"House Arrest: Mary Entler's Adventure in Harpers Ferry," by Catherine Baldau
Collected in The Harpers Ferry Anthology: Civil War-era Stories by Park Rangers and Volunteers (HFHA, 2012) Edited by Catherine Baldau
The civilian’s Civil War story often contains the same degree of danger and courage as that of the Civil War soldier. This was especially true of the civilians who lived in border states, in the small towns and counties where Union and Confederate forces alternately walked their streets, encamped in their yards, or battled in their fields. At times, their homes were headquarters or hospitals. These citizens did not simply read about the war, or imagine the harrowing event of some distant place. The war was on their doorstep. Often, their stories involve suspicion and risk, intrusion, destruction, and fear of starvation. But just as often, the civilian story is one of ingenuity, bravery, humor, and love.
At the onset of the Civil War, Mary Louise Entler was twenty-one years old, unmarried, and living in Shepherdstown, Virginia (now West Virginia). The town overlooked the Potomac River, about twelve miles north of Harpers Ferry. Sharpsburg, Maryland, was less than five miles away on the opposite bank of the Potomac. Mary’s father Joseph owned a hotel on German Street. One brother, Cato Moore Entler—like many fellow Shepherdstown men—served in Company B, 2nd Virginia Infantry, Stonewall Brigade. Since the town was “disputed territory” and often occupied by Union soldiers, getting mail to and from Confederate soldiers proved to be a challenge. Civilians had to find clever ways to exchange mail across the lines. As Mary described, “the post office was located in some novel places—sometimes in the folds of a lady’s dress—often in a grandfather’s clock—in a piano, a stove, and frequently in a lady’s dress sleeve.”
Mary Entler’s personal account of her experience during the Civil War describes the “agony of suspense” townspeople suffered not knowing the fate of loved ones at the front. “Letters were in Charlestown [sic] for us and letters were here to go to the army, but how were they to be gotten through?” Mary’s bold solution to this problem would eventually lead to her arrest and stay in Harpers Ferry under armed guard.
The Harpers Ferry Anthology is available at the Park Bookshop in historic Lower Town Harpers Ferry, by calling 304.535.6881, or visiting www.harpersferryhistory.org.
**The Harpers Ferry Historical Association is a non-profit cooperating association supporting the education and interpretive programs of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. All proceeds from the sale of their publications benefit park programs.