Rivers of Progress

At the confluence of the great Shenandoah and Potomac rivers there is a place that rests in the arms of history. Nestled quietly in a forest of silver maple and box elder, Harpers Ferry stands as a monument to the ambitions, dreams, and determination of a young nation. Surrounded by rushing water and rolling hills of hardwood, it is lost in a different time. It was a time when Americans were busy carving a trail through a new and uncharted land; a time when our nation’s destiny, though uncertain, held great promise.  Standing on a large stone overlooking the area in 1783 Thomas Jefferson noted:

“On your right comes up the Shenandoah, having ranged along the foot of a mountain a hundred miles to seek a vent. On your left lies the Potomac in quest of a passage also. In the moment of their junction, they rush together against the mountain, rend it asunder, and pass off to the sea…this scene is worth a voyage across the Atlantic.”

Though his description paints a beautiful picture for the mind’s eye, Thomas Jefferson saw one thing when he looked across the hillsides to the waters below – progress. Locked in the racing water of these two great rivers he saw the power necessary to build and prosper a nation.  Soon after in 1785 George Washington, then president of the Patowmac Company, advocated the area’s industrial potential and proposed it as the site for a new federal armory and arsenal.  Harpers Ferry, which had started off as little more than a river crossing for travelers, was on its way to greatness.

The Rock On Which Thomas Jefferson First Stood To Survey The Area

View Today From Jefferson Rock

In 1799 construction of the arsenal began, and Harpers Ferry became one of only two locations in the country to host, what was at the time, such a ‘high-tech’ industry. Soon, with the success of the arsenal, other industries began to flood into the area. Cotton mills, grain mills, pulp mills, stores, supply depots, and construction companies moved in, staking their claims on the firmament of opportunity.

From 1801 to about 1861 Harpers Ferry became nothing less than an industrial boomtown. Its population swelled into the thousands, and it became one of our nation’s most promising industrial cities.  As its industry flourished, it also became known as a place of great innovation. It was at Harpers Ferry that Captain John Hall refined the art of rifle manufacturing into a science. Hall painstakingly designed machines and fabrication techniques so precise that, for the first time in history, rifles could be built with interchangeable parts. For years each rifle had been custom built by individual craftsmen, no two being exactly alike. Hall’s innovations in manufacturing revolutionized the industry, and made it possible for the US Army to take spare rifle parts into the battlefield for the first time.

In 1833 mass transportation came to Harpers Ferry. First, the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal arrived linking the Harpers Ferry with Washington City. It was a massive engineering effort consisting of miles of waterway, locks, and ports. It was, for all intents and purposes, our nation’s first super highway, and Harpers Ferry was its western most stop. Just a year later the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad came into town.  Demand for raw materials and goods were so high, Harpers Ferry was a logical stop along the B&O route. In just a few decades, Harpers Ferry found itself on the forefront of innovation, industry, and transportation. It was nothing less than a shining example of American ingenuity and progressive thinking.

The men and women who lived and worked there came from all corners of the earth. They were Danish, German, Italian, Irish, Polish, and Asian. Searching to create something better for themselves, they built stores, hotels, produce markets, machine shops, bakeries, and flower mills.  Many had come with nothing but, through their own sweat, built lives for themselves and their families upon these shores. Like the great rivers that surrounded them, they moved forward seeking a new vent for their lives, undaunted by the obstacles in their path.  These early progressives set out to carve a new home from the wilderness, and write a new tale of dignity, opportunity, and freedom for all the world to read.

Then the war came….

Its strategic position in the northern Shenandoah Valley, made Harpers Ferry a key objective for both the Union and the Confederacy. Over the course of the war, it changed hands between 8 and 13 times, the arsenal was burned to the ground, and the population dropped from over 3,000 to fewer than 100.  The most devastating battle took place in September 1863 when Stonewall Jackson placed artillery on the hills surrounding the town and systematically began to destroy it from above.  For three days the Union garrison there took a hellish bombardment from Confederate artillery.  The town was turned into rubble, bridges were cast into the rivers, and once busy factories were turned into morgues.  The Confederate artillery fire was so heavy; Colonel William H. Trimble of the 60th Ohio wrote that there was:

“Not a place where you could lay the palm of your hand and say it was safe.”

On the third day of relentless Confederate bombardment, 15 September, 12,000 demoralized Union troops surrendered to General Jackson in the largest mass surrender in US history.  Harpers Ferry had been devastated in the process.  In a twist of irony, the town that both armies had coveted so, lay in ruins.

Harpers Ferry was no stranger to irony however. When John Brown and his raiders came into town in 1859 to capture the armory and start a slave revolt, the very first person they killed was a gentleman named Heywood Shepherd – a free black man.  When Brown’s team of raiders laid siege to a small armory, President James Buchanan sent none other than Col Robert E. Lee with a detachment of US Marines to put an end to the insurrection. Brown would then be hung for treason against the United States in Virginia, a state that would soon commit the ultimate treason. Perhaps the most profound irony however, was that Harpers Ferry was ultimately destroyed by the very people who had once labored so hard to make it great.  The very people, who had once manned its factories, had also manned the artillery that laid it to waste. The very country that Harpers Ferry had helped to forge, first turned their guns on it, and then later their backs.

Factories In Ruins After War

After the war, Harpers Ferry was only a shell of what it once was. Though many tried to come back and rebuild their lives, a series of tragic floods destroyed everything again.   Additionally, the expansion of the railroad had brought once distant cities closer together, and had created new industrial centers that were far less susceptible to catastrophe. Soon, most of the remaining factories in Harpers Ferry closed their doors, packed up their equipment, and moved their dreams to higher ground.

FINAL THOUGHTS:

On a recent trip to Harpers Ferry National Park, I walked along the banks of the Shenandoah River past the overgrown remains of its once great factories. As I walked, I could not help but become overwhelmed with the history that laid in ruin around me. This place, Harpers Ferry, was much more than a river mill town. It was nothing less than the story of a nation and the people who had built it. In less than 100 years it had grown from a lonely ferry crossing in the northern Shenandoah Valley, to a prominent center of industry and innovation.  It had been envisioned by Jefferson and Washington, but built a stone at a time by real  American ‘progressives.’ They were people who yearned for a better way of life, and were willing to sacrifice everything to fulfill their dream. They asked for nothing, wanted no guarantees, and needed no social justice. They did not expect their government to provide them anything other than the freedom that they needed to live, work, and prosper.  They were progressives in the truest sense of the word. They built a nation from nothing, and changed the lives of every American for the better. Most importantly, they did not expect to consume the fruit of progress, until they had first labored to create it.

Remains Of Old Rail Bridge – First Destroyed By Confederates And Then Floods

Flood Gates Sit Dormant On Banks Of The Shenandoah River

Ruins of Water Powered Saw Mill

The Once Great C&O Canal

Dry Remains Of C&O Lock

As I pondered these ‘true progressives’ it hit me. Harpers Ferry may have died, but the rivers around it were still flowing, seeking a vent. When the town could no longer sustain the aspirations of its people, the river of progress simply diverted itself elsewhere – but it never stopped flowing.  The American progressive spirit that built Harpers Ferry was alive and well, moving out in all directions and building new cities upon the very same dreams.  This was able to happen because America, by its very nature, is progress.  Our founding fathers were the ultimate progressives. They had a vision of a new type of government; one that valued opportunity, freedom, and dignity over repression and subjugation. The very rivers that flowed through Harpers Ferry had flowed through them first, and they still seek their vent today in the hearts and minds of every American.

The 21st century finds our nation embroiled in yet another great battle.  Not with bullets and artillery, but rather with ideas and expectations. Never, since the great Civil War, has our nation been more divided on how we should progress. In the same ironic way Harpers Ferry was destroyed by those who built it, the modern day self-appointed ‘progressive’ is now threatening to destroy America. From health care to energy and banking, they are working to undermine the very might of our nation. In 2010, tried and true institutions created by true progressives such as free enterprise, individual freedom, self determination, and opportunity are under assault by notions of social justice, fairness, and entitlement. The foundations that not only built Harpers Ferry, but also built our nation are rapidly being eroded by a new river overflowing with antipathy. Those who currently, call themselves ‘progressives’ are nothing of the sort. They have no idea what it means to build a nation, but rather choose to focus their efforts on tearing down our greatness. In truth, it would be far more accurate to describe them as ‘regressives.’ Instead of moving our nation’s ideals forward and continuing to build on America’s firm banks, they dam the river of progress and then curse the flood. They can no more understand the currents that pushed Captain John Hall, anymore than he would be able to comprehend their twisted view of America.

I believe that our nation is at a crossroads in history, and that the decisions we make in the next two years will define who we are for generations to come. The forces that drive our country forward will always live in the human spirit, and will flourish wherever they are given purchase. If we do not allow them to flow, they will most assuredly seek another place to vent. And just like Harpers Ferry, we will find ourselves quietly nestled between the silver maple and box elder – a nation that was once great.

Harpers Ferry Shenandoah Street Frozen In Time

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The Man Who Saved Washington

The war was not going especially well for Lewis “Lew” Wallace.  Early on, he had established himself as a competent commander while serving under Ulysses S. Grant, and was widely regarded as a “rising star” in the Union Army.  As a Brigadier General, he performed superbly at the battle for Ft Henry, but it was at the siege of Ft Donelson that he really began to break out of the pack.  On 15 February 1862, the Confederates at Ft Donelson staged a surprise attack on the surrounding Union Army, sending it into disarray.   Seeing that  Brig Gen John McClemand’s forces were taking a beating by the Confederates,  Lewis took the initiative and moved his brigade up to reinforce the center of the Union line, eventually repelling the attack.  Lew’s battlefield savvy was the talk of the Army that evening, and soon afterward Grant promoted him to Major General.  He was clearly on track for greatness…until Shiloh.

Having been overrun by the Confederate Army, Grant called for Wallace’s  Division to come up and reinforce the front.  Receiving the order, Lew moved his forces immediately.  Grant had not been specific about the route to take however, and Wallace had a choice of two roads.  The first road was worn and  rutted while the other was relatively smooth.  Wallace choose the nicer of the two roads thinking it would get him to the right position.  Unfortunately, he was wrong.   By the time his division had made it to the front, the Union had been beaten back so badly that he actually found himself in the rear of the attacking Confederate troops.  Rather than seize the opportunity and attack from the rear, Lew decided to march his division back to where they had started and take the correct road. When he  finally joined up with Grant it was nearly 7pm and the fighting was all but over for the day. Grant was furious.  The next day, Wallace fought bravely and ultimately helped the Union win the battle, but the damage to his reputation was done.  When people began to hear of the horrible casualties at Shiloh, Grant needed a scapegoat and Wallace’s blunder was still fresh in his mind.   Grant laid the blame squarely in Wallace’s lap, removed him from command, and reassigned him,  in disgrace, to first defend Cincinnati and then to run the garrison at Baltimore.  The Union Army’s brightest star had fallen from the sky almost as quickly as he had risen. He had disgraced his name, his family, and his country.  Major General Lew Wallace was finished; a casualty of wartime politics.

As bad as things were going for Wallace in the summer of 1864, they were going much worse for Robert E. Lee.  His once unstoppable army was now in tatters, and besieged by Union forces in Petersburg, VA.   Grant had adopted a much different strategy than his predecessors, and had pursued Lee relentlessly giving his army little time to rest or resupply.   They were now pinned down in Petersburg incapable of going toe to toe with Grant’s vastly superior numbers.  Lee was desperate for relief.  He needed time to rest, resupply, and relocate his army.  Lee  knew that if he did not take action soon, the war would be lost.  So, he came up with a daring plan to do the only thing he knew how to do – attack.

Lee’s plan was to send Lt General Jubal Early up through the Shenandoah Valley with a Corps of 15,000 men.  He would cross into Maryland near Fredrick, and make his way down the Georgetown Pike to Washington.  In order to pursue Lee’s army, Grant had called just about every available unit from Washington leaving the capital practically undefended.  If  Jubal could maintain the element of surprise, he would be able to take Washington and force Grant to withdraw his forces from Virgina.  Perhaps, Lincoln could even be persuaded to accept a negotiated peace as ransom.   It was a brilliant plan, but Lee understood the risks well.  On one occasion he confided to  his generals:

“If we are successful, we have everything to fight for. If we fail, there will be nothing left to fight for.”

So Jubal Early headed north through the Shenandoah Valley with his infantry, for one last glorious battle.  He was Lee’s most capable general and he did not plan on failing. The road was wide open all the way to Washington City, and victory seemed within reach.  If anyone could pull it off, “Ole’ Jube” could.

LT Gen Jubal Early (CSA)

The secret did not last long however. As Jubal’s Corps neared Maryland, workers for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad spotted them and got word to B&O President John W. Garrett.   Concerned that the Confederates were going to destroy his rail line, Garrett found Major General Wallace in Baltimore and pleaded with him to defend the railroad.   Unsure of whether Jubal was headed for Baltimore or Washington, Wallace decided to move as many men as he could to a small bridge and rail junction near the Monocacy River just south of Fredrick.  If the Confederates were going to come down the Georgetown Pike, they would have to pass this point regardless of their final destination, and it was there at the Monocacy Bridge that Wallace would make his stand.  He sent word of his intentions to Grant and then moved out without delay.

Wallace rounded up approximately 2,500 men, most with no battle experience whatsoever, and headed from Baltimore to the rail junction at Monocasy.   Lew knew that he would be facing over 15,000 battle hardened Confederates, and that the odds were horribly stacked against his ragtag force. He also knew that they were the only thing between Jubal Early and Washington.  If he could just give Grant enough time to bring reinforcements up the Chesapeake to Washington, then the city might be saved.  Wallace was not fighting for a victory at Monocacy; he was fighting for time.

Lew’s plan was pretty simple.  He would station his troops on the south side of the Monocacy River by the bridge and the railroad crossing, and fight like hell to keep the Confederates from crossing over.  With only six cannon and one 24 pound Howitzer he knew that Jubal would have him significantly out-gunned,  so to slow them down further he would send a line of skirmishers north of the river to engage Jubal’s men as far forward as possible.  On the morning of 9 July, 1864 he arrayed his artillery and troops around the bridges the best that he could and waited for the southern juggernaut to arrive.   In a bit of lucky timing, an additional 3,000 battle hardened men arrived that morning with the compliments of General Grant.  The odds were better, but Jubal would still have nearly a three to one superiority.  Wallace was ready for a fight however, and perhaps a bit of redemption in the process.

Later that morning Lew and his commanders watched quietly as Jubal’s Corps filed south toward the railroad junction and the Monocacy Bridge.  When the Confederates were in range of his skirmishers they open fired, and Lew’s battle for time had begun.  Lt General Early pushed forward toward the bridge with 4 Regiments.  They marched in a massive formation across the freshly hewn fields of the Best Farm toward the Monocacy Bridge. Early also set up a number of artillery batteries on the farm’s front lawn sending a fierce barrage toward Lew’s lines.  The map below shows a rough layout of the battle.

The Battle of Monocacy July 9, 1864

Confederate Cannons Point South On The Best Farm Lawn

The battle was intense and men on both sides started to fall.  Thanks to the fearless efforts of men like Lt George Davis, who received a Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery, the thin Union line held.  So fierce was their resistance, that Jubal met with his generals and determined that a direct attack on the bridges was too risky.  Instead, he sent two of his generals and 3,000 infantry west to find a good place to cross the river and attack the left flank of Wallace’s line.   Soon, they found a suitable crossing a couple of miles downstream at a place called Worthington Farm. Once across, they formed up for a simultaneous attack with the main force.

The Old Worthington Farm Where Jubal’s Generals Crossed

Wallace had read Jubal’s plan however, and shifted his most battle hardened troops west to meet the Confederates head on.  They lined up along a fence separating Worthington Farm from Thomas Farm and waited for the Confederates to come.  At 1030, they appeared directly in front of Wallace’s troops, unaware of their presence.   Wallace’s men open fired inflicting horrendous casualties on the Confederates, eventually forcing them to withdraw and regroup.   Things were quiet until about 2:30 in the afternoon when the Confederates came again. This time, they circled around the Thomas Farm fence line and focused their attack on the Thomas House itself.  The fighting was fierce and often hand to hand with rifle butts and bayonets.   Over the next hour and a half, the Thomas Farm changed hands several times.  Wallace’s troops held their line however, driving the attacking Confederate Regiments back time after time.   While the fighting was raging to the west, Wallace ordered the Monocacy bridge burned so that the Confederate forces would not be able to storm it.  Lt Davis and his skirmishers were inadvertently left on the other side of the river, and had to withdraw across the B&O railroad tressel while under heavy fire.

The Thomas Farm On Wallace’s Left Flank

The Field Between Thomas And Worthington Farms Where the Monocacy Battle Raged

A Modern Bridge Now Crosses The Monocacy Where The Old One Once Stood

The B&O Rail Tressel Saved By Wallace Still Operates Today

Wallace’s troops fought valiantly for the entire day, successfully holding a vastly superior force at bay.  At 4:00 in the afternoon however, low on ammunition, and having lost over 20% of their force they could hold their ground no longer.   As the Confederates swarmed their flank a third time, Wallace ordered his men to withdraw to the east and start heading for Baltimore.   They had lost over 1,200 men but had inflicted about 900 casualties on Jubal’s forces, severely reducing their combat effectiveness.  They had also tired out the Confederates so badly that Jubal had no choice but to make camp at Monocacy for the evening before proceeding to Washington City.  Though Major General Wallace had technically lost the battle, he had bought General Grant an extra day to get reinforcements up the Chesapeake to Washington.

When Jubal arrived at Ft Stevens on the outskirts of Washington City two days later, he found two fresh Union Divisions ready for a fight.   Early attacked Ft Stevens on the afternoon of 11 July but the Union reinforcements held firm, making it impossible for him to enter the city.  Jubal realized that his opportunity to take the Union Capital had passed.  He had literally arrived a day late because of the battle at Monocacy.  The battle in which Major General Lewis “Lew” Wallace stood his ground and saved Washington.

The importance of Wallace’s stand at Monocacy was not lost on General Grant.  In his memoirs he noted that Wallace’s defeat contributed:

“…a greater benefit to the cause than often falls to the lot of a commander of equal force to render by means of a victory.”

Lew Wallace had been disgraced at Shiloh, removed from his command, and shoved to the side by his nation.  He had been ridiculed by his seniors, and criticized by politicians.  His once bright military career had been shattered into a thousand shards of glass, and he was destined to be nothing more than a footnote to failure in the history books.  Instead of drowning in his own bitterness, however, Major General Lew Wallace chose to stand up and answer the call of his countrymen.  Once again, he risked everything to save what he held dear.  Had he failed, and Jubal reached Washington a day early,  they would have beaten Grant’s reinforcements and taken the city.  Lincoln himself would have been held hostage until a negotiated peace to the war was achieved.  The consequences of Wallace’s actions are simply incalculable.  Against all odds, he rallied his forces and gave the Union the additional day that they so desperately needed.   A day that ultimately resulted in the final defeat of the Confederacy, and an end to the bloodiest war in American History.

Final thoughts:

I am not providing you this, rather lengthy, history lesson in order to draw some loose analogy to our present-day political struggles.  To do so would trivialize the importance of what happened at Monocacy River that day. My point for telling this fantastic story, is to remind us all that America is great because Americans are great.  History shows us time and again that, when others would declare defeat, we stand up and renew the fight.  Lew Wallace reminds us of this fact.  Had he not fearlessly stood his ground that day at Monocacy River, our nation’s history may have been profoundly different.  At the very least, the war could have lasted years longer, costing both sides thousands of more lives. Lew stood his ground and, in doing so, gave us all an example of what it means to be an American.

In this modern age of relative prosperity and comfort it is easy to overlook the roots of greatness that make this country strong. We are those roots.  Just like Lew, each of us has the power to stand up and be counted.  Monocacy is a reminder to each of us that the fate of our nation is firmly in our hands, and that our heritage of courage is all that stands between us and tyranny.   Lew knew this to be true, and that is why he responded so valiantly when his nation called on him.  If history is any measure of the future, we can be sure that there will be many more Monocacy moments.  Perhaps it will be your turn to stand up and be counted. How will you respond?

Editor’s Note:  After the war, Lew Wallace became famous for one more great contribution to the world.  In 1880 he wrote “Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ.”  It became the top selling book of the 19th Century and has never been taken out of print.

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Four Doctors Support Health Care Bill

BREAKING NEWS  – Head Muscle Press (March 4, 2002) In a tightly choreographed media event yesterday, President Barack Obama announced to an eager crowd of supporters that his administration had located four doctors that agreed with his new health care bill.  Speaking with renewed determination, President Obama impugned the hastily assembled crowd to get the bill passed now.  “This is really an exciting moment for us,” one supporter confided.  “We have really been hoping that the medical community would step up to support this bill, and it looks like it has finally happened…I mean…well…at least four of them have.  We have also heard rumors that there is a pharmacist in Rapid City who likes the bill too, but no one has confirmed it yet.” In an attempt to dig a bit deeper,  HM Press caught up with one of Obama’s staffers after the media event. On condition of anonymity,  she agreed to speak with us.  Transcript follows:

HM: This seems to be a big event for the President.

Staffer: Absolutely! He is thrilled.

HM: So, these four doctors actually agree with Obama’s new plan?

Staffer: Yes, they think that this bill is the only way to save our health care system.

HM: But there are only four of them…

Staffer: Only four?  I would say that this is a pretty impressive showing.

HM: but..

Staffer: (breaking in) Let me finish.  We may only have four now, but we think that there are a lot more out there.  Maybe double that number!

HM: So you are saying that there may actually be eight doctors out there that agree with the new bill?

Staffer: Well we cannot say for sure, but some of our analysts think it is possible.  Look, the fact is, there is a silent super minority of doctors out there who are clearly leaning our way –  and we want to find them.

HM: What exactly is a silent super minority?

Staffer: Well we are not sure about that either, but we think it is an important demographic.

HM: How so?

Staffer: Think about it. We are changing one sixth of the US economy to support about seven percent of the population.  Given those numbers, finding four doctors that support this bill is huge!

HM: But polls still show that the vast majority of doctors are against the bill.

Staffer: Not anymore.  In our latest poll, one hundred percent of the doctors surveyed supported it.

HM: Wow, that is impressive who conducted the poll?

Staffer: We did of course!

HM: Oh really, what sample size did you use?

Staffer: That’s beside the point.

HM: No, I think it is important; how big was your sample?

Staffer: Well, quite a few…um…maybe about four I think.

HM: (shocked) So what you are saying is that you only polled the four doctors on stage.

Staffer: Well yes, but it was unanimous….pretty much.

HM: Pretty much?

Staffer: OK, initially one of the doctors was undecided, but Obama was able to change his mind.

HM: How? Did he offer the doctor some type of political position or favor in return for his support?

Staffer: Oh no, Obama will never make that mistake again.

HM: How did he do it then?

Staffer: Cash…I think.

HM: (changing subject)You must forgive my skepticism, but it just seems to me that having four doctors on board is nothing to get excited about.

Staffer: Well, I will admit the stage looked a bit sparse with just four doctors behind the President, but this is only the beginning. Let’s say that our analysis is correct and we can find another four out there somewhere. The ramifications would be huge!

HM: I am sorry, I don’t understand.

Staffer: (rolling eyes) Well a television screen is only so wide.

HM: (confused) Excuse me?

Staffer: (irritated)  OK, work with me here… just imagine if we had eight doctors on stage all bunched up real tight with Obama.   We could almost make the average American believe that our nation’s medical professionals were behind this bill, not just our liberal friends at the DFA and AMA.

HM: So, what you are really saying is that you want to dupe gullible Americans into thinking this bill is a good idea?

Staffer: Well, I would not use the term “dupe” …

HM: What term would you use?

Staffer: I dunno, “creatively manipulate” maybe?  I mean it really is for their own good.  Most Americans are incapable of understanding this bill anyway, and just need to let us pass it.  After all, we know what is good for them; we’re the government!

HM: I see.

Staffer: Well I am very sorry to cut this short, but I need to get back to work.  I only have an hour to get the white coats back to the costume shop…see ya!

At that point, our interview ended as our staffer dashed from the press room.  We are not sure where this all will lead, but one thing is clear.  We have witnessed political theater at its finest and, if successful, we will likely see many such stunts in the future.  Rumors are already circulating that Obama staffers have rented a half dozen polar bear suits for an upcoming climate change conference. <<DEVELOPING>>

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