Harpers Ferry during the Civil War


Harpers Ferry, in what is now West Virginia, lies at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers and serves as the gateway to the Shenandoah Valley. Before and during the American Civil War (1861–1865), this small, isolated town was an economically thriving community with great strategic importance because of its location along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and its firearms industry—including the United States Arsenal and Armory and Hall’s Rifle Works. In 1859, Harpers Ferry emerged onto the national stage when the radical abolitionist John Brown and a small band of followers raided the armory in an attempt to ignite a slave insurrection. The town also became an object of intense military interest immediately after Virginia’s secession in April 1861, during the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862, the Maryland Campaign of 1862, and the Valley Campaign of 1864.

John Brown’s Raid

Following the bloody encounters in Kansas in the mid-1850s, John Brown—a radical abolitionist who had been fighting against pro-slavery forces in Kansas—decided on a plan to end slavery. Brown came up with the idea to capture Harpers Ferry, its store of firearms, and spark a slave insurrection throughout the South that would lead to the collapse of slavery. Brown came to Harpers Ferry on July 3, 1859, to begin preparations for his abolitionist crusade. On the night of October 16, 1859, Brown and twenty-one raiders invaded the town, and seized the United States Arsenal and Armory and Hall’s Rifle Works. Ironically the first casualty of Brown’s raid was Heyward Shepherd—a free black from Winchester, Virginia, who worked as a baggage handler on the railroad. After Brown captured Harpers Ferry, the town’s citizens, supported by area militia, cornered Brown and his men in a small fire engine house. Finally, on October 18, a contingent of United States Marines under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee captured Brown. He stood trial and was executed on December 2, 1859. To many, Brown’s raid signaled the Civil War’s imminence. “The war began not at Sumter,” wrote future Confederate cavalry officer Turner Ashby, “but at Harper’s Ferry.”

Secession Crisis

Even though Brown’s raid foreshadowed armed conflict, residents of Harpers Ferry and the nation hoped to avoid war as states grappled with the secession issue following the election of Abraham Lincoln as U.S. president in November 1860. Like most Shenandoah Valley communities, Harpers Ferry urged loyalty to the Union during Virginia’s long debate over secession. Following the attack on Fort Sumter (April 12–13, 1861), former Virginia governor Henry Wise, believing that the secession convention in Richmond would vote to leave the Union on April 17, 1861, urged Governor John Letcher to capture Harpers Ferry and its large store of firearms for the Confederacy. After the convention did in fact vote for secession, Alfred Barbour—superintendent of the armory and a Confederate sympathizer—informed the arsenal’s employees and garrison that it would be handed over to Virginia’s forces.

Destruction and Military Occupation

The Burning of the United States Arsenal at Harper's Ferry

In an effort to prevent Confederates from seizing arsenal equipment, including 15,000 muskets, 1st Lieutenant Roger Jones set fire to the arsenal buildings and then fled north to Carlisle, Pennsylvania. In the meantime, Virginia militia under the command of Major General Kenton Harper occupied the town, and when Colonel Thomas J. Jackson arrived on April 27 to organize the militia into army regiments, he salvaged what he could from the arsenal ruins, including 300 machines and 57,000 tools and rifle stocks, and shipped them to Richmond. He also set about fortifying the town, regarding it as strategically significant. When Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston took command of Harpers Ferry on May 24, however, he viewed the site as indefensible—surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains, it would be easy prey to an artillery siege—and moved his command south to Winchester on June 14, 1861.

One month later, Union troops under General Robert Patterson occupied Harpers Ferry, marking the first of many times the town would change hands. Union soldiers found the setting to be impressive. “The scenery around Harper’s Ferry is majestically Grand,” wrote Colonel John White Geary, “and such as bears an Almighty impress[ion].”

Union troops remained in control of Harpers Ferry until August 22, 1861, when Confederate cavalry under Captain Turner Ashby occupied the town. Over the next six months, Harpers Ferry changed control four times, but by late in February 1862 Union forces under General Nathaniel P. Banks occupied the town and made it the base of his operations in the Shenandoah Valley. Less than a year after the war’s beginning, Harpers Ferry already bore the scars of war. “It is really, or rather was, a town of some note,” wrote an officer of the 10th Maine, in late March 1862, “but the ruin, absolute devastation now in its place is beyond anything I ever dreamed or saw or heard tell of.”

John Brown

As part of the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862, Stonewall Jackson’s forces attacked Harpers Ferry on May 30, but Union general Rufus Saxton mounted a successful defense. (In 1893, he would be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions that day.) Three months later, Harpers Ferry was again of critical strategic importance. Robert E. Lee was commencing his first invasion of the North and wanted to secure his supply lines from the Shenandoah Valley and cover a possible line of retreat behind the Blue Ridge. In a risky move, he divided his army, sending part of it with Jackson to take the town, which the general did on September 15, 1862, defeating the approximately 14,000 Union troops garrisoned there under Colonel Dixon Miles. Jackson, however, was then forced to race to Maryland for the Battle of Antietam on September 17, which ended with Lee’s retreat back into Virginia. A week later, Union troops were back in control of Harpers Ferry.

For nearly the next year, Harpers Ferry remained firmly in Union hands. Not until July 1, 1863, did the remnants of General Robert H. Milroy’s command, defeated during the Second Battle of Winchester in mid-June, withdraw when pressed by Confederate cavalry. Confederate success was short-lived as Union soldiers regained control eight days later. By this time, Harpers Ferry was no longer in Confederate territory; West Virginia was admitted to the Union as a state on June 20, 1863. Union troops only momentarily lost control of the town on July 4, 1864, when Confederates, under General Jubal A. Early, forced them to withdraw. After Early withdrew four days later, Union troops took control and would not relinquish Harpers Ferry for the remainder of the war. By August 1864, Harpers Ferry had become the gathering point for Union general Philip H. Sheridan‘s newly created Middle Military Division and the base of operations for his splendid campaign that finally wrested the Shenandoah Valley from Confederate control.

The Cost of War

Even amid the natural beauty that Thomas Jefferson once stated was “worth a voyage across the Atlantic” to observe, Harpers Ferry stood as a testament to the destructiveness of war. The site of one major battle in the autumn of 1862, it had changed hands twelve times. “The town itself lies in ruins … all about the town are rubbish, and filth, and stench,” observed a visitor to Harpers Ferry in 1866. Still, the citizenry rebuilt it in the immediate postwar years, although, sadly, their hard work was undone by a flood in 1870. After the waters receded, some wondered whether John Brown had cursed the place that had brought about his demise and foreshadowed the Civil War.

July 3, 1859
Abolitionist John Brown arrives in Harpers Ferry.
October 16—18, 1859
John Brown and twenty-one raiders attack Harpers Ferry and capture the U.S. Arsenal there in an attempt to start a slave rebellion. Five men are killed (four white and one black). Ninety United States Marines, under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee, capture Brown, who is
October 17, 1859
A contingent of ninety U.S. Marines, under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee, arrives in Harpers Ferry at 11 p.m. to put an end to John Brown's raid.
October 18, 1859
U.S. Marines, under Lieutenant Israel Greene, break through the door to "John Brown's Fort" and capture Brown and his raiders. Brown is wounded in the struggle.
December 2, 1859
After a gripping trial held in Charles Town in which John Brown is found guilty of conspiracy, of inciting servile insurrection, and of treason against the state, he is hanged.
April 17, 1861
Delegates at the Virginia Convention in Richmond pass an Ordinance of Secession by a vote of 88 to 55. Thirty-two of the "no" votes come from trans-Allegheny delegates, who are more firmly Unionist than representatives from other parts of the state.
April 18, 1861
Lieutenant Roger Jones burns the arsenal buildings at Harpers Ferry and moves his command north to Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Later that day, Virginia militia, under Major General Kenton Harper, occupy Harpers Ferry.
April 27, 1861
Colonel Thomas J. Jackson takes command of Virginia's military forces at Harpers Ferry.
May 24, 1861
General Joseph E. Johnston takes command of Confederate troops at Harpers Ferry.
June 14, 1861
Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston moves his command from Harpers Ferry to Winchester, regarding the latter as the more strategically significant town.
July 17, 1861
Union general Robert Patterson occupies Harpers Ferry. The town is contested by both armies for the remainder of the year.
February 24, 1862
Union forces under General Nathaniel P. Banks occupy Harpers Ferry. The town will become Banks's base of operations in the Shenandoah Valley.
May 30, 1862
Union general Rufus Saxton defeats a Confederate attack from troops under Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson. In 1893 Saxton is awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for this defense of Harpers Ferry.
September 15, 1862
Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson captures the Union garrison at Harpers Ferry. Robert E. Lee calls off the Confederate retreat and moves to concentrate his forces on Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, Maryland.
September 22, 1862
Union troops reoccupy Harpers Ferry after Robert E. Lee's unsuccessful invasion of the North.
July 1, 1863
Remnants of Union general Robert H. Milroy's command are driven from Harpers Ferry by troops from the 12th Virginia Cavalry.
July 4, 1864
Confederate forces under General Jubal A. Early attack and capture Harpers Ferry.
August 6, 1864
Union general Philip H. Sheridan takes command of the newly created Middle Military Division. Harpers Ferry becomes the base of operations for Sheridan's campaign against Confederate general Jubal A. Early in the Shenandoah Valley.
Suggested Reading

  • Abels, Jules. Man on Fire: John Brown and the Cause of Liberty. New York: Macmillan, 1971.
  • Earle, Jonathan. John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008.
  • Hearn, Chester G. Six Years of Hell: Harpers Ferry During the Civil War. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996.
APA Citation:
Noyalas, Jonathan. Harpers Ferry during the Civil War. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/harpers-ferry-during-the-civil-war.
MLA Citation:
Noyalas, Jonathan. "Harpers Ferry during the Civil War" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 17 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2020, December 07
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