Harpers Ferry National Historical Park has undoubtedly had a long and layered past with its history written in the legacies of John Brown, Storer College, as well as one of America’s longest running railways. Whilst there are many individuals who are by all means well acquainted with Harpers Ferry, few can claim to have as deep of a connection as Dennis Frye, the Chief Historian at the location.
Despite his legacy being synonymous with Harpers Ferry, Frye stated that he first entered the arena of historical park services at Grove Farm, which today is a section of the Antietam National Battlefield. The grounds had long held the distinction of being the location where Major General George McClellan met his Confederate antithesis General Robert E. Lee. It was also where Alexander Gardner took the first calamitous photos of the conflict, which shocked the nation by exposing the brutality of war.
Despite the significance Grove Farm held, by 1986, the once hallowed grounds were threatened by commercial developments. As a result, Frye co-founded the Save Historic Antietam Foundation which successfully petitioned to save the property. Frye’s work at Grove Farm would catapult him to the presidency of the Association of Civil War Sites for three years between 1995 to 1998. There, he continued to advocate for the preservation of land at Brandy Station, Third Winchester and Cedar Creek.
Frye’s work at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park has most interestingly entailed the commemoration of the site’s many individual historical sites through a series of published books. Most notable out of Frye’s entire oeuvre is Confluence: Harpers Ferry As Destiny which convincingly integrates both primary and secondary information sources into a dense 225 page recount of the site’s many parallel histories.
The parallel histories of Harper’s Ferry would become the primary focus of the NHA visit on 11th July, where Frye gave the students a tour of the National Park’s many significant sectors. Frye also had several discussions with students regarding “what it means to be American”. Given that the replies were both diverse and vast in number, what soon became apparent was that being American means many things to many people. The conversation, however soon turned to circle around the cultural and physician divisions between the “slave states” and the “free states” during the time of John Brown’s armed rebellion at the Harpers Ferry. The NHA students appreciated the discussion given that the primary focus of the week was on the Lincoln and Secession Case Study, examining the historical forces which tore the Union apart.
Concerning the topic of separation, Frye spoke of how being American also means to be divided, and that much of what is being done today is about solving these divisions which have plagued us since our inception in 1776. Frye stated how this must start with commemorating and remembering history in an accurate and impartial manner. Whilst we as a nation are still far away from achieving this goal, it was a sobering reminder that the American experiment is an ongoing process.