Washington teemed with soldiers who were arriving from all over the North to defend the threatened capital. Much of surrounding Maryland, though part of the Union, was hostile territory. Union troops passing through nearby Baltimore had been attacked by Southern sympathizers. Confederate Virginia lay just across the Potomac River. The capital of the Confederacy was 100 miles farther south at Richmond. And a rebel army was amassing in Northern Virginia about 25 miles from Washington near Manassas Junction.

The Civil War letters of Private George B. Stanley that appear each month in The Upstate Journal of New York provide an intriguing glimpse into those early days of the war from the perspective of a Union soldier. Private Stanley became part of the Army of the Potomac, which took shape after the First Battle of Manassas in July 1861 and would spend almost four years clashing with the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. The places below are some of the sites near Washington, D.C., where that story is told.

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park

About an hour’s drive northwest of Washington, the small town of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, occupies a narrow point of land where the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers flow together beneath wooded bluffs. Thanks to its strategic location and railroad lines, and the Federal armory and arsenal along its waterfront, Harpers Ferry took a beating during the war. But the town gained its most lasting fame for what happened here a year and half before the war began.

On the night of October 16, 1859, a band of about two dozen men led by a fiery abolitionist named John Brown raided the town and seized the armory. Brown planned to incite a revolt among slaves and equip them with arms from the Harpers Ferry arsenal. But the plan quickly unraveled, and Brown and his men ended up barricading themselves in the armory fire engine house. Two days later a contingent of marines, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee, stormed John Brown’s “fort” and killed, wounded, or captured the insurrectionists. Brown was found guilty of treason and executed, but his memory lived on. A martyr to some and a madman to others, Brown helped to inflame the festering tensions between North and South. On the day he was hanged, Brown predicted that “the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.” He was terribly right.

Harpers Ferry never really recovered after the war. Floods destroyed much of its industry, and the town slipped quietly into decline. Today a large part of Harpers Ferry is managed by the National Park Service, which is preserving or restoring many of its structures. It’s a charming place to spend a day, exploring the historic area, walking along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal beside the rocky Potomac River, and climbing up to Maryland Heights for a splendid view of one of the prettiest spots in the mid-Atlantic.

Manassas National Battlefield

In the early days of the war, both sides believed that the whole affair would end quickly. Lincoln called for 90-day volunteers to put down the rebellion, and vast encampments filled with soldiers eager to fight soon covered the countryside around Washington. In July 1861, Union forces headed into the Virginia countryside toward Manassas to confront the Confederate army, which they intended to brush aside and then march on to Richmond. Civilians and congressmen in high spirits followed along in hopes of getting a good view of the spectacle.

The reality of battle shook up both armies. During the confusing engagement, some 900 soldiers were killed, and almost 4,000 were wounded. The overconfident Union army was beaten back across the stream known as Bull Run, where the roads of retreat were clogged with panicked sightseers who had seen more than they’d bargained for. The two armies would meet again about a year later on the same fields in a larger, costlier battle, again a disaster for the North.

What some call the third battle of Manassas is being fought today—a fight against encroaching development, for the battlefield lies within the ever-growing Washington metropolitan area. But despite the courtroom skirmishes and the traffic on U.S. Route 29, which runs through the park, most of the battlefield retains a quiet dignity and appears much as it did back then. A lovely stone bridge arcs over the shallow waters of Bull Run, marking the route of two Union retreats. The Stone House, which served as a hospital during both battles, stands at the center of the park. A bronze equestrian statue of Confederate General “Stonewall” Jackson, who earned his nickname here, overlooks the still fields and silent cannons on Henry Hill, where hopes for a quick end to the Civil War died.

Antietam National Battlefield

The town of Sharpsburg, Maryland, about 10 miles north of Harpers Ferry, is an unspoiled country town surrounded by farms and rolling hills and bordered on the east by Antietam Creek. But for one day at summer’s end, September 17, 1862, this peaceful countryside was transformed into hell on earth. By late afternoon after about 12 hours of fighting, 23,000 men had been killed or wounded, making the Battle of Antietam the single bloodiest day of the Civil War.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee had taken over the Army of Northern Virginia earlier that year. He would lead the rebel army until the end of the war, battling a succession of Union generals and besting most of them. Emboldened by his victory that summer at the Second Battle of Manassas, Lee carried the war into Maryland.

Lee’s invasion of the north was stopped at Antietam. The fighting raged for hours back and forth through cornfields, where bullets and artillery shells mowed down cornstalks and men alike. In the West Woods, 2,200 Union soldiers were slaughtered in 20 minutes. Another 5,000 fell along a sunken country road dubbed Bloody Lane. The battlefield’s most famous landmark is the arched stone structure now known as Burnside’s Bridge. For several hours here, a few hundred Georgia riflemen held off General Ambrose Burnside’s much larger force of Union soldiers as they tried repeatedly to storm the tiny bridge over Antietam Creek.

In late afternoon the prolonged massacre ended. No one had really won. Lee’s battered forces retreated back into Virginia, and Union commander George B. McClellan failed to pursue them and perhaps lost a chance to destroy Lee’s army. Today, Antietam remains one of the best preserved Civil War battlefields in the mid-Atlantic, a timeless reminder of the war’s most awful day.

National Museum of Civil War Medicine

“If I were to speak of war,” wrote Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, “it would not be to show the glories of conquering armies but the mischief and misery they strew in their tracks . . . this is the side which history never shows.” After the battles ended, the great armies moved on, but the human wreckage left in their wakes was staggering. After the Battle of Antietam, about 8,000 wounded soldiers from both sides were brought to nearby Frederick, Maryland. Makeshift hospitals sprang up in churches and public buildings, wherever room could be made. After the three-day battle at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in July 1863, some 20,000 wounded overwhelmed the surrounding farms and villages. Those with shattered bones from bullets or shrapnel often faced loss of limb. In the Union army, three-fourths of all operations were amputations.

Guns and cannons were not the greatest killers. Of the 600,000 men who died in the Civil War, two-thirds died of disease, diarrhea and dysentery being the deadliest. The huge camps packed with soldiers in unsanitary conditions were ideal breeding grounds for disease. Soldiers never exposed to childhood illnesses, such as small pox, mumps, and the measles, fell sick in droves and many died.

The National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Maryland, documents the heroic efforts of physicians, nurses, and other care givers to cope with all this suffering and death. Dioramas, artifacts, and photographs—some ghastly—illustrate the story of medical treatment during the four years of war and the progress that was made in the treatment of wounds, in convalescent care, and in reconstructive surgery.

Upon witnessing a Union assault repulsed at Fredericksburg, Virginia, in late 1862, Robert E. Lee said, “It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.” The Museum of Civil War Medicine serves to remind us of the human cost of war and just how terrible it can be.

David Romanowski, 1999

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