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Harpers Ferry Under Fire

A Border Town in the American Civil War

by Dennis E. Frye; edited by Catherine Baldau (HFPA, 2012)

Introduction by Catherine Baldau

10:00 p.m. April 18, 1861

Lieutenant Roger Jones was in a quandary. Less than 24 hours ago he was on U.S. soil, charged with protecting the U.S. Armory and Arsenal, a vast Federal arms-making operation and stockpile of 15,000 weapons. Now he found himself in enemy territory, and the enemy—more than three times his size—was fast approaching.

This same town, these same arsenals, had been raided just 18 months earlier by a small band of abolitionists led by John Brown. Civilians had taken up arms; innocent townspeople were killed before local militia and a small force of U.S. Marines suppressed the raiders. Ever since, the residents had been on edge, fearful of rumored abolitionist attacks, and mistrusting of their neighbors whose mixed loyalties were exposed in the escalating secession rhetoric.

Earlier in the day, the announcement of Virginia’s secession incited riots in the streets. The crowd—half feeling betrayed and half euphoric to see their state join the Confederacy—finally quieted at dusk. They returned to their homes plagued with uncertainty. What if the war came to their town? What would happen to their jobs, their livelihoods? How would they protect their families? For Lieutenant Jones, the burning question remained: what about those 15,000 guns? What if they fell into Rebel hands with the U.S. capital just 60 miles away?

The answer lay before him in lines of gun powder twisting throughout the armory and arsenal buildings. Without hope for reinforcements, Jones sent a dispatch to his superiors: he would destroy what he could not defend. Shortly before 10:00 p.m. sentries informed Jones the enemy had reached the outskirts of town. The time to ignite the powder kegs had come....

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