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There were a half dozen so pivotal events occurring in the antebellum period of or United States history that exacerbated sectional differences and ultimately led the nation into civil war. They included the invention of the cotton gin, the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the caning of Senator Charles Sumner, the Dred Scott decision and of course John Brown’s aborted slave uprising and raid on Harpers Ferry in northwestern Virginia (now West Virginia). The repercussions of Brown’s failed raid in 1859 so divided the nation, already reeling from deep divisions in politics and philosophy, that in less than two years the Southern states seceded and war broke out. Harpers Ferry was a strategic point in both early western development and the Civil War because of its location at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. This led to the establishment of a logistics hub there in the early 19th century for canal and rail transportation. Abundant water power also established Harpers Ferry as a viable manufacturing center that included a federal armory and arsenal for the manufacture and storage of weapons. The latter was of great interest to Brown.

Harpers Ferry rapidly declined in importance after the Civil War, due to the town’s diminished transportation role and the periodic flooding of Lower Town, in addition to the disruption resulting from four years of war. But the misfortunes that beset the town in the late 1800s were reversed a century later with the establishment of one of America’s most important national historical parks. Though the historic exhibits now on display in Harpers Ferry are not exclusively related to the Civil War—the area also had a role in such varied events as the Lewis and Clark expedition and the Civil Rights Niagara Movement—this tour will focus on Harpers Ferry’s Civil War roles, from Brown’s raid through the town’s periods of conflict and continuous occupation by one side or the other from 1861-65.

Harpers Ferry was significant in Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s first incursion into Union territory in 1862 and hence is closely tied to the Battle of Antietam. A future column will cover Antietam in depth. Harpers Ferry and other nearby sites are rich in history and interpretation, so an ideal tour of the area would take several days. Taking advantage of river activities and other attractions can easily add to the time visitors spend in the area. But for those on a tight schedule, major points of interest can be seen in a full day’s tour.

No discussion of the Civil War can be complete without a mention of Brown’s raid. The fiery Brown—a struggling drifter with an intimidating countenance and a fervent belief in a punishing God— began making plans for his “Army of Liberation” shortly after escaping prosecution for staging a massacre of pro-slavery Kansas residents. With more zeal than funds, he focused on Harpers Ferry as a strategic launching point for what he envisioned as a full-scale slave uprising.

In 1794 George Washington had selected Harpers Ferry to become the second U.S. Armory and Arsenal. Retooling and expansion of the armory in the 1840s greatly added to its output and made Harpers Ferry a principal manufacturing site for small arms. A large supply of weapons was stored at the arsenal at the time Brown was planning his raid.

On the night of October 16, 1859, Brown and 18 followers (three more would soon join the band) stole into Harpers Ferry after spending several months at a rented property called the Kennedy Farm in nearby Maryland. Although his plan was sketchy, Brown was confident God would lead escaped slaves to him and take care of other details. The raid started well. Brown’s men surprised the arsenal’s watchman, posted guards and took nearby Hall’s Rifle Works. But townspeople began to stir after Brown took several hostages and halted an eastbound train. Ironically, the first fatality of the raid was a free black man, baggage handler Heyward Shepherd, who was shot and mortally wounded by the raiders.

The wave of slaves that Brown anticipated would join him never appeared, but several companies of area militia did. A gunfight was waged throughout the 17th. Brown and the remaining raiders took refuge in the fire engine house of the armory after attempts at negotiating a truce failed. By the morning of October 18, Brown—still holding his hostages— was faced with a new threat. A company of U.S. Marines from Washington, led by Lieutenant Israel Green and under the overall command of cavalry Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee, arrived in Harpers Ferry. Lieutenant J.E.B. Stuart, a member of the force, was sent by Lee to the engine house door under a flag of truce. When Brown refused a surrender ultimatum, Stuart’s signal led to the Marines storming the engine house, capturing Brown and ending the siege.

The raid and Brown’s subsequent trial, which convened on October 20 in the nearby circuit court in Charles Town, riveted the nation. Though well defended, Brown and six raiders were convicted of murder and treason and sentenced to hang. By the time Brown was executed in a field south of Charles Town on December 2, 1859, he had apparently accepted his fate. In a note given to a guard just before his gallows appointment, he predicted where his cause would lead: “I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”

This tour begins at the visitor center for Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. A three-day pass for individuals and/or vehicles can be purchased here. The tour descriptions follow the Brown raid first, then the 1862 attack and siege of the Federal garrison and other wartime events. To shadow the chronology of the Brown raid, visit the Kennedy farm, Harpers Ferry and finally Charles Town. Take the shuttle bus to Lower Town, or drive to Washington Street by crossing U.S. 340 outside the visitor center and go east on Shenandoah Street off U.S. 340 just west of the bridge (note that parking in Lower Town is extremely limited). Walk to John Brown’s Fort, as the armory engine house is now called.

The building has an interesting history. It was moved several times, dismantled and taken to Chicago as part of an 1890s exhibition, then returned here to become part of the national park, 40 yards from its original location. Directly behind John Brown’s Fort are excavations of some of the arsenal buildings in Arsenal Square. At the far end of the square the master armorer’s house, now an information center, stands intact. About 70 percent of the buildings in Lower Town are original.

Across Shenandoah Street is the John Brown Museum. From the museum, cross Potomac Street and continue on a path up a slight grade. An obelisk marks the original site of the engine house. The former rail yard here constructed over the armory grounds has recently been acquired by the park service. Looking toward the river, one can see the excavation and archeological dig that is currently underway. The armory site will be opened with interpretive displays in 2008. On the left side of Shenandoah Street on the way out of Lower Town are remains of the Shenandoah Canal. The point on the canal identified as the pulp mill ruins was originally the site of Hall’s Rifle Works.

To reach the Kennedy Farm, take U.S. 340 east to Maryland 67 north and follow the signs for the Kennedy Farm and Chestnut Grove. Turn right on Chestnut Grove Road and go seven-tenths of a mile. The farmhouse is on the left. Beginning in July 1859, Brown used Samples Manor, as it was then called, as a staging area for his raid. There, Brown attempted to enlist more men and gain funding. He also took delivery of the arms he had contracted. A plaque on a rock near the house lists the names and fates of the raiders.

From the Kennedy Farm or Harpers Ferry proceed west on U.S. 340 for about 16 miles to Charles Town. On Washington Street (West Virginia 51) in the center of the town is the Jefferson County Court House. Brown’s trial was conducted in a back room of the 1837 courthouse (now restored). Interpretive markers on the North George Street sidewalk tell the story. Other points of interest here that relate to Brown’s raid include the Hunter House, home of Brown’s prosecutor, Andrew Hunter, at Washington and Samuel streets. When Maj. Gen. David Hunter passed through Charles Town in 1864 with his Federal expedition, he ordered his Confederate cousin’s house burned. The Jefferson County Museum at 200 E. Washington has exhibits and artifacts from Brown’s trial and the Civil War.

The scaffold that sent Brown to his death was in a field that is now the yard of the Gibson-Todd House, 515 S. Samuel. An interpretive marker is at the site. A contingent of cadets from the Virginia Military Institute, accompanied by their professor, Major Thomas J. Jackson, and other notables, including John Wilkes Booth, observed Brown’s execution.

Two small battles, both Confederate victories, were fought in Charles Town on May 28, 1862, and October 18, 1863. Besides the courthouse and other historic buildings bombarded and damaged in the war, there are two other places with Civil War significance. There is a Confederate burial ground at Edge Hill Cemetery on South Seminary Street. The Stribling House, 417 E. Washington, was a Federal headquarters. On September 16, 1864, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant met Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan here and approved Sheridan’s Shenandoah Valley campaign plan. From Charles Town, return to Harpers Ferry and Lower Town.

When Virginia seceded from the Union on April 17, 1861, the Federal facility there was put in jeopardy. On the 18th, the U.S. Army evacuated the town after burning the arsenal and a covered bridge over the Potomac. Virginians arrived in time to salvage machinery, including that used to manufacture the Model 1841 percussion rifle. The machinery was later moved to Richmond, then Fayetteville, N.C. Southern militia units began assembling at Harpers Ferry, and Jackson (now a colonel) arrived to take command of these Virginia volunteers. Jackson drilled the recruits and began fortifications. He disrupted operations on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, finally capturing a Federal supply train on May 23 that yielded him his famous mount Little Sorrel. General Joseph E. Johnston arrived to supersede Jackson, assigned him a brigade and ordered him to Martinsburg to capture B&O rolling stock. The Confederates evacuated Harpers Ferry in June, and the Federals reoccupied it in early July.

In September 1862, Robert E. Lee wanted to secure a supply line into Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley as part of his plan to extend his foray north. The Federal garrisons at Harpers Ferry and Martinsburg, though cut off from the rest of the Union forces, stood in his way. He divided his force, sending six divisions in three directions to capture the two towns. The largest force, under Jackson, marched via a circuitous route to Martinsburg, arriving there after the Federal garrison under Brig. Gen. Julius White fled to Harpers Ferry. Two other prongs of the offensive moved onto Maryland Heights, east of the Potomac River, and Loudoun Heights, high ground south of the Shenandoah River that was left unguarded by the Federals.

The Harpers Ferry garrison was under the command of Colonel Dixon S. Miles, a 38-year Army veteran whose fondness for alcohol had limited his advancement. He concentrated most of his force at Bolivar Heights, a long plateau west of Harpers Ferry. While Jackson advanced from the west, two divisions under Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws arrived on the Maryland side of the Potomac. On September 12, two brigades of McLaws’ force under Brig. Gens. Joseph Kershaw and William Barksdale advanced on Maryland Heights but found the going rough due to the terrain and obstacles placed by the Federals. On the 13th they encountered the main Federal force, 1,700 men under Colonel Thomas H. Ford, in a fortified position. Ford, who was ill, stayed in the rear while Colonel Eliakim Sherrill commanded the inexperienced Union infantry. They were no match for McLaws’ veterans, and Ford ordered Maryland Heights abandoned.

At the same time, Brig. Gen. John G. Walker arrived at the base of Loudoun Heights on the Virginia side, and Jackson was marching from Harpers Ferry to Halltown, 3l⁄4 miles west of Harpers Ferry. All three Confederate forces prepared artillery positions, and bombardment of the town began on September 14. Seeing that the situation was deteriorating and unwilling to retake Maryland Heights, Miles reluctantly acquiesced to a request from one of his cavalry commanders. That night, Colonel Benjamin F. “Grimes” Davis led 1,300 mounted Federals out of Harpers Ferry, across the Potomac and past McLaws’ Rebels. Heading north, Davis’ troopers even captured a Confederate wagon train and led it into Pennsylvania.

The rest of the Federal garrison was hemmed in by the three Southern contingents. Late on the 14th, Jackson ordered Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill to turn the left flank of the Federal line on Bolivar Heights, which he did by advancing to the Murphy Farm. On September 15, with additional artillery in place (56 guns in all), the well-positioned Confederate cannons overwhelmed the Federal guns on Bolivar Heights and Camp Hill. Miles decided to surrender but was mortally wounded as the arrangements were being made, so White negotiated terms and was in command as 12,500 men capitulated on Bolivar Heights. The job of paroling the Federals was left to Hill’s Division, as Jackson and the rest of the Confederate force left Harpers Ferry to join Lee at Antietam.

Beyond John Brown’s Fort, a footpath under a railroad bridge leads to The Point. There, visitors can get a marvelous view of the confluence of the two rivers and the foundations of an old bridge. Nearby markers describe the 1862 Confederate capture of Harpers Ferry. The path continues to a footbridge across the Potomac. On the Maryland side of the bridge is the towpath of the C&O Canal. Along the towpath is the start of the 6l⁄2-mile round-trip hiking trail to Maryland Heights. At the top of the ridge, a 14-stop interpretive trail describes the action on Maryland Heights, and there are traces of earthworks.

Also located in Lower Town are the Civil War Museum and 1862 Battle of Harpers Ferry pavilion. Other historic buildings and sites ascend the heights from Lower Town. The Appalachian Trail crosses the Shenandoah River and climbs Loudoun Heights, but there are currently no interpretive markers there. On Washington Street between Lower Town and Bolivar are St. John’s Lutheran Church and Bolivar Methodist Church, used as hospitals during the Civil War, and a house, now the Jackson Rose Bed & Breakfast, that was used by Jackson as a headquarters in 1861.

A five-stop auto tour continues the exploration of the 1862 battle. Camp Hill, which was a Federal position, is the location of Harper Cemetery. The Murphy Farm, near the visitor center, has exhibits describing Hill’s flanking maneuver. Bolivar Heights has exhibits describing its role in the 1862 battle, the surrender and subsequent military occupation. There are also trails, recently extended, to earthworks. On Bakerton Road off U.S. 340 is the School House Ridge North portion of Jackson’s line, where a feint was made the night of September 14. A short distance south of U.S. 340 on Millville Road is School House Ridge South, where Jackson formed his infantry and artillery. There are interpretive markers at these sites.

Continue west on U.S. 340 a short distance, turn north on W.Va. 320 through Halltown and proceed approximately 10 miles to Shepherdstown. The Confederates bypassed the 10,000-man garrison at Harpers Ferry on the way to Gettysburg in June 1863, but military activity would continue in the Harpers Ferry area. On July 3, 1864, Lt. Gen. Jubal Early crossed the Potomac River at Shepherdstown after raiding the Federal supply depot at Martinsburg. Major General Franz Sigel occupied Maryland Heights at that time. Later in July, Maj. Gen. David Hunter arrived in Harpers Ferry and was soon superseded by Philip Sheridan, who began concentrating troops here on August 6. On October 13, 1864, Lt. Col. John S. Mosby staged his “greenback” raid on a B&O passenger train west of Harpers Ferry, netting a large Federal payroll.

The most noteworthy Civil War event in Shepherdstown was Lee’s retreat after the Battle of Antietam. Lee crossed his army at Boteler’s Ford (or Pack Horse Ford) on the night of September 18. Virtually every building became a hospital. On the 19th a detachment from Maj. Gen. Fitz John Porter’s V Corps crossed the river and attacked Lee’s rear guard. On September 20, A.P. Hill counterattacked across the Potomac, stopping an advance by elements of two V Corps divisions.

One mile east of Shepherdstown on secondary Route 17 are markers describing the battles of September 19-20. Elmwood Cemetery contains the graves of 577 Confederate soldiers, including a number killed at Antietam. Just across the Potomac River Bridge are markers for Pack Horse Ford and access to the C&O Canal towpath. On the hill above the east end of the bridge is the boyhood home of Major Henry Kyd Douglas, author of I Rode With Stonewall.

Martinsburg, seven miles west of Shepherdstown on W.Va. 45, contained shops for the B&O Railroad and, as previously noted, was fought over several times during the war. On June 14, 1863, Maj. Gen. Robert Rodes, spearheading Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell’s advance into Pennsylvania, skirmished with a Federal force here. Martinsburg buildings with Civil War significance include the B&O Railroad Station, Flick House, Boyd House and Newborn Hall. From Martinsburg, visitors can head north or south on I-81 for tours of other Civil War sites.


Originally published in the September 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here