160 Years Ago Today: Harpers Ferry Armory Burned

First Lieutenant Roger Jones, a cousin of Robert E. Lee, was on recruiting duty at Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania when ordered to take a small force south through Maryland to protect the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, a small mountain town nested at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. Though Virginia had not yet formally seceded, rumors swirled that Virginia militia planned to seize the arsenal with its stand of arms and all its manufacturing equipment.

On the evening of Thursday, April 18, 1861, Jones reported that a large militia force was gathering three to four miles away in Halltown, and that he had prepared the arsenal for destruction to prevent it from falling into the insurgents’ hands.

“I telegraphed this evening to General Scott that I had received information confirming his dispatch of this morning, and later to the Adjutant-General that I expected an attack tonight. I have taken steps which ought to insure my receiving early intelligence of the advance of any forces, and my determination is to destroy what I cannot defend, and if the forces sent against me are clearly overwhelming, my present intention is to retreat into Pennsylvania.”

The young cavalry officer had every reason to be worried.

In dramatic fashion at the Virginia Secession Convention in Richmond the previous day, Wednesday, April 17, former Virginia governor Henry A. Wise rose with pistol in hand to declare that militia were already on route to seize the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. He said:

“I know the fact, as well as I can know it without being present at either the time or place, that there is a probability that blood will be flowing at Harper’s Ferry before night. I know the fact that the harbor of Norfolk has been obstructed last night by the sinking of vessels. I know the fact that at this moment a force is on its way to Harper’s Ferry to prevent the reinforcement of the Federal troops at that point. I am told it is already being reinforced by 1,000 men from the Black Republican ranks. I know the fact that your Governor has ordered reinforcements there to back our own citizens and to protect our lives and our arms. In the midst of a scene like this, when an attempt is made by our troops to capture the navy yard, and seize the Armory at Harper’s Ferry, we are here indulging in foolish debates, the only result of which must be delay, and, perhaps, ruin.”

Virginia Governor John Letcher, in fact, had ordered no such thing. Henry Wise himself had been among those who planned to seize the arsenal to give Virginia an advantage in what he saw as an inevitable conflict.

U.S. Senator from Virginia, James Murray Mason, who abandoned his Senate office to take a position in the Provisional Confederate Congress, telegraphed to Confederate President Jefferson Davis:

“You may rely now that Virginia will secede, and promptly. Vessels sunk last night in the harbor at Norfolk to cut off the navy-yard, and troops ordered there to sustain the movement. Harper’s Ferry Arsenal to be seized at once.”

Henry Wise’s words, alongside other events, had the desired effect, and the Convention adopted a resolution to secede 88 to 55.

At Harpers Ferry the next evening, around 9pm, First Lieutenant Roger Jones telegraphed “A courier has just reported the advance of the troops from Halltown.”

The Virginia militia numbered anywhere from 900 to 5,000, growing larger as the night wore on. The assembling troops formed what would become the 2nd Virginia Infantry Regiment, with 250-300 men from the Jefferson Guards under Col. James W. Allen arriving in Halltown first.

The Rendezvous of the Virginians at Halltown, Virginia, 5 P.M. on April 18, 1861, to march on Harper’s Ferry.
Sketch by David Hunter Strother in Harper’s Weekly (New York) 11 May 1861.

At around 10pm, Jones ordered his men to destroy the arsenal and retreat back across Maryland into Pennsylvania. A correspondent for Harper’s Weekly described the scene: “there was seen in the direction of the armory a flash, accompanied by a report like the discharge of a cannon, followed by a number of other flashes in quick succession, and then the sky and surrounding mountains were lighted with the steady-glare of ascending flames.”

Four men went missing and two deserted during the evacuation. Later, three of the missing men turned up and said the Virginians managed to put out the fire in the workshops, but that the small arms had been completely destroyed.

Local residents acted quickly to help put out the fire and save the equipment, which was removed to Richmond and formed the basis of Virginia’s arms manufacturing during the war. A government audit later determined 4,287 weapons were destroyed, and the total loss in arms and equipment amounted to approximately $1 million.

Read primary sources from this dramatic event in American history:

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