Historical park relives the rise of the Confederacy

August 10, 2003|by RICHARD BELISLE

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. - Harpers Ferry quickly became the rallying place for Virginians to join the Confederate Army in the weeks following the firing on Fort Sumter, the event which started the Civil War.

This weekend, the National Park Service is celebrating "Rally for Virginia 1861" at the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. The celebration features living history exhibitions put on by park staff members and volunteer re-enactors serving in the Liberty Rifles, a Mississippi unit, and the Southern Grays, a Virginia volunteer unit.

The rally shows the effect of the fighting at Fort Sumter, a federal installation in Charleston, S.C., harbor that was shelled by Rebels on April 15, 1861.


Union Army Lt. Roger Jones and his garrison of 45 soldiers were guarding the federal armory and arsenal at Harpers Ferry in May 1861. Hearing that a Confederate force of up to 3,000 troops was headed his way, Jones burned the gun factory and the arsenal, with its 15,000 guns, to keep them out of enemy hands. He retreated from Harpers Ferry after that, said John King, supervisory ranger at the park.

Around the same time, Thomas Jackson, a professor at Virginia Military Institute who would later become Confederate Gen. "Stonewall" Jackson, was sent to Harpers Ferry to train the volunteers who were signing up in droves to fight for Virginia, said Tom Bates, a park ranger.

In addition, trains brought troops from state militias in Kentucky and Mississippi to help the new Virginia volunteers train into an effective fighting unit, rangers said.

The training paid off because many members of the newly organized Virginia militia fought in the first Battle of Bull Run later that year, Bates said.

While most of the residents of Harpers Ferry stayed loyal to Virginia, the town was still divided, King said.

"There were riots in the street between both sides," he said.

The burning of the gun factory left many local residents without jobs, King said.

While the building burned, the machinery inside did not, so it was moved to Richmond and to Fayetteville, S.C., to make arms for the Confederacy.

After the burning of the factory and the organizing of the Virginia militia in Harpers Ferry, the town "became a no-man's land" through the rest of the Civil War, King said.

"It changed hands eight times during the war," he said.

Virginia succeeded from the Union on April 17, 1861, three days after the surrender of Fort Sumter. Harpers Ferry again became a part of the Union in 1863, when Virginia's western colonies formed the state of West Virginia.

On Saturday, Bates led a demonstration of firearms in use at the time. A look at how civilians fared during those turbulent days is also being exhibited.

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