You can stand on the station platform at Harpers Ferry and see three States, two battlefields, two rivers and a panorama of natural scenery which the Kiwanis Club calls “the Little Switzerland of America” and which Thomas Jefferson said was “one of the most stupendous scenes in nature…worth a voyage across the Atlantic.”
Where the chasm yawns beneath and Shenandoah flows into Potomac, you behold the gigantic tumult of nature’s mighty forces meeting her immovable objects. Where the valley flattens out beyond, you look upon a tranquility of meadow and stream which the Indians named Sherundo—”clear-eyed daughter of the stars.”
The sermon in stone that Mr. Jefferson read “of a war between rivers and mountains that must have shaken the earth itself to its core” is yet legible. With the third President’s imagination you can picture, as did he, an inland ocean hurling its breakers against the peaks of the Blue Ridge until at last that mammoth bulwark was rent from summit to base, its fragments scattered as huge boulders the length and breadth of the valley, the waters themselves tumbling toward the Atlantic.
Or, lacking Mr. Jefferson’s vision, you may read other writings on the wall of rock before you. That black hole gouged in the mountain’s side you will recognize as the railroad tunnel which connects Washington with Ohio and the West. Symbolically, it is more than a tunnel; rather, a gaping wound still seeming to bleed of smoke and soot, festering the soil wherein it was cut. For, as any native can inform you, not the Union armies, but the B.&O. Railroad conquered the land on which you stand.
“The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad,” wrote Governor Letcher, of war-ravaged Virginia, “has been a positive nuisance to this State…it must be abated.”
Acting on this suggestion Stonewall Jackson did his share of abating by tearing up bridges and track faster than the workmen could mend them (because, local legend insists, the trains disturbed his soldiers’ sleep). But in ’63, when the trans-Appalachian counties seceded to form the independent State of West Virginia, the railroad lobbyists at Washington arranged that a cargo of soldiers and carpet-baggers be shipped into Charles Town for the purpose of preserving the Shenandoah water gap to the Union. At a plebiscite to represent several thousand souls only 172 votes went into the ballot boxes and from these the will of the people was judged to be for annexation.
In ’67 and again in ’71 Virginia sued for the return of her lost provinces, but the Reconstruction Congress, and later the Supreme Court, gave sanction to the farcical plebiscite of ’63.
It is no longer fashionable, of course, to be sentimental about the South. Still these Shenandoah counties of Berkeley and Jefferson pose a most melancholy case. They are the waifs of the Confederacy — the Alsace-Lorraine of the South. And if such songs as the “Old Kentucky Home” deserve a tear, certainly these lost provinces are worth, at least, a lump in the throat. It is one thing to have gone down fighting off an invader; something else to have been kidnapped and taken alive. It is proud memory for a community to boast itself an unreconstructed rebel, flaunting its Stars and Bars; but it is ironic and mournful for a constituency to have supplied these same Stars and Bars with more troops than any section of the South, and yet have its mail postmarked West Virginia. But just that happened here.
When Robert E. Lee called this district “the granary of the South,” he referred, one must conjecture, not only to its teeming fields and bending orchards — capable, by his estimation, of feeding 40,000 warriors — but to its incredible wealth of manpower.
With her ten companies of regulars and her hosts of volunteers, Jefferson led all the Southern counties. With twenty-seven battlefields within her cramped borders, she seemed to offer herself as the testing ground of her cause. And it was ever thus. The first body of men to join General Washington came from Morang’s Spring; four companies and four generals followed them into the Continental Army. During World War I Charles Town, from a total population of 4,000 sent 500 men to the colors.
Yet with all this array of martial facts, it is singular and significant that the glory of war never dwelt in this delta between the Potomac and the Shenandoah. A valley of warriors, it is also a vale of sadness. If battles were fought, most of them were sanguinary tragedies to the home force.
By the nineteenth century General Lee marched through Pack Horse Ford, at Shepherdstown, to and from the horrors of Sharpsburg. In the eighteenth century General Braddock crossed the same shallows on his way to the most ghastly defeat of the French and Indian wars, a campaign in which George Washington was captured and compelled to sign articles of surrender wherein he ignominiously admitted himself guilty of the assassination of a French official.
And many generations before white men came, a prodigious battle at this same location left the earth strewn with skulls of Delaware and Catawba braves. At Swearingen Spring the victorious Catawbas buried alive a rival chieftain, and superstition still persists that the spurts of the water come from his beating heart. Could anything more exactly symbolize this spirit which seems to brood over the Shenandoah counties?
The tourist, crossing from Maryland for a trip through the valley, will pause on West Virginia soil only long enough to recall that John Brown was captured at Harpers Ferry, tried, convicted and hanged at Charles Town. He will not stand on the heights at Sheperdstown and view the site from which Horatio Gates cried “By God! She moves,” as James Rumsey piloted America’s first steamboat upstream more than twenty years before Robert Fulton chugged up the Hudson. He will not visit the masonic caves at Charles Town up the side of which George Washington climbed and carved his name. He will not ask his way to Braddock’s Well or Washington’s Tree or the Old Ronemus Graveyard or the ruins of St. George’s Chapel, where Washington worshipped and the sheet roof of which was melted to mould bullets against the Yankee invaders. Moreover, if the tourist be someone seeking a picturesque or historic estate upon which to settle, he will be no wiser. For he will drive along roads which lead past the ancestral manors of Washingtons and Lees and Gates and Kennedys — Claymont Court, Harewood, Traveler’s Rest, Mordington — all waiting only the nod of a purchase. But the only thing more difficult than selling a swamp in Florida is selling a genuine landmark in West Virginia. Six or eight miles along the road at Berryville the land marts do thriving business with prosperous Northerners, but such townships as Charles Town, Harpers Ferry, Martinsburg and Shepherdstown only wave immigrants a hail and farewell.
Be that as it may, it would seem difficult to name a region in the South more rich in legend and lore. For many generations preserved by the Indians as a happy hunting ground, the upper valley lay behind its sheltering mountains unexplored by the colonists.
It was more than two centuries after Columbus when the stalwart Governor Spotswood and twelve companions pushed to the summit at Swift Run Gap and “drank King George’s health and all the royal family’s” — for which consideration his Majesty sent Spotswood a baronetcy and a golden horseshoe studded with diamonds. Thus was founded the proud order of the Knights of the Golden Horseshoe.
Three decades later another expedition attempted the hazardous journey, a party led this time by Lord Fairfax, whose young surveyor, George Washington, was so enthralled that he staked out large claims for himself and induced his two younger brothers, Charles and Samuel, to do likewise. Together George and Samuel built Harewood, Charles built Mordington and, being also a surveyor, laid out a village which he named for himself, Charles Town. Still later came Bushrod Washington to establish Claymont Court, a veritable Versailles with enclosed courts, terraced gardens and a driveway that still meanders two miles through a virgin forest of oaks. George unexpectedly became heir to Mount Vernon, but other Washingtons poured into what is now Jefferson county, until by ’61 it was said a roll-call of Jackson’s Stonewall Brigade read like the Washington family tree.
Soon Jefferson county ceased to be a pioneer region and became a highly civilized squirearchy, known on both sides of the Atlantic as a sanctuary of culture and taste.
How this came to pass despite the absence of either cities or universities requires some explanation. Then was, first, the matter of agriculture. Jefferson count; contained no big plantations. As a consequence, the divergence of wealth between planter and poor whites did not exist. Like the city-states of ancient Greece this province became a one-level social system, bulwarked against immigration by its mountains, safeguarded against proletarianista by slave labor and against economic disasters by the fact that most of its produce was of stable value.
When the fluctuating prices of cotton and tobacco wrought debt and havoc to the far-South, the Shenandoah county continued to thrive. You could not eat cotton and tobacco, but with grain and vegetables in your fields, fruits in your orchards, blue grass in your pastures, there was little to fear.
Large library collections, such as existed at Cassilis and Claymont Court, supplied the intellectual stimulus, just as proximity to Washington maintained an interest in national affairs. Moreover, the native resource of limestone made for a permanent and classical style of architecture.
By the early decades of the nineteenth century, the community had come into the flower of its prime and had begun to gather the moss of its traditions. Mr. Jefferson’s enthusiasm did much to promote appreciation of the natural beauties; the Washington homesteads gave it the aristocratic glamor of an almost sacred name, and it was a great day when James Madison rode into Harewood to marry Dolly Todd at the home of her sister, Mrs. George Steptoe Washington.
By mid-century Charles Town boasted a European reputation as a literary colony and as a Mecca of intellectual hospitality. Cassilis, the home of Andrew Kennedy, became a perpetual salon for his brother, author of the best-selling “Swallow Barn” and “Horseshoe Robinson,” who came to live there with a retinue of followers which included his young protege, Edgar Allan Poe, and his old friend, Washington Irving, who was seeking material for his monumental “Life of the First President.” And the great Mr. Thackeray, who was on his way westward to write a proposed novel called “The Californians,” stopped off at Cassilis and went no further. Instead of “The Californians” he wrote “The Virginians.” Shortly afterward, the deposed Prince Luis-Phillippe and his brothers took up a highly wined-and-dined refuge at Harewood; and some years later Frank Stockton, prospering under the fame of his “The Lady or The Tiger,” sought somewhere to repose as a literary patriarch and bought Claymont Court, where he carried on its traditions until his death.
By this time, though, the golden days had passed. The War Between The States accounted for that. Both armies crossed and recrossed the fields, trampling down crops, carrying off horses, family silver and slaves. It is still told in Charles Town that by the middle of the war only one grown man remained to be seen on the streets. He was a certain Mr. Washington, a cripple with a hunched back, but one morning his home was noticed to be shuttered and closed — not to be reopened until “Cousin John” (so known to nearly every white person in town) rode back in his gray uniform after Appomattox.
To write in praise, or even in justice, of Jefferson county is necessarily to use the past tense. To be sure, it leads all West Virginia counties in the production of grain and blooded live stock; to be sure, some enterprising speculators established a race track there.
But such evidence of prosperity and sophistication seems only a mockery to the memory of the days when they killed the fatted calves at Claymont to feast the Marquis de LaFayette and when honest Sam Washington used to boast that he had five wives and the fastest pack of fox hounds in America.
A farewell, indeed, to those faded glories. Claymont Court, which might rival Mount Vernon, Monticello and Arlington as a showplace, became derelict of nailed-up windows, lost in a sea of uncut lawns and overgrown gardens. Twice in recent years I have gone there and prowled for hours without seeing anyone except a bent old Negro who hoes potatoes down behind the great stable and coach house, themselves the size of an ordinary suburban home.
Harewood remains inhabited by farmer folk who are mildly surprised when you show enough interest to pause for a look at the stones which George Washington possibly laid with his own hands. The total lack of commercialism in connection with these historical legacies is at once a charm and a discouragement to the tourist. No agency offers to show him around, no sign points the way to these estates, and you may travel without hope or fear of being sold a souvenir. Someone may, on the other hand, actually give you a trophy or two.
And everywhere about you there exists the spirit of melancholy, this proud resentment of an ironic fate which, no doubt, still lives in the deathless heart of that buried Delaware chieftain.
Long ago the wheels of progress and the clock of time ceased to move forward. The young men went to the cities to seek fortunes; the girls married across the mountains and the rivers. The last generation you feel, who shared the old vision and glory were those fortunate enough to have been born before the annexation, the ones who were eligible for tombstones which read “Born: Charles Town, Virginia.”
And those words, you are sure, become the proudest of epitaphs.
This essay was originally published in Southern Partisan magazine.