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Harpers Ferry Armory in 1862

Harpers Ferry Armory, more formally known as the United States Armory and Arsenal at Harpers Ferry, was the second federal armory commissioned by the United States government. It was located in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia (then part of Virginia), while the first federal armory was the Springfield Armory located in Springfield, Massachusetts. In many books the town is called “Harper’s Ferry” with an apostrophe.[1]

The national armory has been associated with many prominent historical events throughout the history of the United States. Harpers Ferry National Armory was both an armory and an arsenal. An arsenal is a place for the storage and the production of larger caliber arms, such as cannons & howitzers and military equipment while an armory is a facility for the manufacture & storage of small caliber arms, such a rifles, carbines & machine guns.


Harpers Ferry[]

Robert Harper founded the community of Harpers Ferry in the mid-18th century. Robert Harper was born in 1718 in Oxford Township near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Since he was a builder, Harper was asked by a group of Quakers in 1747 to build a meeting house in the Shenandoah Valley near the present site of Winchester, Virginia.[verification needed] Traveling through Maryland on his way to the Shenandoah Valley, Harper proceeded to the area where the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers met. Attracted and amazed by the ample latent waterpower that resided in the rivers and by the strategic location for travel and transport, Harper obtained a patent for 125 acres (0.51 km2) of the land in 1751.[verification needed] He built a ferry to cross the Shenandoah River to help pioneers reach their destination in the new western lands. After the creation of the ferry, more people were attracted to the area and it became a transportation hub dotted with flourishing businesses.

The national armory[]

In 1794, the United States Congress passed a bill calling "for the erecting and repairing of Arsenals and Magazines". President George Washington, given wide latitude in carrying out this order, selected Harpers Ferry, then a part of Virginia, for the location of the Harpers Ferry National Armory.[2] In 1796, the United States government purchased a 125-acre (0.51 km2) parcel of land from the heirs of Robert Harper. Subsequently in 1799, construction began on the national armory. Three years later, mass production of military arms commenced.[2]

The national armory at Harpers Ferry was actually the second national armory. The first was the Springfield Armory, constructed in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1794 after Congress approved the bill to create the nation's first national armory.

Upon its grand opening, the armory's size seemed inadequate for a work force. It consisted of only one room, and the workers numbered a mere twenty-five. Nevertheless, the armory produced many muskets, rifles, and later pistols for the United States. The average annual production rate was estimated to have been ten thousand weapons per year.[citation needed] The building relied on river power to drive the armory's machinery.

In 1811 the M1819 Hall rifle was designed by Captain John Hall. In 1819 it was adopted by the U.S. Army and produced at Harpers Ferry.

Expansion and upgrades[]

Gun smithing equipment on display at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park

In 1844, the deficient state of the armory was taken into account and demand for military equipment increased, and so the renovation and expansion of the armory was undertaken. The upgrades of the arsenal began in 1845-1854 with the construction of seven brand new workshops and the installation of 121 new machines.[2] The new workshops had a brick superstructure with iron framing and slanted sheet metal roofing. These reconstructed arsenal buildings became collectively known as the "U.S. Musket Factory".[2] The armory canal was enlarged so that more water could get to the armory, which meant it would receive more power. Along with the enlargement of the canal, seven new water turbines were installed. Furthermore, heavier mill work was put into the building,[Clarification needed] which meant stronger metal equipment used for making the equipment. All the expansions of the armory were done on a heavy stone foundation.[citation needed]

In addition, more people were employed to work at the armory than before: the labor force increased from a minuscule twenty-five in 1802 to about four hundred workers in 1859.[2] Furthermore, the working conditions improved, but only slightly.

John Brown's Raid[]

In 1859, the armory became the site of the famous seizure by abolitionist John Brown, which, while unsuccessful in inciting a slave revolt, helped precipitate the American Civil War and the eventual emancipation of slaves in the United States.

During the Civil War[]

While Virginia was still in the union, the armory regularly shipped manufactured weapons and material throughout the United States. However, once the Civil War began, the national armory became a vital control point for both the Confederates and the Union.

Close to the beginning of the war on April 18, 1861, just a day after Virginia's conventional ratification of secession, Union soldiers, outnumbered and deprived of reinforcements, set fire to their own armory in an attempt to thwart the usage of it by an advancing Virginian Confederate militia numbering 360 men in all. Harpers Ferry residents (many of who made their living off the armory) were able to put out the fires swiftly enough to save most of the armory's weapon-making machinery. After rescuing the equipment, the Confederates shipped it south.[Clarification needed] Two weeks later, the Confederates abandoned Harpers Ferry. The Southern forces confiscated what was left in the armory and burned the rest of the remaining armory buildings.[2] They also blew up the railroad bridge of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.[verification needed]

The armory's strategic location[]

During the Civil War, the armory became a site of great strategic importance because it was located very close to the Mason-Dixon line, or the border between the free and the slave-holding states. Consequently, the Union used it as an effective means to supply troops with weapons quickly as they marched into battle. The downside to being on the border was that the armory could easily change hands and fall into Confederate control - the armory changed hands a total of seven times during the Civil War.[citation needed]

Furthermore, the armory proved to be a very strategic location as a battleground because it was situated beside a major river (the Potomac) which served as a natural defense on the north side.[verification needed] Another feature is that almost the whole area of Harpers Ferry is surrounded by mountains, which supplemented the defense provided by the river.[verification needed] However, transportation was easily facilitated, as the B&O railway ran along the area where the armory was.

Aftermath of the Civil War[]

After the Civil War, John Brown's Fort was the only building to survive the destruction wrought upon it by the Confederates and the Union. The building was named after John Brown for his notorious raid on the Harpers Ferry Armory in 1859. The building was the armory's fire engine and guard house.[2]

Today the site is mostly covered by railroad track embankments.

See also[]


  1. For example, Horace Greeley, The American Conflict: A History of the Great Rebellion in the United States of America, 1860-64. Volume: 1. (1866), p. 279; French Ensor Chadwick, Causes of the Civil War, 1859-1861 (1906) p. 74; James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (1988), p. 201; Stephen W. Sears, Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam (2003) p. 116.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 Wassel, Marsha (June 2, 2005). "Harpers Ferry NHP Armory and Arsenal". Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. Retrieved 2008-11-12. 

External links[]

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