Visiting Harpers Ferry & Antietam


Last Updated on February 20, 2024 by Grant

The eastern end of West Virginia makes a great spot to study Civil War history, in particular, Harpers Ferry and the Battle of Antietam. We visited Harpers Ferry and Antietam on our way to New England (from the Atlanta area) during the summer of 2016 on our first road trip with our camper.

Harpers Ferry was an armory and site to the famous John Brown raid. Antietam was the first invasion of the North by Confederate forces during the Civil War. The National Park Service preserves these sites as Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and Antietam National Battlefield.

Check out our full New England National Parks itinerary here.

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Still Learning the Ropes

We woke up on the early side, actually setting an alarm, and quickly got the camper ready to roll. 

Based upon the trip to Mexico Beach, we expected our drive today would take at least eight hours. We were very happily surprised to make it in about six hours. We are still learning the ropes, so this was a good thing.

The drive up I-81 went very smoothly. As a general rule, we route on I-81 when headed northeast to avoid the cities along I-95. Instead of traffic and construction, we were blessed with beautiful views of the Shenandoah Valley.

Harpers Ferry was an armory and was the site of the John Brown Raid.
Harpers Ferry was an armory and was the site of the John Brown Raid.

We arrived at our campground near Martinsburg, WV to discover, well, not much at all. It was a field with hook-ups. Yes, it had water, electricity and sewer but nothing else. No bathroom. No trash bins. Just a field and view of the highway. On the plus side, it was cheap. The downside is we are trying not to use the toilet in the camper for anything other than liquid waste. All I’m going to say is that one of us had to break it in and it wasn’t me.

All that said, this is one of the reasons why we bought the camper. We have found, especially out West, plenty of campgrounds that are basically the same. In a tent, we would have kept driving to find another site with shade and a bathroom. In the camper, we bring our own shade and toilet with us.

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park

After setting up the camper we headed over to Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. Harpers Ferry was the site of a major armory pre-Civil War and was the site of John Brown’s slave rebellion.

The confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers
The confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers

The town is situated at the junction of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers and is very pretty. It is also along the Appalachian Trail and we saw several hikers coming in. The Lower Town has several preserved buildings with rangers to demonstrate how life was lived back in the day. It also has ruins of several hydro-powered factories along the Shenandoah River.

We walked a trail along the river and then walked the streets of the town. By the time we got there, the park rangers were done for the night. Still, a lot was still open in anticipation of the Harpers Ferry NHP quarter. The Park Service and the Mint planned on releasing the quarter the following day. We were happy to avoid the anticipated crowds.

Most of the town of Harpers Ferry has been preserved as a National Historical Park.
Most of the town of Harpers Ferry has been preserved as a National Historical Park.

We really enjoyed walking the town. While we often find preserved homes, it is rare we find entire towns so well-preserved. We were also glad to find trails to hike on, allowing us to stretch our legs after the long drive.

Antietam National Battlefield

Antietam is… Well, words fail me about Antietam. The battle was the single bloodiest day in American history. It was Lee’s first major incursion into the North. Tactically, the battle was a draw, with Lee retreating across the Potomac River. Politically, it gave Lincoln the capital to begin pushing the Emancipation Proclamation.

One of the best parts about this visit for me was hearing the ranger give an impassioned orientation of the battle on the observation deck of the visitor center. 

Fields of grain undulating in the wind at Antietam.
Fields of grain undulating in the wind at Antietam.

He was fantastic, absolutely fantastic. Sadly, as we visit many of the smaller NPS sites, we run into very few rangers… Mostly, we find volunteers running the visitor center. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for volunteers but it grieves me to see how Congress has painfully underfunded the National Park Service.

We took a brief hike around The Cornfield. As the ranger said, there are many cornfields, but there is only one “The Cornfield.” Some of the bloodiest fighting of the battle took place here. Yankee troops marched through the rows of corn into withering Rebel fire. Hay’s Louisiana Brigade alone suffered 60 percent casualties. 

Nearly 8,000 soldiers died at the Cornfield at Antietam.
Nearly 8,000 soldiers died at the Cornfield at Antietam.

We also walked out to the Georgian overlook which gave about 400 Georgia sharpshooters the ability to control the Lower Bridge for hours until they ran low on ammo and Burnside was able to push across.

For those who grew up in the South on old history books, you might remember this battle as the Battle of Sharpsburg. The Union, when claiming victory, named the battles after the local creek or river, whereas the South named the battles after the nearest town. That’s the reason why there is confusion over the First and Second Battles of Manassas and the First and Second Battles of Bull Run…. They are the same battles.

Captain Bender's Tavern
Captain Bender’s Tavern

Following our tour of the battlefield, we adjourned to the nearby Captain Bender’s Tavern for some local brew and crab cake. It’s not much to look at on the inside but the service and the food were great!

Monocacy National Battlefield

The Battle of Monocacy, near Fredrick, MD, was the site of the third and final invasion of the North by the Confederates. Lee dispatched General Early and a corps of troops around the Blue Ridge Mountains and back across the Potomac to strike at Washington, D.C.

With most of Washington’s defenses pushed south to help pin Lee near Richmond, VA, very few veteran troops were available to help in the defense of Monocacy Junction, a nearby rail junction.

A cannon at the Worthington Farm
A cannon at the Worthington Farm

It was a quick but brutal battle, not on the same scale as Antietam or Gettysburg (the second invasion in the North, which we visited later on this trip). The battle was critical. While the Union lost the battle, Federal troops succeeded in holding Early long enough for reinforcements to move into the area. The Union troops also did significant damage to Early’s corps.

We got out on the trail at this park, nearly getting in a three-mile hike in some very nice woods, even if it was very much adjacent to I-270. 

The Park Service allows farmers to grow historically-appropriate crops and livestock on the land at both battlefields, something I find incredibly cool. I think it is a great example of how government and private enterprise can work together and still preserve the character of a national treasure.

Final Thoughts on Harpers Ferry and Antietam

This whole area is chock full of history. There are several National Parks sites within a reasonable drive that we didn’t visit. 

5,500 soldiers died fighting in and around the Sunken Road at Antietam, now called Bloody Lane.
5,500 soldiers died fighting in and around the Sunken Road at Antietam, now called Bloody Lane.

Our campsite, while spartan, was something we have come to love in later trips. While there wasn’t much there, the price was great for full hook-ups and it was really easy to deal with. 

We know we need to return to Maryland and visit a lot more the sites in this area and Martinsburg would make a great base for exploring the area. 

Check out our full New England National Parks itinerary here.

Travel Resources
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We highly recommend Outdoorsy for RV rentals. We rented a camper van for a week to visit Rocky Mountain National Park for the elk rut and Custer State Park for the Buffalo Round-Up and had a blast. The program was easy to use and we really enjoyed the freedom of having a camper van for that trip.
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Do you use anything to get discounts on the road?

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