Harpers Ferry National Historical Park

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park


The history of Harpers Ferry has few parallels in the American drama. It is more than one event, one date, or one individual. It is multi-layered - involving a diverse number of people and events that influenced the course of our nation's history. Harpers Ferry witnessed the first successful application of interchangeable manufacture, the arrival of the first successful American railroad, John Brown's attack on slavery, the largest surrender of Federal troops during the Civil War, and the education of former slaves in one of the earliest integrated schools in the United States.

Frederick Douglass at Harpers Ferry

On May 30, 1881, Frederick Douglass delivered a memorable oration on the subject of John Brown at the Fourteenth Anniversary of Storer College. Especially notable was the presence among the platform guests of Andrew Hunter, the District Attorney of Charles Town who had prosecuted Brown and secured his conviction. In his oration, Douglass extolled Brown as a martyr to the cause of liberty, and concluded with the following passages:

"But the question is, Did John Brown fail? He certainly did fail to get out of Harpers Ferry before being beaten down by United States soldiers; he did fail to save his own life, and to lead a liberating army into the mountains of Virginia. But he did not go to Harpers Ferry to save his life.

"The true question is, Did John Brown draw his sword against slavery and thereby lose his life in vain? And to this I answer ten thousand times, No! No man fails, or can fail, who so grandly gives himself and all he has to a righteous cause. No man, who in his hour of extremest need, when on his way to meet an ignominious death, could so forget himself as to stop and kiss a little child, one of the hated race for whom he was about to die, could by any possibility fail.

"Did John Brown fail? Ask Henry A. Wise in whose house less than two years after, a school for the emancipated slaves was taught.

"Did John Brown fail? Ask James M. Mason, the author of the inhuman fugitive slave bill, who was cooped up in Fort Warren, as a traitor less than two years from the time that he stood over the prostrate body of John Brown.

"Did John Brown fail? Ask Clement C. Vallandingham, one other of the inquisitorial party; for he too went down in the tremendous whirlpool created by the powerful hand of this bold invader. If John Brown did not end the war that ended slavery, he did at least begin the war that ended slavery. If we look over the dates, places and men for which this honor is claimed, we shall find that not Carolina, but Virginia, not Fort Sumter, but Harpers Ferry, and the arsenal, not Col. Anderson, but John Brown, began the war that ended American slavery and made this a free Republic. Until this blow was struck, the prospect for freedom was dim, shadowy and uncertain. The irrepressible conflict was one of words, votes and compromises.

"When John Brown stretched forth his arm the sky was cleared. The time for compromises was gone - the armed hosts of freedom stood face to face over the chasm of a broken Union - and the clash of arms was at hand. The South staked all upon getting possession of the Federal Government, and failing to do that, drew the sword of rebellion and thus made her own, and not Brown's, the lost cause of the century."

The address was subsequently published, with proceeds of its sale earmarked for the endowment of a John Brown Professorship at Storer College.

Robert Harper

Robert Harper was born in Oxford Township near Philadelphia, Pa., in 1718. A builder and millwright, Harper was engaged by a group of Quakers in 1747 to erect a meeting house in the Shenandoah Valley near the present site of Winchester, Va.

Traveling through Maryland on his way to the Shenandoah Valley, Harper proceeded to "The Hole" where the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers meet. Attracted by the ample waterpower and strategic location for travel and transport, Harper obtained a patent for 125 acres in 1751. Twelve years later, in 1763, the Virginia General Assembly established the town of "Shenandoah Falls at Mr. Harper's Ferry."

In 1775, Harper commenced construction of a new home in the Lower Town. The structure was completed in 1782, but Harper, who died that same year, never occupied the house. Today the Harper House is the oldest surviving structure in the Lower Town.

John H Hall

In 1819, John H. Hall, a New England gunmaker, signed a contract with the War Department to produce 1,000 breechloading rifles - a weapon he had designed and patented in 1811. Under the terms of the contract Hall came to Harpers Ferry, where he occupied an old Armory sawmill along the Shenandoah River. The site soon became known as Hall's Rifle Works, and the small island on which it stood was called Lower Hall Island. Hall spent several years tooling new workshops and perfecting precision machinery for producing rifles with interchangeable parts - a boldly ambitious goal for an industry which was traditionally based on the manual labor of skilled craftsmen.

In a letter to Secretary of War John Calhoun on December 20, 1822, Hall described his recent accomplishments at Harpers Ferry:

I have succeeded in an object which has hitherto completely baffled (notwithstanding the impressions to the contrary which have long prevailed) all the endeavors of those who have heretofore attempted it - I have succeeded in establishing methods for fabricating arms exactly alike, & with economy, by the hands of common workmen, & in such manner as to ensure a perfect observance of any established model, & to furnish in the arms themselves a complete test of their conformity to it.

During his two decades at Harpers Ferry, Hall developed and constructed drop-hammers, stock-making machines, balanced pulleys, drilling machines, and special machines for straight-cutting, lever-cutting, and curve-cutting. Hall's straight-cutting machine was the forerunner of today's versatile milling machine, and a critical tool used in the fabrication of precision metal firearm components.

Hall's success at Harpers Ferry was attested to by Colonel George Talcott of the Ordnance Department, who wrote in 1832 that Hall's "manufactory has been carried to a greater degree of perfection, as regards the quality of work and uniformity of parts than is to be found anywhere - almost everything is performed by machinery, leaving very little dependent on manual labor."

From 1820-1840, John H. Hall devoted his uncompromising attention to the "uniformity principle" of interchangeable manufacture, laying a solid foundation for America's developing factory system right here at Harpers Ferry.


  • Benes, James J., "An industry evolves: lathes to computers." American Machinist, August 1996.
  • Hounshell, David A., From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1984.
  • Huntington, R.T., Hall's Breechloaders. York, Pa.: George Shumway Publisher, 1972.
  • Smith, Merritt Roe, Harpers Ferry Armory and the New Technology. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977.

John Brown Raid

John Brown believed he could free the slaves, and he selected Harpers Ferry as his starting point. Determined to seize the 100,000 weapons at the Arsenal and to use the Blue Ridge Mountains for guerrilla warfare, abolitionist Brown launched his raid on Sunday evening, October 16, 1859. His 21-man "army of liberation" seized the Armory and several other strategic points. Thirty-six hours after the raid begun, with most of his men killed or wounded, Brown was captured in the Armory fire enginehouse (now known as "John Brown's Fort") when U.S. Marines stormed the building.

Brought to trial at nearby Charles Town, Brown was found guilty of treason, of conspiring with slaves to rebel, and murder. He was hanged on December 2, 1859. John Brown's short-lived raid failed, but his trial and execution focused the nation's attention on the moral issue of slavery and headed the country toward civil war.

Today John Brown's Fort and the Arsenal ruins are part of the legacy of our nation's struggle with slavery.

The Point

When the Wager family,heirs to Robert Harper, sold land to the government for the Armory in 1796, one of the two parcels of land they retained was the "Ferry Lot Reservation" (the other tract was the "Six-Acre Reservation" which comprised the heart of the Lower Town). The ¾-acre "Ferry Lot Reservation" sat at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, and became a bustling commercial area as the town of Harpers Ferry grew.

A major contributor to the prosperity of the "Ferry Lot Reservation" was the completion in 1836 of the B&O Railroad viaduct across the Potomac River. By 1859, structures at The Point included The Gault House Saloon, the Wager House Hotel, the Potomac Restaurant, and several other small shops and businesses. The B&O Railroad and Winchester & Potomac Railroad also maintained passenger depots here.

But the prosperity of the "Ferry Lot" ended with the Civil War. On June 14, 1861, Confederate troops blew up the B&:O Railroad bridge. Eight months later, on February 7, 1862, Union troops burned all the buildings on The Point to prevent Confederate sharpshooters from using them for cover.

During the course of the Civil War, the railroad bridge was destroyed and replaced nine times. After 1862, the B&O Railroad began erecting new iron spans designed by Wendell Bollman. By 1870, this "Bollman Bridge" was completed. Bollman's iron spans carried the B&O mainline until 1894, and continued to serve as a highway bridge into the present century. Floodwaters in 1924 swept away three iron spans, but these were promptly replaced. Twelve years later the record Flood of 1936 destroyed this bridge for good.

James H Burton

James H. Burton was born in Shenandoah Spring, Virginia, on August 17, 1823. Educated at the Westchester Academy in Pennsylvania, Burton entered a Baltimore machine shop at age 16. In April 1844, he went to work at the Harpers Ferry Armory, serving as a machinist. He subsequently served as Foreman of the Rifle Factory Machine Shop, where he gained a considerable amount of knowledge and respect for the work of John H. Hall. Hall pioneered mechanized arms production and interchangeable manufacture at Harpers Ferry between 1820-1840. According to Burton, Hall's Rifle Works housed "not an occasional machine, but a plant of milling machinery by which the system and economy of the manufacture was materially altered." During the next three decades, Burton followed Hall's example by furthering the mechanization of arms production. [Learn more about John H. Hall].

The Minié Bullet
In 1849, Burton was promoted to Acting Master Armorer. During the next four years, Burton experimented with improved designs for the Minié bullet at Harpers Ferry. The Minié bullet, introduced in 1848 by Captain Claude Etienne Minié of the French Army, was a conical slug of lead slightly more than half an inch in diameter and about an inch long, with a hollow base which expanded when the rifle was fired. This prevented leakage of the powder gases, and served to expand the base of the bullet outward into the riflings of the gun barrel. Its effective range was from 200 to 250 yards - a significant improvement over previous bullets.

Burton carefully documented his work in a set a detailed drawings. These drawings show that he was experimenting with several different Minié bullet designs. According to Colonel Benjamin Huger of the Ordnance Department, Burton was studying the "tige" and Minié principles (the "tige" bullet had a steel stem designed to expand the bullet into the weapon's rifling). Burton designed a barrel which used a hard metal plug to expand the bullet into the rifling, and developed a hollow-base bullet design that worked even better. In 1855, Burton's modified design for the Minié bullet was adopted by the U.S. Army.

Burton's drawings were uncovered in a basement crawl space during a home restoration project in Winchester, Virginia, in 1986. The Burton Drawings at Harpers Ferry, as the collection is now known, tell us a great deal about the evolution of firearm technology during the decade leading up to the Civil War. [View the Burton Drawings]

James Burton at the Enfield Armory
In 1854, Burton left Harpers Ferry to take a job with the Ames Company of Chicopee, Massachusetts, which supplied both federal armories with precision machinery for the manufacture of firearms. Just one year later, in June 1855, Burton accepted a five-year contract as Chief Engineer of the Royal Small Arms Manufactory in Enfield, England. Here, Burton was responsible for setting up new production machinery purchased in the United States, much of it from Ames.

Burton returned briefly to Harpers Ferry in June 1859 to marry Eugenia Harper Mauzy. The wedding took place in the Harpers Ferry Presbyterian Church on Shenandoah Street in the Lower Town. Just four months later, after their return to England, James and Eugenia Burton learned the startling news of John Brown's Raid in a series of emotional letters from Eugenia's parents, George and Mary Mauzy. [Read excerpts from the Mauzy Letters].

James Burton at the Richmond Armory
The sectional divisiveness brought about by John Brown's Raid soon affected the life of James H. Burton. On January 21, 1860, the Virginia assembly passed a bill "For the better defence [sic] of the State." The old Virginia Manufactory of Arms - renamed the Richmond Armory in 1861 - was reactivated after being shut down for 38 years. When J.R. Anderson & Company was awarded a large contract to supply machinery for the reactivated manufactory, the firm engaged Burton to engineer the Richmond Armory contract in November 1860. On December 4, Burton returned to Harpers Ferry to obtain model rifle-musket patterns and components for his new employer, returning to Richmond with a large portfolio of drawings.

In June 1861, Burton was appointed superintendent of the Richmond Armory, where his complete familiarity with the machinery for manufacturing United States firearms proved indispensable to the Confederacy. In fact, much of the machinery at Richmond had been confiscated from the Harpers Ferry Armory by Confederate forces in June 1861 under Burton's own direction.

Burton was commissioned Lieutenant Colonel in the Confederate States Army in December 1861, and placed in charge of all Southern armories. In June 1862, Burton left Richmond for Macon, Georgia, where he established a new armory for the Confederacy. One year later Burton traveled to England to "purchase and contract for the machinery, tools and material required for the new Armory." Burton returned to Macon in October 1863, where he awaited delivery of several shipments of machinery from the firm Greenwood & Batley of Leeds, England. The machinery and tools were finally shipped to Bermuda in late 1864, where they awaited reshipment to run the Union naval blockade. But then the Civil War ended.

Burton was taken prisoner along with the Confederate garrison at Macon in April 1865. He subsequently signed the "Oath of Allegiance to the United States" and on October 4, 1865, was granted a Presidential pardon by Andrew Johnson.

After the Civil War
After the war, Burton returned to England to superintend a new armory for Greenwood & Batley. Returning to the United States in 1868, Burton took up residence in Leesburg, Virginia. He returned to Leeds, England in 1871 to engineer a firearms contract for the Russian Government. But ill health intervened, and in 1873 he returned to Virginia for good and took up farming near Winchester. Here, James H. Burton died in 1894, far removed from the weapons technology he had been so instrumental in developing.


  • "Colonel James H. Burton Papers" (Manuscript Group #117). Yale University, Sterling Memorial Library, Manuscripts and Archives.
  • Edwards, William B, "One-Man Armory: Colonel J.H. Burton." Virginia Cavalcade, Autumn, 1962.
  • Gordon, Robert B., "The Burton Drawings at Harpers Ferry." Unpublished manuscript. Smithsonian document JB.mss-200891.
  • Lord, Francis A., Civil War Collector's Encyclopedia. Edison, New Jersey: Blue & Grey Press, 1989.
  • Smith, Merritt Roe, Harpers Ferry Armory and the New Technology. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977.

Thomas Jefferson at Harpers Ferry

Several large masses of Harpers shale, piled one upon the other, comprise Jefferson Rock. The name of this landmark derives from Thomas Jefferson, who stood here on October 25, 1783. His description of the view first appeared in the Notes on the State of Virginia, published in 1785:

"The passage of the Patowmac through the Blue Ridge is perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature. You stand on a very high point of land. On your right comes up the Shenandoah, having ranged along the foot of the mountain a hundred miles to seek a vent. On your left approaches the Patowmac in quest of a passage also. In the moment of their junction they rush together against the mountain, rend it asunder and pass off to the sea. The first glance of this scene hurries our senses into the opinion that this earth has been created in time, that the mountains were formed first, that the rivers began to flow afterwards, that in this place particularly they have been so dammed up by the Blue Ridge of mountains as to have formed an ocean which filled the whole valley; that, continuing to rise, they have at last broken over at this spot and have torn the mountain down from its summit to its base. The piles of rock on each hand, but particularly on the Shenandoah, the evident marks of their disruptions and avulsions from their beds by the most powerful agents in nature, corroborate the impression.

"But the distant finishing which nature has given the picture is of a very different character. It is a true contrast to the former. It is as placid and delightful as that is wild and tremendous. For the mountains being cloven asunder, she presents to your eye, through the cleft, a small catch of smooth blue horizon, at an infinite distance in that plain country, inviting you, as it were, from the riot and tumult roaring around to pass through the breach and participate in the calm below. Here the eye ultimately composes itself; and that way, too, the road happens actually to lead. You cross the Patowmac above the junction, pass along its side through the base of the mountain for three miles, the terrible precipice hanging in fragments over you, and within about 20 miles reach Frederictown and the fine country around that. This scene is worth a voyage across the Atlantic."

The uppermost slab of Jefferson Rock originally rested on a natural stone foundation so narrow that one was able to sway the rock back and forth with a gentle push. Because this natural foundation had "dwindled to very unsafe dimensions by the action of the weather, and still more, by the devastations of tourists and curiosity-hunters," four stone pillars were placed under each corner of the uppermost slab sometime between 1855 and 1860.

Thomas J Jackson

Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, one of the Confederacy's most famous soldiers, became intimately familiar with Harpers Ferry during the Civil War. On April 28, 1861 – just ten days after Virginia seceded from the Union – Colonel Thomas J. Jackson arrived at Harpers Ferry to assume his first command of the Civil War. He spent the next six weeks drilling thousands of Virginia volunteers encamped on Bolivar Heights before withdrawing south into the Shenandoah Valley.
Major General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson returned to Harpers Ferry on September 13, 14 and 15, 1862. Now a celebrated Confederate commander and one of Robert E. Lee's most trusted generals, Jackson took possession of MarylandHeights, LoudounHeights, and School House Ridge, trapping the Union Garrison inside Harpers Ferry. "Stonewall's Brilliant Victory" secured the surrender of 12,500 Union troops – the largest capitulation of Federal forces during the entire Civil War.

Frederick Douglass

On the occasion of the 14th Anniversary of Storer College, on May 30, 1881, Frederick Douglass delivered a memorable oration on the subject of John Brown in front of Anthony Hall. Especially notable was the presence among the platform guests of Andrew Hunter, the District Attorney of Charles Town who had prosecuted Brown and secured his conviction. The address was subsequently published, with proceeds of its sale earmarked for the endowment of a John Brown Professorship at Storer College.

The Niagara Movement

At the dawn of the twentieth century, the outlook for full civil rights for African Americans was at a precarious crossroads. Failed Reconstruction, the Supreme Court’s separate but equal doctrine (Plessy v. Ferguson), coupled with Booker T. Washington’s accommodationist policies threatened to compromise any hope for full and equal rights under the law.

Harvard educated William Edward Burghardt Du Bois committed himself to a bolder course, moving well beyond the calculated appeal for limited civil rights. He acted in 1905 by drafting a "Call" to a few select people. The Call had two purposes; "organized determination and aggressive action on the part of men who believed in Negro freedom and growth," and opposition to "present methods of strangling honest criticism."

Du Bois gathered a group of men representing every region of the country except the West. They hoped to meet in Buffalo, New York. When refused accommodation, the members migrated across the border to Canada. Twenty-nine men met at the Erie Beach Hotel in Ontario. The Niagarites adopted a constitution and by-laws, established committees and wrote the "Declaration of Principles" outlining the future for African Americans. After three days, they returned across the border with a renewed sense of resolve in the struggle for freedom and equality.

Thirteen months later, from August 15 - 19, 1906, the Niagara Movement held its first public meeting in the United States on the campus of Storer College in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Harpers Ferry was symbolic for a number of reasons. First and foremost was the connection to John Brown. It was at Harpers Ferry in 1859 that Brown’s raid against slavery struck a blow for freedom. Many felt it was John Brown who fired the first shot of the Civil War. By the latter part of the nineteenth century, John Brown’s Fort had become a shrine and a symbol of freedom to African Americans, Union soldiers and the nation’s Abolitionists. Harpers Ferry was also the home of Storer College. Freewill Baptists opened Storer in 1867 as a mission school to educate former slaves. For twenty-five years Storer was the only school in West Virginia that offered African Americans an education beyond the primary level.

The Niagarites arrived in Harpers Ferry with passion in their hearts and high hopes that their voices would be heard and action would result. They were now more than fifty strong. Women also attended this historic gathering where, on August 17, 1906, they were granted full and equal membership to the organization.

The week was filled with many inspirational speeches, meetings, special addresses and commemorative ceremonies. Max Barber, editor of The Voice of the Negro said, "A more suitable place for the meeting of the Niagara Movement than Harpers Ferry would have been hard to find. I must confess that I had never yet felt as I felt in Harpers Ferry."

A highlight for those gathered was John Brown’s Day. It was a day devoted to honoring the memory of John Brown. At 6:00 a.m. a silent pilgrimage began to John Brown’s Fort. The members removed their shoes and socks as they tread upon the "hallowed ground" where the fort stood. The assemblage then marched single-file around the fort singing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "John Brown’s Body."

The inspirational morning was followed by an equally stirring afternoon. The Niagarites listened to Henrietta Leary Evans whose brother and nephew fought along side Brown at Harpers Ferry, then Lewis Douglass, son of Frederick Douglass, and finally Reverdy C. Ransom, pastor of the Charles Street African Methodist Episcopal Church in Boston. Ransom’s speech on John Brown was described as a "masterpiece." The late black scholar, Dr. Benjamin Quarles, called the address, "…the most stirring single episode in the life of the Niagara Movement."

The conference concluded on Sunday, August 19th, with the reading of "An Address to the Country," penned by W.E.B. Du Bois. "We will not be satisfied to take one jot or title less than our full manhood rights. We claim for ourselves every single right that belongs to a freeborn American, political, civil and social; and until we get these rights we will never cease to protest and assail the ears of America. The battle we wage is not for ourselves alone but for all true Americans."

The Niagara Movement laid the cornerstone of the modern civil rights era. A new movement found a voice. The organization continued until 1911, when almost all of its members became the backbone of the newly formed National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). There, the men and women of the Niagara Movement recommitted themselves to the ongoing call for justice and the struggle for equality.

With thunderous applause, the Harpers Ferry conference drew to a close. Years later recalling this conference, Du Bois referred to it as "…one of the greatest meetings that American Negroes ever held."


Don Redman: The Little Giant of Jazz

Born July 29, 1900, in Piedmont, West Virginia, to a music teacher and a vocalist, Donald Matthew Redman was destined to make music. Redman played the trumpet by the age of three and all wind instruments by the time he was twelve. 

In 1916, Redman came to Storer College. During his four years here Don Redman was an involved and energetic student with talents that extended well beyond music. Along with being in the college band, chorus, and jazz orchestra, he was a member of the college debating society, and a regular participant in oratorical competitions. He also played on the college baseball, basketball teams and was the quarterback of the football team.

While at Storer, Don was under the musical tutelage of longtime band master, John Wesley McKinney as well as Charlotte May Nason and Carlotta Stevens Slater, both graduates of the New England Conservatory of Music. The music department was quite active and the students often performed in various locations throughout the community. During Don’s years here the music students made annual pilgrimages to the M.E. Church in Martinsburg and the Wainwright Baptist Church in Charlestown for concerts.

As a student, Don wrote and performed many original compositions including, “Lilly of the Valley” and “Victory”. In 1919, Don was one of two juniors to be awarded the Metcalf Scholarship for academic excellence. That year he also received an honorable mention in the Storer College newspaper for his oratorical offering entitled “The Power of Music”. His most lasting musical contribution was the composition of the “Storer College Alma Mater” that endured throughout the history of the college.

Redman graduated from Storer College in 1920, but he didn’t forget his Alma Mater. His love and affection for his college was evident through his actions. In the spring of 1921 Storer was engaged in a fundraising effort, the “Three Thousand Dollar Drive”. Don returned to Storer with former student Clarence Martin and presented a successful fundraising concert with all proceeds going to the college. During this concert, Don demonstrated his musical versatility by performing on the piano, clarinet, saxophone, and xylophone.

After Storer, Redman joined “Billy Paige’s Broadway Syncopators.” The talented young musician soon caught the ear of well-known band leader Fletcher Henderson. Redman soon joined Henderson’s orchestra, not only writing the band’s arrangements, but also playing the clarinet and saxophone. Because of Redman’s innovative arrangements the group quickly became the most prominent black jazz orchestra in the country.

In 1927 Don Redman became the music director for “McKinney’s Cotton Pickers.” Redman’s arrangements became more elaborate during this time, especially in harmony and rhythm. He formed his own band, the “Don Redman Orchestra,” in 1931. The group stayed together for ten years and became a fixture in Harlem at Connie’s Inn. In 1946 Redman formed an all-star band and they became the first American jazz orchestra to tour Europe after World War II. Following a brief run on television in 1949, Redman became music director for Pearl Bailey and acted with her in the play House of Flowers. In his later years this master jazz arranger and innovator rarely performed in public, preferring to work on several extended compositions that have never been publicly performed. Until his death in November of 1964, Don Redman never stopped making music. 

Storer College

Following the Civil War, the Reverend Dr. Nathan Cook Brackett established a Freewill Baptist primary school in the Lockwood House on Camp Hill. Brackett's tireless efforts to establish freedmen's schools in the area inspired a generous contribution from philanthopist John Storer of Sanford, Maine, who offered $10,000 for the establishment of a school in the South. The donation was offered on the condition that the school be open to all regardless of sex, race or religion.

On October 2, 1867, "Storer Normal School" was opened, and two years later, in December 1869, the federal government formally conveyed the Lockwood House and three other former Armory residences on Camp Hill to the school's trustees. Frederick Douglass served as a trustee of Storer College, and delivered a memorable oration on the subject of John Brown here in 1881.

By the end of the 19th century, the promise of freedom and equality for blacks had been buried by Jim Crow laws and legal segregation. To combat these injustices, Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois and other leading African-Americans created the Niagara Movement, which held its second conference on the campus of Storer College in 1906. The Niagara Movement was a forerunner of the NAACP.

In 1954, legal segregation was finally ended by the landmark school desegregation decision handed down by the Supreme Court in Brown v. The Board of Education. The decision, however, brought an end to federal and state funding for Storer College, and a year later it closed its doors. Today the National Park Service continues the college's educational mission by using part of the old campus as a training facility.


John Brown's Raid
John Brown believed he could free the slaves, and he selected Harpers Ferry as his starting point. Determined to seize the 100,000 weapons at the Arsenal and to use the Blue Ridge Mountains for guerrilla warfare, abolitionist Brown launched his raid on Sunday evening, October 16, 1859. His 21-man "army of liberation" seized the Armory and several other strategic points. Thirty-six hours after the raid begun, with most of his men killed or wounded, Brown was captured in the Armory fire enginehouse (now known as "John Brown's Fort") when U.S. Marines stormed the building.

Brought to trial at nearby Charles Town, Brown was found guilty of treason, of conspiring with slaves to rebel, and murder. He was hanged on December 2, 1859. John Brown's short-lived raid failed, but his trial and execution focused the nation's attention on the moral issue of slavery and headed the country toward civil war.

Today John Brown's Fort and the Arsenal ruins are part of the legacy of our nation's struggle with slavery.

The Civil War
The Civil War had a profound and disastrous effect on Harpers Ferry, leaving a path of destruction that wrecked the town's economy and forced many residents to depart forever. Because of the town's strategic location on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad at the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley, Union and Confederate troops moved through Harpers Ferry frequently. The town changed hands eight times between 1861 and 1865.

On April 18, 1861, less than 24 hours after Virginia seceded from the Union, Federal soldiers set fire to the Armory and Arsenal to keep them out of Confederate hands. The Arsenal and 15,000 weapons were destroyed, but the Armory flames were extinguished and the weapons-making equipment was shipped south. When the Confederates abandoned the town two months later, they burned most of the factory buildings and blew up the railroad bridge.

Federal forces re-occupied Harpers Ferry in 1862. During the Confederacy's first invasion of the North, on September 15, 1862, Maj. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson surrounded and captured the 12,500-man Union garrison stationed here. When the Federals returned to Harpers Ferry after the Battle of Antietam, they began transforming the surrounding heights into fortified encampments to protect both the town and the railroad. In 1864, Union Gen. Philip H. Sheridan used Harpers Ferry as his base of operations against Confederate troops in the Shenandoah Valley.

African-American History
African-Americans have been a part of the Harpers Ferry story since before the American Revolution. The first black arrived here in the mid-1700s as a slave to Robert Harper. By the time of John Brown's Raid in 1859, about ten percent of the town's residents were black. The town's 150 slaves, considered property, could be rented out, sold, used as collateral for business transactions, or given away. Another 150 "free" blacks often worked as laborers or teamsters, but some prospered as skilled masons, plasterers, butchers, and blacksmiths.

During the Civil War, Harpers Ferry became one of many Union garrison towns where runaway slaves, or "contraband," sought refuge. Following the Civil War, New England Freewill Baptist missionaries acquired several vacant Armory buildings on Camp Hill and, in 1867, started Storer College, an integrated school designed primarily to educate former slaves but open to students of all races and both genders. Frederick Douglass served as a trustee of the college, and delivered a memorable oration on the subject of John Brown here in 1881.

By the end of the 19th century, the promise of freedom and equality for blacks had been buried by Jim Crow laws and legal segregation. To combat these injustices, Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois and other leading African-Americans created the Niagara Movement, which held its second conference on the campus of Storer College in 1906. The Niagara Movement was a forerunner to the NAACP.

In 1954, legal segregation was finally ended by the landmark school desegregation decision handed down by the Supreme Court in Brown v. The Board of Education. A year later Storer College closed its doors. Today the National Park Service continues the college's educational mission by using part of the old campus as a training facility.

The United States Armory and Arsenal, established here in 1799, transformed Harpers Ferry from a remote village into an industrial center. Between 1801 and the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, the Armory produced more than 600,000 muskets, rifles, and pistols, and employed, at times, over 400 workers. Inventor John H. Hall pioneered interchangeable firearms manufacture at his Rifle Works between 1820-1840, and helped lead the change from craft-based production to manufacture by machine.

Before the Civil War, Virginius Island boasted a number of private industries, including a sawmill, flour mill, machine shop, two cotton mills, tannery, and iron foundry. Lewis Wernwag, a noted bridgebuilder from Philadelphia, was one of the island's first entrepreneurs. Following the war, two water-powered pulp mills were erected along the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. Today only ruins remain of Harpers Ferry's 19th-century industrial heyday.

The convergence here of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, the Winchester & Potomac Railroad, and the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal in the mid-1830s inaugurated an era of economic and industrial growth that lasted until the Civil War. Trains and boats reduced travel time from days to hours and served as avenues for local commerce. German and Irish laborers who helped to build the railroad and canal later settled in the area and diversified the local culture. The ferry service operated by Robert Harper in the mid-1700s became obsolete as bridges spanned the rivers. Even George Washington promoted commerce in the region as first president of the Patowmack Company, which was formed in 1785 to permit boats of "shallow draft" to navigate the Potomac River. Today, only the railroad remains as an active reminder of the town's rich transportation heritage.

Natural Heritage
The Harpers Ferry water gap has attracted human attention for centuries. Native Americans, early settlers, railroad and canal used the gap in the Blue Ridge as an avenue of travel and transport. The rivers that carved the gap also produced power for the town's mills and factories. Hardwoods from the mountains provided charcoal for industry and fuel for stoves. Harpers shale afforded excellent building material. Although severe floods have sometimes ravaged what human hands have built, the land here has proven resilient.

Today, wetlands fill abandoned canals and plants and animals use old ruins as homes. Throughout years of human alteration and natural reclamation, the picturesque landscape has remained a constant – inspiring writers, artists, and millions of visitors. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, described the scene here as "worth a voyage across the Atlantic" in his Notes on the State of Virginia.

George Washington

As champion and first president of the Patowmack Company - formed to complete river improvements on the Potomac and its major tributaries - George Washington traveled to Harpers Ferry during the summer of 1785. For two days, Washington's party carefully inspected the river here to determine the need for bypass canals and sluices.

Here we breakfasted [at Harpers Ferry]; after which we set out to explore the Falls below; & having but one Canoe, Colo. Gilpin, Mr. Rumsay (who joined us according to appointment last Night) and Myself, embarked in it, with intention to pass thro' what is called the Spout (less than half a mile below the ferry) but when we came to it, the Company on the shore on acct. of the smallness, and low sides of the Vessel, dissuaded us from the attempt, least the roughness of the Water, occasioned by the rocky bottom, should fill, & involve us in danger. To avoid the danger therefore we passed through a narrow channel on the left, near the MarylandShore and continued in the Canoe to the lower end of Pains falls distant, according to estimation 3 Miles. (From the Diaries of George Washington, August 7th, 1785).

Nine years later, in 1794, Washington used his familiarity with Harpers Ferry to champion the site for a new federal armory and arsenal.

Harpers Ferry at the Time of Meriwether Lewis

During the spring of 1803, Meriwether Lewis traveled to Harpers Ferry to procure weapons and hardware that would meet the unique requirements of his transcontinental expedition. Among the items he obtained from the United States Armory and Arsenal were 15 rifles, 15 powder horns, 30 bullet molds, 30 ball screws, extra rifle and musket locks, gunsmith's repair tools, several dozen tomahawks, 24 large knives, and a collapsible iron boat frame.

Harpers Ferry in 1803 was a remote town situated at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers in a gap through the Blue Ridge Mountains. George Washington had advocated establishing an arms manufactory here, arguing that its remote location would protect it from foreign invasion, and that the site afforded an abundance of waterpower. These pictures represent scenes at Harpers Ferry that would probably be familiar to Meriwether Lewis today.

List of Inventory Acquired by Meriwether Lewis at Harpers Ferry:
15 Rifles
24 Pipe tomahawks
36 Pipe tomahawks for "Indian Presents"
24 Large knives
15 Powderhorns and pouches
15 Pairs of bullet molds
15 Wipers or gun worms
15 Ball screws
15 Gun slings
Extra parts of locks and tools for repairing arms
40 Fish giggs
Collapsible iron boat frame
1 Small grindstone

Water Power at Harpers Ferry

George Washington chose Harpers Ferry for a new national armory in 1794 because, he claimed, it possessed an "inexhaustible supply of water." Almost a century later, in 1885, government engineers still described the waterpower at Harpers Ferry in the highest terms, reporting that "there seems to be no reason why a large and fine power could not be utilized here. The site is probably the most favorable one on the river."

The natural descent of the Potomac River here - 22 feet in just over a mile - is considerable. Along the Shenandoah River, the waters tumble 14 feet in just under a mile. Sitting at the point where both rivers converge, Harpers Ferry commands a combined drainage area of 9,180 square miles, a potential maximum streamflow of 8,260 cubic feet per second, and access to 18,350 gross horsepower - enough to attract both millwrights and entrepreneurs for nearly two centuries.

Today, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park offers a unique place to explore the legacy of waterpower in America. Cradled between the free-flowing and often unpredictable waters of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, Harpers Ferry still demonstrates the important relationship between man and nature. Park Service archeologists have uncovered remnants of a once robust industrial community: iron gearing, leather belting, tin conveyor buckets, and miscellaneous parts of broken machinery. Armory records preserved by the National Archives are replete with detailed references to troublesome waterwheels, promising new turbine technologies, and the day-to-day particulars of running water-powered machinery. And because the landscape here has been so well preserved, substantial remains of 19th century water works are still visible: brick-lined culverts, extensive headraces, dam ruins, factory foundations, turbine pits, and even abandoned turbines - their wicket gates now closed for good.

John Brown

On October 16, 17, and 18, 1859, John Brown and his "Provisional Army of the United States" took possession of the United States Armory and Arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Brown had come to arm an uprising of slaves. Instead, the raid drew militia companies and federal troops from Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. On the morning of October 18, a storming party of 12 Marines broke down the door of the Armory's fire enginehouse, taking Brown and the remaining raiders captive.

Brown, charged for "conspiring with slaves to commit treason and murder," was tried, convicted, and hanged in Charles Town on December 2, 1859. Before the sentence was carried out, however, Brown issued a prophetic warning:

I wish to say furthermore, that you had better – all you people at the South – prepare yourselves for a settlement of that question that must come up for settlement sooner than you are prepared for it. The sooner you are prepared the better. You may dispose of me very easily; I am nearly disposed of now; but this question is still to be settled – this negro question I mean – the end of that is not yet.

Even as John Brown's Raid was unfolding, Harpers Ferry residents George and Mary Mauzy described the events of the raid in a series of emotional letters to their daughter and son-in-law, James and Eugenia Burton.

John Brown's Raid remains part of the legacy of our nation's struggle with slavery.


Harpers Ferry Armory and Arsenal

In 1794, congress approved a bill "for the erecting and repairing of Arsenals and Magazines." Springfield, MA, was chosen as the site for the first national armory. President George Washington, given wide discretionary powers in executing the legislation, then selected Harpers Ferry for a second national armory.

In 1796, the government purchased a 125-acre parcel of land bounded by the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers from the heirs or Robert Harper. Construction of the "United States Armory and Arsenal at Harpers Ferry" began in 1799. Three years later full-scale production of arms commenced. Muskets, rifles and, after 1805, pistols were all manufactured here. By 1810, annual production of arms averaged about 10,000.

But from the very beginning, the Harpers Ferry Armory labored under a deficiency of waterpower and charges of mismanagement. After more than four decades of piecemeal funding and outright neglect, plans for the site’s complete renovation were drawn up in 1844. Between 1845-1854, seven new workshops were erected, 121 new machines were installed, the Armory Canal was enlarged, and heavier millwork including the installation of new Boyden turbines was completed. The new buildings consisted of brick superstructures with cast-iron framing, sheet-iron or slated roofs, and large arched portals and windows, all erected upon heavy stone foundations.

This extensive reconstruction created a more integrated physical plant, whereby the flow of work from one stage of arms production to another was greatly facilitated. These buildings became known collectively as the "U.S. Musket Factory." Compared to 1802, when the Armory employed just 25 men, by 1859 the workforce had grown to about 400.

With the Civil War there came destruction. When Virginia passed an ordnance of secession on April 17, 1861, the Harpers Ferry Armory became an immediate target. Lt. Roger Jones of the U.S. Army defended the Armory on the evening of April 18, 1861, with 50 regulars and 15 volunteers. In nearby Charles Town several companies of Virginia militia – 360 men in all – assembled and advanced toward Harpers Ferry. Jones, outnumbered and unable to obtain reinforcements, set torches to the Armory and Arsenal buildings before retreating across the Potomac River.

Further destruction came with Confederate occupation of Harpers Ferry in the spring of 1861. Southern forces confiscated the Armory’s ordnance stock, machinery, and tools before burning many of the remaining Armory buildings. By war's end, only the Armory's fire engine and guard house – John Brown's Fort – remained intact. Today, the Armory Grounds are almost completely covered by railroad track embankments.


1862 Battle of Harpers Ferry

On September 4, 1862, Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia splashed across the Potomac River into Maryland at White's Ford. During the next few days, Lee's veteran Confederates settled in around the town of Frederick. The first invasion of the North had begun.

With his invasion, Lee expected some 14,000 Federal troops garrisoning Harpers Ferry and Martinsburg to withdraw northward. In fact, Lee's plans depended upon it - the Confederates needed the Shenandoah Valley as their line of supply and communication while they campaigned north of the Potomac. The Federals, however, refused to withdraw, forcing Lee into a quandary.

Believing that Union forces were in "a very demoralized and chaotic condition" following their defeat at Second Manassas in Virginia, and that Union General George B. McClellan was "an able general but a very cautious one," Lee decided to divide his army into four parts. Special Orders 191 contained all the operational details: three separate columns totaling almost 23,000 men would march on Harpers Ferry, surround the place, and capture or destroy the Union garrison there. With that mission accomplished, Lee's entire army would reassemble at Boonsboro, Maryland - 20 miles north of Harpers Ferry. Lee selected Major General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson to lead the assault on Harpers Ferry.

The Union Garrison
Union Colonel Dixon S. Miles found a war-ravaged wasteland when he took command at Harpers Ferry in the spring of 1862. The Harpers Ferry Armory, which at its peak had produced 10,000 firearms a year, lay in ruins - burned by Confederate forces in 1861. The town's churches and mills had become hospitals; shops and residences had become barracks and stables. The prewar population of 3,000 had fled. Only 100 local inhabitants dared remain on the border between North and South. One soldier wrote that the blackened ruins of Harpers Ferry presented a "ghost of a former life," and that "the entire place is not actually worth $10."

But the military value of Harpers Ferry remained important. It served as a key base of supply for Union operations in the Shenandoah Valley, and served to protect the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal and Baltimore & Ohio Railroad - important Union transportation corridors. Altogether, Miles commanded 14,000 men at Harpers Ferry and Martinsburg in September 1862.

The Confederate Advance
Special Orders 191 anticipated splendid results. But could the mission be accomplished in the allotted three days? The operation appeared to be technically overwhelming: three separate columns marching circuitous routes, converging from three different directions, ascending three separate ridges divided by two rivers. There was heavy artillery to place, caissons to haul up steep ridges, with signal flags serving as the best means of communication.

One glance at Lee's veterans suggested that his Harpers Ferry mission was impossible. Short on food, destitute of clothing, and many shoeless from hundreds of miles of marching, Lee's ragged army appeared physically incapable of meeting the campaign's tight deadline. Nevertheless, on September 10, Lee bade his detached columns farewell as they left Frederick and pressed on toward Harpers Ferry.

Brigadier General John G. Walker commanded one wing of Jackson's three-pronged advance. Crossing the Potomac River at Noland's Ferry near Point of Rocks, Maryland, Walker advanced across the northern Virginia countryside to the eastern slope of Loudoun Heights. Colonel Miles had neglected to post any men or artillery on these heights, considering them to be well within the range of Federal gunners on nearby Maryland Heights. Walker, facing no Union opposition, moved a battery of artillery up onto Loudoun Heights and, on September 14, exchanged the first artillery fire with Union guns at Harpers Ferry.

Major General Lafayette McLaws commanded the second wing of the Confederate advance. McLaws understood the topography around Harpers Ferry well. At 1,448 feet, Maryland Heights was the highest ridge overlooking Harpers Ferry. "So long as Maryland Heights was occupied by the enemy," he wrote, "Harper's Ferry could never be occupied by us. If we gained possession of the heights, the town was no longer tenable to them."

McLaws ordered two infantry brigades to advance south along the crest of Elk Ridge - the northern extension of Maryland Heights. On September 13, these Confederates drove 4,600 Union defenders off the mountain despite "a most obstinate and determined resistance." One day later, McLaws opened fire on Harpers Ferry with four guns.

Major General "Stonewall" Jackson commanded the third Confederate wing himself. Advancing from Frederick to Boonsboro, Maryland, Jackson swept across western Maryland, crossed the Potomac River at Williamsport, captured Martinsburg, and came up behind Harpers Ferry - marching 51 miles in less than two days. Jackson's 14,000-man column occupied School House Ridge, sealing the trap on the surrounded Federal garrison.

A Serious Predicament
From his command post near Halltown, "Stonewall" Jackson methodically and deliberately positioned his cannons "to drive the enemy" into extinction. Indeed, Confederate artillery fire upon Harpers Ferry was effective and demoralizing. Colonel William H. Trimble of the 60th Ohio wrote that there was "not a place where you could lay the palm of your hand and say it was safe."

Realizing that artillery alone probably would not subdue the Union garrison, Jackson ordered General A.P. Hill to flank the Federal position on top of Bolivar Heights. Using School House Ridge for cover, Hill moved his forces toward the Shenandoah River, dragged and tugged five batteries up the river's steep bluffs, and succeeded in planting his artillery 1,000 yards from the exposed left flank of the Union position. Hill later wrote that "the fate of Harpers Ferry was sealed."

Louis Hull of the 60th Ohio agreed, writing in his diary on the evening of September 14th: "All seem to think that we will have to surrender or be cut to pieces."

A Daring Escape
With Union surrender at Harpers Ferry imminent, cavalry commander Colonel Benjamin F. "Grimes" Davis deemed a breakout from the Confederate trap worth a try. On the evening of September 14, Davis, guided by Lt. Green of the 1st Maryland Cavalry and Tom Noakes, a civilian scout, led 1,500 men across the Potomac River on a pontoon bridge and then up the "John Brown Road" toward Sharpsburg. Fortuitously, the Confederates had withdrawn their troops guarding the Sharpsburg Road, redeploying them in the Pleasant Valley to counter a Union threat at Crampton's Gap.

The Cavalry column pressed on undetected toward Sharpsburg, captured a 91-wagon Confederate ammunition train near Williamsport, and eventually reached safety in Greencastle, Pennsylvania, on the morning of September 15. The column had rode 50 miles in 12 hours. Back at Harpers Ferry, however, the scene was not so bright.

The Union Surrender
On the morning of September 15, the Union commanders at Harpers Ferry held a council of war. Surrounded by a force twice the size of their own and out of long range artillery ammunition, the officers unanimously agreed to surrender. At around 9:00 a.m., white flags were raised by Union troops all along Bolivar Heights. Minutes later, a stray Confederate shell exploded directly behind Colonel Dixon Miles, mortally wounding the Union commander. Brigadier General Julius White, second in command, made the final arrangements for the Union surrender.

Jackson captured over 12,500 Union troops at Harpers Ferry - the largest single capture of Federal forces during the entire war. The Confederates also seized 13,000 arms and 47 pieces of artillery.

W E B Du Bois

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois broke new ground on many frontiers in his remarkable and controversial life. Du Bois earned the first Harvard doctorate awarded to an African American. During a prolific career of writing and publication, including sixteen thought-provoking books on sociology, history, politics, and race relations, Du Bois became the principal architect of the civil rights movement in the United States. He perceptively said, "The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line."

Du Bois' connection to Harpers Ferry began in Canada in 1905, when he became the leader of an elite group of African Americans known as the Niagara Movement. The formation of this group marked the beginning of Du Bois' public assault on racial discrimination. The next year the Niagara Movement met on the campus of Storer College in Harpers Ferry. Du Bois referred to the 1906 gathering as "one of the greatest meetings American Negroes ever held." Du Bois returned to Harpers Ferry 44 years later as the commencement speaker for the 1950 graduating class of Storer College.