Maryland Heights

view of Harpers Ferry from Maryland Heights; at sunset, in the late summer
Sunset view from Maryland Heights, NPS Photo/Volunteer D. Taggart

Quick Facts

Historical/Interpretive Information/Exhibits, Trailhead

The majority of hikers ascend Maryland Heights in search of a good view or a healthy workout. This mountain offers both hikes and scenic overlooks which will not disappoint. If history is your thing, Maryland Heights has remnants of extensive Civil War campsites and fortifications and its elevation made it hugely important during the war. To access this area, walk from Lower Town across the footbridge over the Potomac River to the C&O Canal towpath then take a left and walk along the path until there is signage for the Maryland Heights trail.

Maryland Heights is the highest mountain overlooking Harpers Ferry. Its southern face is a 300-foot vertical cliff that towers over the Potomac River, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. The mountain is steep, rugged, and primitive, with a thick veneer of Civil War history.

Maryland Heights hosted the first battle between Union and Confederate troops in Maryland. The first combat on Northern soil between the two armies occurred on Maryland Heights. Maryland Heights was the most important strategic target of the Confederate army in the Battle of Harpers Ferry, which took place from September 12-15, 1862. Without the seizure of Maryland Heights, Robert E. Lee's Confederates could not entrap the Union garrison and complete Lee's assignment outlined in Special Orders 191.

Lee selected Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws to lead the advance upon Maryland Heights, expecting McLaws to snare the Union garrison from the north. McLaws arrived at the eastern base of the mountain on September 12 with 8,000 men. Discovering nearly 4,000 Union soldiers stationed atop the mountain, McLaws directed William Barksdale's Mississippi brigade and Joseph Kershaw's South Carolina brigade to ascend Elk Ridge north of Maryland Heights and to take the Union position. Battling at Maryland Heights lasted from 6:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on September 13, and eventually, the Union troops under Colonel Thomas H. Ford's command abandoned their position. The loss of Maryland Heights cut off the Union forces escape routes and helped lead to the surrender of the Union garrison on September 15.

The significance of Maryland Heights is further attested by the Union occupation of the mountain two days following the Battle of Antietam. By securing the heights on September 19, the Union, once again, occupied Harpers Ferry and to ensure the protection of the position, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan ordered that extensive fortifications be constructed on Maryland Heights. Union engineers quickly surveyed the terrain, and during the fall of 1862, work commenced on the Stone Fort and the 30-pounder Battery, along with improvements at the Naval Battery. Ten months later, as General Lee threatened Harpers Ferry with his second invasion during the Gettysburg Campaign; construction hastened which resulted in the Interior Fort, the Exterior Fort, and the 100-pounder Battery. This latter battery boasted a 100-pounder Parrott Rifle that could hurl a 100-pound shell more than two miles and the tube of this cannon weighed nearly 10 tons.

The fortifications of Maryland Heights played a major role in the Confederacy's third and final invasion of the North. Confederate Maj. Gen. Jubal Early spent four days attempting to maneuver the Union out of the forts, but he failed. During the time Early spent worrying about Maryland Heights, the Union was able to send reinforcements to Washington, ultimately helping to save the United States capital. The Union army would occupy the forts of Maryland Heights until June 30, 1865. The final time the big cannon boomed was in memory of President Lincoln following his assassination.

Though Maryland Heights was occupied by Union forces the most, Maryland Heights occupation was by Confederates. Col. Thomas Jonathan Jackson seized the mountain in May 1861. Recognizing the strategic value of the high ground, Jackson was sure he could not defend Harpers Ferry without holding Maryland Heights. Jackson's aggressiveness created major turmoil when he positioned his troops in neutral Maryland, a state that the Confederacy was trying to get to join their cause. Despite the political firestorm set off by Jackson, he refused to abandon the position. The Confederates left on their own volition on June 14, 1861, when the Confederates abandoned Harpers Ferry five weeks before the First Battle of Manassas (Bull Run).

Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park

Last updated: May 5, 2022