Turning Point: 10 PM, April 18th, 1861 – Dennis Frye

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Turning Point: 10 PM, April 18th, 1861 – Dennis Frye

The following is a commentary by Historian Dennis Frye on the April 18, 1861 assault by Virginia militias on the arsenal/armory at Harper’s Ferry and its intentional destruction, on the orders of Lieut. Roger Jones of the U.S. Army. Following Frye’s comments, on video and in abbreviated text form here, is the report made by Lieut. Jones on the operations, the calculated losses, with replies from President Lincoln and his Cabinet.

:00 The burning of the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry April, 1861 is a transformative moment, not only in the history of Harper’s Ferry, but in the Shenandoah Valley, and the mid-Atlantic region, and 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:

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 and the President responds. This means Virginia had to dedicate troops. And they had to put troops to fight against their fellow Southerners . . .

1:03 . . . their brothers and sisters in fellow Southern states. This was too much. This was too much for Virginia. And, so on April the 17th, Virginia will decide to secede. Virginia 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’ arsenal and the armory at Harper’s Ferry. Virginia wanted those weapons.

1:36 There were thousands of weapons in storage at the arsenal. The estimate is up to 15,000 weapons were stored there in the two arsenal buildings. These are the two same arsenal buildings that John Brown attempted to seize in October, 1859. And the armory, the factory where the weapons were manufactured – all that valuable machinery, all those machines, all the machines that could produce the rifles and the barrels, and the locks, the stocks – all of it there. Virginia wanted wanted possession of that. They needed it now for their new country.

And so the Virginia militia, on the night of April the 18th, are en route, they’re coming from Charles Town principally, principally from Charles Town. They’re following the road from Charles Town, to Halltown, to Bolivar to Harper’s Ferry. But the U.S. commander, Lt. Roger Jones, knows they’re coming. He’s aware. He was there when 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.

2:43 And so, on the 18th, Jones had his men spread powder and powder kegs throughout the armory and arsenal buildings in preparation for a possible Virginia advance, while about 9:30, 10 o’clock on the evening of the 18th of April Jones is informed that the lead advance, the Virginia militia, have actually arrived at Bolivar Heights. They are now less than two miles away from downtown Harper’s Ferry.

3:08 And then he gives the orders to the men to strike those powder kegs, put the match to them, and blow up the armory/arsenal buildings. At about ten PM Harper’s Ferry citizens are asleep, suddenly are rocked out of their beds, just shocked by this massive explosion that occurs. In fact, it is reported that the explosion is so intense and the flames shoot up so high and so brightly that every tree on Loudoun and Maryland Heights just lit up . . .

Continued on the video. Total Running Time (TRT): 5:04

The Burning of the Arsenal/Armory at Harper’s Ferry in Official Reports to the United States Government (taken from the Official Record of the War of the Rebellion):

Reports of First Lieut. R. Jones, Mounted Rifles, U. S. Army.

Harpers Ferry, Va., April 18, 1861 9 p. m.
Up to the present time no assault or attempt to seize the Government property here has been made, but there is decided evidence that the subject is in contemplation, and has been all day, by a large number of people living in the direction of Charlestown; and at sundown this evening several companies of troops had assembled at Halltown, about three or four miles from here on the road to Charlestown, with the intention of seizing the Government property, and the last report is that the attack will be made to-night. I telegraphed this evening to General Scott that I had received information confirming his dispatch of this morning, and later to the Adjutant-General that I expected an attack to-night. I have taken steps which ought to insure my receiving early intelligence of the advance of any forces, and my determination is to destroy what I cannot defend, and if the forces sent against me are clearly overwhelming, my present intention is to retreat into Pennsylvania.
The steps I have taken to destroy the arsenal, which contains nearly 15,000 stand of arms, are so complete that I can conceive of nothing that will prevent their entire destruction.
If the Government purposes maintaining its authority here, no time should be lost in sending large bodies of troops to my assistance, and as many of them as possible should be regulars.
A courier has just reported the advance of the troops from Halltown. Respectfully, I am, sir, your obedient servant,
First Lieutenant, Mounted Riflemen, Commanding
Headquarters of the Army, Washington, D. C.

CHAMBERSBERG, PA. April 19, 1861.

Finding my position untenable, shortly after 10 o’clock last night I destroyed the arsenal, containing 15,000 stand of arms, and burned up the armory building proper, and under cover of the night withdrew my command almost in the presence of twenty five hundred or three thousand troops. This was accomplished with but four casualties. I believe the destruction must have been complete. I will await orders at Carlisle.

CARLISLE BARRACKS, PA., April 20, 1861.

SIR: Immediately after finishing my dispatch of the night of the 18th instant, I received positive and reliable information that 2,500 or 3,000 State troops would reach Harper’s Ferry in two hours, from Winchester, and that the troops from Halltown, increased to 300 men, were advancing, and were at that time (few minutes after 10 o’clock) within twenty minutes march of the Ferry. Under these circumstances I decided the time had arrived to carry out my determination, as expressed in the dispatch above referred to, and accordingly gave the order to apply the torch. In three minutes, or less, both of the arsenal buildings, containing nearly 15,000 arms, together with the carpenter’s shop, which was at the upper end of a long and connected series of workshops of the armory property were a complete blaze.
There is every reason for believing the destruction was complete. After firing the buildings I withdrew my command, marching all night, and arrived here at 2 p.m. yesterday, where I shall await orders. Four men were missing on leaving the armory, and two deserted during the night.
Respectfully, I am, sir, your obedient servant,
First Lieut. Mounted Riflemen, Comdg. Detachment Recruits.
Headquarters of the Army, Washington, D. C.

CARLISLE BARRACKS, PA., April 22, 1861.

SIR: Last evening three of my missing men arrived here, having left Harper’s Ferry the previous afternoon. They report that fifteen minutes
after my command left the armory nine hundred troops marched into town, and that they continued to arrive every hour during the night, so
that by morning there were probably nearly five thousand troops there. They also report that the fire in the workshops was arrested, but that the arsenal buildings containing the arms, together with their contents, were completely demolished, and that it is probable not a single gun was saved from them.
I remain, sir, with respect, your obedient servant,
First Lieutenant Mounted Riflemen.
Headquarters of the Army, Washington, D. C.

No. 2.

Congratulatory letter from United States Secretary of War.

Washington, April 22, 1861.
Lieut. ROGER JONES, Commanding at Harper’s Ferry:
MY DEAR SIR: I am directed by the President of the United States to communicate to you, and through you to the officers and men under your command at Harper’s Ferry Armory, the approbation of the Government of your and their judicious conduct there, and to tender to you and them the thanks of the Government for the same.
I am, sir, very respectfully,
Secretary of War.

No. 3.

Report of Lieut. Col. William Maynadier, U. S. Ordnance Department, of the expenditures upon and losses at the armory.

Washington, November 16, 1861.
SIR: In answer to the letter [following] of the Hon. John P. Hale, chairman of the committee of the Senate, which you referred to this office, I have the honor to report that the U. S. Armory at Harper’s Ferry was established in the year 1796.
The amount expended on the same is:
For land purchased at different times: $45,477
For improvements thereon for water-power, canals, embankments, walls, and
water privileges, and for hydraulic machinery and buildings of all
kinds: 1,787,430

Total, exclusive of the amount expended in the manufacture and repair of arms: 1,832,907

The latest annual inventory of the property belonging to the United States at that armory is dated June 30, 1860, in which the value of all the property on hand at that date is appraised as follows, viz:
1,669.5 acres of land: $37,457
Mill-dams, canals, water-powers, and hydraulic machinery: 233,279
Forges, rolling-mills, machine-shops, storehouses, dwellings, and other buildings: 341,221
(Total-ED): Amount of real estate: 611,957
Machines used in workshops: $270,235
Tools used in service: 109,560
(Total-ED): 379,795
Unwrought materials on hand: 100,043
Parts of arms in progress: 93,573
(Total-ED): 193,616
20,507 arms of different models in store: 285, 145
Total appraised value June 30, 1860 1,470,513

By the latest returns received at this office from the armory, it appears that the number of arms in store when the armory was destroyed in April, 1861, was reduced to 4,287, the value of which was about $64,000. We may assume that the quantity and value of all other property than the arms in store remained without material change from June, 1860, to April, 1861. The diminished number of arms in store at the latter date reduces that item in the inventory from $285,145 to $164,300, and the total appraised value of all the property from $1,470,513 to $1,207,668.
Respectfully, &c.,
Lieutenant-Colonel, Ordnance.
Hon. SIMON CAMERON, Secretary of War.

U. S. CAPITOL, November 14, 1861.

Hon. SIMON CAMERON, Secretary of War:
SIR: The committee of the Senate “to inquire into the circumstances attending the destruction of the property of the United States at the armory at Harper’s Ferry,” &c., desire to be informed by the War Department of the date of the establishment of the Harper’s Ferry Armory, the amount expended upon the same by the Government previous to its destruction, the character of the buildings, machinery, &c., and the quantity and description of arms destroyed there, and of the material on hand at that time.
Respectfully, yours,
JOHN P. HALE, Chairman


“The War of the Rebellion: a compilation of the official records of the Union and Confederate armies.” (1902). NOTE on authors: Robert N. Scott compiled and edited v. 1-18, 1880-87, and also collected the greater part of the material for v. 19-36, 1887-91. After his death in 1887 the work was continued by Henry M. Lazelle, 1887-89, and by a board of publication, 1889-99, consisting of George B. Davis, 1889-97, Leslie J. Perry, 1889-99, Joseph W. Kirkley, 1889-99, and Fred C. Ainsworth, 1898-99; from 1899-1901 edited by Fred C. Ainsworth and Joesph W. Kirkley. Gettysburg, Pa: Gettysburg National Historical Society.

“The War of the Rebellion: a compilation of the official records of the Union and Confederate armies.” Internet Archives: Digital Library of Free Books, Movies, Music, and Wayback Machine. 27 Oct. 2009. Web. 10 Sept. 2010.

Series 1 – Volume II – Chapter IX:
Operations in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia. Apr 16-Jul 31, 1861. PP. 3-6.