After I graduated college and The Hubs came home from deployment, we volunteered with the living history department at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. We did living history, we did archaeology. We ate delicious barbecue at Red Hot and Blue! We got a hamster.
I’ll be honest. When The Hubs interned there in college, I had no idea why I should care about Harpers Ferry. I’d never heard of it. Not surprisingly, a lot of people I talk to don’t have any idea where Harpers Ferry is located. Or why it’s historically important. And yes, even people standing in Harpers Ferry will ask that question. Multiple times.
Side note: I once had a guy ask me if people in the 1860s really had nails or if that was a modern invention. It’s the 1860s, kids. Not the dawn of time.
Today Harpers Ferry looks like this quaint little town, a picturesque little hamlet at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. However, it was the site of the US Armory and Arsenals as well as Halls Rifle Works and the B&O Railroad. It was a bustling community of well over 3500 people (more than live in Harpers Ferry today, as a matter of fact). It was industrial. It was loud and it was dirty, with thick smoke billowing out of the arsenals and the loud clang of the trip hammers.
Second side note: If you watch the movie Gods and Generals, at the very beginning you’ll see a guy stroll out of an industry shop. That’s, in fact, the industry museum at Harpers Ferry. And I totally know that guy. His name’s Kyle.
In 1859, a man named John Brown decided he was going to initiate a slave rebellion. His plan was to raid Harpers Ferry, arm the slaves with guns and pikes, and take over the Armory with its stores of weapons. In late October, he put his plan into action and in the dead of night, took over the town.
For the months of planning John Brown put into his raid, he neglected to tell the slaves he was coming. He also failed to take into consideration that the citizens of Harpers Ferry didn’t take kindly to terrorist attacks. The first man killed in the raid was a free black man named Heywood Shepherd. Brown did manage to take over the Armories and Arsenals, but ended up getting trapped in the Engine House (now known as John Brown’s Fort) in a desperate attempt at a shoot out.
Enter Robert E. Lee. And Jeb Stuart. And the US Marines. It took the Marines about 15 seconds, but they literally strolled into the Engine House, cracked Brown over the head with a saber, and ended the raid. Most of Brown’s raiders (his two sons included) were killed during the raid. Brown himself was hung in Charlestown in December. In a note he wrote before he was hung, he chillingly indicated:
I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land can never be purged away but with blood. I had as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed, it might be done.
The Civil War began in April 1861.
Harpers Ferry, a casualty before the war even started, only got more battered and beaten as the war raged on around them. Both Union and Confederate wanted control of the town. It switched hands back and forth, had the railroad bridges blown up, rebuilt, and blown up again; Stonewall Jackson “appropriated” the machinery from the Armory. It’s shelled by artillery. The Arsenals were blown up and the weapons destroyed. The so-called “Ferry Lot Reservation,” homes and businesses next to the Armory, was burned to the ground, under suspicion of harboring Confederate Sharpshooters. Citizens are killed: Frederick Roeder, a German immigrant and owner of Roeder’s Confectionary (still located in Harpers Ferry) is shot and dies in his daughter’s arms. The population drops to under 100, mostly people too sick, old, or stubborn to leave.
Harpers Ferry is an amazing town and yes, I’m obviously biased. I sometimes feel like it’s a secret history, since what happened there was dwarfed by the battles at nearby South Mountain and Antietam. The Armory and Arsenals are gone, most of the town has been destroyed by flood and the passing of time. It’s amazing. As Thomas Jefferson said, it’s worth a trip across the Atlantic.
For more information on Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, visit their website here.