Help Save 13 Acres at Harpers Ferry
A Message from Jim Lighthizer, Civil War Trust President
Dear Fellow Dedicated Preservationist,
I know how busy you are, but please, I urge you to take a moment today to come back in time with me, to a place of unparalleled historic significance and importance to our nation, and to the study of the Civil War.
I will try to make the trip as interesting as possible to make it worth your while. Then, I will tell you how you and I can save this incredibly historic place with a nearly $20-to-$1 match!
October 16, 1859: Harpers Ferry, Virginia (the state of West Virginia will not be carved out of the Old Dominion until 1863)… It's a little before midnight, wet and raw.
Raiders under the command of abolitionist John Brown are returning to the U.S. Armory and Arsenal at Harpers Ferry, using the inky darkness to conceal their prisoner and hostage, Colonel Lewis Washington, the grand-nephew of President George Washington.
Following Brown's direct orders, the heavily armed raiders rein their wagons (and Colonel Washington's "borrowed" carriage) quietly to a stop at another house near the Charles Town Turnpike, one owned by prominent landowner and slaveholder John Allstadt.
Brown's men take a heavy log from a rail fence by the road, and batter open the door to the Allstadt home. With his daughter screaming "Murder!" into the night, the heavily armed raiders order Allstadt and his eighteen-year-old son Jacob to dress and come with them. Together with several slaves, the group resumes its grim procession to Harpers Ferry. Upon reaching the Armory, John Brown puts Washington and the Allstadts into the guardroom to await their fate.
As day breaks on the 17th, however, events begin to go downhill for Brown and his small band of followers. The slave uprising they hoped to inspire does not materialize; sporadic firing from the now-alarmed townspeople kills or wounds several of the raiders.
Finally, a contingent of U.S. Marines (including a young lieutenant named J.E.B. Stuart) under the command of one Colonel Robert E. Lee, arrives on the scene, storms the Armory, wounds and seizes Brown and kills or captures his men. The hostages are freed.
But Brown’s raid throws a spark onto the gunpowder fuse of regional differences, one that will lead -- just 18 months later -- to the explosion of the firing on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, and a conflagration that nearly consumes our nation.
Fast forward to December 2, 1859, the day of John Brown's hanging. A contingent of cadets from the Virginia Military Institute are dispatched to the 40-acre field of rye and corn stubble at the edge of Charles Town, very near Harpers Ferry, to ensure order at the site of the execution. In this group is a stern VMI professor, Major Thomas J. Jackson, who will not earn the nickname of "Stonewall" for another 18 months. He commands a section of artillery near the foot of the gallows.
After Brown is hanged, the pious Jackson will write to his wife, "I was much impressed with the thought that before me stood a man, in the full vigor of health, who must in a few minutes be in eternity. I sent up a petition that he might be saved. I hope that he was prepared to die, but I am very doubtful."
Also among those witnessing Brown's execution is another man named John who has a bloody date with destiny in April 1865, when he will attempt to ignite his own uprising: the actor John Wilkes Booth. And another: a Virginian named Edmund Ruffin, who would be credited with firing the first shot at Fort Sumter.
Fast forward to September 15, 1862: Now a Confederate Major General, "Stonewall" Jackson is sent to Harpers Ferry by now-Confederate General Robert E. Lee, to neutralize the Union army garrison there, protecting the lines of supply and communication for Lee's army as he takes the war north into Maryland. Jackson's battlefield headquarters is only a few moments ride from Allstadt's farm (the "geographic epicenter" of the battlefield, as described by historian and preservationist, Dennis Frye).
Because of its proximity to the Pike, both Jackson and his adversary, Union Colonel Dixon Miles, grasp the importance of the land surrounding the farm house and Ordinary building (tavern). Jackson knows that it is the only logical place where the surrounded Federals can attempt a breakout, so he intentionally places his strongest forces opposite the site.
Miles, fearing for the safety of his forces, aims much of his artillery at the farm and turnpike to discourage any Confederate advance against the center of his line here.
Again, as Dennis Frye says, this historic 13-acre property is the "blackest part of the bull's eye" at the Battle of Harpers Ferry. Jackson maneuvers his forces all around this crucial part of the battlefield, as he bombards the Union lines, eventually forcing Miles to surrender, triggering the largest capitulation of U.S. troops (more than 12,000), until Corregidor in World War II.
Fast forward once more to today: This hallowed ground now faces a different threat, one all too familiar to you and me. Once again, due to its proximity to the road, modern U.S. highway 340, this site has been eyed for years by developers who would now love to erect a "travel plaza" type of structure here...
... multiple islands of gas pumps, a big convenience store, high density lighting, traffic congestion, a large swath of pavement, or perhaps even high-rise apartments... this blight is what is envisioned for this uniquely historic place by some developers.
In 2009, the property was rezoned to permit up to 54 high-density residential units. Fortunately for those of us who care about history, the sluggish economy back then meant that the units were never built.
But in 2013, it was rezoned again to permit commercial use (a business “park”), and earlier this year, a traffic light was installed adjacent to the property, making it very attractive for commercial development.
But today, if we move quickly, you and I have the chance to prevent this fate on this crucial land, which is not only adjacent to hallowed ground you and I have already saved, it is also visible from just about every other part of the Harpers Ferry battlefield, as you clearly see on your battle map.
The landowner has received legitimate offers to develop the property, but is giving us the opportunity to buy it and save it first. The purchase price is a hefty but fair $2,425,000, for the thirteen acres of hallowed ground, the original and historic Allstadt house and tavern buildings, including the actual door battered in by the raiders.
The good news is that – through a combination of public and private funds, with much work behind the scenes for many months – The Civil War Trust has already raised all but the final $125,000 we need to save this crucial piece of American history.
I’ll spare you the trouble of doing the math – we have fully 95% of the necessary funds lined up and ready to go, and can declare this hallowed ground saved forever if you, I, and our fellow Civil War Trust members can come up with the final 5%, or $125,000.
Another way to say it is that for every $1 you give today, I can turn it into $19.40 to save this land at Harpers Ferry, which is not only at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, but also sits at the epicenter of a tremendous amount of America’s history.
I know that I have asked much of you lately, seeking your help at such important battlefields as Port Republic, North Anna and most recently, Lee’s Headquarters at Gettysburg.
And I realize that I have been so terribly busy of late that I have not done something I meant to do a few weeks ago (and for that, I apologize).
That is, report back to you on the wonderful successes in saving hallowed ground you have made possible so far in 2014.
So to remedy this, please see the 2014 Status Report that I have for you today. It gives you the latest news on the projects you have helped with, and where we stand on the most current efforts.
Quite frankly, thanks to you, it is shaping up to be not only a remarkable year for American battlefield preservation, but perhaps, one of our best years ever.
That said, however, we still have a long way to go on a few projects, and there are new ones – like this crucial land at Harpers Ferry – that are coming up almost every week!
So please, pardon my tardiness in getting this important Status Report to you, but I hope you will examine it carefully to see just how great of an impact you are having on saving our country’s history!
And I also hope that – even if you have been able to help with some of our other crucial campaigns in 2014 – you will agree that a nearly-$20-to-$1 match to save land that has witnessed so much history is very difficult to pass up.
Again, I know how much is going on (believe me, I do… during one recent week-long stretch, I was in Gettysburg, Port Republic, Monocacy and Gaines’ Mill), but we must close on this land by October 15, only about 60 days from today. That’s also the 155th anniversary of the beginning of John Brown’s Raid.
Will you please consider being one of the 1,000 patriots who could save this land with a gift of $125? Or perhaps you could send half that amount, $62.50, or even one-fourth that amount, $31.25 to help today?
Of course, any gift of $250, $500, $1,000 or $1,250 will help us reach our goal even faster, and will ensure that we don’t leave $2.3 million in matching funds lying on the table.
Together, you and I are doing more to save our nation’s history than any other group of people I know of. We are saving America’s rich heritage so that future generations will actually have some historic places where they can go to learn about what an exceptional nation this is.
I hope you believe this is worth a few of your hard-earned dollars today, to ensure that your values and beliefs will be transmitted to future generations through these hallowed places you are saving.
To my mind, this is one of the most important things you and I will ever do. I hope you agree, and I hope you will commit a gift to this effort at Harpers Ferry today. I cannot thank you enough.
Fighting to save our history,
P.S. As always, there is a wealth of information (including some very interesting photos of the property and historic buildings) on our website at www.civilwar.org/harpersferry14. I encourage you to check out all of the resources there, then make your commitment to help save this amazing piece of American history.
I greatly appreciate all you are doing for this great and important cause – you are a hero in my book. Thank you again.