Even though I could never live full-time in a small town or rural area, I sure do love visiting one, especially if it’s located in an area as physically stunning as Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. Set against the backdrop of the Appalachian Mountains, Harper’s Ferry is home to the meeting place of three states-West Virginia, Virginia, and Maryland. It’s also situated at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers and is one of only a few towns the Appalachian Trail passes directly through. With the mountains in the background and the waters of the rivers rushing into the steep gorge below the view if both beautiful and breathtaking.
I first visited Harper’s Ferry in middle school as part of a Civil War-themed trip. I was so enchanted with the town’s incredible vistas and the friendliness of the locals that I visited again with my mom years later on a weekend getaway that included both the town and the nearby battlefield of Antietam (the drive between the two places is roughly 30 minutes, making it the perfect Civil War road trip).
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.
One of my favorite things about Harper’s Ferry is something that has nothing to do with the Civil War. In fact, the significance of this site dates back more than 75 years before John Brown and his band of raiders ever arrived in the town. Jefferson Rock is a formation on the Appalachian Trail above lower Harper’s Ferry in Harper’s Ferry National Historic Park. It consists of several large masses of shale rock, piled one upon the other, that overlook the Shenandoah River. The name of this famous landmark is tied to Thomas Jefferson, who stood there on October 25, 1783. In Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson wrote that “this scene is worth a voyage across the Atlantic.” The first time I saw the view standing there I definitely concurred with Jefferson. It’s also one of those views that has stayed the same for centuries, a non-changing testament of time. At one time this western section of what was then the state of Virginia was “the west,” the “unknown.”
West Virginia may not have cosmopolitan cities or other world renowned attractions. However, its natural beauty is unparalleled and its Civil War past immensely rich. Harper’s Ferry is a delightful little town and one I encourage you to explore some day. What other small town has been visited by so many historical greats-George Washington (visited the area when searching for a waterway to ship goods west), Thomas Jefferson, Meriwether Lewis (he procured most of the weaponry and associated hardware that would be needed for THE Lewis and Clark Expedition at the armory in Harper’s Ferry), Robert E. Lee, W.E. DuBois-the visitor list is endless and you too should be added to it.