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Town presently in eastern West Virginia at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers, Harpers Ferry is located at the base of three mountains. To the northwest, Maryland Heights was the tallest of the mountains. Due east was Loudoun Heights and due west of the town was a high ridge overlooking the river. The city was designated the site of a National Armory in 1794. Because of the proximity to Washington D. C., the armory was frequently used to prototype weapons, including the 1855 Springfield Rifle.
Two tornadoes struck Harpers Ferry in 1859. The first came on June 28 and destroyed part of the town. The second came in the form of Kansas Freesoiler John Brown, who successfully assaulted the Federal arsenal on October 16 and encouraged slaves to join him in revolt against their masters. While the raid was quickly put down by Robert E. Lee and J. E. B. Stuart it changed the minds of many remaining pro-Union slaveholders to consider "disunion," and brought to the east the ongoing conflict known as Bleeding Kansas. It is generally believed to be one of the Causes of the Civil War
Following the secession of Virginia, Harpers Ferry was a key concern of the federals. With limited manpower available to defend the position, General Winfield Scott recommended that federal forces withdraw from the city, abandoning the arsenal and an important railhead on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. After the federal withdrawal to Carlisle Barracks on April 18, 1861, Virginia forces occupied the city the following day. They weren't really an army, just a ragtag group of Virginians emboldened by the Virginia Secession Convention's vote a few days earlier. Under the command of John Imboden they moved north from Winchester and entered the unprotected city.
Robert E. Lee ordered Thomas E. Jackson to remove the equipment from the arsenal on May 1. Jackson, who arrived the day before, began moving the contents of the armory south to Fayetteville, North Carolina, to a Confederate armory there. Lee knew the federals would mount an effort to retake the city as soon as possible. Command passed to Joe Johnston on June 30, 1861. Three days later, on July 2, 1861, Winfield Scott ordered Robert Patterson across the Potomac into Virginia to advance on Harper's Ferry. Scott had two objectives: first, he wanted control of the B&O Railroad from Baltimore to Cincinnati and second, he wanted to divert Confederate troops away from the Alexandria Line (between Washington D. C. and Richmond, Virginia), then located near Manassas Junction.
As Patterson entered Harper's Ferry on July 4, 1861, there was a skirmish with the Confederates, but Johnston had withdrawn most of his forces to Winchester, Virginia. Patterson could not hold Johnston in Winchester and some 7,000 men moved east by rail to turn the tide of battle at First Manassas - First Bull Run. As a direct result of this, Patterson was relieved of duty and General Nathaniel Banks replaced him. Harper's Ferry location, at the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley, made the area a frequent target for raiders, and skirmishes occurred throughout the rest of 1861, once more in July, twice in September, and three times in October. One of the October skirmishes is known as "the battle of Bolivar."
In September, 1862, Robert E. Lee decided to surround a garrison of some 13,000 Union soldiers under the command of Col. Dixon Miles. The garrison would block his supply/retreat route to the Shenandoah Valley from his position in Maryland. The first act in the Battle of Harpers Ferry was for J. E. B. Stuart to cut the telegraph line at Point of Rocks, Maryland, ending communication to and from Washington. Sending Stonewall Jackson and A. P. Hill while he marched to Frederick, Maryland, Lee counted on their quick success and return to the Army of Northern Virginia, now blocking the gaps in South Mountain. After capturing Maryland Heights on September 14, 1862, it was only a matter of time before the Union garrison holding the city would capitulate. The following day Miles was mortally wounded shortly after giving the order to surrender. At the time Cobb's Legion was battling William B. Franklin at Crampton's Gap, less than five miles from the city center.
Although George McClellan did not pursue Lee into the Shenandoah Valley following Antietam, he decided to retake Harper's Ferry so that he could preserve the route of the Baltimore and Ohio and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.
Map to Harper's Ferry
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1855 Springfield Rifle
Harpers Ferry was last changed on - December 16, 2007
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