Harpers Ferry and the Civil War

When hiking in West Virginia, you will be treading on the same ground as abolitionist John Brown who made Harpers Ferry the place mentioned in history books today. Brown and 21 others raided the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry with the plan of using the stolen weapons to instigate an uprising among the slaves. U.S. troops rallied and stormed the firehouse where Brown was hiding out and either killed or captured all who were there. Brown survived the siege and was captured by then colonel Robert E. Lee. Brown was tried for treason and executed. This event ignited passions on both sides and historians say it was the impetus that led to the war between the states.

The U.S. Armory and Arsenal was established in Harpers Ferry in 1799. The only other such facility was in Massachusetts. Before the Civil War began, the Harpers Ferry arsenal produced more than 600,000 weapons, including muskets and other firearms.

The location of Harpers Ferry at the junction of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers makes it an ideal place to go hiking in West Virginia today. It is that precise location that made it easily accessible to both Union and Confederate troops. In addition, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad had a station there making it a desirable supply route for both sides.

Control of Harpers Ferry was transferred eight times between the Union and Confederation in the years from 1861 to 1864. In fact, in order to keep the Confederacy from accessing the arsenal, in 1861, Union forces made an unsuccessful attempt to destroy it. Local citizens were able to save the manufacturing equipment and move it to confederate headquarters in Richmond.

In September 1862, in the Battle of Harpers Ferry, Confederate General Robert E. Lee invaded the town and forced the surrender of Union Troops after a four-day battle. Even though the Confederate Army was actually outnumbered two to one by the Union troops, Lee divided his army into four groups. They surrounded the town and were able to capture it in what turned out to be the largest U.S. surrender of troops in any war until World War II. The town remained under Confederate command until mid-summer 1864 when the Union again gained control.