John Brown's Raid
John Brown believed he could free the slaves, and he selected Harpers Ferry as his starting point. Determined to seize the 100,000 weapons at the Arsenal and to use the Blue Ridge Mountains for guerrilla warfare, abolitionist Brown launched his raid on Sunday evening, October 16, 1859. His 21-man "army of liberation" seized the Armory and several other strategic points. Thirty-six hours after the raid begun, with most of his men killed or wounded, Brown was captured in the Armory fire enginehouse (now known as "John Brown's Fort") when U.S. Marines stormed the building.
Brought to trial at nearby Charles Town, Brown was found guilty of treason, of conspiring with slaves to rebel, and murder. He was hanged on December 2, 1859. John Brown's short-lived raid failed, but his trial and execution focused the nation's attention on the moral issue of slavery and headed the country toward civil war. [View video clips of Stephen Oates discussing John Brown].
Today John Brown's Fort and the Arsenal ruins are part of the legacy of our nation's struggle with slavery. [Learn more about John Brown's Fort].
The Civil War
The Civil War had a profound and disastrous effect on Harpers Ferry, leaving a path of destruction that wrecked the town's economy and forced many residents to depart forever. Because of the town's strategic location on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad at the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley, Union and Confederate troops moved through Harpers Ferry frequently. The town changed hands eight times between 1861 and 1865.
On April 18, 1861, less than 24 hours after Virginia seceded from the Union, Federal soldiers set fire to the Armory and Arsenal to keep them out of Confederate hands. The Arsenal and 15,000 weapons were destroyed, but the Armory flames were extinguished and the weapons-making equipment was shipped south. When the Confederates abandoned the town two months later, they burned most of the factory buildings and blew up the railroad bridge. [Learn more about the Armory & Arsenal]. The first Harpers Ferry citizen killed during the Civil War was Frederick Roeder. To learn more about him, click here.
Federal forces re-occupied Harpers Ferry in 1862. During the Confederacy's first invasion of the North, on September 15, 1862, Maj. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson surrounded and captured the 12,500-man Union garrison stationed here. When the Federals returned to Harpers Ferry after the Battle of Antietam, they began transforming the surrounding heights into fortified encampments to protect both the town and the railroad. In 1864, Union Gen. Philip H. Sheridan used Harpers Ferry as his base of operations against Confederate troops in the Shenandoah Valley. [Learn more about the 1862 Battle of Harpers Ferry].
African-Americans have been a part of the Harpers Ferry story since before the American Revolution. The first black person arrived here in the mid-1700s as a slave to Robert Harper. By the time of John Brown's Raid in 1859, about ten percent of the town's residents were black. The town's 150 enslaved people, considered property, could be rented out, sold, used as collateral for business transactions, or given away. Another 150 "free" black people often worked as laborers or teamsters, but some prospered as skilled masons, plasterers, butchers, and blacksmiths.
During the Civil War, Harpers Ferry became one of many Union garrison towns where runaway slaves, or "contraband," sought refuge. Following the Civil War, New England Freewill Baptist missionaries acquired several vacant Armory buildings on Camp Hill and, in 1867, started Storer College, an integrated school designed primarily to educate former slaves but open to students of all races and both genders. Frederick Douglass served as a trustee of the college, and delivered a memorable oration on the subject of John Brown here in 1881. [Learn more about Storer College].
By the end of the 19th century, the promise of freedom and equality for blacks had been buried by Jim Crow laws and legal segregation. To combat these injustices, Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois and other leading African-Americans created the Niagara Movement, which held its second conference on the campus of Storer College in 1906. The Niagara Movement was a forerunner to the NAACP. [Learn more about the Niagara Movement]
In 1954, legal segregation was finally ended by the landmark school desegregation decision handed down by the Supreme Court in Brown v. The Board of Education. A year later Storer College closed its doors. Today the National Park Service continues the college's educational mission by using part of the old campus as a training facility.
The United States Armory and Arsenal, established here in 1799, transformed Harpers Ferry from a remote village into an industrial center. Between 1801 and the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, the Armory produced more than 600,000 muskets, rifles, and pistols, and employed, at times, over 400 workers. Inventor John H. Hall pioneered interchangeable firearms manufacture at his Rifle Works between 1820-1840, and helped lead the change from craft-based production to manufacture by machine. [Learn more about John H. Hall].Before the Civil War, Virginius Island boasted a number of private industries, including a sawmill, flour mill, machine shop, two cotton mills, tannery, and iron foundry. Lewis Wernwag, a noted bridgebuilder from Philadelphia, was one of the island's first entrepreneurs. Following the war, two water-powered pulp mills were erected along the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. Today only ruins remain of Harpers Ferry's 19th-century industrial heyday. [Learn more about waterpower at Harpers Ferry].
The convergence here of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, the Winchester & Potomac Railroad, and the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal in the mid-1830s inaugurated an era of economic and industrial growth that lasted until the Civil War. Trains and boats reduced travel time from days to hours and served as avenues for local commerce. German and Irish laborers who helped to build the railroad and canal later settled in the area and diversified the local culture. The ferry service operated by Robert Harper in the mid-1700s became obsolete as bridges spanned the rivers. Even George Washington promoted commerce in the region as first president of the Patowmack Company, which was formed in 1785 to permit boats of "shallow draft" to navigate the Potomac River. Today, only the railroad remains as an active reminder of the town's rich transportation heritage.
The Harpers Ferry water gap has attracted human attention for centuries. Native Americans, early settlers, railroad and canal used the gap in the Blue Ridge as an avenue of travel and transport. The rivers that carved the gap also produced power for the town's mills and factories. Hardwoods from the mountains provided charcoal for industry and fuel for stoves. Harpers shale afforded excellent building material. Although severe floods have sometimes ravaged what human hands have built, the land here has proven resilient. [Learn more about memorable floods at Harpers Ferry ].
Today, wetlands fill abandoned canals and plants and animals use old ruins as homes. Throughout years of human alteration and natural reclamation, the picturesque landscape has remained a constant - inspiring writers, artists, and millions of visitors. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, described the scene here as "worth a voyage across the Atlantic" in his Notes on the State of Virginia. [Read Jefferson's description of Harpers Ferry].
Library & Research Room
People looking for in-depth information or doing research on park-related themes may use the park's Library & Research Room.