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United States Armory and Arsenal at Harpers Ferry (1802-1861)
In the early years of the United States, all firearms issued to the military were either obtained from private manufacturers or imported from abroad. In 1794, Congress passed a bill mandating the establishment of national arsenals and armories. George Washington was given authority to determine how many to build and where. He ultimately chose two locations: Springfield, Massachusetts, and the rural town of Harpers Ferry in what is now West Virginia. Washington chose Springfield because it already had the infrastructure in place to support an armory; he chose Harpers Ferry because it was relatively close to Washington D.C., yet far enough inland to be secure from foreign invasion. The government was reluctant to accept Harpers Ferry due to its isolation and the high cost of building an armory there, but Washington insisted. The government purchased 125 acres of land from the descendants of Robert Harper in 1796 but construction of the armory did not begin until 1799. It originally consisted of several workshops, a canal, and a mill to harness waterpower for the machinery.
Full-scale production of arms began in 1802 with a workforce of twenty-five men. The armory was plagued with problems from the start. While it manufactured a wider variety of muskets, rifles, and pistols than its counterpart in Springfield, it still made fewer firearms overall and at a higher cost; while Springfield could manufacture 15,000 a year, Harpers Ferry only managed an average of 10,000 annually. Mismanagement, lack of sufficient waterpower, neglect, and problems adapting to new advances in gun manufacturing took its toll on the facility. By 1844, inspections found the armory in a dilapidated condition and it was soon decided to completely renovate it. From 1845 to 1854 the armory underwent extensive reconstruction. Changes included the addition of twenty-five new structures and seven workshops: the installation of 121 new machines, the enlargement of the canal to utilize more water power, and a more functional integration of the facilities to boost efficiency. The number of workers grew to 400.
In 1859, the armory became the target of John Brown’s raid, throwing Harpers Ferry into the national spotlight. Brown, a die hard abolitionist and a veteran of the Bleeding Kansas conflict, planned on distributing weapons from the armory to local slaves and begin a widespread insurrection to end slavery by force. On the night of October 16, Brown and a small band of followers managed to capture the armory. However, the anticipated slave uprising did not materialize and the raiders were soon surrounded. On October 18, a company of U.S. Marines under the command of Col. Robert E. Lee stormed the engine house, where the raiders had barricaded themselves, and quickly captured the survivors. In all seventeen people had been killed, including six civilians. John Brown would later be tried and executed in Charles Town. The armory was slightly damaged but soon resumed production.
As the Civil War broke out in 1861, Harpers Ferry soon became a place of contention due to its strategic location and the presence of the federal armory. On April 17, 1861 Virginia voted to secede from the Union, and several companies of militiamen were immediately dispatched to seize the armory. At the time Harpers Ferry was only guarded by Lt. Roger Jones and a force of sixty-five men. Knowing he was badly outnumbered, Jones ordered the torching of the armory before retreating on April 18. Although 15,000 arms and a few buildings were destroyed, local citizens managed to extinguish the flames before further damage could be done. When the Confederates arrived they seized the surviving weapons and began shipping the machinery to the armory in Richmond. On June 14, Confederate forces under Col. Joseph E. Johnston, fearful that Union forces would retake the town, burned the armory and withdrew. Two weeks later a group of Confederate raiders returned and destroyed the surviving remains. Harpers Ferry would change hands numerous times over the course of the war.
The armory was never rebuilt after the Civil War ended. The only structure to survive was the engine house that John Brown used as a fort during his raid, which stands 150 feet from its original location after being moved several times. Today, most of the site where the armory once stood is now covered by railroad embankments. The foundations of two arsenal buildings have been outlined and together with the engine house make up Arsenal Square.
Crosbie, Allison A., and Andrew S. Lee. Cultural Landscape Report For The United States Armory At Harpers Ferry And Potomac Riverfront. Boston, MA: National Park Service, 2009.
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