This is a combination of two more pro-Union eye-witness accounts of the attack on the Harper’s Ferry arsenal by Virginia militias and the sabotage of same by Federal soldiers.
David Hunter Strother, is described. Joseph Barry’s account follows Strother’s.
About David Hunter Strother:
David Hunter Strother, a native of the eastern Panhandle who sided and fought with the Union, wrote this very powerful and anxious account of the night he tried to dissuade men he had known from his youth to not destroy a federal armory for its arms. Read together with the recollection of John Imboden, a case could be made that this overtly hostile action before a May, 1861 referendum on secession smacks of a forcible take-over of the state of Virginia by “a cabal.”
Written in 1866 for Harper’s Monthly, a magazine through which Strother became “a household word” as a writer and illustrator, the article depicts rising flames and explosions of the armory at Harper’s Ferry in a cold, clear April night, as if it is second only to Fort Sumter as the very moment the juggernaut wheels of a terrible war first moved. It should be noted that three principals in this story would be dead of battle wounds within 18 months.
April 18, 1861. – This morning I took the cars at Sir John’s for the purpose of visiting Charlestown on personal business. A stranger from the West who sat beside me opened conversation on the all-absorbing subject: Would Virginia secede? I replied, somewhat dogmatically perhaps, “That she would not and could not.” I then went on to explain to him the grounds for my assertion the immense popular majority in the State opposed it, the decided majority in the Convention against secession under any circumstances. The high personal and political character of that body. The impossibility of their betraying their constituents. Their pledges, their interests, their common sense forbid the supposition. They would never dare to face the people of Virginia with the stain of so dark a treachery on their souls. By the time the train reached Harper’s Ferry I had quieted the apprehensions of my fellow-passenger, and had argued myself into a very contented frame of mind.
As we passed the Armory shops I observed they were closed. And the United States soldiers there on duty (fifty or sixty men) stood in groups about the grounds apparently awaiting orders. As the train stopped opposite the hotel I missed the mob of idlers that usually crowded the platform, but remarked a collection of half a dozen gentlemen standing near the steps which led to the telegraph office. While engaged in getting my baggage I heard my name called by one of the group, and on approaching recognized several acquaintances, whose presence there at that time struck me as ominous.
Among them were Captain H. Turner Ashby and a stranger whom I afterward ascertained was a
Mr. J.A. Seddon of Richmond. I felt assured, from the anxiety expressed in their faces and the restlessness of their manner, that some extraordinary occasion had assembled them here; but I was not allowed much time for speculation, for as Ashby advanced to shake hands with me he said, “We are here in the name of the State of Virginia to take possession of Harper’s Ferry. Three thousand Virginians are marching to support us, and I am expecting their arrival every moment. They should have been here ere this. An Ordinance of Secession has been passed by the Convention, and the Navy-yard at Norfolk is already in our hands.”
I was so stunned by these revelations that I had scarcely breath to utter the usual and appropriate ejaculation of astonishment – “The Devil!”
Ashby further stated that he had taken possession of the telegraph office, and then walking to and fro and looking at his watch at every turn, gave vent to reiterated expressions of impatience at the non-appearance of the expected forces.
As I rallied from the surprise into which I had been thrown by these sudden developments I began to wonder what the authorities at Washington were dreaming of, and why the Government troops were lying idle in their barracks. I saw but half a dozen men who seemed to be arranging their plans and awaiting reinforcements at their leisure. Why were they not immediately arrested or shot down?
I also began to feel annoyed at finding myself the recipient of these quasi-confidential communications from persons with whom I had formerly had agreeable social relations and some affinity in political sentiment, but whose present position was abhorrent to me. The frank and unreserved manner in which they detailed their plans seemed purposely designed to implicate me, at least by approval, and I was glad when a direct question afforded me the opportunity of undeceiving them.
R___ asked, “How many men can we bring from Martinsburg to sustain them?”
I answered, “None at all; we are all Union men in Martinsburg.” This reply appeared to startle them, and was followed by an interchange of significant glances among the party.
Ashby then said that he had always been a sincere Union man heretofore, but as the action of the General Government had already destroyed the Union he now felt bound to stand by his State.
R___ said that he too always have been a Union man, and was one now, but felt himself driven into the present movement as the only means of preserving the union. Although I could not perceive the adaptation of the means to the end, I wished him success.
The whistle of the Charlestown cars terminated a conversation which had become embarrassing, and I took leave of my acquaintances with the decidedly less of cordiality than had than had been exhibited at our meeting.
In passing around to the platform of the Winchester and Potomac Railroad, I became aware for the first time that the street in front of the Armory-yard was crowded with people, a number of whom were engaged in a rough-and-tumble fight, accompanied with the usual noise and hubbub appertaining to this Democratic amusement.
A by-stander informed me that the crowd was composed chiefly of Government employees, citizens of the town at large and from the surrounding country.
Lieutenant Jones, in command of the United States troops, had been endeavoring to enlist the Armory men in the defense of the place,
NOTE: Barbour of Jefferson County had been voted by the populace to be one of two delegates to the Virginia Secession convention backed because he opposed secession secession by Virginia from the United states. During the Convention he voted on April 4th to oppose, then made himself absent on the day of the key vote because he chose to hurry to Harpers Ferry and the arsenal because he had fore-knowledge of the plan to send Virginia militia to capture the arsenal, its equipment and its completed weapons. After that moment he returned to Richmond and recorded his belated vote “in support” of secession. Maneuvers done because he held a job with the Federal government.
(Strother) while Alfred Barbour, late superintendent and member of the Convention, was there with other secession demagogues, endeavoring to induce them to join the State troops, or at least to remain neutral during the expected attack. The artisans in the employ of the Government had for several years past been organized and equipped for military service, and could have reinforced the guard to the extent of three hundred men well drilled and skilled in the use of arms.
As the great majority of these men were not native Virginians, but citizens of the country at large, depending upon the general Government for their means of support, and the perpetuity of the Armory for the continued value of any local property they might have acquired, it is natural to suppose they would have eagerly volunteered to resist a movement which menaced them with total and immediate ruin. But Harper’s Ferry had been for a long time little other than a political stew, more occupied with the intrigues of district politicians than devoted to the objects for which it had been founded and maintained. The United States officer found that he could not rely on any considerable number of them for assistance. Division of opinion, drunkenness, confusion, and fisticuff fights were the only results obtained. The sight of this tumultuous crowd, however, explained to me why the small guard was kept quiescent in the Armory grounds. Without delaying longer to unravel this entanglement I took the train and proceeded to Charlestown. Here there was as much excitement as at Harper’s Ferry, but among a different class of people, and consequently less noisy and vulgar in its demonstrations.
The Jefferson Volunteer Battalion, organized and armed under pretexts founded on the John Brown affair, stood paraded in the street, in marching order. As almost every family in the county had one or more representatives in the ranks, there was a hurrying to and fro of mothers, sisters, sweet-hearts, wives, and children of the Volunteers, showing their agitation and excitement in the most varied and opposite forms. In a community so secluded, and so essentially Virginian, there could not be found many uninterested spectators on an occasion like this. Every body was neighbor and cousin to every body else, and political dissension had not yet reached the point where it sears hearts and poisons the fountains of social sympathy. Even the negroes (blacks) were jubilant in view of the parade and unusual excitement among their masters and mistresses. Yet I thought I could discern in the eyes of some of the older and wiser heads a gleam of anxious speculation – a silent and tremulous questioning of the future.
There were also some among the white citizens who stood aloof in silence and sadness, protesting against the proceeding by an occasional bitter sigh or significant sneer, but nothing more. I recognized in the ranks some that I had known as Union men, whose restless and troubled looks seemed to question me as I passed.
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, and known as a decided and uncompromising opponent of secession doctrines. Calling me aside, in a manner which evidenced great and painful excitement, he asked “what I thought of the present state of affairs?” I replied by asking what was the meaning of this martial army, and why I saw him armed and equipped as a participator? He said that Ashby and Seddon had arrived that morning from Richmond, and, in the name of the Governor of Virginia, had ordered the regiment to which he belonged to assemble and march immediately on Harper’s Ferry, to take possession of the United States armories and arsenals there, and hold them for the State. I then gave him an account of my conversation with Ashby and his colleagues, and what I had seen at Harper’s Ferry.
As these gentleman had unadvisedly, perhaps, communicated their plans to me, I might under ordinary circumstances have felt averse to saying or doing anything calculated to thwart them. I had determined not to meddle with public affairs, and did not care to exhibit any officious zeal in a matter respecting which the Government was doubtless better informed than myself. If anything I could say would prevent Captain Botts or any of my young friends and kinsmen whom I had seen under arms, from taking a 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 men 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 allowing an opportunity for the expression of popular opinion on the question.
I did not believe the statements made to me at Harpers Ferry in regard to the passage of an act of Secession by the Convention and the seizure of the Norfolk Navy-yard. There was no public information that either of these events had occurred and it was impossible that these gentlemen, who had come by the inland route from Richmond, could have knowledge of occurrences at Norfolk in advance of the telegraph. On the other hand, it was clearly evident that they were agents of the Revolutionary Committee, whose business it was to precipitate the events referred to by accomplishing the seizure of Harpers Ferry. Moreover, what does it signify if all the agencies of the State – Governor, Legislature, and Convention combined – should order you to draw your sword against your country? Can you feel yourself in any manner bound to obey such an order? Does it not rather prove to you that those whom the people have entrusted with the management of their State affairs have themselves turned traitors and dare conspiring against our common Government? So far from feeling it my duty to obey under such circumstances, I would, if I had control of these troops, march them to Harper’s Ferry and, without hesitation, arrest and imprison every man I found there engaged in this infernal business, and then offer my services to the United States Government for the defence of the place. I believed that such action would be not only right and justifiable in itself, but would be highly applauded by the people of Virginia. Unless this rebellious movement was immediately met with some such decisive counter action we would presently find both our State and country involved in revolutionary anarchy, with a future of irretrievable ruin.
Without hoping to obtain his acquiescence in my extreme views, 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. His social sympathies and soldierly pride were also enlisted in the struggle against his clearer and higher sense of duty to his country. Thanking me courteously for my frankness he left me for a time, and I saw him engaged in earnest and excited conversation with some of his brother-officers. Presently he returned and asked if I would repeat to the field-officers of the regiment what I had said to him. I consented without hesitation, and accompanied him to a private room,
where I met Colonel Allen and some others. I here repeated substantially what I had said to Captain Botts – with somewhat more of reserve in language, however, as I was not so well acquainted with the gentlemen present. I was heard with respect and evident emotion.
A printed proclamation, which had been circulated by the Richmond emissaries, was brought in and subjected to critical discussion. It was a call upon the volunteer military and the people generally to rise and protect their honor, their property, and their rights, by seizing the national arsenals at Harper’s Ferry. It recited the passage of the Secession Ordinances, and the seizure of the Norfolk Navy-yard, and was signed by Turner Ashby, claiming to act by order of the Governor of Virginia. On examination it was pronounced unsatisfactory, and Colonel Allen declared that unless he had some better authority his regiment should not move. He moreover, became excited at the suggestion that there was an attempt to practice deception by the State agents; and declared that if they had dared to deceive him he would hold them to personal account.
Acquaintances of Messrs. Ashby and Seddon insisted that they were honorable men, and that their personal statements had been more clear and conclusive than the printed circular.
I asserted broadly that I did not believe either what they said or what was published, and that in times like the present I would trust no man’s word or honor who was acting with the revolutionary junto, whatever might have been his previous character.
After some further discussion it was determined by the Colonel, that the regiment should move to Halltown, the appointed place of rendez-vous, but they should go no further unless he obtained more satisfactory authority from the State Government.
I was disappointed at this conclusion, for I felt assured that, once at the rendez-vous, influences would be brought to bear which would carry Colonel Allen forward in spite of himself; and as he was disposed to acknowledge the validity of an order from a State officer commanding him to make war on the United States, I did not doubt he would be speedily furnished with such authority.
Although apparently acquiescing in the Colonel’s decision, 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.
By this time, I had satisfactorily weighed the elements by which I was surrounded, and concluded not to meddle further with the business unless formally called upon for counsel. So I sat apart and amused myself sketching the animated and picturesque scene. In the course of the afternoon several of the expected companies arrived.
Captain Ashby and Mr. Seddon had come up from Harpers Ferry, while Dick Ashby, a brother of the Captain, had arrived from Fauquier with a small squad of cavalry. An earnest and excited discussion among the leaders was kept up for a long time, and while some countenances appeared vexed with doubt and indecision, others lowered with anger and dissatisfaction. I was not invited to join the council, but could easily divine the trouble. Ashby who had greeted me so frankly in the morning, now passed with averted face. As we supped together at a neighboring farm house 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. This seed, however, bore evil fruit at a future day.
While we were at table a courier arrived from the direction of Winchester, man and horse bespattered with mud and reeling with fatigue. On opening his dispatch Ashby’s cloudy brow cleared, and rising hastily from his chair he handed the paper to Colonel Allen. As he read it Allen also sprung to his feet, and turning to me said, cheerily,” Now I can act with a clear conscience. Here is a paper I can recognize, a peremptory order to seize Harper’s Ferry, with the official endorsement of the Adjutant-General of the State.”
The arrival of this paper seemed to have satisfied all scruples and dispelled all doubts. Spurs jingled, sabers rattled, horses neighed and the voices of officers were heard in every direction marshaling their troops.
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.
I asked if he was sure the order which had arrived was not a forgery. He was fully assured of its authenticity. I then went on to repeat the views and arguments I had exhibited in the morning, urging them with still greater vehemence of manner, and, if possible in stronger language.
Admitting that he chose to recognize a right which I did not – the right of the Convention to pass an act of secession – this act could have no validity, even under the assumption of legality upon which it was based, until accepted and confirmed by a formal vote of the people. That vote had not been taken. It could not lawfully be taken for thirty days after the passage of an ordinance of secession by the Convention. The people of Virginia would never confirm such an act by their vote. The proposed movement on Harper’s Ferry was therefore not only a treasonable attack upon the government of the country, but it was also a most atrocious outrage and fraud upon the people of Virginia. In electing the Convention the people had demanded the right to consider and pronounce upon its action. By this rash and unauthorized move the people were betrayed, their rights trampled upon, and by those whom they had trusted with their guardianship.
“Yet, I hold my commission from the State, and am bound to obey the orders of the Governor,” said the Captain. “What would you have me to do?”
I answered with heat: “Can any miserable local functionary have the right to order a free citizen to commit a crime against his country? Can you feel bound to obey an order which involves so flagrant a violation both of State and National law; of all faith and honor both to Government and people? Does your commission bind you to this extent? If so, you should tear it to shreds and throw it to the winds.”
My friend listened without essaying to the 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.
I had intended to go no further than Halltown, but the entrancement of curiosity and interest was irresistible, and I continued to follow the march of the troops at a short distance. 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 of the night. It was an awful opportunity for reflection.
The column was suddenly brought to a halt by the peremptory and startling challenge of a sentinel in the road. It was too dark to see what was going on, but I presently heard the order given to load with ball-cartridge, followed by the ringing of ramrods and clicking of musket-locks. The leading company then fixed bayonets, and forming across the turnpike, swept forward at a double quick. The challenges had retired and the column resumed its march. At the toll-gate near Allstadt’s they were again challenged and halted, with the same result.
Here I overtook an acquaintance who was following the column in a buggy, and feeling fatigued from my walk accepted the vacant seat beside him. He professed himself greatly distressed at the proceedings and said he had done all in his power to stop them, but without avail. I told him I had “said my say,” and did not intend to meddle further with the business, yet, from present appearances, it was possible there would be a fight. I suggested that during the tremor which immediately precedes decisive action men are sometimes more willing to accept reasonable counsel, and conjured him to use his influence (which I knew was great) to stop the movement,
He said it was useless to attempt further interference, as every thing had been ordered and determined by high authority. He was doubtless better informed than I, at that time, of the power and deep design which directed the movement.
The troops were now marching up the southern slope of the hill, since called Bolivar Heights, the crest of which was covered with pinewoods and dense thickets of undergrowth, and furnished a favorable position from which to resist their advance. From certain unmistakable symptoms I concluded that very little force would have been required to drive back the raw soldiers and morally irresolute men who composed the advancing column. I expected momentarily to hear the opening volley from the summit, and advised my companion to drive his wagon aside from the line of fire. To my surprise the march was unmolested, and they moved on to the cemetery at the forks of the roads above the village of Bolivar. Here another challenge halted them for the third time.
Meanwhile emissaries from the town had brought information that the Armory employees and citizen volunteers had joined the United States troops, and would assist in defending the place. Taking advantage of this unreliable report I again urged my companion to attempt some interference which might avert the impending calamity. The defenders would now have the advantage in numbers as well as in the superior skill and hardihood of the men. An attempt to seize the national property must surely result in bloodshed and disaster, filling our whole district with mourning, and entailing upon those engaged the double dishonor of unsuccessful treason. While we were talking a group of the leaders came riding to the rear, engaged in high discussion. I heard Colonel Allen say in a peremptory tone, that his men should not move another step.
It appeared that instead of three thousand men expected by Ashby only three hundred and forty had been assembled, including the cavalry and some artilleries with an old iron six-pounder from Charlestown. At Halltown the paucity of numbers was overlooked in the eagerness to seize the virgin honors of the enterprise. Now when within musket-shot, more prudent counsels were entertained. A little less glory and a few more men would answer the purpose quite as well. It was not a fight they were seeking, but the possession of Harper’s Ferry, with its supplies of arms and valuable machinery. If this purpose could be better accomplished without bloodshed, why not wait for reinforcements now on their way? Colonel Harman, of Augusta, who had arrived since dark, reported them to be hastening forward from all points up the Valley. Mr. Seddon said, as he was not a man of war, he could not advise in the premises. But as Allen’s command comprised nearly the whole force present his decision was generally acquiesced in.
Ashby alone seemed impatient with the order to wait.
While the officers were thus 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 the Loudoun and Maryland Heights were distinctly visible and the now over-clouded sky was ruddy with the sinister glare. This occurred I think between nine and ten o’clock. Some thought they heard artillery. But the more skillful presently guessed the truth and concluded that the officer in command had set fire to the arsenals and abandoned the town.
Ashby immediately dashed down the hill at the head of his cavalry to reconnoitre and ascertain the facts. The idea that there was to be no fight seemed to afford very general relief. My sympathy with this feeling was mingled with a deep sense of humiliation, in knowing that my Government had yielded so rich a prize to the revolution upon so feeble a demonstration.
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 on Shenandoah Street and several of the shops in the Armory inclosure 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 workshops and soldiers’ barracks. There were women with their arms full of muskets, little girls loaded with sheaves of bayonets, boys dragging cartridge boxes ad cross belts enough to equip a platoon, men with barrels of pork or flour, kegs or molasses and boxes of hard bread on their shoulders or trundling in their wheel barrows.
Taking advantage of the first opportunity that had offered during their lives perhaps these people seem to have entered upon the work of sacking and plundering as promptly and skillfully as veteran soldiers could have done, where from I conclude this propensity is inherent in the human character, and only awaits opportunity for development.
The ground around the burning buildings was glittering with splinters of glass which had been blown out by the explosion of gunpowder used to ignite the fires. The streets in the vicinity were silent and vacant, the train of plunderers from the shops avoiding the route. I took my seat upon a barrel and commenced sketching the scene by fire-light, when a man called to me from a distance, advising me to leave, as the whole place was mined and would presently be blown up. I thanked him, but concluded to take my chances. As I thought all the powder had already burned.
This impression accounted for the loneliness of the neighborhood when I arrived. As I kept my position in apparent security the dread of a general explosion gradually disappeared and the reassured inhabitants began to swarm around the fires. Some of the workmen got out the engines and succeeded in extinguishing the flames at the stock factory.
The people were for the most part tongue-tied with terror. Overwhelmed with ruin, they either did not know who was responsible, or were afraid to speak their thoughts. 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.
When at length it seemed definitely to be ascertained that there were no mines to be exploded a noisier and more demonstrative company of actors appeared on the stage. These were the chronic loafers who used to crowd the bar-rooms discussing local politics and strong drinks, who were regular attendants on the platform on the arrival of the passenger trains, and prominent men about elections. These fellows were armed to the teeth, and ran hither and thither in high excitement, threatening blood and thunder against whomsoever it might concern. Reeking with dirt and whisky this worthy paraded the streets armed like a war mandarin of the Celestial Empire, carrying a rifle with sabre bayonet on either shoulder, and girt about with a belt containing several additional bayonets of the old pattern.
For some time, I was in doubt as to which side of the question these fellows had espoused, but at length the tendency of their sympathies was developed by a furious discussion as to whether they should pursue Lieutenant Jones, who was said to be retreating with his men toward Hagerstown, or whether they should go down to Washington forthwith and “jerk old Abe Lincoln out of the White House.” The majority in council having determined on sacrificing the Lieutenant, they started for the Potomac bridge with frightful yells and many formidable gesticulations.
A by-stander happening to suggest that the bridge might possibly be mined, they considered the question and concluded that Jones was not a bad fellow after all, and had only obeyed the orders of his rascally Government. Whereupon they retired, in search of more ammunition perhaps.
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, I sought a bed at the house of an acquaintance.
As I ascended the hill I met Colonel Allen’s regiment coming down. From over-exertion and excitement 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 –
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 the public property which had been 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. On the other hand, several thousand new rifles and muskets complete, with all the costly material and machinery of the National Armory, had passed into the power of the revolution without a blow.
Such were the visible and material results, but the social and political consequences who could estimate?
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 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 it’s overthrow? Let the important imposture perish, and he 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 sulphurous 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 it’s 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 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 nation acknowledged her power. 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 . . .
Today, what am I? A citizen of Virginia. Virginia, a petty commonwealth with scarcely a million white inhabitants. What could she ever hope to be but a worthless fragment of the broken vase? A fallen splintered column of the once glorious temple.
Harper’s Ferry Resident Joseph Barry’s Account of Harper’s Ferry April 18-19, 1861
While in Richmond, however, attending the convention, Mr. Barbour is said to have been drawn into the vortex of rebellion through the powerful influences brought to bear by the secessionists on the members of that body. Mr. Barbour’s family is one of the oldest and most aristocratic in Virginia, and many of his relatives had seats in the convention and were ultra-southern in their views. These, no doubt, had great influence over him, and, anyway he was finally induced to vote for a separation of his native state from the union.
Indeed, many at Harper’s Ferry who voted for him at the election, did so with strong misgivings respecting his sincerity, but, as there was no better choice under the circumstances, they gave him their support. Some who enjoyed his confidence said that he afterward bitterly regretted his course, and the writer is convinced that Mr. Barbour acted from sheer compulsion. The author of these pages was then a young man — poor and without weight in the community, but Mr. Barbour appeared to have some confidence in his judgment, for he sought an interview with him and asked him his advice as to the proper course to pursue in the convention. The author told him that he had a fine chance to immortalize himself by holding out for the Union of the States; that he was of a prominent southern family and that, if he proved faithful, his loyalty under the circumstances would give him such a national reputation as he could not hope for from the opposite course. They parted to meet but once again, and that for only a minute. After the fatal vote of the convention, Mr. Barbour called on business at the place where the author was employed and said just three words to him — “You were right.”
These words told the tale of compulsion or, perhaps, of contrition. The ordinance of secession was passed by the Virginia convention on the 17th of April, 1861. and, on the following day Mr. Barbour made his appearance at Harper’s Ferry in company with Mr. Seddon, afterward prominent in the confederate government.
He made a speech to his old employees advising them to co-operate with their native state and give in their allegiance to the new order of things. He appeared to be laboring under great excitement caused, perhaps, by his consciousness of having done wrong and unwisely. This speech excited the anger of the unionists to a high pitch, as he had received their suffrages on the understanding that he was for the old government unconditionally.
A partial riot took place and the appearance soon after of a southern soldier, a young man named John Burk, on guard over the telegraph office, aroused the loyalists to frenzy. Lieutenant Roger Jones, with forty-two regular United States soldiers, was then stationed at Harper’s Ferry, a company of military having been kept there by the government for the protection of the place since the Brown raid. Hearing that a large force was marching from the south to take possession of the armory, he made some preparations to defend the post and called on the citizens for volunteers.
Many responded, prominent among whom was a gigantic Irishman named Jeremiah Donovan, who immediately shouldered a musket and stood guard at the armory gate. This man was the first — at least in that region — who took up arms in defense of the government and, as will be seen shortly, he was very near paying a heavy penalty for his patriotism. As before mentioned, a southern soldier was on guard at the telegraph office and he and Donovan were not fifty yards apart at their posts. To use a homely phrase, Harper’s Ferry was “between hawk and buzzard,” a condition in which it remained ’till the war was ended four years afterward. All day the wildest excitement prevailed in the town. All business was suspended except in the barrooms, and many fist fights came off between the adherents of the adverse factions. Mr. William F. Wilson, an Englishman by birth, but long a resident of the place, attempted to address the people in favor of the Union, but he was hustled about so that his words could not be heard distinctly. Mr. Wilson continued all through the war to be an ardent supporter of the Federal government.
Mr. George Koonce. a man of great activity and personal courage, and Mr. Wilson, above mentioned, who is also a man of great nerve, were very prompt in volunteering their aid to Lieutenant Jones, and the latter put great confidence in them.
With a few young men they advanced a little before midnight to meet the Virginia militia, about two thousand in number, who were marching towards Harper’s Ferry from Charlestown. They encountered and, it is said, actually halted them on Smallwood’s Ridge, near Bolivar. At this moment, however, news reached them that Lieutenant Jones, acting on orders from Washington City or under directions from Captain Kingsbury, who had been sent from the capital the day before to take charge of the armory, had set fire to the government buildings and, with his men, retreated towards the north.
This left the volunteers in a very awkward position, but they succeeded in escaping in the darkness from the host of enemies that confronted them. Mr. Koonce was obliged to leave the place immediately and remain away until the town again fell into the hands of the United States troops. A loud explosion and a thick column of fire and smoke arising in the direction of Harper’s Ferry, gave to the confederate force information of the burning, and they proceeded at double quick to save the machinery in the shops and the arms in the arsenal for the use of the revolutionary government. Before they had time to reach Harper’s Ferry the citizens of that place had extinguished the fire in the shops and saved them and the machinery. The arsenal, however, was totally consumed with about fifteen thousand stand of arms there stored — a very serious loss to the confederates, who had made calculations to get possession of them. Lieutenant Jones had put powder in the latter building and hence the explosion which had given notice to the confederates and, hence, also, the impossibility of saving the arsenal or its contents.
Just at 12 o’clock on the night of April 18th, 1861, the southern forces marched into Harper’s Ferry. Poor Donovan was seized and it is said that a rope was put ’round his neck by some citizens of the place who held secession views, and who threatened to hang him instanter. A better feeling, however, prevailed and Donovan was permitted to move north and seek employment under the government of his choice. The forces that first took possession of Harper’s Ferry were all of Virginia and this was lucky for Donovan, for the soldiers of that state were the most tolerant of the confederates, which is not giving them extravagant praise. Had he fallen into the hands of the men from the Gulf states who came on in a few days, he would not have escaped so easily. These latter were near lynching Dr. Joseph E. Cleggett and Mr. Solomon V. Yantis, citizens of the town, for their union opinions. The Virginia militia were commanded by Turner Ashby, afterward so famous for his exploits in the Valley of Virginia.
His career was short but glorious from a mere soldier’s view. He was killed near Port Republic June 6th, 1862, by a shot fired, it is said, by one of the Bucktail — Pennsylvania — regiment, and he and his equally gallant brother, Richard, who was killed in the summer of 1861 at Kelly’s Island, near Cumberland, Maryland, now sleep in one grave at Winchester, Virginia.
It may be noted that Donovan met with no valuable recognition of his gallantry. He worked all the rest of his days as a helper in a blacksmith’s shop at laborer’s wages, while many a smooth traitor who secretly favored the rebellion and many a weak-kneed patriot who was too cowardly to oppose it while there was any danger in doing so, prospered and grew fat on government patronage. There are many instances of this prudent patriotism not far from Harper’s Ferry and certain it is that few of the noisy politicians, so loyal now, exhibited the courage and disinterested attachment to our government that was shown by this obscure laborer.
Harper’s Ferry now ceased for a time to be in the possession of the national government. Next day — April 19th — news arrived of the disgraceful riot in Baltimore, when the 6th Massachusetts regiment was attacked while marching to the defense of the national capital. Exaggerated reports of the slaughter of “Yankee” soldiers were circulated and Maryland was truly represented as ready for revolt. Numbers of volunteers arrived from various parts of that state, especially from Baltimore, and many of those who participated in the riot came to Harper’s Ferry and for a season were lionized. In a few days the troops of Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky and other southern states arrived and were greeted with the utmost enthusiasm. The forces of Kentucky, like those of Maryland, were volunteers in the strictest sense. Neither of these last two states ever formally seceded and therefore their sons were not in any way compelled to join the confederate army. The Kentuckians who came to Harper’s Ferry were among the worst specimens of the force to which they were attached, being composed mostly of rough, Ohio boatsmen and low bummers from the purlieus of Louisville and and other river towns. Martial law was at once substituted for the civil and for the first time — if we except the Brown raid — the peaceful citizens experienced the dangers and inconveniences of military occupation. General Harper, a militia officer of Staunton, Virginia, was put in command, but in a few days the confederates wisely dispensed with “feather bed” and “corn stalk” officers and put into important commands West Pointers and men of regular military education. In consequence of an order to this effect many a “swell” who had strutted about for a few days in gorgeous uniform was shorn of his finery and it was amusing to see the crest-fallen, disappointed appearance of the deposed warriors. General Harper, like many of inferior grade, was removed and Colonel Jackson was put in command of the place. The latter officer was at this time quite obscure. He was known to few outside of the walls of the Virginia military academy at Lexington, but he afterwards gained a world-wide reputation under the name of “Stonewall Jackson.”
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“Fire, Looters at Harpers Ferry.” Drawing. 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. 7-16. Print.
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