Every month, the American Public University System (APUS) Interactive Marketing Team hosts two webinars which are open and free to all students, faculty, staff, and the public. The topics for these webinars range from terrorism to logistics and from nursing to history. Recently, the team has developed a series of webinars focused on the Civil War in Jefferson County, West Virginia where APUS makes its home in Charles Town. Last week I attended one of the webinars about the Civil War titled “Border War: Jefferson County at the Outset of the Civil War” and was impressed with the content.
The webinar featured Mr. Dennis E. Frye, Chief Historian at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and past president of a national battlefield preservation organization (today known as the Civil War Preservation Trust). Mr. Frye has written six books and authored more than 70 articles about the Civil War. He also served as the Associate Producer for the acclaimed film Gods and Generals. Mr. Frye is an expert on the topic of the Civil War in Jefferson County.
Situated on the border of the north and south, Jefferson County was a critical position for both sides. At the time of the war’s beginning, Jefferson County was part of the state of Virginia. Following John Brown’s assault on the US Armory and arsenal at Harpers Ferry, the citizens of Harpers Ferry formed militia, uncertain whether Brown acted alone or whether they should expect another such attack. It was these militiamen who initiated the first attempts to protect Harpers Ferry from the north.
Frye compared the fear of the citizens of Harpers Ferry in those days to the fears that most Americans felt in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. In the midst of an unprecedented attack by an enemy yet to be identified, many Americans began taking precautions to be prepared in the event that another attack would follow. The citizens of Harpers Ferry had similar motivations when they began arming militias to defend their town after John Brown’s attack.
Robert E. Lee was appointed to develop the military strategy that would be required to defend Virginia, and Lee understood quite well the strategic importance of Jefferson County and the Shenandoah Valley. Lee assigned Thomas Jonathan (later known as “Stonewall”) Jackson to Harpers Ferry. Frye explained that these two men worked tirelessly to develop a sound strategy for defending the area which sits at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. He quoted extensively from letters written between the two men and provided the audience with the first-hand accounts of these illustrious soldiers as they strategized on how best to hold their position.
He applauded Jackson’s ingenuity at manipulating the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) Railroad’s operating hours. Restricting the railroad’s movement through Harpers Ferry to only two hours each day, Jackson was able to position his men so that when the train came through, his forces were able to take control of the railroad quite easily, seizing several hundred cars containing equipment, arms, and ammunition intended for the north. Known as Jackson’s “Great Railroad Robbery,” Frye posits this action with allowing the South to maintain control of the area and gain an advantage over their much better armed and trained Northern counterparts.
APUS makes its headquarters in an area steeped in American history. Charles Town is named after its founder, Charles Washington, George Washington’s brother. Many of the early plantations in the area were owned by Washington family members. During the Civil War, there were dozens of battles and engagements in this county between the two armies. Mr. Frye’s focus on military strategy in the area during the opening days and months of the Civil War was of particular interest to me as well as many of our military history students and others. I encourage you to find time to attend some of the webinars that the APUS Interactive Marketing Team is offering twice each month. Through the end of 2012, at least once each quarter, they will offer a webinar focused on the Civil War in Jefferson County. I hope to be able to attend these as well. Past webinars can be viewed on-demand from the archive section of the CivilWarScholars.com blog which is sponsored by American Public University (APU).