Destroying What I Cannot Defend

Harpers Ferry was the site of John Brown’s failed 1859 raid intended to spark a slave uprising. Located at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers in present-day West Virginia, it was the home of a massive U.S. arsenal that former Virginia Governor Henry A. Wise wanted to seize for the commonwealth. Located in northwestern Virginia, there was a large number of Unionists in the town, and their delegate to the Virginia secession convention had voted against leaving the Union. As such, alarm spread when, on the 18th, rumors abounded that Virginia militia was headed to seize the arsenal.

The rumors were confirmed when a force of 360 men under Captain Turner Ashby was seen nearby. Defending the arsenal were just 42 U.S. Army regulars under 1st Lieutenant Roger Jones. Ashby was waiting for news that Virginia had seceded before attacking Jones’s command. Jones wrote to his superiors at Washington at 9 p.m. on the 18th: “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 arsenal, which was surrounded by hills and bluffs, was virtually indefensible, especially in the face of a superior force. Therefore, when Jones received word that Ashby’s force was approaching, he decided to abandon Harpers Ferry. Jones reported the next day: “Finding my position untenable, shortly after 10 o’clock last night I destroyed the arsenal, containing 15,000 stand of arms, and burned up the armory building proper, and under cover of night withdrew my command almost in the presence of twenty five hundred or three thousand troops…”

Jones sent a second report on the 20th: “I gave the order to apply the torch. In three minutes or less, both of the arsenal buildings, containing nearly 15,000 stand of arms, together with the carpenter’s shop, which was at the upper end of a long and connected series of workshops of the armory proper, were in a blaze. There is every reason for believing the destruction was complete.”

The Federals hurried to burn the arsenal buildings before quickly retreating across the Potomac to Hagerstown, Maryland. Unbeknownst to Jones, residents had gone in and put out many of the fires after his command left, thereby leaving much of the armory intact.

Ashby had not yet decided to move against Jones, but when he saw the fires at the arsenal, he led his militia into the town. Seizing Harpers Ferry on the morning of the 19th, they found over 5,000 muskets still usable along with several thousand gun barrels and locks. The machinery to manufacture more weapons was also salvageable. Much of the machinery was transferred to Richmond, which began manufacturing weapons for the Confederacy.

The Federals fell back into Pennsylvania, where Jones received a message from Secretary of War Simon Cameron: “I am directed by the President of the United States to communicate to you, and through you to the officers and men under your command at Harper’s Ferry Armory, the approbation of the Government of your and their judicious conduct there, and to tender you and them the thanks of the Government for the same.”

Confederate President Jefferson Davis later noted that that the Lincoln administration issued thanks to Jones for destroying property at Harpers Ferry that belonged to all the states, and if the Confederate states were still part of the Union as President Abraham Lincoln maintained, then no such destruction would have been necessary. Lincoln had pledged in his inaugural address to “hold, occupy, and possess property and places belonging to the Government,” not destroy them.


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