History in the Making
History was made at the Entler Hotel in Shepherdstown the afternoon of Wednesday, June 24, 2015, when three noted historians sat down at an old, long table to discuss the last months of the Civil War in the Shenandoah Valley.
This marked the first meeting in Jefferson County of the two chief historians of our great national parks at Antietam Battlefield and Harpers Ferry, Ted Alexander and Dennis Frye, respectively, for a public forum on the Civil War.
The event marked the culmination of a series of sesquicentennial Civil War remembrances, held annually since 2011 following the war years, 1861-1865. This year, “Jefferson County, 1865” drew over forty people who participated in the three-day seminar, June 21 through 24. Co-sponsored by the Jefferson County Historical Society (JCHS), the Charles Town Civil War Roundtable and Historic Shepherdstown Commission, this year’s seminar examined key movements and events during the war’s last year, when Jefferson County, in particular Harpers Ferry, continued to play a key role in the waning months of the war.
At the first meeting in the Middleway community center in the newly refurbished 19th century Episcopal Church, a tribute to the voluntary civic efforts of its church members, JCHS Board President Douglas Perks, the seminar’s main organizer, opened the day with an overview of Civil War Harpers Ferry.
Slides of original photographs spanning the war years, dramatizing the changes in this major Union arsenal, also under Confederate control for short periods were shared. Perks brought home its strategic importance for both North and South with its location at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers with two major railroads and the C&O canal running through it.
Participants also took part in talks on a variety of subjects, mainly from members of Charles Town’s Civil War Roundtable: Jim Glymph on “Small Arms Ammunition,” Don Watts on “Was It PTSD?” Steve French on “Captain Blackford,” Philip Wingert on “James Burton,” and John Bagladi on “No Heroes, No Generals: The Common Soldier.” Watts and Bagladi gave us insights into the lives of common soldiers on both sides as they struggled to gain their meager pensions after suffering catastrophic war injuries.
On the second day, the group traipsed the grounds of Harper Ferrys’ Camp Hill, the site of Lockwood House that formed the beginnings of Storer College, the first college in West Virginia established by the Freewill Baptist missionaries for the newly freed African-Americans. Perks guided the group through an engaging narrative of how the college began. He had participants read the words of key personalities as they walked the historic campus. In the afternoon, participants visited a handsome exhibit, now open to the public, in the national park’s lower town dedicated to the “Freedmen’s Bureau: Educating the Newly Freed Slaves and the Prelude to Storer College.” Park historians/rangers Kimberly Biggs and Gwendolyn Roper, instrumental in setting up the temporary exhibit, served as guides.
Day three found the group gathered at the Entler Hotel in Shepherdstown. In the morning session, Jim Glymph’s slide presentation demonstrated the virtues of a true archaeologist. At the site of what may have been a Union Civil War camp, Glymph has uncovered and identified hundreds of artifacts from the period. He also has found objects that most likely date back to the first half of the 18th century, including colonial buttons and coins.
Donna Northouse, in her talk on three Charles Town writers, began with the life and poetry of Daniel Bedinger Lucas, a noted jurist and poet and descendent of two leading Jefferson County families. In fact, Lucas’ maternal grandfather, Daniel Bedinger, built the room in the Entler in which we met. He owned the Entler from 1790 through 1816. Northouse also outlined the achievements of Martin Delany, regarded by many as the father of Black Nationalism, who was a major force for radical change in nineteenth-century America. Just one of Delany’s remarkable accomplishments was his appointment as a major in the U.S. Army at the request of President Lincoln in 1865. He was also active in promoting the Freedmen’s Bureau in South Carolina, in advocating for public housing and schooling for African-Americans, and running for lieutenant governor of the state on the Republican ticket in 1872. John Peale Bishop’s life and fiction was also introduced. Two participants, Nancy Jenks and Philip Wingert, impressed all with their on-the-spot dramatic interpretations from two of Bishop’s stories, “The Cellar” and “If Only.” These and three other stories were published in 1931 in Bishop’s collection, Many Thousands Gone. The stories, set in Charles Town, called Mordington, reveal the intimate, often shocking details of its daily life from 1852 to 1900.
The afternoon session served as a fitting culmination to fifteen days of seminar over the past four years. Local musician Terry Tucker held our undivided attention as she sang two of her own compositions, based on poems by Daniel Bedinger Lucas. “My Heart is in the Mountains” especially hit close to home. Mr. Tucker also sang tunes popular in both the North and South, from “Rally Round the Flag Boys” to the hymn still song locally, “Thy Will Be Done.” Ted Alexander’s talk followed, revealing little-known facts about the contributions of various ethnic groups that participated in the war.
The day ended on a positive note with a discussion led by moderator Douglas Perks, who asked eight key questions of Ted Alexander and Dennis Frye. The questions focused on the meaning of the crucial events the Shenandoah Valley witnessed towards war’s end. Frye reminded us that there was one saving outcome amongst the horrors of war, slavery was finally outlawed. Alexander ended with a fitting reminder of the crucial importance of studying the Civil War, especially when we consider the racial conflicts witnessed in various parts of our country over the last few months.
Donna Northouse is editor of The Guardian, the newsletter of the Jefferson County Historical Society, and a museum docent with the Historic Shepherdstown Commission.