Most written accounts of Harpers Ferry, Virginia, during the Civil War era begin and end with John Brown’s raid in 1859 and his subsequent hanging. In Six Years of Hell, Chester G. Hearn tells in colorful style the harrowing story of the war years from Brown’s arrival in July, 1859, through the early months of Reconstruction in the summer of 1865.
With the possible exception of Winchester, Virginia, no other town changed hands more often than Harpers Ferry. Twenty-eight different commanders controlled the area during the war. It was involved in many campaigns, including: Stonewall Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign; Robert E. Lee’s invasion of Maryland in 1862, and his invasion of Pennsylvania that climaxed with the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863; Philip Sheridan’s Shenandoah Campaign in 1864; and the suppression of John Singleton Mosby and other Confederate partisans during 1864 and 1865.
Hearn vividly recounts the catastrophic effects of the war on Harpers Ferry. It was invaded by General Kenton Harper once and Stonewall Jackson twice, and survived two attacks by Jubal Early and one each by Generals Joseph B. Kershaw and Lafayette McLaws. With Jackson’s assistance, Joseph Johnston destroyed the town’s industry, bridges, and canal in the spring of 1861. Thereafter it endured continual harassment from Virginia cavalry and independent partisan bands. Often left without protection from either side, the town at times became a “no man’s land” vulnerable to looters and armed bushwhackers.
During the war, the lower town along the river was destroyed, rebuilt, and destroyed again. The crucial Baltimore and Ohio bridge was blown up or set afire and rebuilt nine times. Both of the town’s armories were dismantled and burned—their machinery taken south for the manufacture of muskets and breech-loading rifles. The only building untouched was John Brown’s fort—the enginehouse.
Relying heavily on records left by the townsfolk who weathered the war and the soldiers who garrisoned the town, Hearn treats the civilian experience as fully as he does military activities. He makes continual reference to the people who attempted to stay in their homes, protect their possessions, and get along with the soldiers during the conflict. As Hearn clearly demonstrates, for those stouthearted individuals, the Civil War was truly six years of hell.
Chester G. Hearn is the author of Six Years of Hell: Harpers Ferry during the Civil War; When the Devil Came Down to Dixie: Ben Butler in New Orleans; The Capture of New Orleans, 1862; Ellet’s Brigade: The Strangest Outfit of All; and Lincoln, the Cabinet, and the Generals
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