War between the states resulted in creation of West Virginia

July 19, 2011|By DAVE MCMILLION
  • The federal armory building at Harpers Ferry (in Virginia at the time and later West Virginia) known as John Browns fort was captured by the abolitionist in October 1859. It is 100 yards north of its original location. A marker at the location says the building which served as Brown's stronghold was vandalized, dismantled and moved four times.
Photo by Kevin G. Gilbert, Staff Photographer

As it did in other areas across the United States, the Civil War brought battles, gruesome tales and acts of destruction to what is now the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia, but back then was part of Virginia.

For West Virginia, the conflict was to have lasting implications.

Virginia seceded from the Union in 1861 following decades of sectional conflict between leaders of Eastern and Western Virginia. While other states occasionally saw calls for “dismemberment,” it was only Virginia that went through such a split, according to The West Virginia Encyclopedia.

During the second Wheeling convention, which reconvened Nov. 26, 1861, the area that broke off from Virginia was named West Virginia and work began to draft a constitution. Lincoln approved the act of admission to the Union at the end of December 1862, contingent on the new state’s constitution providing for the gradual emancipation of slaves.

John Brown’s raid

The Eastern Panhandle was the setting for events that were precursors to the Civil War, including abolitionist John Brown’s raid on a federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry.

Before that, however, Brown registered at Hagerstown’s Washington House Hotel on West Washington Street on June 30, 1859, and signed an alias — I. Smith — on a register.

Accompanying Brown were his sons, Owen, Oliver and Jeremiah G. Anderson.

While in Hagerstown, Brown looked for a place to reside to plan his next move, and settled on the Kennedy farmhouse in the southern part of Washington County, from which he organized his raid.

On Oct. 16, 17, and 18, 1859, Brown and his “Provisional Army of the United States” took possession of the United States Armory and Arsenal in Harpers Ferry as part of an attempt 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 Oct. 18, a storming party of 12 Marines broke down the door of the Armory’s fire engine house, taking Brown and the remaining raiders captive. Brown’s sons Jeremiah and Oliver died in the raid.

Brown, charged with conspiring with slaves to commit treason and murder, was tried, convicted, and hanged in Charles Town on Dec. 2, 1859.

Before he was executed, Brown was held in jail in Charles Town, where he promised a jailer he would not attempt to escape, according to the Postcard History Series book on Harpers Ferry.

Two of the other raiders did try to escape, but made it only to the back of the jail courtyard, the book said.

Stonewall Jackson and the railroad

In May of 1861, a month after the Civil War began, trouble struck what is now Martinsburg, W.Va. The presence of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company in Martinsburg dates to the 1840s when the first engine and machine shops were built for the expanding railroad company, according to

On May 22, Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson trapped 56 locomotives and 300 cars between Martinsburg and Point of Rocks in Maryland. Some of the locomotives were shipped south and the cars were ultimately destroyed, said Dennis Frye, chief historian at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.

In Martinsburg, a B&0 Roundhouse and machine shops were destroyed and the city took heavy damage, in large part because of the railroad yards, according to

Martinsburg can lay claim to other Civil War history, including that of Confederate spy Belle Boyd.

The Belle Boyd House on East Race Street is the only house still standing in Martinsburg in which Belle Boyd lived. She was best known for shooting a Yankee soldier who was trying to wrestle a Confederate flag from her mother.

Harpers Ferry

The next year, history was made again in Harpers Ferry when Jackson was able to pull off a sizable takeover of Union troops.

On Sept. 15, 1862, a line of Union troops was stationed along Bolivar Heights, which is off Washington Street in Bolivar, a neighboring town of Harpers Ferry.

Before long, the soldiers were faced with overwhelming pressure from the Confederates.

Southern troops advanced from the west, from an area called the Chambers farm and in front of the Union troops on Loudoun Heights and Maryland Heights.

Jackson’s men had pushed 70 cannons into place around Bolivar Heights and when the artillery was fired on Union troops, it was no place for man to be, according to historical experts who have interpreted the story.

Artillery that was used — including 3-inch rifled cannons — shot explosives that rained chunks of iron from the sky, the interpreters said.

Robert Grandchamp, a park ranger at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, described the ordnance as “shrieking” as it landed.

“If you were a Union soldier up here, you would want to dig a hole and bury your head. That’s how bad it was,” Grandchamp said during a historical program in Bolivar Heights in 2008.

The 12,500 Union troops who were captured represented the largest military capture until World War II.


Two days after the Battle of Antietam in Maryland, about 3,000 infantry soldiers clashed at the Battle of Shepherdstown along Trough Road south of Shepherdstown, according to Frye and other accounts.

Among the details from the Sept. 20 clash at the Battle of Shepherdstown was the fate of a group of 118th Pennsylvania Volunteers.

The soldiers’ guns were defective and they were unable to fire at the Confederates. Fleeing in panic, many of the Pennsylvanians jumped to their deaths over high rock bluffs along the Potomac River.

After the Battle of Antietam and the Battle of Shepherdstown, Shepherdstown was swamped with injured soldiers, Frye said.

The town became  a “vast Confederate hospital” for hundreds of Confederate soldiers with injuries such as severed limbs and missing eyes, according to Frye and accounts of the battle.

Confederate surgeons and Confederate medical staff treated southern soldiers in buildings, barns and outbuildings in Shepherdstown, Frye said.

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