Harpers Ferry: the most significant place of the Civil War

Harpers Ferry, unlike many Civil War towns, was not devastated by a major battle like nearby Sharpsburg, Md. and Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. Those towns had wounded soldiers who were cared for many months after those battles, had to contend with burying thousands of dead soldiers and encountered problems with filing for and receiving damages from the federal government. Other places can boast of how many times their town changed hands during the war.

Harpers Ferry’s wartime situation was much different, but nonetheless certainly made for difficult times for residents who suffered through occupation and troop movements almost every single day of the entire Civil War.

From the very beginning, the upper heights of town were the training grounds for many of the Confederate soldiers who enlisted in Halltown or Harpers Ferry, including the famed Stonewall Brigade made up of many of the local companies from Charlestown, Martinsburg and Shepherdstown. While under command of Gen. Joseph Johnston, many were trained by Col. Thomas J. Jackson, who later became famous as “Stonewall” Jackson.

When Johnston declared that Harpers Ferry was indefensible and ordered his men to points elsewhere, Harpers Ferry remained an important river crossing and focal point for troops from both the North and the South. Its strategic importance where the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad crossed the river also made Harpers Ferry a target of Confederate raids to take the northern railroad out of operation.

When Virginia seceded, the following day Virginia militia men were sent to Harpers Ferry to secure the guns and the gun making equipment. Guards at the federal arsenal burned the buildings and the guns to keep them out of the hands of the rebels. The Virginians did succeed in stealing the equipment, thereby putting out of commission the highly successful operations of the gun factories on Virginius Island. Those factories, responsible for the manufacture of 600,000 firearms since 1804, were lost forever.

The largest surrender of the long war took place at Bolivar Heights on Sept. 15, 1862 when Jackson bombarded his enemy from the Heights and captured 12,500 Union soldiers. Just prior to that surrender, about 1,400 Union cavalry escaped across the Potomac River at Harpers Ferry.

John Mosby’s famous raids, hitting hard and quick and then disappearing into the night, were a constant harassment in the town. Loudoun Heights and Maryland Heights frequently hosted gun placements, alternating between armies depending upon what day it was. Sentiment of the residents was mixed. Some were rebel sympathizers while others supported the Union. As the war proceeded, they were not sure which neighbor they could trust. The silence must have been deafening, as neighbors feared that sharing their loyalties with others might be harmful to their health and well being.

The town was often under martial law, with locals having to show identification and state their intent whenever asked. Thousands of contraband blacks fled to Harpers Ferry and under the protection of the Union army camped there for months at a time.

This provided for a strain on the town’s resources especially on the food supply. Local citizens’ disdain for them remained long after the war as the local residents took their frustrations out on the faculty and student population of the newly designated Storer College, founded in 1867.

As author and historian Dennis Frye so aptly points out in his recent book “Harpers Ferry Under Fire,” the town was “trapped between the jaws of the North and South.” Frye quotes Joseph Barry: “It may be said with truth that no place in the Unites States experienced more of the horrors of the war. The first act of the great tragedy – the Brown raid – was enacted there, and at no time until the curtain fell, was Harpers Ferry entirely unconnected with the performance.”

— Bob O’ Connor writes from

Jefferson County


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