Celebration, Fear, Rage and Fire; Harpers Ferry Falls to the Rebels

Thursday, April 18, 1861

New York City was filled with celebration and fervor for the War. With the events at Fort Sumter and the call for troops, the North had been more galvanized than ever before. It was to this unbounded enthusiasm that the Sixth Massachusetts, having arrived by train in the early morning, marched down Broadway, flanked by multitudes of admirers waving good-bye to the boys heading off to war. The Sixth would take a train through New Jersey to sleep in Philadelphia for the night.1

Just after their Broadway parade, the Baltic glided into New York Harbor carrying the “Heroes of Fort Sumter.” Ferry boats and ships of all kinds clogged the harbor, each with their decks full of cheering and wildly waving supporters of the Union. They had been beaten and surrendered, but returned home as victorious luminaries.2


Fear in Washington

While there was unbridled applause in New York, there were rumors and fear in Washington. Word flew throughout town of Virginia’s secession (which was still technically a secret). Suddenly, the nation’s capital seemed almost surrounded by secessionists. With Virgina’s disunion to the south and Maryland’s shaky allegiance to the North, the city could be attacked in any number of ways. General-in-Chief Winfield Scott ordered the White House to be heavily guarded and barricades to be built in the streets.3


Rage in Baltimore

If fear had gripped Washington, anger flowed through the streets of Baltimore. The Maryland city, if not pro-secession, was definitely anti-Lincoln. His call for troops enraged many who, hearing that Pennsylvania militiamen answering the call were passing through their city, gathered as a mob to wait for them.

When the troops arrived, the crowds set upon the uniformed, but unarmed soldiers with jeers, taunts and a few bricks. A black man in uniform was singled out and attacked by an enraged assailant who pummeled him with brass knuckles. This unfortunate man was not even a soldier (as no black men could be soldiers in 1861), but a paid valet for an officer. That he was in uniform was enough to convince the mob that Lincoln was arming the negros for a mass uprising.

The regiment made it through town and boarded a train for Washington, arriving with their story after 9pm. The Pennsylvanians were put up in the empty House of Representatives.4

Maryland’s governor urged his people to preserve the peace. The mayor of Baltimore agreed. An anti-Lincoln rally was scheduled for the next morning and more Northern militiamen were soon to be passing through town on their way to Washington.


The First Fall of Harpers Ferry

While Baltimore seethed with rage, Harpers Ferry staggered around in confusion. James Barbour, a Unionist from Harpers Ferry, was sent to the Virginia secession convention by the citizens of Jefferson County to keep them (and thus Harpers Ferry and its US arsenal) in the Union. Having failed, he arrived on the morning train to break the news.

The news, however, sparked a small riot of fist fights and general brawls that lasted much of the day. Through this contention, rumors spread of uniformed Virginia militia gathering outside of town. This gossip turned out to be true.

Turner Ashby had gathered 360 men and a four-gun battery at Halltown, four miles west of Harpers Ferry. There, they awaited orders. Ashby wanted to seize the arsenal, but was still unclear of Virginia’s status in the Union. More Virginia reinforcements were on their way from Winchester, but Federal reinforcements were rumored to be on their way from Washington. The time to act was now.

First Lieutenant Roger Jones was in command of the US arsenal in Harpers Ferry. He had exactly 42 men to defend it. At 9pm, fearing that he would be attacked, he wired Washington to send “large bodies of troops” to reinforce him. It was too late, however. Everybody at the War Department had gone home for the evening. Jones was on his own.

Around the same time that Jones wired Washington, Ashby finally got the news that Virginia was out of the Union. The Virginians advanced east to Harpers Ferry (a good map of the area is here). About a mile from town, a Federal picket post called out for them to halt. Ashby ordered his men to load their muskets. As they moved towards the town, they captured four Federal pickets from Jones’s command.

A few of the town’s leaders met Ashby’s men and told them that Jones had been reinforced. This was a lie, but the Virginians couldn’t be sure.

Meanwhile, Jones and his remaining men, knowing they were greatly outnumbered prepared to set fire to the arsenal. At 10pm, when word came that the Virginia Militia were nearing the town, Jones ordered the arsenal and its 15,000 muskets to be destroyed. His men escaped across the covered railroad bridge into Maryland. A few anti-Union towns people armed with shotguns followed them, firing a few shots, but backed off when Jones formed a skirmish line.

As the last of Jones’s men slipped into the darkness, and as Ashby was still contemplating what to do, the arsenal exploded in a violent fireball shooting skyward. Ashby saw the flames and hurried his men into town. Jones had escaped, the arsenal was leveled and the bridge across the Potomac was rumored to be set with charges, but still, thousands of arms and the machinery to produce more weapons were saved.

More Virginia militia were on their way to Harpers Ferry to secure the town and the arsenal, both of which had been taken without a shot being fired (officially).5

  1. Dissonance by David Detzer. []
  2. Reminiscences of Forts Sumter and Moultrie in 1860-’61 by Abner Doubleday. []
  3. Dissonance by David Detzer. I’d like to apologize for using this secondary source to the extent that I am. Detzer delivers an amazingly detailed account of the days between Sumter and Bull Run. I just wish he’d have used more footnotes. []
  4. Dissonance by David Detzer. []
  5. Six Years of Hell: Harpers Ferry During the Civil War by Chester G. Hearn, LSU Press, 1999 as well as bits from Dissonance by David Detzer. How this isn’t seen as the first land battle of the Civil War is beyond me. []
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Celebration, Fear, Rage and Fire; Harpers Ferry Falls to the Rebels by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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