Harpers Ferry: An “abominable” little town. And I love it!

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 slave20120919-220750.jpg 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.

20120919-223840.jpgHarpers 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.

What was left of the town was destroyed by floods in the early 20th century,20120919-225124.jpg notably 1936.  The rivers made the town what is was, but it also ripped it to shreds.

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.



    1. It was Virginia during the war, but seceded from the state on “West Virgnia Day” in 1863. Fun Fact: After the war, the state of Virgnia sued to get Jefferson county back, but obviously it didn’t work out in their favor.

  1. We visited Harper’s Ferry when I was in my very early teens. A charming town, lovely location, and like so much of that area, a rich history. I was lucky enough to have an American History teacher who was passionate about that war

    1. The area is amazing! From Harpers Ferry over to Antietam and up the road to Gettysburg! It was an amazing place to live for the eight months we did and I really miss it. Their living history program has really picked up in the last few years. Definitely worth a trip back!

  2. Many layers of history here. For some reason John Brown seems to linger from the last visit. A strange fellow and not exactly the upstanding citizen that he is sometimes portrayed. The power of the river and influence on manufacturing and trade stuck out on the first visit. What an interesting place.

    1. I can see where John Brown’s intentions came from. He was an abolitionist, but his actions were that of a terrorist. As for being set on freeing the slaves, he wanted to arm them with pikes because he didn’t think they were smart enough to use guns. With the whole mess in Bleeding Kansas in the 1850s, I bet people weren’t really surprised when he raided Harpers Ferry. Some probably saw him as a martyr, especially once the war started. But what he did was pretty out of control.

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