Harper`s Ferry

Harper`s Ferry

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John Brown, the fanatical abolitionist, had been in hiding since his activities in Bleeding Kansas in 1856, but was able to solicit funds from like-minded opponents of slavery for a new scheme. He believed that once this effort was begun, it would touch off a general slave rebellion in the South.In the summer of 1859, Brown and his followers established themselves on a farm near Harper's Ferry, Virginia, a small community at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers not far from Washington, D.C. The presence of a federal arsenal and a rifle works made the town a vital part of Brown's plan.On the evening of October 16, 1859, Brown and 21 supporters began a march toward Harper's Ferry. One of Brown's sons came out under a white flag of truce, but was immediately shot and killed.A railroad crew took word of the events at Harper's Ferry back to Washington where President James Buchanan dispatched federal soldiers. Those forces, led by Robert E. Lee, stormed the engine house and captured the badly wounded Brown and several of his men. In all, 10 of the insurgents were killed, including two blacks and both of Brown's sons.Convinced of the justness of his cause, Brown refused to put forth an insanity defense; he and six others were found guilty and were hanged in December 1859.The impact of John Brown's raid was felt in both the North and the South. Nevertheless, Brown’s violent assault upon federal authority was denounced by many Northern moderates; the fact that they did not support the institution of slavery did not mean they supported Brown.The disapproval voiced by these Northerners was lost on most Southerners; the praise from the abolitionists was the only thing they heard. Others in the South became terrified at the prospect of a general slave insurrection; these fears led to tightening of slave laws throughout the South.The South was deeply angered by the events at Harper's Ferry.

10 Facts: Harpers Ferry

Ten Facts about the vital role of the town of Harpers Ferry in the American Civil War.

Fact #1: George Washington established an armory and arsenal at Harpers Ferry in 1794.

In 1794, George Washington, then a wealthy property owner, visited Harpers Ferry. Impressed by its location at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers and the natural beauty of the town Thomas Jefferson had proclaimed “worth a voyage across the Atlantic for,” Washington selected the town as the site for a new national armory. By 1796, the arsenal was established, and machines shops and rifle works factories brought industry to Harpers Ferry. In the face of its industrial boom, the population of the town grew as Northern merchants, mechanics, and immigrant workers flooded the small western Virginia town. By the 1850s, Harpers Ferry emerged as a significant transportation hub in the east with the building of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.

Harpers Ferry in 1865. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Fact #2: Radical abolitionist John Brown raided the Harpers Ferry arsenal in October 1859.

Known for the murder of slaveholders in “Bleeding Kansas,” in 1859 John Brown determined that he would free the slaves in Virginia by instigating a revolt that would spread throughout the slaveholding state. To begin his slave revolt, Brown planned to capture the arsenal at Harpers Ferry and use its cache of weapons to arm his followers. On the night of October 16, 1859, Brown and a company of 21 men—including his sons—occupied the arsenal.

Brown’s raid, however, was doomed from the start. Lacking proper ammunition for his weapons and unable to recruit any slaves to join his rebellion, Brown and his men became trapped in the arsenal as Virginia and Maryland militia surrounded his “fort.” Upon hearing that the infamous “Ossawatomie” Brown had plans for a slave uprising in Virginia, President James Buchanan ordered a company of 90 Marines, led by Col. Robert E. Lee and assisted by Captain J.E.B. Stuart, to put down the rebellion. Upon arriving in Harpers Ferry, Lee ordered the marines to storm the fort, rescue the few hostages Brown had taken earlier in the night (one of which was a relative of President George Washington,) and capture Brown and his men. Brown, severely wounded in the struggle, was hanged on the morning of December 2, setting off a spark throughout the country. To Northern abolitionists, Brown was a martyr to the cause yet to Southerners, John Brown was a symbol of northern aggression and northern hopes to destroy the Southern way of life.

Fact #3: The day after Virginia seceded from the Union, Federal soldiers burnt the armory and arsenal at Harpers Ferry.

When Virginia voted to secede from the Union on April 17, 1861, the historic arsenal at Harpers Ferry immediately became a target. Former Governor of Virginia Henry A. Wise, the same governor who had hung John Brown for carrying out similar designs on the arsenal, organized a scheme to occupy the valuable armory. Knowing that no arms supplier south of the Mason-Dixon Line could match the output or quality of Harpers Ferry, Wise hoped to raise militia to take the arsenal before the Federal government organized enough troops to hold it. As Virginia militia bands began to assemble not four miles away, a Federal officer stationed in Harpers Ferry, Lieutenant Roger Jones, sent a distressed word to Washington that the armory was in danger and thousands of troops would be required to defend it. When it became clear that Washington was ignoring his request, Jones took matters into his own hands. At 10 p.m. on April 18, Jones and his men set fire to the arsenal, destroying over 15,000 muskets and combustibles in the main armory building, and then retreating across the Potomac Bridge. His efforts were largely in vain, however, as the arsenal was only moderately damaged. With over 4,000 firearms still in usable condition and much machinery able to be salvaged, the surviving elements of the armory were shipped south to Richmond and Fayetteville, North Carolina.

Fact #4: Despite its strategic importance, Harpers Ferry was an indefensible military position.

Harpers Ferry was a strategic nightmare although it was easy to attack, it was nearly impossible to defend. Surrounded on all sides by the steep rises of Bolivar Heights, Maryland Heights, and Loudoun Heights, successful defense of the town required that the more than one-thousand foot rises towering over Harpers Ferry be posted with artillery. Nestled far below the mountains, the low elevation of the town itself, which led soldiers posted there during the Civil War to describe it as a “godforsaken, stinking hole,” left Harpers Ferry open to attack without much hope for defense.

Confederate General Stonewall Jackson Library of Congress

Fact #5: Between 1861 and 1865, Harpers Ferry changed hands fourteen times.

From the beginning of the Civil War until the Union forces permanently reoccupied the town on July 8, 1864, the Harpers Ferry changed hands fourteen times. During the times that it escaped control from either army, the inhabitants of Harpers Ferry remained subject to frequent reconnaissance missions and guerrilla raids. Although no major battle was fought at Harpers Ferry after Stonewall Jackson’s attack on the garrison in 1862, by the end of the Civil War the town was devastated by repeated attempts from both Union and Confederate forces to control the vital transportation hub. Shortly after the war, Harpers Ferry resident Jessie E. Johnson spoke to the instability of Harpers Ferry, writing that “When the Union army came they called the citizens Rebels – when the Confederates came they called them Yankees.”

Fact #6: The largest surrender of United States forces during the Civil War took place at Harpers Ferry.

Although the amount of dead and wounded soldiers was comparatively low after the Battle of Harpers Ferry, the 1862 battle resulted in a staggering number of Federal prisoners – the largest surrender of United States soldiers during the Civil War. When the Federal garrison surrendered on September 15th, 1862, the nearly 12,400 Union troops that had been stationed at the garrison became Confederate prisoners. After being paroled by Gen. A.P. Hill, many of these prisoners were marched to Camp Parole near Annapolis to await their exchange for Confederate prisoners.

Fact #7: During the Civil War, Harpers Ferry became a significant Union army camp, headquarters site, and logistical supply base.

Camp Hill, located on a gentle slope above the town of Harpers Ferry, had been used as a U.S. army encampment in the late 18th century, and had since been populated with spacious mansions reserved for armory officials. When the Civil War broke out, however, these mansions were immediately converted into headquarters and hospitals Camp Hill became an army camp once more. In the spring of 1861, the Confederate army occupied the camp, but quickly abandoned it under orders from the garrison commander Gen. Joseph E. Johnston. Soon afterward, it was occupied by infantrymen from the 2nd Massachusetts. Having been fortified by both Union and Confederate troops and naturally protected by steep banks, Camp Hill served a natural defensive position that aided the Union troops during the Stonewall Jackson’s attack on Harpers Ferry in September 1862. Although the garrison surrendered after Jackson’s attack, on September 24, nine days after the battle, the Army of the Potomac marched to Harpers Ferry and pitched their tents once more on Camp Hill and neighboring Bolivar Heights, where they remained immobile until November. Later, during Gen. Philip Sheridan’s Shenandoah Campaign, “Little Phil” made his headquarters in a home on Camp Hill.

Fact #8: St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church in Harpers Ferry flew a British flag to avoid destruction during the conflict.

During the Civil War, the Reverend of St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church, Father Michael Costello, avoided damage to the church throughout repeated artillery bombardments and contests for the town by flying a British flag over the church. Despite the debilitating damage sustained by other buildings nearby throughout the Battle of Harpers Ferry and repeated artillery bombardments in the summers of 1863 and 1864, St. Peter’s went unharmed as a result of its supposed British affiliation. As it remained intact during the war, St. Peter’s was frequently used as a makeshift hospital, and Costello continued to administer sacraments and hold services throughout the war. St. Peter’s remained the only church in the war ravaged town of Harpers Ferry that was not severely damaged or destroyed by Northern or Southern forces.

The vital transportation hub of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, located at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers and surrounded by three towering heights, became a hotbed for conflict during the Civil War. Rob Shenk

Fact #9: A cavern just outside Harper's Ferry served as a hiding place for Confederate guerrilla raiders throughout the war.

In November of 1864, in the midst of Gen. Philip Sheridan’s Shenandoah Valley campaign, Sheridan’s men became perplexed at Confederate partisan ranger Col. John Singleton Mosby’s ability to avoid detection and capture by disappearing from his pursuers. While scouting for guerrillas, a Federal cavalryman accidentally made a shocking discovery just outside Harpers Ferry when he fell through a trapdoor in the floor of a burned and abandoned building. Beneath the trapdoor lay a tunnel leading to a stairway deep underground. Returning with a scouting party, the Federals descended the staircase into a cavern that they estimated was large enough to hold three hundred horses. There was only one opening into the room, a space so narrow that only one horse could enter at a time, and only after wading through three feet of water. The entry was covered by brush and rocks, and was marked by a high cliff to mark the hideout. The room, they quickly realized, belonged to Col. Mosby and his band of rangers, allowing them to evade capture by Federal forces.

Fact #10: The Civil War Trust has saved hundreds of acres of land Harpers Ferry.

Harpers Ferry today has remained remarkably well preserved. The National Park Service has preserved the majority of the battlefield at Harpers Ferry, yet there are still significant pieces of the battlefield that remain threatened by development. In 2002, the Civil War Trust successfully saved 325 acres of endangered land at Harpers Ferry, and in 2013 saved an essential tract of battlefield land on Bolivar Heights.


Harpers Ferry is a small town at the confluence of the Potomac River and the Shenandoah River, the site of a historic Federal arsenal founded by President George Washington in 1799 [3] and a bridge for the critical Baltimore and Ohio Railroad across the Potomac. In 1859 it was the site of the abolitionist John Brown's attack on the Federal arsenal.

The town was virtually indefensible, dominated on all sides by higher ground. To the west, the ground rose gradually for about a mile and a half to Bolivar Heights, a plateau 668 feet (204 m) high, that stretches from the Potomac to the Shenandoah. To the south, across the Shenandoah, Loudoun Heights overlooks from 1,180 feet (360 m). And to the northeast, across the Potomac, the southernmost extremity of Elk Ridge forms the 1,476-foot-high crest of Maryland Heights. A Federal soldier wrote that if these three heights could not be held, Harpers Ferry would be "no more defensible than a well bottom." [4]

As Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia advanced into Maryland, Lee expected that the Union garrisons that potentially blocked his supply line in the Shenandoah Valley, at Winchester, Martinsburg, and Harpers Ferry, would be cut off and abandoned without firing a shot (and, in fact, both Winchester and Martinsburg were evacuated). [5] But the Harpers Ferry garrison had not retreated. Lee planned to capture the garrison and the arsenal, not only to seize its supplies of rifles and ammunition, but to secure his line of supply back to Virginia.

Although he was being pursued at a leisurely pace by Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan and the Union Army of the Potomac, which outnumbered him by more than two to one, Lee chose the risky strategy of dividing his army to seize the prize of Harpers Ferry. While the corps of Maj. Gen. James Longstreet drove north in the direction of Hagerstown, Lee sent columns of troops to converge and attack Harpers Ferry from three directions. The largest column, 11,500 men under Jackson, was to recross the Potomac and circle around to the west of Harpers Ferry and attack it from Bolivar Heights, while the other two columns, under Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws (8,000 men) and Brig. Gen. John G. Walker (3,400), were to capture Maryland Heights and Loudoun Heights, commanding the town from the east and south. [6]

McClellan had wanted to add the Harpers Ferry garrison to his field army, but general-in-chief Henry W. Halleck had refused, saying that the movement would be too difficult and that the garrison had to defend itself "until the latest moment," or until McClellan could relieve it. Halleck had probably expected its commander, Col. Dixon S. Miles, to show some military knowledge and courage. Miles was a 38-year veteran of the U.S. Army and the Mexican–American War, but who had been disgraced after the First Battle of Bull Run when a court of inquiry held that he had been drunk during the battle. Miles swore off liquor and was sent to the supposedly quiet post at Harpers Ferry. [7] His garrison comprised 14,000 men, many inexperienced, including 2,500 who had been forced out of Martinsburg by the approach of Jackson's men on September 11. [1]

On the night of September 11, McLaws arrived at Brownsville, 6 miles northeast of Harpers Ferry. He left 3,000 men near Brownsville Gap to protect his rear and moved 3,000 others toward the Potomac River to seal off any eastern escape route from Harpers Ferry. He dispatched the veteran brigades of Brig. Gens. Joseph B. Kershaw and William Barksdale to seize Maryland Heights on September 12. [4] The other Confederate columns were making slow progress and were behind schedule. Jackson's men were delayed at Martinsburg. Walker's men were ordered to destroy the aqueduct carrying the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal across the Monocacy River where it empties into the Potomac, but his engineers had difficulty demolishing the stone structure and the attempt was eventually abandoned. [8]

Walker reentered Virginia, in Loudoun County on September 9, across from Point of Rocks. Walker was escorted by Col. E.V. White, Loudoun native, and his 35th Battalion of Virginia Cavalry. White was unhappy with the assignment and preferred to be with the rest of the army. Unfortunately White had gotten into an altercation with Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart in Frederick and was subsequently ordered back to Virginia by Lee. Whether or not his disposition was to blame, White led Walker on a meandering route around the Short Hill Mountain to reach the base of Loudoun Heights four days later on September 13. [9] So the attack on Harpers Ferry that had been planned for September 11 was delayed, increasing the risk that McClellan might engage and destroy a portion of Lee's army while it was divided.

September 12 Edit

Miles insisted on keeping most of the troops near the town instead of taking up commanding positions on the surrounding heights. He apparently was interpreting literally his orders to hold the town. The defenses of the most important position, Maryland Heights, were designed to fight off raiders, but not to hold the heights themselves. There was a powerful artillery battery halfway up the heights: two 9-inch (230 mm) naval Dahlgren rifles, one 50-pounder Parrott rifle, and four 12-pounder smoothbores. On the crest, Miles assigned Col. Thomas H. Ford of the 32nd Ohio Infantry to command parts of four regiments, 1,600 men. Some of these men, including those of the 126th New York, had been in the Army only 21 days and lacked basic combat skills. They erected primitive breastworks and sent skirmishers a quarter-mile in the direction of the Confederates. [10] On September 12 they encountered the approaching men from Kershaw's South Carolina brigade, who had been moving slowly through the very difficult terrain on Elk Ridge. Rifle volleys from behind abatis caused the Confederates to stop for the night.

September 13 Edit

Kershaw began his attack at about 6:30 a.m., September 13. He planned to push his own brigade directly against the Union breastworks while Barksdale's Mississippians flanked the Federal right. Kershaw's men charged into the abatis twice and were driven back with heavy losses. The inexperienced New York troops were holding their own. Their commander, Col. Ford, felt ill that morning and stayed back two miles (3 km) behind the lines, leaving the fighting to Col. Eliakim Sherrill, the second-ranking officer. Sherrill was wounded by a bullet through the cheek and tongue while rallying his men and had to be carried from the field, making the green troops grow panicky. As Barksdale's Mississippians approached on the flank, the New Yorkers broke and fled rearward. Although Maj. Sylvester Hewitt ordered the remaining units to reform farther along the ridge, orders came at 3:30 p.m. from Col. Ford to retreat. (In doing so, he apparently neglected to send for the 900 men of the 115th New York, waiting in reserve midway up the slope.) His men destroyed their artillery pieces and crossed a pontoon bridge back to Harpers Ferry. Ford later insisted he had the authority from Miles to order the withdrawal, but a court of inquiry concluded that he had "abandoned his position without sufficient cause," and recommended his dismissal from the Army. [11]

During the fighting on Maryland Heights, the other Confederate columns arrived—Walker to the base of Loudoun Heights at 10 a.m. and Jackson's three divisions (Brig. Gen. John R. Jones to the north, Brig. Gen. Alexander R. Lawton in the center, and Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill to the south) to the west of Bolivar Heights at 11 a.m.—and were astonished to see that these positions were not defended. Inside the town, the Union officers realized they were surrounded and pleaded with Miles to attempt to recapture Maryland Heights, but he refused, insisting that his forces on Bolivar Heights would defend the town from the west. He exclaimed, "I am ordered to hold this place and God damn my soul to hell if I don't." [11] In fact, Jackson's and Miles's forces to the west of town were roughly equal, but Miles was ignoring the threat from the artillery massing to his northeast and south.

Late that night, Miles sent Capt. Charles Russell of the 1st Maryland Cavalry with nine troopers to slip through the enemy lines and take a message to McClellan, or any other general he could find, informing them that the besieged town could hold out only for 48 hours. Otherwise, he would be forced to surrender. Russell's men slipped across South Mountain and reached McClellan's headquarters at Frederick. The general was surprised and dismayed to receive the news. He wrote a message to Miles that a relief force was on the way and told him, "Hold out to the last extremity. If it is possible, re-occupy the Maryland Heights with your whole force." McClellan ordered Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin and his VI Corps to march from Crampton's Gap to relieve Miles. Although three couriers were sent with this information on different routes, none of them reached Harpers Ferry in time. [12] [13]

September 14 Edit

While battles raged at the passes on South Mountain, Jackson had methodically positioned his artillery around Harpers Ferry. This included four Parrott rifles to the summit of Maryland Heights, a task that required 200 men wrestling the ropes of each gun. Although Jackson wanted all of his guns to open fire simultaneously, Walker on Loudoun Heights grew impatient and began an ineffectual bombardment with five guns shortly after 1 p.m. Jackson ordered A.P. Hill to move down the west bank of the Shenandoah in preparation for a flank attack on the Federal left the next morning. [14]

That night, the Union officers realized they had less than 24 hours left, but they made no attempt to recapture Maryland Heights. Unbeknownst to Miles, only a single Confederate regiment now occupied the crest, after McLaws had withdrawn the remainder to meet the Union assault at Crampton's Gap. [14]

Col. Benjamin F. "Grimes" Davis proposed to Miles that his troopers of the 8th New York Cavalry, the Loudoun Rangers,the 12th Illinois Cavalry and some smaller units from Maryland and Rhode Island, attempt to break out. Cavalry forces were essentially useless in the defense of the town. Miles dismissed the idea as "wild and impractical," but Davis was adamant and Miles relented when he saw that the fiery Mississippian intended to break out, with or without permission. Davis and Col. Arno Voss led their 1,400 cavalrymen out of Harpers Ferry on a pontoon bridge across the Potomac, turning left onto a narrow road that wound to the west around the base of Maryland Heights in the north toward Sharpsburg. Despite a number of close calls with returning Confederates from South Mountain, the cavalry column encountered a wagon train approaching from Hagerstown with James Longstreet's reserve supply of ammunition. They were able to trick the wagoneers into following them in another direction and they repulsed the Confederate cavalry escort in the rear of the column, and the southern teamsters found themselves surrounded by Federals in the morning. Capturing more than 40 enemy ordnance wagons, Davis had lost not a single man in combat, the first great cavalry exploit of the war for the Army of the Potomac. [15]

September 15 Edit

By the morning of September 15, Jackson had positioned nearly 50 guns on Maryland Heights and at the base of Loudoun Heights, prepared to enfilade the rear of the Federal line on Bolivar Heights. Jackson began a fierce artillery barrage from all sides and ordered an infantry assault for 8 a.m. Miles realized that the situation was hopeless. He had no expectation that relief would arrive from McClellan in time and his artillery ammunition was in short supply. At a council of war with his brigade commanders, he agreed to raise the white flag of surrender. But he would not be personally present at any ceremony. He was confronted by a captain of the 126th New York Infantry, who said, "For ——'s sake, Colonel, don't surrender us. Don't you hear the signal guns? Our forces are near us. Let us cut our way out and join them." But Miles replied, "Impossible. They will blow us out of this place in half an hour." As the captain turned away in disdain, a shell exploded, shattering Miles's left leg. So disgusted were the men of the garrison with Miles's behavior, which some claimed involved being drunk again, it was difficult to find a man who would take him to the hospital. He was mortally wounded and died the next day. Some historians have speculated that Miles was struck deliberately by fire from his own men. [16]

Jackson had won a great victory at minor expense. The Confederate Army sustained 286 casualties (39 killed, 247 wounded), mostly from the fighting on Maryland Heights, while the Union Army sustained 12,636 (44 killed, 173 wounded, 12,419 captured). [2] The Union garrison also surrendered 13,000 small arms, 200 wagons, and 73 artillery pieces. [17] It was the largest surrender of Federal forces during the Civil War. [18] The list of captured artillery pieces included one 50-pounder Parrott rifle (spiked), six M1841 24-pounder howitzers, four 20-pounder Parrott rifles, eight M1841 12-pounder field guns (2 spiked), four 12-pounder Napoleons (2 spiked), six M1841 6-pounder field guns, two 10-pounder Dahlgren guns (spiked), 10 3-inch Ordnance rifles, and six 3-inch James rifles. [19]

Confederate soldiers feasted on Union food supplies and helped themselves to fresh blue Federal uniforms, which would cause some confusion in the coming days. About the only unhappy men in Jackson's force were the cavalrymen, who had hoped to replenish their exhausted mounts. [20]

Jackson sent off a courier to Lee with the news. "Through God's blessing, Harper's Ferry and its garrison are to be surrendered." As he rode into town to supervise his men, Union prisoners lined the roadside, eager for a look at the famous Stonewall. One of them observed Jackson's dirty, seedy uniform and remarked, "Boys, he isn't much for looks, but if we'd had him we wouldn't have been caught in this trap." [21] By early afternoon, Jackson received an urgent message from General Lee, telling him to get his troops to Sharpsburg as quickly as possible. Jackson left A.P. Hill at Harpers Ferry to manage the parole of Federal prisoners and began marching to join the Battle of Antietam. [18]

The Civil War Trust (a division of the American Battlefield Trust) and its partners have acquired and preserved 542 acres (2.19 km 2 ) of the battlefield in nine acquisitions since 2002, much of which has been incorporated into the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, which also preserves portions of the battlefield. [22] [23] Additional areas are preserved within the Harpers Ferry Historic District and the National Register of Historic Places listed B & O Railroad Potomac River Crossing.

Inspiring Visitors through Interpretive Media

At the Harpers Ferry Center for Media Services, we are committed to enhancing visitor experiences through the use of relevant, compelling media. By offering products and services that reach across disciplines, we help parks shape visitors’ experiences from the moment they choose to visit.

For more than 50 years, we have delivered high-quality media that:

  • Is designed by leading experts
  • Features innovative solutions
  • Aligns with the NPS brand and vision
  • Integrates accessibility from the very beginning
  • Offers scalable solutions

It has been 50 years since the National Park Service made the profound and visionary decision to place all media-related functions and personnel together under one roof. Since 1970, the Harpers Ferry Center for Media Services (HFC) has helped create a deeper meaning and connection to our nation’s treasured stories and lands. The vision, then and now, is to produce excellence.


Native American history in the region dates back to at least 8,000 years ago. The Tuscarora people were the last of the native peoples known to inhabit the area in large numbers, essentially vanishing in the early 18th century. One of these European immigrants, Robert Harper, obtained a patent for the land from the Virginia legislature in 1751. Note that prior to 1863, West Virginia was still a part of Virginia. The town was originally known as Shenandoah Falls at Mr. Harper's Ferry (1763) due to the ferry business Robert Harper managed and operated.

Today, the original house built by Robert Harper is the oldest remaining structure in the lower part of the park. George Washington visited the area during his trip to the rivers' confluence in 1785, searching for a waterway to ship goods westward. Later, Washington began the construction of the federal Harpers Ferry Armory on the site, utilizing waterpower from the rivers for manufacturing purposes.

Meriwether Lewis, under government contract, procured most of the weaponry and associated hardware that would be needed for the Lewis and Clark Expedition at the armory in Harpers Ferry. Blacksmiths also built a collapsible iron boat frame for the expedition. Between the years 1820 to 1840, John H. Hall worked to perfect the manufacturing of interchangeable parts at the armory. [ citation needed ] Utilizing precision molds and jigs, this was one of the birthplaces of precision manufacturing so that armaments and related mechanical equipment could be standardized and parts would be interchangeable. Subsequently, the development of the modern bullet to replace the round lead slug was achieved by James H. Burton and this improvement was adopted by the U.S. Army in 1855. Employing at times up to 400 workers, the armory produced over half a million muskets and rifles between 1801 and 1860.

Abolitionist John Brown led an armed group in the capture of the armory in 1859. Brown had hoped he would be able to arm the slaves and lead them against U.S. forces in a rebellion to overthrow slavery. After his capture in the armory by a group of Marines (led by U.S. Army Colonel Robert E. Lee), Brown was hanged, predicting in his last words that civil war was looming on the horizon, a prediction that came true less than two years later. The most important building remaining from John Brown's raid is the firehouse, now called John Brown's Fort, where he resisted the Marines.

The American Civil War (1861–1865) found Harpers Ferry right on the boundary between the Union and Confederate forces. The strategic position along this border and the valuable manufacturing base was a coveted strategic goal for both sides, but particularly the South due to its lack of manufacturing centers. Consequently, the town exchanged hands no less than eight times during the course of the war. Union forces abandoned the town immediately after the state of Virginia seceded from the Union, burning the armory and seizing 15,000 rifles. Colonel Thomas J. Jackson, who would later become known as "Stonewall", secured the region for the Confederates a week later and shipped most of the manufacturing implements south. Jackson spent the next two months preparing his troops and building fortifications, but was ordered to withdraw south and east to assist P.G.T. Beauregard at the First Battle of Bull Run. Union troops returned in force, occupying the town and began to rebuild parts of the armory. Stonewall Jackson, now a major general, returned in September 1862 under orders from Robert E. Lee to retake the arsenal and then to join Lee's army north in Maryland. Jackson's assault on the Federal forces there, during the Battle of Harpers Ferry led to the capitulation of 12,500 Union troops, which was the largest number of Union prisoners taken at one time during the war. The town exchanged hands several more times over the next two years.

Storer College was built in Harpers Ferry as one of the first integrated schools in the U.S. [7] Frederick Douglass served as a trustee of the college, and delivered a memorable oration on the subject of John Brown there in 1881. Subsequent rulings known as Jim Crow Laws led other African American leaders such as Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois to hold the second Niagara Movement (ancestor of the NAACP) conference at the school in 1906 to discuss ways to peacefully combat legalized discrimination and segregation. After the end of school segregation in 1954, Storer College closed the following year. What remains of the Storer College campus is now administered by the National Park Service, as part of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, Harpers Ferry Center, and the Stephen T. Mather Training Center. [8]

Several historical museums now occupy restored 19th century buildings in the Lower Town Historic District of Harpers Ferry. Nearly half a million people visit the park each year. [9] (In comparison, 15 million people visit Washington, DC, each year. [10] ) North of the park and across the Potomac from Harpers Ferry is the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park. The canal, which operated from 1828 to 1924, provided a vital waterway link with areas up and downstream prior to and during the early years after the arrival of the railroad. Today, the canal towpath and park, which provide access to the Maryland Heights section of the Harpers Ferry N.H.P., can be accessed by foot from Harpers Ferry via a footbridge constructed by the National Park Service alongside tracks on the railroad bridge over the Potomac, or via car by traveling east from Harpers Ferry on U.S. Route 340 to access points near Sandy Hook, Maryland. Aside from the extensive historical interests of the park, recreational opportunities include fishing, boating, and whitewater rafting as well as hiking, with the Appalachian Trail passing right through the park. The park adjoins the Harpers Ferry Historic District, as well as two other National Register of Historic Places locations: St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church and the B & O Railroad Potomac River Crossing.

On June 6, 2016, the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park was featured on the third 2016 release of the America the Beautiful Quarters series. In the middle of the quarter is a depiction of John Brown's Fort, while the outside has the year (2016), location (Harpers Ferry), and the state (West Virginia). This specific coin is the 33rd park quarter to be released in the America the Beautiful Park Quarter series.

The Civil War Trust (a division of the American Battlefield Trust) and its partners have acquired and preserved 542 acres (2.19 km 2 ) of the battlefield in nine acquisitions. [11] Most of that land has been sold or conveyed to the National Park Service and incorporated into the park.

History of Harpers Ferry

Harpers Ferry was first settled in 1732 by Peter Stephens, whose "squatter's rights" were bought in 1747 by Robert Harper, for whom the town was named. In about 1750 Harper was given a patent on 125 acres (0.5 km²) at the present location of the town. In 1761 Harper established a ferry across the Potomac River, making the town a starting point for settlers moving into the Shenandoah Valley and further west. In 1763 the Virginia General Assembly established the town of "Shenandoah Falls at Mr. Harper's Ferry."

On 25 October 1783, Thomas Jefferson visited Harpers Ferry. He viewed "the passage of the Potomac though the Blue Ridge" from a rock which is now named for him. Jefferson called the site "perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in nature."

George Washington, as president of the Patowmack Company (which was formed to complete river improvements on the Potomac and its tributaries), traveled to Harpers Ferry during the summer of 1785 to determine the need for bypass canals. In 1794 Washington's familiarity with the area led him to propose the site for a new United States armory and arsenal. Some of Washington's family moved to the area Charles Washington, youngest full brother of the President, founded the city of Charles Town, some six miles to the southwest. President Washington's great-great-nephew, Colonel Lewis Washington, was held hostage during John Brown's raid in 1859.

In 1796 the federal government purchased a parcel of land from the heirs of Robert Harper, and three years later, construction began on the US Armory and Arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Between 1801 and 1861, when it was destroyed to prevent capture during the Civil War, the armory produced more than 600,000 muskets, rifles and pistols. Industrialization continued in 1833 when the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal reached Harpers Ferry, linking it with Washington, D.C. A year later, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad began train service through the town.

On 16 October 1859, the radical abolitionist John Brown led a group of 21 men in a raid on the arsenal. Brown and his men attacked and captured several buildings he hoped to use the captured weapons to initiate a slave uprising throughout the South. John Brown's men were quickly pinned down by local citizens and militia, and forced to take refuge in the engine house adjacent to the armory. A contingent of US Marines, led by then-Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee, stormed the engine house and captured most of the raiders, killing a few and suffering a single casualty themselves. Brown was tried for treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, convicted, and hanged in Charles Town. The raid was a catalyst for the Civil War.

The Civil War was disastrous for Harpers Ferry, which changed hands eight times between 1861 and 1865. When Virginia seceded in April 1861, the US garrison attempted to burn the arsenal and destroy the machinery, to prevent the Confederates from using it. Locals saved the equipment, which the Confederate Army transferred to a more secure location in its capital of Richmond. The US Army never renewed arms production in Harpers Ferry.

After the end of the Civil War, in 1867, the historically black Storer College was founded on Camp Hill by Reverend Nathan Cook Brackett. Notable alumni include jazz legend Don Redman and the first President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Nnamdi Azikiwe. Storer College closed in June 1955, and the campus is now part of the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.

On 15 August 1906, the Niagara Movement, led by author and scholar W. E. B. Du Bois and political activist William Monroe Trotter, held its first meeting on American soil on the campus of Storer College. The three-day gathering, which was held to secure civil rights for African-Americans, was later described by DuBois as "one of the greatest meetings that American Negroes ever held." In 1911, the members of the Niagara Movement joined with others to form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, better known as the NAACP.

In 1944 most of the town became part of the National Park Service and is now maintained as the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. All areas of the town not within the Park are contained within the federally-recognized Harpers Ferry Historic District.

Harper`s Ferry - History

299,577 Visitors
#153 Most Visited National Park Unit

Source: NPS, Rank among 378 National Park Units 2019.

Park Size

3,294 acres (Federal) 3,646 acres (Total)

Park Fee

Individual - $5 walking, biking, motorcycle.

Yearly Harpers Ferry Pass - $30

Protecting Harper's Ferry

Protecting Harpers Ferry is one of the ongoing fights within the eastern United States as suburban Washington and Baltimore creep into the Shenandoah Valley. Although recent efforts to thwart housing on the rim of the peaks overlooking the town have been successful, it is a battle that is never truly won. If you wish to contribute to conserving our national parks, please visit the National Parks Conservation Association to find our more about how you can help.

When you visit, please pay attention to the warnings and instructions of park rangers and the National Park Service to insure that your visit in safe and wonderful.

Harpers Ferry

In many ways, this town, today sleeping in the valley that is defined by the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers, is one of the most under-appreciated historic sites in this nation. Its history is that of Thomas Jefferson and his daughter, who witnessed its beauty from a rock high above what was yet to be the town during a time of the Continental Congress and the birthing of a nation. His words, "perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature" describes the beauty of the mountains that hover above those two rocky rivers. Photo above: the U.S. Army raid against John Brown's fort, led by Robert E. Lee.

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Harpers Ferry Then

John Brown - There has always been this dilemma when talking about John Brown. Was he a madman, both in Kansas and here at Harpers Ferry, chasing windmills of a dream of racial equality, but utilizing brutal methods to try and win his point. Was he a visionary, knowing that the seeds of a rebellion had to be sowed in whatever manner necessary, even if it meant eventual failure in the immediate action. The mural above shows the madman of bleeding Kansas during the debate of making new states slave or free. He would fail, of course, at Harpers Ferry, when the slaves in the surrounding area did not come to his call to arms. He would hole up in a small arsenal shed (now known as John Brown's fort), get captured, and eventually go on trial that led to his death. Madman or visionary? Perhaps both.

Harpers Ferry - Many famous visitors set foot in this town beyond the John Brown incident. One, George Washington, eyes Harpers Ferry during his surveyor's years and as President urged the building of the armory there. Stonewall Jackson after the April 1861 start of Civil War actions, dismantled that machinery and shipped it south for Confederate purposes, then came back one year later to conduct a siege from the mountains and force the surrender of the Federal troops that now guarded the town. Later, it would shift back into Union hands and serve as an important supply base. After the war, the shift in Harpers Ferry importance came full circle when Storer College was established to educate former slaves in 1867.

Abraham Lincoln and Harpers Ferry - Although not twinned in many ways, besides, of course, the actions of the Civil War that took place there and around it, Abraham Lincoln visited Antietam, only twenty miles from Harpers Ferry, several days after the September 1862 battle there. It was that battle, which was halted after Confederate troops from Harpers Ferry made their way to Antietam at the end of that day, which saw the rationale and timing for Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. So it took a more rational man than John Brown, as well as a Civil War and the loss of 500,000 men, for John Brown's goal to be achieved.

Photo above: John Brown's Fort, circa 1885. Courtesy Historic Photo Collection, Harpers Ferry National Historic Park. Below: John Brown Museum on Shenandoah Street in the lower town. Courtesy National Park Service.

Harpers Ferry Now

Its history includes the arrival of the first American railroad. Its history is that of the Civil Rights movement, one hundred years before it became a popular term, and emancipation, albeit prior to the Civil War and a failed attempt at that when a federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry was overrun by abolitionists who wanted to seed a rebellion. Its history is that of the Civil War itself, when the peaks surrounding the town saw cannons that protected, or more accurately, threatened the town with destruction. The town changed hands many times during the Civil War, you see, because its defense, once overtaken, saw surrender within its confines before what would become an inevitable annihilation. Today, Harpers Ferry is predominantly a national historic park. Yes, almost the entire town. It tells the story of John Brown amongst exhibits housed in the town buildings, as well as the story of Civil War battles, and the history of the armory that had been built there, but is gone now. But it all begins with John Brown. John Brown was the noted abolitionist who moved in from bleeding Kansas and tried to start a slave rebellion two years prior to the start of the Civil War, only to be thwarted by a lack of support from black slaves and an eventual capture by Robert E. Lee, with aide J.E.B. Stuart by his side, while they were still in federal (Union) employ. The town is also situated in one of the most beautiful settings along the east coast, directly on the route of the Appalachian Trail. It contains a historic canal, the ruins of factories that once thrived in the manufacture of weapons, and much else rock climbing, white water rafting, fishing along both the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers, and all that history. Harpers Ferry, West Virginia makes an ideal vacation destination for those interested in either the outdoors or the history that made our nation what it is today. If you have family members who are interested in both, this could be the spot for you.

Harpers Ferry Historic Park - Dozens of buildings dot the park all along Potomac Street and running half way up High Street. Each building tells part of the story of the town. On the outside of some of the buildings, another story is told, that of the floods that have ravaged Harpers Ferry as much as the Civil War and John Brown have done. There are museums here that should meet most historic vacationers fancy, from the African American bent at the John Brown Museum and the Black Voices Museum, to the Restoration Museum that has been completed part way to allow you to witness the interior of a building under repair. There are seven distinct areas of the park to explore . the Lower Town, Virginius Island, Camp Hill, Maryland Heights, Loudoun Heights, Bolivar Heights, and Schoolhouse Ridge. During the year, a variety of programs highlight the living history aspect of the site with National Park interpreters and other living history participants. And these living history demonstrations, plus the tours given by park staff highlight the history that the less celebrated soldiers endured, as well as the famous folks who made Harpers Ferry a location of their fame or infamy.

The original Harper's Ferry operated from 1733 until it was replaced by a timber covered road bridge in about 1824 at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. [2] [3]

Built in 1836–1837, [3] the B&O's first crossing over the Potomac was an 830-foot (250 m) covered wood truss. It was the only rail crossing of the Potomac River until after the Civil War. The single-track bridge, which comprised six river spans plus a span over the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, was designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, II. [4] : 34 In 1837 the Winchester and Potomac Railroad reached Harpers Ferry from the south, and Latrobe joined it to the B&O line using a "Y" span. [4] : 65

John Brown used the B&O bridge at the beginning of his failed attempt to start a slave insurrection in Virginia and further south.

The bridge was destroyed during the American Civil War, and replaced temporarily with a pontoon bridge. [4] : 65

The two crossings today, which are on different alignments, are from the late 19th century and early 20th century. A steel Pratt truss and plate girder bridge was built in 1894 to carry the B&O Valley line (now the CSX Shenandoah Subdivision) toward Winchester, Virginia, along the Shenandoah River. This was complemented in 1930–1931 with a deck plate girder bridge that carries the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) main line to Martinsburg, West Virginia (the line is now the CSX Cumberland Subdivision).

A rail tunnel was built at the same time as the 1894 bridge to carry the line through the Maryland Heights, eliminating a sharp curve. In the 1930s the western end of the tunnel was widened during the construction of the second bridge to allow the broadest possible curve across the river.

Accident Edit

On December 21, 2019, a CSX freight train derailed on the bridge, sending several cars into the river. There were no injuries and the bridge was later reopened. [5]

Historic Landmarks Commission

The Harpers Ferry Historic Landmarks Commission was established to preserve, protect, and foster the rehabilitation of the Town's historic edifices to insure that growth of the community is commensurate with its historic significance and such other objectives, as set forth in West Virginia Code. The Commission consists of five members appointed by Town Council to staggered terms of five years each. For complete information, refer to Article 131 of the Codified Ordinances of Harpers Ferry.

Regular monthly meetings of the Commission are held at 7:00 p.m. on the third Monday of each month. Additional meetings are occasionally required. All meetings are open to the public and are held upstairs at Town Hall.

Historic Landmarks Commission Members

Guy Hammer, Chairperson (term ending 31 Jan --)
Christian Pechuekonis, Treasurer (term ending 31 Jan 2024)
Steve Sherry, (term ending 31 Jan 2020)
(vacant) (term ending 31 Jan --)
(vacant) (term ending 31 Jan --)

Confederates capture Harpers Ferry

Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson captures Harpers Ferry, Virginia (present-day West Virginia), and some 12,000 Union soldiers as General Robert E. Lee’s army moves north into Maryland.

The Federal garrison inside Harpers Ferry was vulnerable to a Confederate attack after Lee’s invasion of Maryland in September. The strategic town on the Potomac River was cut off from the rest of the Union army. General George B. McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, sent messages to Union General Dixon Miles, commander of the Harpers Ferry garrison, to hold the town at all costs. McClellan promised to send help, but he had to deal with the rest of the Confederate army.

Jackson rolled his artillery into place and began to shell the town on September 14. The Yankees were short on ammunition, and Miles offered little resistance before agreeing to surrender on the morning of September 15. As Miles’ aid, General Julius White, rode to Jackson to negotiate surrender terms, one Confederate cannon continued to fire. Miles was mortally wounded by the last shot fired at Harpers Ferry.

The Yankees surrendered 73 artillery pieces, 13,000 rifles, and some 12,000 men at Harpers Ferry. It was the largest single Union surrender of the war.

The fall of Harpers Ferry convinced Lee to change his plans. After suffering heavy losses on September 14 in Maryland at the Battle of South Mountain, to the northeast of Harpers Ferry, Lee had intended to gather his scattered troops and return to Virginia. Now, with Harpers Ferry secure, he summoned Jackson to join the rest of his force around Sharpsburg, Maryland. Two days later, on September 17, Lee and McClellan fought the Battle of Antietam.

Harpers Ferry Raid

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Harpers Ferry Raid, (October 16–18, 1859), assault by an armed band of abolitionists led by John Brown on the federal armoury located at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now in West Virginia). It was a main precipitating incident to the American Civil War.

The raid on Harpers Ferry was intended to be the first stage in an elaborate plan to establish an independent stronghold of freed slaves in the mountains of Maryland and Virginia—an enterprise that had won moral and financial support from several prominent Bostonians. Choosing Harpers Ferry because of its arsenal and because of its location as a convenient gateway to the South, John Brown and his band of 16 whites and five blacks seized the armoury on the night of October 16.

Sporadic fighting took place around the arsenal for two days. On October 18, combined state and federal troops (the latter commanded by Col. Robert E. Lee and including Lieut. Jeb Stuart) subdued Brown and his collaborators. Seventeen men died in the fighting. Brown was indicted for treason on October 25. He and his six surviving followers were hanged before the end of the year.

Although the raid on Harpers Ferry was denounced by a majority of Northerners, it electrified the South—already fearful of slave rebellions—and convinced slaveholders that abolitionists would stop at nothing to eradicate slavery. It also created a martyr, John Brown, for the antislavery cause. When he learned that Brown had been executed, essayist, philospher, and dedicated abolitionist Henry David Thoreau said:

I heard, to be sure, that he had been hanged, but I did not know what that meant—and not after any number of days shall I believe it. Of all the men who are said to be my contemporaries, it seems to me that John Brown is the only one who has not died.

Watch the video: The Raid on Harpers Ferry


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