While today it is a sleepy town of less than 300 residents, 200 years ago Harper's Ferry was a thriving industrial center. It was home to the United States Armory and Arsenal, one of only two such facilities in the country (the other was located in Springfield, Massachusetts). During its heyday, the armory produced more than 600,000 muskets, rifles, and pistols. As famous as it was for its industrial past, it's the events that occurred there on the evening of October 16, 1859 that most people will remember the town of Harper's Ferry for.
The first shots of the Civil War didn't begin until April 1861 but in 1859, a radical abolitionist by the name of John Brown led a group of 21 men in a raid on the Harper's Ferry Arsenal. Unlike other northern abolitionists who promoted peaceful resistance to those in support of slavery, Brown sought violent action against the slave-owning South. He had hoped to use the captured weapons to begin a slave uprising throughout the South. However, Brown's plans in West Virginia failed miserably. When the Federal Government first heard about the attack on the arsenal, waves of panic swept over the South with people fearing for their way of life (i.e. being solely dependent on the institution of slavery in order to live their lives). The raid was considered so dire that even a unit of the United States Marines led by Robert E. Lee was ordered to Harper's Ferry to fully contain it. After negotiations failed, the marines stormed the house where Brown and his remaining men had held up. In little more than a day, Brown's men had either fled, been killed or captured. Before the end of the year Brown was tried for treason against the State of Virginia, convicted, and hanged in nearby Charles Town.
When you walk the hilly streets of Harper's Ferry, it seems surreal that in the 1860s armies were literally fighting right there on its streets and surrounding mountains. The Battle of Harper's Ferry (a town that both the Union and Confederate Armies coveted) made the surrender at Harper's Ferry by the Union Army the largest surrender of United States military personnel until the Battle of Bataan in World War II.