Burning of Harpers Ferry arsenal was key event at start of Civil War

April 17, 2011|By RICHARD F. BELISLE |
  • This drawing courtesy of the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park shows the burning of the Harpers Ferry federal arsenals in 1861.
This drawing courtesy of the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park shows the burning of the Harpers Ferry federal arsenals in 1861.

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. — A company of Virginia militia marched into Harpers Ferry on April 18, 1861, burned two federal arsenals and set fire to the 20 buildings that made up the United States Armory there.
The Civil War, only five days old by that time, had come to Harpers Ferry, a hilly, prosperous industrial town of 3,000 inhabitants where the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers meet.

This weekend, the National Park Service celebrated the 150th anniversary of the burning of the arsenals with two days of historic re-enactments, book signings by the authors of five books on the Civil War, displays, lectures and children’s activities.

Harpers Ferry was in Virginia when the war began with the bombing of Fort Sumter on April 12 and 13, 1861. Virginia voted to join the Confederacy on April 17.

Alfred Barbour and Logan Osborne, both Union sympathizers, represented Jefferson County on the Virginia Secession Convention in Richmond.

Barbour, then superintendent of the U.S. Armory, came back to Harpers Ferry on April 17 and broke the news to residents that Virginia had seceded, said Dennis Frye, chief historian at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.

“There were riots, fights and brawls in the streets between people on both sides,” Frye said.

The next day, a company of Virginia militia was said to be on its way to town to confiscate the arsenals and armory buildings for the Confederacy.

According to Frye, a young U.S. Army Lieutenant named Roger Jones ordered the buildings blown up to keep them out of enemy hands.

The arsenals were destroyed, but most of the armory buildings were saved by the town’s citizens. “They wanted to save their jobs. It didn’t matter to them which side owned the armory,” Frye said.

“It was the first act of the Civil War in Virginia,” he said. “The next day, April 19th, the same day the American Revolution began at Lexington and Concord, the United States flag was pulled down in Harpers Ferry and replaced with the Virginia flag.”

Deborah K. Piscitelli, executive director of the Harpers Ferry Historical Association, invited five Civil War book authors to the two-day event to sign books.

The authors were Steven Stanley of Gettysburg, Pa., “The complete Gettysburg Guide;” John David Hoptak, of Gettysburg, “The Battle of South Mountain;” Adam Goodheart, of Washington, D.C., “1861 The Civil War Awakening;” Scott L. Mingus Sr., of York, Pa., “Flames Beyond Gettysburg;” and Thomas G. Clemens, of Keedysville, “The Maryland Campaign of September 1862.”

Clemens, a professor of history at Hagerstown Community College, didn’t write the book. He edited and annotated the manuscript of Ezra A. Carman. Carman was hired by the then War Department to create and lay out Antietam National Battlefield in 1894, Clemens said.

Carman wrote his manuscript between 1894 and 1902. “The work became the definitive history of the battle, so much so that just about every book written about Antietam is based on what he wrote,” Clemens said.

“I tried to discover how he knew what he was writing about,” he said.

That involved numerous trips to the Library of Congress digging into Carman’s manuscript for the fodder Clemens needed to verify what Carman learned in researching letters, diaries and memoirs.

The manuscript plus what Clemens’ own research produced, were the basis of the book, the bibliography of which covers 14 pages.

It took Clemens about 11 years to finish the book. While it’s selling well, he said he didn’t write it for the money.

“I just wanted to do it,” he said.

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