William MacLeod was born in Alexandria, Virginia, of Scottish immigrant parents. He became interested in painting while studying at the University of Glasgow and upon his return to America traveled widely in the Northeast in search of landscape subjects. In 1854 he returned to Washington and opened an art school where he taught painting and draftsmanship. When forced to close his school at the outbreak of the Civil War, he took a clerical position at the Treasury Department where he remained until 1873 when he became the first curator of collections at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
Maryland Heights: The Siege of Harpers Ferry is dated 1863 and thus was painted while MacLeod was working at the Treasury Department and during the Civil War. In 1859, before the war began, abolitionist John Brown and several followers attacked the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). Brown, who had hoped to incite a slave rebellion, was captured and later hung. The failed attack served as a prelude to the Civil War and Brown became a martyr for the abolitionist cause.
Strategically located at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, Harpers Ferry is just sixty miles from Washington. Often described as Washington's "back door," the small town changed hands multiple times during the war. In June 1863, Robert E. Lee launched his second northern campaign leading the Army of Northern Virginia from Richmond into Maryland and later Pennsylvania. In William MacLeod's painting, Union soldiers may be seen camped above the town. Anticipating an attack by Lee's advancing troops, Union forces fortified Maryland Heights, the highest defensive position above Harpers Ferry. The soldier at the center of the painting is pointing in the direction of the advancing Confederate army which, reportedly, could be seen from this location. Lee, however, did not attack, choosing instead to continue his march north without delay. Just a few days later, Confederate and Union forces would meet on the battlefield at Gettysburg.
lower right: W. MacLeod 1863
The artist; probably to his brother-in-law, Edward Stabler Plummer [b. 1825]; probably to his son, William B. Plummer [c. 1858-after 1930]; his daughter, and the artist's grandniece, Genevieve Plummer [1881-1969]; gift 1954 to the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, as Battle of Antietam; acquired 2016 by the National Gallery of Art.
- The Civil War: The Artist's Record, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 18 November 1961 - 4 March 1962, no. 72, repro.
- The Beckoning Land. Nature and the American Artist: a Selection of Nineteenth Century Paintings, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, 18 April - 13 June 1971, no. 22, repro.
- Conservation in the Museum, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 15 September - 22 October 1972, unpublished checklist.
- [Exhibition in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service], Harpers Ferry Center, National Park Service, West Virginia, 1 June - 1 September 1972.
- The American Genius: W.W. Corcoran, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 24 January - 4 April 1976, unnumbered catalogue.
- Washington on the Potomac, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 20 February - 3 April 1982, unnumbered catalogue.
- 350 Years of Art and Architecture in Maryland, Art Gallery, University of Maryland, College Park, 26 October - 1 December 1984, no. 33, repro.
- Wayside Exhibition, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, West Virginia, 1991, repro.
- William MacLeod: Painter and Curator, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 10 September - 7 November 2005, no. 7, unpublished checklist.
- The American Evolution: A History through Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1 March - 27 July 2008, unpublished checklist.
- Cash, Sarah, ed. Corcoran Gallery of Art: American Paintings to 1945. Washington, 2011: 307, repro.