I. Jefferson Rock
Climb up the old stone steps in daylight,
past the shattered church ruins.
Climb out on the rocky ledge
above the Shenandoah where it meets the Potomac.
Now we call this high place ‘Jefferson Rock.’
What did Old Tom see?
The steep valleys were mostly still green.
He knew that the river valleys were rich and fair.
Maybe he knew that Mohawks fought Powhatans
over this valuable land.
Maybe he knew that the river tribes
that lived here were slaughtered.
Perhaps he saw rivers of trade through this gap
in the mountain wall. Did he foresee
the rivers of blood?
Later he would write of the "firebell in the night,"
that forewarned of the conflict to come,
that would bring a cleavage that seemed
to follow the river's line,
and would sunder even his own home state.
II. The Old Arsenal
Armory: where weapons are forged.
Arsenal: where weapons are stored.
Harpers Ferry was both,
And a center of weapons research in its time.
This was once a town of war.
Thousands of rifles were stored here
when John Brown's band seized the town.
Brown dreamed of another slave revolt
This time they would have guns!
But the rebels were quickly surrounded and trapped,
Captured or killed by the U.S. Marines
led by a colonel named Robert E. Lee.
And Old Brown remarked from the back of the cart
that took him from the Court House to be hung:
"This is a beautiful country."
III. Blue and Gray
Eighteen months later
War came back for the duration.
War came to this town where munitions were made,
where rivers and railroads met
in the shadow of mountain walls.
No one but War itself
held Harpers Ferry for long.
This town of war could not stand siege.
Battles were fought for the commanding heights.
The stone steps up to St. John's Church
were slippery with the blood of the wounded,
carried up for refuge and any possible
Since the war trees have grown
in the hollow remnants of the church.
Stone window frames are empty,
like the eye sockets of a skull.
The long dark hills still stretch
voluptuous in the moonlight,
inviting strategies - vain strategies.
This war was too fundamental;
It would not be settled by heroes and battles.
Below Jefferson Rock there are now wooded islands
where cotton mill and musket factory stood.
Armory and arsenal are sites
for industrial archaeologists.
Once again we see green valleys
and hazy blue and gray.
IV. High Street
Back down on High Street,
the stone and plaster buildings glow
in the setting December sun.
A cat sits on an old stone stair,
then vanishes into an overgrown foundation.
Now this is a tourist town, quaint,
renting beauty and history.
Shoppes beckon where soldiers were bivouacked.
But behind their facades lurk lessons, and more.
This place was always beautiful.
This town seems peaceful.
Harpers Ferry has ghosts.
There are ghosts of buildings.
Sometimes their foundations
peep through the grass.
You can see walls and roofs
where houses used to stand.
Sometimes there is only
an emptiness between two buildings.
like a missing tooth.
V. Ghost Walk
On winter weekends there is a tour by candlelight
Let us join the Harpers Ferry Ghost Walk.
"In this house after a party
some officers threw a boyish POW from a window.
At night sometimes he still cries
For his home and his mother.
"In this house across the street
even today things are found smashed.
Paintings are thrown from the walls.
Here a soldier was smothered by his mates.
When he died they tried to hide the body.
"This is called Hog Alley.
Here Dangerfield Newby was eaten by the pigs.
He was a freed slave who joined John Brown
He had tried to buy the freedom
of his wife and youngest child.
When he came up with the money,
the owner doubled the price.
He was shot and captured.
We think he was dead
Before they fed him to the hogs."
VI. Jefferson Rock
Walk up the stone steps after dark
to Jefferson Rock and the graveyard,
leaving the ghosts in the town.
The wind blows wild,
and the trees' shadows dance
around the old headstones.
But here, at least, the dead are truly laid to rest,
Some of fever, some in childbirth,
But most in season, most full of years.
Here fathers were buried by their sons,
Not sons buried by fathers.
The storefronts on High Street
are more ghostly in sunlight
then this graveyard under the moon.
There are ghosts in the town below.
Hard deeds linger in stone houses.
Wounded soldiers linger in the courtyards.
The dead leaves, wind-blown, chitter across the stones,
like barracks-room rumors,
like rumors of war.
This is a beautiful country.
With unquiet ghosts
not bound by space or time.
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