West Virginia: Harpers Ferry Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This National Historical Park in one of the first industrial towns in the United States is the site of the ill-fated raid led by abolitionist John Brown in 1859. It is also the site of numerous activities during the Civil War and the former home of Storer College, one of the earliest racially integrated institutions of higher education in the United States.

Site Office

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park

P.O. Box 65

Harpers Ferry, WV 25425

ph.: (304) 535-6298

Web site: www.nps.gov/hafe/

Nestled between the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, Harpers Ferry in the nineteenth century was a growing industrial town that could have earned a reputation for technological innovations; however, the raid led by abolitionist John Brown and the Civil War that followed brought Harpers Ferry another kind of notoriety entirely. Harpers Ferry’s origins go back to 1733, when a trader named Peter Stephens established a ferry service at the junction of the two rivers. Stephens ran the service until 1747, when he sold it to Robert Harper, a millwright who had left Philadelphia to settle in the Shenandoah Valley. Harper erected a water-powered gristmill on the Shenandoah River, and the two businesses were so successful that he was able to purchase the land from Thomas Lord Fairfax in 1751.

The abundance of natural resources such as water power, wood, fertile farm land, and iron ore in combination with the stunning physical beauty of the area made Harpers Ferry an ideal location for industry, and by the turn of the century the town boasted flour mills, sawmills, machine shops, cotton mills, forges, and furnaces. When the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal along the Potomac and the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad were built in the 1830’s, Harpers Ferry became a transportation center as well.

George Washington Makes Harpers Ferry an Armory

In the late 1700’s, Harpers Ferry caught the eye of President George Washington, who was looking for a site on which to built a federal armory. Washington was impressed with the town’s convenient access to water power and raw materials, its secure position protected by the Blue Ridge Mountains, and its proximity to the nation’s capital in Washington, D.C. He also saw the potential for the valley to become a major industrial and transportation center that would, in turn, create a foundation for the new nation’s financial development. The Armory Act of 1794 provided for the establishment of an armory at Harpers Ferry, and the federal government purchased the land from John Wager, Sr., whose wife had inherited the land from Robert Harper. By 1801, the first weapons were produced. The weapons that were carried on the Lewis and Clark 1804-1806 transcontinental expedition were manufactured at Harpers Ferry. By 1810, the armory was producing ten thousand muskets a year.

By 1821, the armory employed 271 people. The armory consisted of three parts. The main component included twenty buildings along the Potomac in which the weapons were made. Opposite this, on Shenandoah Street, stood the arsenal where arms were stored and displayed. The third section, Hall’s Rifle Works, was built on Virginius Island, located upstream in the Shenandoah River. In 1819, a craftsman named John H. Hall had successfully employed the concept of interchangeable parts in the manufacture of rifles. This innovation replaced the time-consuming process of making unique parts for each type of weapon and simplified weapon repair. This procedure was eventually used to make a wide variety of products including sewing machines, watches, clocks, and even railroad cars. Although several inventors, including Eli Whitney, had been experimenting with the idea for several years, Hall was the first to put the theory into practice. Hall patented the breech-loading interchangeable flintlock rifle and was awarded a government contract in 1819 to make rifles for the military on Virginius Island.

Harpers Ferry in the Early Nineteenth Century

Other industries grew in the area as well, especially after a canal that had been built to circumvent the Shenandoah River’s rapids in 1806 was modified in 1823 into a network of canals and millraces to harness the water power. By 1859, industries on Virginius Island included an iron foundry, a machine shop, a cotton mill, a flour mill, and a carriage manufacturing shop. The town of Harpers Ferry and the surrounding communities of Virginius Island and Bolivar Heights reached their growth peak in the mid-1800’s. Harpers Ferry was incorporated as a town in 1851, when more than four thousand people were living and working amid the Blue Ridge Mountains. In Harpers Ferry tailors, wheelwrights, blacksmiths, carpenters, and shoemakers plied their trades. Shops, pharmacies, saloons, and inns catered to the residents and visitors.

The Antislavery Movement

The forces that would bring Harpers Ferry its greatest fame came together in the mid-1800’s. The debate over the existence of slavery was causing unrest in the country. The abolitionist movement was growing, and its supporters were becoming more and more vocal. In 1831, William Lloyd Garrison, a New England printer, started an antislavery newspaper called The Liberator, which advocated immediate emancipation for slaves. The newspaper, circulated in both the United States and England, brought more activists to the abolitionist movement. The Mexican War of 1846 further exacerbated the controversy. Abolitionists saw the war as an attempt to preserve slavery; when the war brought the United States 850,000 square miles from the Atlantic to the Pacific that Southerners claimed for slaveholders, the gulf widened between proslavery and antislavery forces. Slaveholders for their part were angered by the abolitionist movement and feared slave uprisings. Antislavery meetings were often the scenes of violence.

Pockets of antislavery societies appeared throughout the north, including Ohio’s Western Reserve, an area that encompassed the banks of Lake Erie on the north, Cleveland and Hudson on the east, Akron on the south, and Sandusky on the west. One of the Western Reserve’s most prominent citizens was John Brown, a frontiersman and shepherd, who was an ardent abolitionist. Brown was from an intensely religious family and he echoed his father’s belief that slavery was wrong in the eyes of God. In spite of the demands of a growing family and business, John Brown spent much of his adult life traveling throughout the country participating in antislavery demonstrations and activities. When at home, he often incurred disfavor from his neighbors for aiding Native Americans who came to the area to hunt. Secretly, he harbored fugitive slaves and provided them with arms before they continued on their flight to freedom.

The abolitionist movement was divided on the means for accomplishing emancipation. William Lloyd Garrison led the pacifist faction, which believed that influencing public opinion and changing racist attitudes would result in freedom for slaves. Another group, led by James G. Birney, advocated the organization of an antislavery political party. John Brown was part of a small faction that believed that force was the only solution. Brown wanted to arm escaping slaves and their supporters to enable the slaves to resist recapture. Initially he did not intend to attack slaveholders. When the Fugitive Slave Act was enacted by Congress in 1850 to appease Southerners incensed over the admittance of California as a free state, Brown joined with other abolitionists to organize resistance to the act. People were urged to arm themselves and to refuse to cooperate with authorities who were tracking runaway slaves.

John Brown’s Abolitionist Vision

Brown became more militant in his beliefs, especially during the struggles in the Kansas Territory between southern slaveholders and northern abolitionists. By 1859, he had formed the idea of establishing a free state in the South and decided to start his campaign in Harpers Ferry. Brown chose Harpers Ferry for several reasons. First, the town was centrally located between the slaveholding plantations and farms of the South and the free states of the North. Second, the Virginia mountains were ideal for guerrilla warfare and for establishing a stronghold. Some historians also believe that Brown wanted access to the weapons at the armory. Others, however, note that Brown already had more than enough weapons to equip a small army.

In July, 1859, three months before his raid, Brown and three of his sons set up a base at Kennedy Farm in Maryland, five miles from Harpers Ferry. They spent the remainder of the summer collecting supplies and arms and recruiting men to join them in their cause. In truth, the men did not know Brown’s real intent. They had joined with him in the belief that they were going to establish a haven for runaway slaves. When he informed them, on the eve of the raid, that he intended to invade and capture Harpers Ferry, many were vehemently opposed to the plan; however, he was able to gain their support.

The Raid on Harpers Ferry

Late on the night of Sunday, October 16, 1859, Brown and his band of twenty-one men (sixteen white and five black) stole into Harpers Ferry. First, they captured the night watchman on the Potomac River toll bridge. They then moved to the armory. To Brown’s surprise, the townspeople reacted quickly once they were alerted to the invasion. The militia and U.S. Marines were called in, and by the next afternoon the raiders found themselves barricaded in the armory fire engine and guard house. To Brown’s dismay, the town’s slaves never rallied behind him.

The raid so infuriated the townspeople that each time one of Brown’s men was sent out into the streets to signal surrender he was immediately killed. When Fountain Beckham, the mayor of Harpers Ferry, was killed during one barrage of gunfire, mob hysteria took over. One of Brown’s men, William Thompson, who had been taken prisoner earlier, was dragged into the street and shot repeatedly. His body was then tossed into the Potomac River. On Tuesday morning, the leader of the Marine unit, Colonel Robert E. Lee, demanded Brown’s unconditional surrender. When Brown refused, Lieutenant Jeb Stuart ordered his men to knock down the door of the guard house. Two more of Brown’s men and a Marine were killed in the ensuing battle. An injured John Brown was taken to the paymaster’s office.

On October 31, John Brown was convicted of treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, of inciting a slave rebellion, and of murder. Throughout the trial, Brown stood by his belief that what he had done was right. He refused to enter a plea of insanity and warned that bloodshed would surely occur if the country refused to emancipate the slaves. On December 2, Brown was hanged in the Jefferson County seat of Charles Town. John Wilkes Booth and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson were among those in the crowd.

Aftermath of the Raid

The Harpers Ferry raid sparked further outrage among southern slaveholders, who saw it as proof that abolitionists would stop at nothing to achieve the emancipation of the slaves. Eighteen months later, Brown’s prediction came true when the Civil War broke out. The war meant more hardship for Harpers Ferry. Because of its geographical position, its role as a transportation center, and the existence of the armory, the town was a valuable location for both the Union and the Confederacy. Consequently, control of Harpers Ferry changed hands eight times during the war. The population dropped to three hundred after the first six months of the war as men went off to serve in the army and as families fled for safer surroundings.

In April, 1861, as Confederate troops were approaching Harpers Ferry, Union lieutenant Roger Jones decided that the forty-two soldiers under his command would not be able to hold off the attack. He gave orders for the arsenal and the armory to be set on fire, then led his contingent to safety in the north. The armory was saved from destruction by the townspeople. For the next seven weeks, General Stonewall Jackson supervised the removal of the armory’s machinery and tools, which were then sent to Richmond, Virginia, and Fayetteville, North Carolina, to make weapons for the Confederate army. In June, as word reached Harpers Ferry that Union troops were advancing, the Confederate forces set fire to the railroad bridge and the armory building. Two weeks later they burned Hall’s Rifle Works and the Shenandoah River bridge.

The Union occupation lasted only three weeks, and for the next six months Harpers Ferry remained unoccupied. In February, 1862, Union forces again moved in to protect communication and supply lines along the B&O Railroad. The government also wanted to prevent a Confederate invasion into the Shenandoah Valley. The Union forces were able to maintain control of the town until September, when Confederate general Robert E. Lee sent troops, under the leadership of Stonewall Jackson, with specific orders to capture or destroy the garrison at Harpers Ferry. On September 15, after being surrounded on three sides, 12,500 Union soldiers surrendered, constituting the largest surrender of Union troops during the war.

Jackson then left for Sharpsburg, Maryland, to reinforce Lee at the Battle of Antietam. Union troops were able to move back into Harpers Ferry five days later and stayed in the town until June of 1863. Forces were ordered back on July 14 to provide protection after the Confederate retreat from Gettysburg ten days earlier. A year later, the Confederates again moved into the town, prompting Union general Philip Sheridan to mount a major offense to claim the Shenandoah Valley once and for all. In three quick battles occurring in September and October, Sheridan was able to defeat General Jubal Early and put an end to Confederate resistance in the area.

Postwar Developments

After the war, a small group of former residents returned. Together with the few people who had remained in Harpers Ferry, they tried to rebuild their once-prosperous town. However, the increased use of the steam engine in industry diminished the need for water power to run machinery. Then a trio of devastating floods in 1870, 1889, and 1896 virtually wiped out the town. By the end of the 1800’s, Harpers Ferry was all but abandoned.

The one bright spot in Harpers Ferry’s post-Civil War history was the establishment of Storer College, one of the country’s first racially integrated institutions of higher education. During Reconstruction, northern missionaries, backed by aid from churches and the federal government, journeyed to southern towns to help newly freed blacks adjust to their new lives. One of these missionaries was Reverend Nathan Brackett of the Freewill Baptists, a Protestant denomination from New England. He came to Harpers Ferry to establish a school to provide basic education. With help from a federal agency called the Freedmen’s Bureau, Brackett was able to open the school in the Lockwood House, one of the homes that had been built in the 1840’s to house armory supervisors. The school got further assistance from a Maine businessman named John Storer, who pledged ten thousand dollars if the Freewill Baptist Church was able to match it within a year and agreed to open the school to both sexes of all races. This was accomplished. The next challenge was to obtain a state charter and control of the land. Postwar bitterness was inhibiting such endeavors in the state legislatures and in the U.S. Congress. Brackett persevered and eventually obtained the state charter in 1868 and gained control of the land in 1869.

The school faced more hurdles because many townspeople were opposed to the presence of free blacks in Harpers Ferry. Students and teachers were verbally harassed and threatened with physical violence. In spite of this opposition, the school grew to become a teachers’ college, another of John Storer’s goals. At the time, it was the only college in the region in which blacks could obtain an education above the primary level. In addition to college-credit courses, Storer offered a four-year high school program and courses in industrial arts and home economics.

By 1881, racial tensions had eased enough that when Frederick Douglass came to speak at the dedication of the school’s Anthony Hall and spoke admirably of John Brown, his words were met with applause. Storer College was also the site, in 1906, of the second conference of the Niagara Movement, a group of black intellectuals led by W. E. B. Du Bois. Four years later, several of the participants went on to create the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Eventually, the work of the NAACP and others made Storer’s existence unnecessary. In 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. Racial segregation in American public education was declared unconstitutional. The ruling gave blacks access to a wider variety of colleges, and Storer closed its doors in 1955.

Modern Preservation Efforts

Harpers Ferry is now a small village with little more than 350 residents, most of whom serve the tourists who visit each year. As much as was possible, the town has been restored to its original condition. Robert Harper’s house, built from 1775 to 1782, is the oldest surviving building. Harper died the year it was completed, and the home was converted to an inn. The armory fire engine and guard house, which came to be known as John Brown’s Fort, has been preserved. The brick fire engine house was dismantled and set up as an exhibit at the Chicago World’s Fair but was repurchased and returned to Harpers Ferry in 1895.

The Episcopal Church, which was used as a barracks and a hospital during the Civil War, now stands in ruins. However, St. Peter’s Catholic Church, which was built in the 1830’s for the Irish Catholic immigrants who came to build the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, is still in use. During the Civil War, the church declared its neutrality and therefore did not suffer any damage. Visitors to Harpers Ferry also may tour the John Brown Museum and a Civil War Museum, as well as several Storer College buildings.

For Further Information
  • DeVillers, David. The John Brown Slavery Revolt Trial: A Headline Court Case. Berkeley Heights, N.J.: Enslow, 2000. Focuses on the trial of the abolitionist who was hanged for treason and murder following his attempt to capture the military arsenal in Harpers Ferry.
  • Hearn, Chester G. Six Years of Hell: Harpers Ferry During the Civil War. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1999. An account of the impact of the Civil War on Harpers Ferry.
  • Scott, John Anthony, and Robert Alan Scott. John Brown of Harpers Ferry. Reprint. New York: Facts on File, 1993. A thorough description and analysis of John Brown and the United States in the years preceding the Civil War. A fairly extensive bibliography is included.
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