Harpers Ferry armory played role in two American conflicts

John Butler served as a gunner on the frigate U.S.S. United States during its battle against the British ship H.M.S. Macedonia on Oct. 25, 1812. The battle was an American victory and ended with the Macedonia becoming the first British warship ever captured and brought back into an American harbor.

After the War of 1812 ended, Butler moved to Harpers Ferry, Va., where he worked at the federal arsenal as a laborer and lock-keeper.

The arsenal’s importance during the Civil War is well documented. Less well known is that it and Harpers Ferry made major contributions to United States’s second war of independence, which is better known as the War of 1812.

The arsenal was one of two major gun factories in the United States at that time, the other being at Springfield in Massachusetts.

In 1803, an order for new rifles was proposed to the armory at Harpers Ferry. Superintendent Joseph Perkins and others developed patterns for the new gun, which had been designated by Secretary of War Henry Dearborn to have a barrel not to exceed 33 inches and had a ball weighing about .54 caliber.

When the patterns were approved to develop what was known as the Model 1803, an order of 2,000 rifles was delivered to Harpers Ferry. That original order was increased to 4,000 rifles after production started as a result of the rifle’s fine performance.

That expanded order was not completed until 1807 because of two malaria outbreaks and the loss of potential workers at the gun factories. An additional order was placed in 1814, with that production run lasting for five years and producing 15,703 guns.

The Model 1803 rifle got much of its design features from the “Kentucky rifle” which had been known for its reliability, accuracy and lethality for marksmen. The 1803 was designed to have a shorter barrel and, as such, was less accurate. But the new model was easier to load and caused less firing problems. The 1803 had a flintlock firing mechanism and the shorter barrel also influenced other gunmakers to shorten barrels in their models, particularly for guns used as sport rifles by explorers and civilians in the plains and mountains.

The prototype of the Model 1803 was most likely not finished until six months after Meriwether Lewis left Harpers Ferry with William Clark to explore the newly purchased Louisiana territory, but the gun was used in the Sept. 21, 1812 Battle of Gananoque in Canada by the 70 men of the U.S. Rifles. The rifle locks had special leather covers to protect the firing mechanism from the dampness as the troops crossed the St. Lawrence River. The Model 1803 rifle was also used at the decisive victory by American forces at Big Sandy Springs.

Harpers Ferry and Jefferson County sent at least seven companies of volunteers to the war effort and Harpers Ferry armorers and volunteers under the direction of Capt. David Porter fought several British ships in the Battle of White House Bluff in September 1814.

Butler was still in Harpers Ferry four decades after the war and was present on Dec. 24, 1852 during the celebration in the town when the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad became the first East Coast railroad to reach the Ohio River.

During the celebration of that milestone, a cannon that was fired prematurely exploded, killing Butler.

— Bob O’Connor writes from Jefferson County.

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