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Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, West Virginia, United States

School House Ridge North Trail - Bolivar Heights Battlefield

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park

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Difficulty: Moderate
Length: 4.0 miles / 6.4 km
Duration: 1-3 hours
Family Friendly • Dog Friendly
 
Overview: From his command post near Halltown, "Stonewall" Jackson methodically and deliberately positioned his cannons "to drive the enemy" into extinction. Indeed, Confederate artillery fire upon Harpers Ferry was effective and demoralizing. 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."

Realizing that artillery alone probably would not subdue the Union garrison, Jackson ordered General A.P. Hill to flank the Federal position on top of Bolivar Heights. Using School House Ridge for cover, Hill moved his forces toward the Shenandoah River, dragged and tugged five batteries up the river's steep bluffs, and succeeded in planting his artillery 1,000 yards from the exposed left flank of the Union position. Hill later wrote that "the fate of Harpers Ferry was sealed."

Louis Hull of the 60th Ohio agreed, writing in his diary on the evening of September 14th: "All seem to think that we will have to surrender or be cut to pieces."

This guide highlights the battlefield of Bolivar Heights and School House Ridge North.


Tips: Make sure to bring a trail map with you. Trail maps are free and located at the Visitor Center. Bring plenty of water and snacks.

Points of Interest

Parking
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Bolivar Heights Battlefield

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Facing the Enemy

The nearby marker inscription reads:
Union Commander Dixon Miles knew the Confederates were coming. His cavalry reported the Southern troops advancing from three different directions. Ordered to "hold Harpers Ferry until the last extremity." Miles divided his forces to retain Maryland Heights - the highest mountain - and to defend Bolivar Heights - the longest ridge. As Miles watched "Stonewall" Jackson's 14,000 men spread across Schoolhouse Ridge, word arrived that Miles's soldiers had lost the fight for Maryland Heights. Bolivar Heights stood as the Union army's last bastion.

We were greatly surprised at finding ourselves in the face of the enemy so soon ... felt proud in being considered worthy of such a trust, and determined to do our duty.
Sergeant Nicolas DeGraff, 115th New York
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Fortifying Bolivar Heights

The shallow ditch to the side of the trail is the remains of an infantry trench line that extended the length of the ridge line. Originally only a couple of block houses reinforced the infantry trench. By 1864, five such block houses were erected to defend this approach to Harpers Ferry. By that time, the town was a supply base for a major campaign to drive the Confederates out of the Shenandoah Valley.

The nearby marker inscription reads:
"...the heights became dotted with tents, and at night...the neighboring hills were aglow with hundreds of watchfires..."
Joseph Barry, Harpers Ferry resident
October 1862

After the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862, General Lee withdrew his Confederate army back into Virginia. Instead of pursuing Lee, Union Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan reoccupied the Harpers Ferry area with nearly 60,000 soldiers.

While McClellan paused to reorganize and re-equip his army, President Abraham Lincoln visited here on October 1 to review the troops on Bolivar Heights and encourage McClellan to move against the Confederates. The Federals advanced south one month after Lincoln's visit, leaving only 5,000 soldiers to garrison Harpers Ferry.

The Confederates invaded the North again in the summers of 1863 and 1864, forcing Union troops on Bolivar Heights to withdraw to stronger fortifications on Maryland Heights. This left Harpers Ferry open to the Confederates resulting in the destruction of the railroad bridge and capture of Federal supplies.

In August, 1864, Union Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan's army occupied this area. Sheridan's men constructed a 2-mile line of earthwork defenses, connecting six artillery redoubts, along the crest of Bolivar Heights. These fortifications secured Harpers Ferry as a Union supply base for the rest of the war.
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Federal Artillery Demonstration

Harpers Ferry Park’s Living History staff demonstrating federal artillery.
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Federal Artillery Demonstration

Federal artillery demonstration on the battle which led to General Stonewall Jackson’s capture of 12,500-man Federal soldiers.
Campground
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Military Camp

A historical reenactment of a military camp.
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Protecting the Supply Lines

The nearby marker inscription reads:
"...make all the valleys south of the Baltimore and Ohio [rail]road a desert as high up as possible...so that crows flying over it [Virginia] for the balance of the season will have to carry their provisions with them."
Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, USA
July 17, 1864

Securing Harpers Ferry as a supply base was essential during Union Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan's Shenandoah Valley Campaign in the Fall of 1864. In front of you are the weathered remains of Battery #1 overlooking the mouth of the Shenandoah Valley. These fortifications built by Sheridan were never attacked by the Confederates.

Union wagons became favorite targets of Confederate cavalry once beyond the safety of Bolivar Heights. Despite harassment from Lt. Col. John S. Mosby's Rebel raiders, Sheridan successfully defeated Lt. Gen. Jubal Early's Confederate army in the Shenandoah Valley in four major battles from September 19 through October 19, 1864.
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Suppy Line

This trail was used as a supply line. Protecting the supply line was essential during the war.
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From Skirmish Line to Burial Ground Marker

The nearby marker that is located on the trail towards the right reads:
Some of the Union infantrymen who defended this ground on the night of September 14th returned the next day. Even though the Confederate strategy had won the battle for Harpers Ferry, and these Union soldiers were part of the largest surrender of United States troops in American history, these particular soldiers had unfinished business here.

"Went to the foot of the hill to bury Disbrow, was shot in the head the knight before. Sad time. We buried him with overcoat and blanket wrapped around him."
Private John Paylor, Company D
111th New York Regiment

"Horace Acker of Meridian had been killed. Poor boy, he was such an impulsive nature. It was impossible to tell whether he was killed by friend or foe as he was found dead in front of our line."
Private Newman Eldred, Company H, 111th New York Regiment.

I found 4 men killed and 1 very seriously wounded; he died. That made 5 killed. I do not know how many were wounded, 9 or 10, mostly slightly wounded. One man was wounded in the breast, and another had a little finger shot off - some little things of that kind. I could not tell how many of the rebels were killed, or whether any of them were. When they came into our camp [after the surrender] they told us we had killed 20 of them and wounded a number more."
Colonel Jesse Segoine, 111th New York Regiment.
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The First Line of Defense: The Union Skirmish Line

The nearby marker inscription reads:
After sunset on September 14, 1862, the Confederate cannons across the road on School House Ridge vanished in the darkness. The features of the landscape began to blur as the shell-shocked Union soldiers on Bolivar Heights wondered if they could survive another day of artillery bombardment. The Union troops could not rest until tomorrow, however, because General "Stonewall" Jackson's Confederate Army might charge over School House Ridge at any moment. To guard against such an attack, the Union command established a human alarm system on this field in the form of a skirmish line. It was the first line of defense. If the Confederates advanced, the gunfire from the Union soldiers on the skirmish line would reveal the location of the attack. "Stonewall" Jackson was counting on it.
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A Dangerous Position

This spot indicated the front lines. Fighting would first happen on these premises. Shots would wisp over heads peeking over the trench line.

The marker inscription reads:
On the dark, moonless night of September 14, 1862, 100 men from the 126th New York Regiment established a skirmish line here. These men were new to the war, having only been in uniform for a few short weeks. After surviving a terrifying afternoon of relentless Confederate artillery fire, these young men were thrust into a dangerous and vulnerable position on the front line. If the Confederates wanted to attack this location, this was a good time to do it.

"On Sunday evening, the second day of our fight, I was ordered out in front of our camp to skirmish as the Rebs were getting rather thick. Now just keep in mind that I had been up for three nights before. You can imagine how pleasantly I must have felt. It was a dangerous position, but I felt as if I did not care whether the Rebs had me or not. Our hundred men were detailed and put under Lt. Munson & myself. You ought to have seen us hunting our way down Bolivar Heights for the front of our camp. At last we reached our position."
Lieutenant George York, Company I, 126th New York Regiment, from a letter to his father.
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School House Ridge North

This is the entrance sign towards School House Ridge North.
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School House Ridge North Trail

The path is well maintained and there are hiking signs indicating the direction towards the path.
Viewpoint
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School House Ridge North Trail

From this position, you may observe the surrounding battlefields. Bolivar Heights and Loudoun Heights may be seen from here.
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No Man's Land

This was a dangerous position to be in during the war. Anyone caught in the middle was vulnerable to attacks.
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Fake Attack

The marker inscription reads:
"Stonewall" Jackson understood the principle of military deception. On the second evening of the battle, he used deception here. To lure the Union attention away from the south end of Bolivar Heights, Jackson faked an attack against the north end of the heights in front of you. Using darkness to disguise the deceit, the Stonewall Division marched forward from near this location, creating a commotion that successfully distracted the Federals from Jackson's real advance, one mile to the south. This fake maneuver ultimately helped Jackson position Confederates behind the main enemy line.
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Confederates Converge

The marker inscription reads:
Confederate General Robert E. Lee's first invasion of the North hinged on eliminating the Harpers Ferry garrison. To do so Lee devised Special Orders 191. He divided his force of 40,000 into four parts. Three columns marched from near Frederick, Maryland, 22 miles northeast of here, to seize the three mountains surrounding Harpers Ferry. The fourth moved north and west toward Hagerstown. Following victory at Harpers Ferry, Lee intended to reunite his army and continue the invasion into Pennsylvania.

Lee assigned Major General "Stonewall" Jackson to command the Harpers Ferry attack. Jackson's columns faced challenging barriers. Long sweeping marches over mountain passes and across the Potomac River required endurance. Once here, "Stonewall's" soldiers had to scale the surrounding heights. Victory demanded coordination, communication, and convergence. Any lapse would enable the Federals to escape.
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Assessing the Obstacle

The marker inscription reads:
Never had "Stonewall" Jackson faced a stronger enemy position. Arriving here on Schoolhouse Ridge on the first day of the battle, Jackson scanned Bolivar Heights (the lower ridge in front of you) and saw a dangerous enemy - 7,000 Union infantry and dozens of cannon stretched across the ridge, ready for battle. He realized a frontal assault would be deadly.

After securing Schoolhouse Ridge with his artillery and 14,000 infantry, Jackson labored to open communications with his officers on Maryland and Loudoun heights. Meanwhile, he devised a plan of deception and surprise.
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Destined for Antietam

Antietam is the mountain furthest to the left.
The marker inscription reads:
Text of the marker is arranged to illustrate the movements of the Confederate Army during the Antietam Campaign of 1862:

September 10, 1862 from Frederick, Maryland
Confederate commander Lee sends part of his army to capture Harpers Ferry, while he waits in Maryland to advance on Pennsylvania.

Jackson
September 13
Maryland Heights, MD
Confederates force Union soldiers off Maryland Heights.

September 13
Jackson arrives here on Schoolhouse Ridge, surrounding the Union garrison.

September 14
Jackson's forces bombard Harpers Ferry and outflank the Federals on Bolivar Heights.

September 15Union garrison surrenders, and Jackson advances on Sharpsburg to help Lee, leaving General A.P. Hill behind to deal with the captured prisoners and spoils of war.

Lee
September 14
South Mountain, MD
Lee's troops clash with the Union army and delay its counter attack.

September 15
Sharpsburg, MD
Lee withdraws toward Sharpsburg,north of Showman's Knoll. He awaits news from Jackson at Harpers Ferry.

Antietam
September 17, 1862Union and Confederate soldiers fight in the bloodiest day of the Civil War. Lee's invasion ends, President Lincoln issues the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.
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Union Skirmish Line

The marker inscription reads:
Union troops on the crest and slope of Bolivar Heights to the East were attacked by Confederates lead by Gen. Jackson from School House Ridge to the West on 14 Sept. 1862. Private Paylor, Co. D., 111th NY, recalled this as "an awful fight." This action helped defeat 12,000 Union troops at Harpers Ferry. Their surrender on 15 Sept. was the largest of Federal forces until Bataan, the Philippines, WW II, 1942.
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Five Rounds into the Darkness

The marker inscription reads:
The 115th New York Regiment, young and inexperienced, formed a skirmish line here. When gunfire erupted on their left during the night, the men of the 115th must have felt the rush of adrenaline through their veins. Dander was headed in their direction. There was not time to think. For all they knew, a full-scale attack had begun and they were protected only by the darkness.

"Sharp musketry began on our extreme left, it came rapidly toward us and soon we to were blazing away. We fired five rounds into the darkness. When the firing ceased and no body seemed to know what was the matter it was said that the Reble Cavalry had attempted to pass between us and a Hill beyond. This was our second Sunday in the field and we easily reached the conclusion that there was no sabbath laid down in Army regulations."
Sergeant Nicholas J. DeGraff, Company D, 115th New York Regiment
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The Confederate Perspective

The marker inscription reads:
"General J.R. Jones was directed to make a demonstration against the enemy's right."
Jackson's official report

Confederate Colonel Edmund Pendleton wrote about the night of September 14, 1862, from his perspective across the road on School House Ridge. Pendleton and his men were facing this direction, holding the Union forces in check on Bolivar Heights behind you.

"We lay upon our arms till nearly daylight, the quietude of the night being unbroken, save by a sharp musketry fire of a few minutes duration in front of our right and a few hundred yards distant, which proved to have occurred between two regiments of the enemy on picket duty, who had mutually mistaken each other for foes."

Colonel Pendleton was mistaken. The gunfire he heard was exactly what General "Stonewall" Jackson wanted. Jackson intended to outflank the enemy stronghold on Bolivar Heights by moving artillery and infantry to the far left of the Union position. To cover this maneuver and distract the Union troops, Jackson ordered some of his forces on School House Ridge to stage a feint attack against the Union skirmish line near the road below. Confederate victory was inevitable now.

Even though the attack here lasted only a short time, it was a critical part of the Confederate strategy, and a life and death situation for the soldiers who were involved.
Viewpoint
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A Union Predicament

You can view the Shenandoah River, Harpers Ferry Lower Town, Maryland Heights, and Loudoun Heights from this position.

The marker inscription reads:
"Do all you can to annoy the rebels should they advance on you...You will not abandon Harpers Ferry without defending it to the last extremity."
Maj. Gen. John G. Wool, USA
Telegraph message to Col. Dixon S. Miles, USA
September 7, 1862

The first large-scale Federal occupation of Harpers Ferry began in February 1862. Despite the destruction of the armory and arsenal the previous year, Harpers Ferry remained important in protecting Union communication and supply lines and in deterring Confederate invasions of the North.

The Confederates invaded the North for the first time in September 1862. By September 7, Gen. Robert E. Lee's army had crossed the Potomac River and encamped outside Frederick, Maryland. The large Union force at Harpers Ferry, now located behind the invading Confederates, threatened Southern communication and supply lines. In response, Lee boldly divided his army into four parts, sending three columns to capture or destroy the Union garrison at Harpers Ferry.
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Closing the Doors

The marker inscription reads:
Resting with his troops in Frederick, Maryland, 20 miles northeast of here, Confederate General Robert E. Lee had hoped the Union garrison at Harpers Ferry would abandon its post when he invaded the North. They did not. Lee decided to attack. He divided his army into four columns, sending three to seize the three mountains overlooking Harpers Ferry. On the first day of the battle, the Confederates captured Loudoun Heights, south of the Shenandoah River. North of the Potomac, Union forces abandoned Maryland Heights after a nine-hour defense. "Stonewall" Jackson seized Schoolhouse Ridge to the west, closing all doors of escape. Bolivar Heights, the mountain you stand on, remained in Union control. The Confederates were now poised to attack the surrounded garrison.
Pictures in this guide taken by: Lucky_Dog

2011

School House Ridge North Trail - Bolivar Heights Battlefield Trail Map


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Lucky_Dog
Lucky_Dog
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My paws may be short, but I can hike like the big dogs.

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