VIDEO: Dennis Frye – Virginia militias attack Harper’s Ferry arsenal – April, 1861 – TRT: 4:45
Well, the burning of the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry in April, 1861 is a transformative moment, not only in the history of Harper’s Ferry, but in the Shenandoah Valley and in the mid-Atlantic region. It really did change the nature of Harper’s Ferry and Jefferson County, setting the stage for what would become a bloody, bloody four years. This is what happens in Virginia, following Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers to squash the rebellion. This comes on April the 15th – Fort Sumter, of course, occurred on April the 12th – so the president responds. This means that Virginia had to dedicate troops to the fight and they had to put troops in the fight against their fellow southerners, their brothers and sisters in southern states. This was too much. This was too much for Virginia. So, on April the 17th, Virginia will decide to secede. The convention will vote 88 for, 55 against, but the majority will carry. As that’s happening Virginia militia will be called forth and sent to Harper’s Ferry for the express purpose of capturing, not destroying but capturing, the United States armory and arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. Virginia wanted those weapons. There were thousands of weapons and storage at the arsenal. The estimate is up to 15,000 weapons are stored there in the two arsenal buildings. These were the same arsenal buildings that John Brown had attempted to seize in October of 1859. The armory – the factory where the weapons were manufactured – all that valuable machinery, all those those machines that could produce the rifles and the barrels and the locks, the stocks – all of it there, Virginia wanted possession of that. They needed it now for their new country. So, Virginia militia, on the night of April the 18th, are in route to Harper’s Ferry. They’re coming from Charlestown principally from Charlestown. They’re following the road from Charlestown to Halltown to Bolivar to Harper’s Ferry. But the U.S. commander at Harper’s Ferry Lieutenant Roger Jones knows they’re coming. He’s aware. He was there when the former superintendent of the armory, Alfred M. Barbour, announced to the citizens of Harper’s Ferry that Virginia would seize the armory. He and his men heard this. So, on the 18th, Jones had his men spread powder and powder kegs throughout the armory arsenal buildings in preparation for a possible Virginia advance. Well, about 9:30-10 o’clock on the evening of of the 18th of April, Jones is informed that the lead advance – the Virginia militia – have actually arrived on Bolivar Heights. They’re now less than two miles away from downtown Harper’s Ferry. Then, he gives the orders to his men to strike those powder kegs, put the match to them and blow up the arsenal and armory buildings. At about 10 p.m., Harper’s Ferry citizens, asleep, suddenly are rocked out of their beds just shocked by this massive explosion that occurs. In fact, it’s reported that the explosion is so intense and the flames shoot up so high and so brightly that every tree and rock on Maryland and Loudoun Heights just lit up, like the sun was shining on it. With that, the arsenals were in full flame, totally engulfed and would be destroyed in moments. The armory buildings, however, a different story: the local town citizens – once they overcame their initial shock – realized that their jobs were going up in smoke. Now, it wasn’t a case of being in favor of the United States or in favor of the confederate states. This was all about self-preservation. It all became: “I must preserve my job. My job cannot burn and so citizens – the armorers – rushed into the armory, pulled out the fire engines from the the fire engine house that John Brown had made so famous and began to pump water into the flaming armory buildings – so much so, that most of those buildings would be saved, protected from the total destruction of the flames and the Harper’s Ferry machinery there would be used ultimately to help produce weapons for the confederacy. That was the opening night of war at Harper’s Ferry, the opening night of war in Virginia, and the opening night of four more years of war to come.