Chewy Morsel #6 – “What Am I?!” – Harpers Ferry, Va. April 19, 1861 – David Hunter Strother

by Jim Surkamp on April 26, 2016 in Jefferson County


Watching his country – a rising power – fall apart in a glance made David Hunter Strother on the morning of April 19th, 1861 at Harpers Ferry, Virginia give out a Shakespearean howl at the dawn.

Mingling with friends from childhood the night before – rapidly un-friending – Strother watched, appalled, the movement of the Virginia militia to capture the prize of the U.S. Armory and arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Their martial purpose became moot and dramatically ceased when the armory was exploded and fired by another hand, that of its Federal commander.

The United States no more.


Aging Veterans of the American Revolution
Before the war, households North and South had one aging relative and wise one – a revered, often rough and strong voice, who bore always witness to the First Revolution for Independence and its promise. Some households – and those at the White House – saw the Civil War as a test of the mettle of the world’s first empire-size republic. Others in the South widely embraced the notion of the Civil War as being the Second War of Independence against a tyrant. The immediate invasion by Federal forces into Virginia suggested this, but the decisive underlying issue was always the endorsement of the enslavement a human being.

Witness to the Extinction:


David Hunter Strother, then newly married and a successful illustrator and writer for Harpers New Monthly Magazine, recorded the epochal moment in April, 1861 in Jefferson County, Virginia. A vote had concluded at the Virginia Secession Convention in favor of Secession. One of the county’s two delegates voted against and one, who superintended the Federal Armory, was absent at the vote, being en route back to the Harpers Ferry. The vote was conditioned on a statewide referendum, scheduled for May 23rd, but a group of secessionists had met earlier at a hotel in Richmond and put in motion a plan to capture the Armory at Harpers Ferry and also at the port in Norfolk, amounting basically to a premature action, or a coup.

Strother wrote later:

I took the train and proceeded to Charlestown. Here there was as much excitement as at Harpers Ferry, but among a different class of people, and consequently less noisy and vulgar in its demonstrations. . .


I had scarcely got through greeting the friends I had come to visit when I was waited on by Captain Lawson Botts, an officer of the regiment, a citizen highly esteemed for his general intelligence and probity, . . . Calling me aside, in a manner which evidenced great and painful excitement, he asked: “what I thought of the present state of affairs?”

. . . If any thing I could say would prevent Captain Botts, or any of my young friends and kinsmen whom I had seen under arms, from taking the final step which I was assured would be fatal to them, I certainly would not permit any trifling punctilio to interfere with a full expression of my views. I told him that I considered the whole movement an atrocious swindle, contrived by a set of desperate and unprincipled conspirators at Richmond, who, fearing that their treasonable schemes would be denounced by the people at the polls, had determined to plunge the State irrevocably into a war with the General Government. . . .Without hoping to gain his acquiescence in my views, – p. 9.

I was nevertheless gratified to perceive that what I said made its impression upon Captain Botts. Educated at a Southern college, the narrow political ideas so sedulously inculcated at those schools still combated the more liberal and national teachings of his maturer life.

(Later the same evening as the militia continued its movement towards the Harper Ferry armory): I could perceive that Captain Botts was as much disappointed as myself, and before parting he urged me to accompany them to the rendez-vous, with the expression of a vague hope that I might use some influence, even there, to avert the commission of a deed which he abhorred from his inmost soul. I promised to follow them. The regiment moved off, and after dinner I walked down the turnpike to Halltown, four miles distant from Charlestown. Here I found the troops halted, awaiting reinforcements, which were reported on the march from various quarters to join them.


(Turner) Ashby who had greeted me so frankly in the morning, now passed with averted face. As we supped together at a neighboring farmhouse, he studiously avoided exchanging words or looks with me. I was glad that we had understood each other without the scandal of an open quarrel. (A courier arrived with official written orders from Richmond authorizing the militia to seek to capture the armory. This was despite the fact that the vote to secede the day prior had first to be ratified by a referendum. Strother had been arguing successfully for restraint up to that juncture when the written order arrived.- JS). He continued:


The men, flattered with the idea of being foremost in the enterprise, sprung to arms and formed their column with alacrity.

It was quite dark, and as I passed out of the house Captain Botts took my arm, and in an agitated manner inquired what I thought now of the posture of affairs. – p. 10.

I asked if he was sure the order which had arrived was not a forgery. He was fully assured of its authenticity. Botts said:

“Yet I hold my commission from the State and am bound to obey the orders of the Governor,” said the Captain (Botts). “What would you have me do?”

Strother: Can any miserable local functionary have the right to order a free citizen to commit a crime against his country?

My friend listened without essaying to reply, but sat with his elbows resting on his knees and covering his face with his clenched hands.

When I concluded he rose and in a voice of anguish exclaimed: “Great God! I would willingly give my life to know at this moment what course I ought to pursue, and where my duty lies!” With this he hurried to join the column, which was already in motion.

Airstream camping in Oregon’s Outback near Silver Lake and Christmas Valley.
The stars twinkled clear and chill overhead, while the measured tread of the men and an occasional half-whispered word of command were the only sounds that broke the stillness.

. . . (Around 9 PM) The troops were now marching up the southern slope of the hill, since called Bolivar Heights, the crest of which was covered with pine woods and dense thickets of undergrowth. . . .To my surprise the march was unmolested, and they moved on to the cemetery at the forks of the road above the village of Bolivar. . . .It appeared that instead of three thousand expected by Ashby, only three hundred and forty had been assembled, including the cavalry and some artillerists with an old six-pounder from Charlestown. – p. 11.


While the officers were discoursing and looking toward the town there was a sudden flash that illuminated for miles around the romantic gorge where the rivers meet. Then followed a dull report, reverberating from mountain-to-mountain until it died away in a sullen roar. The flashes and detonations were several times repeated; then a steadier flame was seen rising from two distinct points, silently and rapidly increasing in volume until each rock and tree on Loudoun and Maryland Heights were distinctly visible, and the now overclouded sky was ruddy with the sinister glare. This occurred, I think, between 9 and 10 o’clock PM. For the moment all was excitement and conjecture. . . . The more skillful presently guessed the truth, and concluded that the officer in command had set fire to the arsenals and abandoned the town. . . . (See References)

Quietly withdrawing from the circle of acquaintances with whom I was conversing, I walked down to the town alone, by the Bolivar Road. The Old Arsenal buildings of Shenandoah Street and several of the shops in the Armory enclosure on Potomac Street were in full blaze. The road was alive with men, women, and children hurrying to-and-fro, laden with spoils from the work-shops and soldiers’ barracks. There were women with their arms full of muskets, little girls loaded with sheaves of bayonets, boys dragging cartridge boxes and cross-belts enough to equip a platoon, men with barrels of pork or flour, kegs of molasses and boxes of hard bread on their shoulders or trundling in wheel-barrows.

The ground around the burning buildings was glittering with splinters of glass which had been blown by the explosion of gun powder used to ignite the fires. . . I took my seat upon a barrel and commenced sketching the scene by fire-light, . . . The people were for the most part tongue-tied with terror.

Occasionally a woman would use the privilege of her sex and open her mind pretty freely, abusing Yankees and Southerners alternately and consigning both parties to the bottom of the river. – p. 12.


As the night advanced, the streets became more crowded with people from the town and neighborhood, but up to the hour of midnight no troops except Ashby’s squad of horse had made their appearance. By one o’clock the fires had sunk in ashes, when gloomy, chilled and fatigued, I sought a bed at the house of an acquaintance. . . . I did not sleep soundly, and was frequently disturbed during the night by the sound of drums and the tramp of passing squadrons.

April 19, 1861 – Harpers Ferry, Va.

On going down into the town this morning I found that there had been considerable accessions to the State forces seven or eight hundred having arrived during the night and morning, while as many more were reported on the way.

Confusion reigned supreme, ably seconded by whisky. The newly-arrived troops having nothing to eat, consoled themselves as usual by getting something to drink. Parties were detailed to search the houses for the arms and public property which had ben carried off the evening before. This search was stoutly resisted by the women, who skirmished after their fashion with the guard, with tongue and broomstick, holding them at bay while their husbands endeavored to conceal the spoils they had acquired.

A rough estimate of the night’s work showed that about sixteen thousand muskets had perished by the burning of the arsenals, and that one building (the carpenter shop) of the Potomac Armory had also been destroyed.



I must confess that I felt this morning like a man wandering in a maze. The future exhibited but a dim and changing vista. Was the experiment of popular government indeed a failure, as our conservatives had been predicting from the commencement? Was Macaulay right when he said that our system would crumble into anarchy upon the first serious trial? If the present Government of the United States, as many maintain, and as its own attitude of late seems to admit, has neither the right to punish privy conspiracy, nor the power to defend itself against factious aggression, then why should we regret its overthrow? Let the impotent imposture perish, and the American people will speedily establish a more respectable and manly system on its ruins.

While indulging in these speculations my attention was directed to the flag-staff which stood in the yard of the Old Arsenal. The national standard had been lowered, and in its place floated the State flag of Virginia. It would be difficult to describe the mingled emotions excited in my mind by this simple incident.


Once in my early youth I visited the crater of Vesuvius, and, venturing down the interior slope for some distance, I found myself upon a projecting cliff of lava. Here I stood for a time looking curiously down upon the sea of smoke that concealed every thing around and beneath, when a sudden breeze rolled the clouds away and for a moment my eyes beheld the hideous gulf that yawned below. A pit whose sulfurous horrors and immeasurable depth were revealed only by the glare of lurid flames and boiling lava whose appalling aspect paralyzed the senses like the grasp of a nightmare.


A sight which memory never recalls without the shudder that accompanied its first revelation. So it seemed that the sudden gust of emotion, excited by the lowering of our starry flag, had swept away the mists of speculation and revealed in its depth and breadth the abyss of degradation opened by secession.


Yesterday I was a citizen of the great American republic. My country spanned a continent. Her northern border neared the frigid zone while her southern limit touched the tropics. Her eastern and her western shores were washed by the two great oceans of the globe. Her commerce covering the most remote seas, her flag honored in every land. The strongest nations acknowledged her power, and the most enlightened honored her attainments in art, science, and literature. Her political system, the cherished ideal toward whose realization the noblest aspirations and efforts of mankind have been directed for ages. The great experiment which the pure and wise of all nations are watching with trembling solicitude and imperishable hope. It was something to belong to such a nationality. Something to be able, in following one’s business or pleasure, to travel to-and-fro without question or hindrance, to take red-fish in the Mexican Gulf or trout in the Great Lakes, to chase deer in the Alleghenies or adventure among grizzly bears in the Rocky Mountains, and every where to remember, as you inflated your lungs with the free air. This is my country. It was something, when questioned of ones
p. 14.
nationality in foreign lands, perhaps by the subject of a petty monarchy or obscure principality, the impoverished and degraded fraction of a once powerful empire, ruined by the madness of faction, local ignorance, and secession. It was something, in replying to such inquiry, to feel ones heart swelling with imperial pride such as moved the ancient Roman in the days when he could quell the insolence of barbaric kings with the simple announcement, “Civis Romanus sum.” This was yesterday.

To-day, what am I? A citizen of Virginia. Virginia, a petty commonwealth with scarcely a million of white inhabitants. What could she ever hope to be but a worthless fragment of the broken vase? A fallen and splintered column of the once glorious temple. But I will not dwell longer on the humiliating contrast. Come harness up the buggy and let us get out of this or I shall suffocate.
– p. 16.


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Strother, David H. “Personal Recollections of the Civil War.” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. New York, NY: Harper and Bros. Volume 33, Issue: 193, June, 1866. pp. 1-26. Print.

Strother, David H. (June, 1866). “Personal Recollections of the Civil War.” Harpers Magazine. 7 May 2008. Web. 20 Oct. 2010.

Strother, David H. (1961). “A Virginia Yankee in the Civil War. The Diaries of David Hunter Strother.” edited by Cecil D. Eby, Jr. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press.
Internet Archives: Digital Library of Free Books, Movies, Music, and Wayback Machine. 27 Oct. 2009. Web. 26 Sept. 2010.

Imboden, John D. “Jackson at Harper’s Ferry in 1861.”
“Battles and Leaders Vol. 1.” Internet Archives: Digital Library of Free Books, Movies, Music, and Wayback Machine. 27 Oct. 2009. Web. 26 Sept. 2010.

“Battles and Leaders. Vol. 2”. (1887). Robert Underwood Johnson, Clarence Clough Buel (Ed.). New York, NY: Century Co. Print.
pp. 111-118.

At about one or two o’clock in the afternoon of the 18th, being satisfied that an attack would be made, I destroyed the bridge over the canal which supplies the water-power, so as to make it as difficult as possible for an assaulting party, and Captain Kingsbury removed the powder from the magazine building, which was a quarter or half a mile away, into the armory, and later in the evening, about sundown, I think, made preparations to destroy the workshops of the armory proper. The rifle works were situated half a mile up the Shenandoah from the main works, where the troops were, and were left undestroyed; no attempt to destroy them being made for the reason that it would probably have led to the defeat of the plan which had been formed, as I was surrounded by spies and persons in the interest of the rebel cause, who watched every movement and everything that was done. I feared that by attempting too much I should fail in everything, and therefore confined myself to what I was certain could be accomplished. . . . I was directed to report to Lieutenant General Scott for verbal instructions. I was informed by him that my assignment to duty at the armory was only temporary; that a permanent superintendent would be appointed in a few days, and that it was his intention to order a regiment thither as soon as one could be spared for the purpose. I arrived at Harper’s Ferry in the evening of the day on which I received the order, and soon after had an interview with Lieutenant (now Major) Roger Jones, in command of the detachment stationed there. In that interview I suggested that, in case of an attack by a considerable force, it might become necessary to destroy the arms. He concurred with me in this opinion, and added that Major Hunt and himself had come to the same conclusion. The next morning I assumed control of the establishment. The operations were continued as usual in the shops until the arrival of the morning train from the east. On that train came the late superintendent, a delegate to the Richmond convention, with a few friends, and their advent seemed to be the signal for a disloyal demonstration on the part of a crowd in attendance at the depot. The cry “Virginia will take care of Harper’s Ferry” was loudly and defiantly uttered. The excitement soon extended to the shops and throughout the village. As the demonstration increased in volume it was deemed advisable to test the loyalty of the workmen, who had previously been organized into companies for the defence of the place. Work was suspended, the men were assembled, and all who were faithful to their allegiance and ready to protect the property of the United States were directed to assemble with their companies at one o’clock p. m., at the armory. This order was received with general applause, and the men dispersed, as was supposed, to make preparations for the meeting; but the hour arrived and brought with it no such force as had been expected. Many of the men were there and a few officers; but it was found impossible to collect a force that would have inspired any confidence against the approaching enemy. I was satisfied, from the experiment, that however loyal the men might be at heart, either from disaffected officers, or from an uncertainty as to the preponderating sentiment in the neighborhood, as a body they were not prepared to take a decided stand against the State of Virginia. Though the companies could not be formed, many individuals volunteered for such duty as they might be able to perform, and at a subsequent period in the day others offered their services, all of whom were posted about the buildings, or so as to watch the approaches on that side of the town from which the enemy was expected. About 3 o’clock p. m., a report was brought that three Virginia companies were marching from Charlestown to the Ferry. A mounted man was sent off to ascertain the facts, who reported, on his return that the companies had halted at Halltown, a few miles from the village, apparently waiting to be reinforced. Information had previously been received by telegraph from General Scott that a large force was on its way from Richmond, by the Manassas Gap railroad, with the supposed object of capturing the armory, and it had also been ascertained that the agents of the railroad to Winchester had been specially instructed to keep the track clear that night, which was an unusual order, as no night trains were habitually run upon that road.

Having learned in the morning that the powder belonging to the armory was in the magazine on the heights, I had directed that it be brought down to the armory, where it was deposited in a room adjoining that occupied by Major Jones’s detachment. The government powder was in packages of one hundred pounds each, and could not be conveyed to the storehouses containing the arms without revealing the fact and perhaps the object. Fortunately there were several smaller kegs which had been brought thither by John Brown, and which could be easily rolled up in the men’s bed sacks without exposure, and transferred to the buildings in which the arms were stored. This was accordingly done; the boxes containing the arms were so arranged as to be most favorable to ignition, the faggots were piled, and the powder distributed ready for the application of the fire. It should be remarked that, in the arrangement of the powder, care was taken to prevent, as far as practicable, any injury to private dwellings or their occupants by the explosion.

As the object of the force ordered from Richmond was plainly the seizure of the arms, their destruction was considered of the first importance, and a failure not to be hazarded by a diversion of the means to other parts of the establishment. As before stated, the government powder could not be distributed throughout the buildings without revealing its character and object, and as it was not deemed prudent to communicate the programme for the night to the operatives, it became necessary to rely upon the natural combustibility of the material for the destruction of the workshops and machinery.

Between 9 and 10 o’clock p. m. a gentleman arrived from the country and informed Major Jones that about two thousand men were within a few miles of the ferry for the purpose of capturing the armory. This confirmed the intelligence previously received; and, to baffle their efforts to secure possession of the arms, no time was to be lost. The match was accordingly applied to the train already laid in the arsenals, and to the combustible materials in the carpenters’ shop, and to the room containing the gun-stocks. The former were soon in a blaze; the last named was of difficult ignition, the flames at no time having obtained such a mastery as not to yield readily to the efforts of those who sought to extinguish them.

As I had been at the place but about twenty-four hours, I was not familiar with the arrangement or extent of the fire apparatus, which proved to be more effective and complete than had been supposed. For several minutes after the conflagration commenced, and after the departure of Jones’s detachment, the streets of the village appeared deserted. At length one man, more daring than his neighbors, made his appearance, rushed into one of the burning arsenals, and hauled therefrom into the street a box of arms, which he at once opened. On finding that it did not contain the rifle muskets, he rushed again towards the building for the probable purpose of trying his luck upon another, when the first discharge of John Brown’s powder caused him to recoil, and it is believed that no further attempts were made to enter the arsenal buildings before the contents were destroyed. In the meantime large crowds had gathered near the workshops, and were industriously engaged in subduing the flames, in which they succeeded before any very serious injury had been done to the machinery. . . . It is probable that not less than fifteen thousand stand of arms of various kinds were destroyed. The statement which, I understand, has been furnished from the Ordnance office must greatly underrate the number by assuming, perhaps, that issues had been made on orders which had not been executed. Of those packed and stored in the arsenals very few were recovered; possibly a thousand were scattered about in the shops, and fell into the hands of the rebels. The arms consisted of rifles, muskets, and rifle muskets, but in what relative proportions I am unable to state. . . . The detachment of regulars, under Major Jones, consisted of about fifty men, and constituted the only force on which much reliance could have been placed to resist an attack. Satisfactory evidence had been received that nearly two thousand men were advancing to assail the place; the odds would thus have been forty to one, and the statement of this fact would seem to convey a fitting reply to the question.
Col. Charles Kingsbury, U.S.A., testimony (Kingsbury was the captain of ordinance at Harpers Ferry in April, 1861).
Destruction of the Harpers Ferry Armory. Extracts from Senate Rep. Com. No. 37, 37th Cong., 2d Sess. April 18, 1862. 2 March 2000 Web. 1 January 2016.

Image Credits:

Waving American Flag 11 April 2003 Web. 1 January 2016.

Virginia State Flag in the 1860s 27 July 2001 Web. 1 January 2016.

Lawson Botts
S. Edward Grove, Souvenir… and Guide Book of Harper’s Ferry. Antietam and South Mountain… Battlefields (Martinsburg, WV: Thompson Brothers, 1898), 38.
Internet Archives: Digital Library of Free Books, Movies, Music, and Wayback Machine. 27 Oct. 2009. Web. 26 Sept. 2010.
p. 38. 6 October 2008 Web. 1 January 2016.

David Hunter Strother 3 August 2003, Web. 1 January 2016.

[Harper’s Ferry, W. Va. Ruins of arsenal] 16 June 1997 Web. 1 January 2016.

The Virginian 1775 The Virginian 1861 – Harper’s Weekly May 18, 1861, p. 316

Faces of the men who won America’s independence: Amazing early photos of heroes of the Revolutionary War in their old age 4 May 1998 Web. 1 January 2016.

“The Rendezvous of the Virginians at Halltown, Virginia, 5 P.M., on April 18, 1861, to March on Harper’s Ferry. Sketched by D. H. Strother

Drawings of David Hunter Strother, A&M 2894 17 October 2014 Web. 1 January 2016.

Boiling lava in the Marum crater, in September, 2009. 25 January 1999 Web. 1 January 2016.

Map of Harper’s Ferry
“Battles and Leaders Vol. 1.” Internet Archives: Digital Library of Free Books, Movies, Music, and Wayback Machine. 27 Oct. 2009. Web. 26 Sept. 2010.

“Battles and Leaders. Vol. 2”. (1887). Robert Underwood Johnson, Clarence Clough Buel (Ed.). New York, NY: Century Co. Print.
p. 115.

33-Star-Fort_Sumter_Flag 27 July 2001 Web. 1 January 2016.