Harpers Ferry and the Civil War Chronology

Before the Civil War, 3,000 people lived and worked in the prosperous industrial town of Harpers Ferry. Benefitting from abundant natural resources and situated at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, this area was advertised as “one of the best situations in the United States for… factories.” The town’s largest source of industry, the United States Armory, had over 20 factory buildings and 400 employees. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal also provided a steady flow of people and commerce throughout the town. These assets made the town strategically important to both sides during the war. The town changed hands eight times but remained under control of the Union for 80 percent of the war.
 
sketch from an 1861 newspaper showing the arsenal building on fire
"The burning of the U.S. Arsenal at Harper's Ferry, 10 P.M., April 18, 1861"

Harper's Weekly; Library of Congress

Timeline 1861

  • April 12 — Fort Sumter bombarded at Charleston, SC.
  • April 15 — President Lincoln calls for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion.
  • April 17 — Virginia secedes from the Union.
  • April 18 — Virginia militia march on Harpers Ferry, VA. Federal soldiers torch the US Armory and Arsenal, destroying over 15,000 weapons.
  • April 28 — Colonel Thomas J. (later “Stonewall”) Jackson takes his first command of the war at Harpers Ferry, VA. Over the next seven weeks, all machinery and tools from the armory are removed and shipped south to Richmond, VA, and Fayetteville, NC, to produce weapons for the Confederacy.
  • June 14 — The B&O Railroad bridge and the US Armory buildings burned by evacuating Confederates.
 
photograph of John W. Geary and engraving of Turner Ashby
Left, John Geary; Right, Turner Ashby

"John W. Geary," Library of Congress
"Brig. Genl. Turner Ashby," Library of Congress

Geary    Ashby
  • June 28 — Confederate raiders burn Hall’s Rifle Works and the Shenandoah Bridge.
  • July 4 — First civilian death occurs in Harpers Ferry when businessman Frederick Roeder is shot by a Union soldier on Maryland Heights.
  • July 21 — Union troops occupy Harpers Ferry.
  • August 17 — Union troops withdraw from the town to the Maryland shore. Harpers Ferry is not occupied by either side again until February 1862.
  • October 16 — Battle of Bolivar Heights. Five hundred Confederates under the command of Colonel Turner Ashby clash with six hundred Federals under the command of Colonel John Geary. Ashby’s forces fall back towards Charles Town and Union flags are planted on the ridge. Some of Ashby’s men later return to burn a prosperous flour mill on Virginius Island owned by a unionist citizen.
 
photo of Colonel Dixon S. Miles on a horse, in front of a building on Camp Hill
"Col. Dixon S. Miles at Harper's Ferry, W. Va."

Library of Congress

Timeline 1862
  • February 7 — Union soldiers burn the commercial area near “The Point” in retaliation for the death of a Federal scout killed by Confederate snipers.
  • February 25 — Federals occupy the town to maintain communication and supply lines along the B&O Railroad and to deter invasion from the Shenandoah Valley. Eventually, 14,000 Union soldiers named the “Railroad Brigade,” are stationed here.
  • March 29 — Colonel Dixon S. Miles is given command of the “Railroad Brigade” at Harpers Ferry.
  • May — In response to Stonewall Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign, US Army and Navy forces construct a naval artillery battery on Maryland Heights.
 
historic map, showing the positions during the 1862 Battle of Harpers Ferry and written notes at the bottom
"The attack on Harper's Ferry Va., by Jackson, September 14th and 15th, 1862"

Created by Robert Knox Sneden in 1862
Library of Congress

  • May 29-30 — "Stonewall" Jackson’s troops approach Harpers Ferry from Bolivar Heights and charge to within a few hundred yards of Union fortifications on Camp Hill before withdrawing. Union General Rufus Saxton is awarded the Medal of Honor for his defense of Harpers Ferry.
  • September 4 — Confederate General Robert E. Lee begins the first Confederate campaign on Union soil by invading Maryland with the Army of Northern Virginia.
  • September 9 — At Frederick, MD, General Lee issues Special Orders 191, boldly dividing his army into four parts, sending three columns to capture or destroy the garrison at Harpers Ferry.
  • September 13 — Under command of “Stonewall” Jackson, Confederates take strategic positions on the hills surrounding Harpers Ferry, surrounding the Union garrison on three sides.
  • September 14 — The Battle of South Mountain delays the advance of the main Federal army while “Stonewall” Jackson’s artillery hammers the Harpers Ferry garrison. During the night, Jackson orders General A.P. Hill’s division to the Chambers’ Farm to outflank the Union position on Bolivar Heights. Also under the cover of darkness, 1,500 Union cavalry cut through Confederate lines to escape the tightening noose around Harpers Ferry.
  • September 15 — Approximately 12,500 Federal troops surrender to “Stonewall” Jackson. It was the largest surrender of Federal troops in American history until the fall of Bataan during World War II.
 
Abraham Lincoln and two other men stand near tents
"[Antietam, Md. Allan Pinkerton, President Lincoln, and Maj. Gen. John A. McClernand]"

Photograph by Alexander Gardner, taken October 3, 1862 near Sharpsburg, Md.
Library of Congress

  • September 17 — The Battle of Antietam — the single bloodiest day in American history — is fought.
  • September 18 — Remaining Confederates evacuate Harpers Ferry.
  • September 19 — The campaign ends with a battle at Shepherdstown as Lee crosses back into Virginia with his army.
  • September 20 — Federals occupy Harpers Ferry and begin constructing extensive fortifications on the heights.
  • September 22 — President Lincoln issues the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.
  • October 1-2 — Lincoln reviews the Union troops on Bolivar Heights and Maryland Heights.
 
John G. Barnard seated, dressed in military uniform, posing in a photo studio

Library of Congress

Timeline 1863
  • January 1, 1863 — Lincoln revises and reissues the Emancipation Proclamation, expanding the scope of the Union war effort to include abolition of the institution of slavery and authorizing the recruiting and training of United States Colored Troops.
  • April - May — US Army Engineer General John G. Barnard plans and recommends further fortifications in and around Harpers Ferry including Maryland Heights.
  • June 16 — The Army of Northern Virginia invades Union soil for the second time.
  • June 17 — Federals evacuate Harpers Ferry and man fortifications on Maryland Heights.
  • June 20 — West Virginia is admitted to the Union as the 35th state.
 
Daniel Tyler dressed in military uniform, posing in a photo studio
"Gen. Daniel Tyler"

Library of Congress

  • June 23 — From his high position on Maryland Heights, Union General Daniel Tyler provides the first alert of the Confederate movements that would later result in the Battle of Gettysburg
  • June 30 — Federals abandon Maryland Heights, retreating to Frederick, MD.
  • July 1-3 — The Battle of Gettysburg occurs.
  • July 14 — Harpers Ferry is occupied by Union troops after Confederate troops retreat from Gettysburg.
 
John S. Mosby seated, dressed in military uniform, posing in a photo studio
"Col. John S. Mosby, C.S.A."

Library of Congress

Timeline 1864
  • January 10 — Colonel. John S. Mosby's Partisan Rangers suffer a rare defeat following their failed ambush of Union Major Henry Cole's Maryland Cavalry on Loudoun Heights.
  • March 19 — Members of the 19th US Colored Troops march through Harpers Ferry recruiting new members.
  • July 4 — The Confederates invade Union soil for the third time. General Jubal Early forces Union soldiers to withdraw to Maryland Heights as he marches on Harpers Ferry toward Washington, DC.
  • July 5-7 — Early attempts to dislodge the garrison in order to continue directly to Washington. Failing to do so he marches northeast to Frederick, MD.
  • July 9 — The Battle of Monocacy further delays Early’s advance toward Washington.
  • July 11-12 — Early fights on the outskirts of Washington at the Battle of Fort Stevens. Unable to pierce the city’s defenses, he withdraws and returns to the Shenandoah Valley.
 
engraving of Philip Sheridan
"Lieut. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, U.S.A. / Photo by Brady ; Engd. by J.C. Buttre."

Library of Congress

  • August 6 — Union General Philip Sheridan arrives at Harpers Ferry to mount a major offensive to destroy Early’s army and conquer the Shenandoah Valley. Supply trains leave for the “front” regularly, always under threat of attack from Colonel John S. Mosby’s Partisan Rangers or other Confederate guerillas.
  • September 19 — The Battle of Third Winchester occurs.
  • September 22 — The Battle of Fisher’s Hill occurs.
  • September 23 — Fifteen hundred prisoners from these battles are processed through Harpers Ferry.
  • October 19 — The Battle of Cedar Creek ends major Confederate resistance in the Shenandoah Valley.
  • November 8 — President Lincoln is reelected.
 
photo of John Mobberly
John Mobberly

HF-01244, Historic Photo Collection, Harpers Ferry NHP

Timeline 1865
  • April 2 — The capital of the Confederate States of America — Richmond, VA — falls.
  • April 5 — Confederate guerrilla and Harpers Ferry native John Mobberly is shot and killed by Union cavalry in nearby Lovettsville, VA.
  • April 9 — General Lee surrenders to General Grant at the Appomattox Court House in Appomattox, VA.
  • April 14 — President Lincoln is assassinated.


For additional information on Harpers Ferry and the Civil War be sure to see:
  • The Civil War Museum (currently closed)
  • Schoolhouse Ridge Trails
  • The 1862 Battle of Harpers Ferry Museum
  • Maryland Heights Trail
  • Bolivar Heights Trail
  • Murphy-Chambers Farm Trail

Last updated: July 24, 2019

Contact the Park

Mailing Address:

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park
National Park Service
PO Box 65

Harpers Ferry, WV 25425

Phone:

(304) 535-6029

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