John Brown's Raid
On October 16, 1859, the radical abolitionist John Brown led a small group of 22 men in a raid on the Arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Five were black: three free blacks, one a freed slave, and one a fugitive slave. During this time assisting fugitive slaves was illegal even in the north, and morally unacceptable to most southern white communities. Brown attacked and captured several buildings; he hoped to use the captured weapons to initiate a slave uprising throughout the South. However, he and his men were quickly pinned down by local citizens and militia, and forced to take refuge in the engine house adjacent to the armory.
On October 18, United States Marines were sent via train to Harpers Ferry. Under the temporary command of U.S. Army Colonel Robert E. Lee, they stormed the fire house and killed or captured most of the raiders. Brown was tried for treason by the State of Virginia, convicted, and hanged in nearby Charles Town. Following the prosecution (by Andrew Hunter), "John Brown captured the attention of the nation like no other abolitionist or slave owner before or since." The failed raid was a catalyst for the American Civil War.
The Civil War was disastrous for Harpers Ferry, which changed hands eight times between 1861 and 1865. Because of the town's strategic location on the railroad and at the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley, both Union and Confederate troops moved through Harpers Ferry frequently. The town's garrison of 14,000 Federal troops played a key role in the Confederate invasion of Maryland in September 1862. General Robert E. Lee did not want to continue on to Pennsylvania without capturing the town, which was on his supply line and would control one of his possible routes of retreat if the invasion did not go well. Dividing his army of approximately 40,000 into four sections, he used the cover of the mountains and sent three columns under Stonewall Jackson to surround and capture the town. The Battle of Harpers Ferry started with light fighting September 13 to capture the Maryland Heights to the northeast while John Walker moved back over the Potomac to capture Loudon Heights south of town. After an artillery bombardment on September 14 and September 15, the Federal garrison surrendered. Lee, because of the delay and the movement of Federal forces west, was forced to regroup at the town of Sharpsburg, leading two days later to the fateful Battle of Antietam, and the bloodiest single day in American military history. When Virginia seceded in April of 1861 the US garrison attempted to burn the arsenal and destroy the machinery. Locals saved the equipment, which was later transferred to a more secure location in Richmond. Arms production never returned to Harpers Ferry. Shortly after the end of the Civil War, Harpers Ferry, along with all of both Berkeley and Jefferson Counties, was separated from Virginia and incorporated into West Virginia. The inhabitants of the counties as well as the Virginia legislature protested, but the federal government went ahead anyway, forming the West Virginia "panhandle" of today. Without the distraction of Union forces at Harpers Ferry during the Antietam campaign the North might not have won that crucial battle or, consequently, the war.
Current USS Harpers Ferry
USS Harpers Ferry (LSD 49) is the lead ship of her class of landing ship dock of the United States Navy. Harpers Ferry was laid down on 15 April 1991, at the Avondale Shipyards in New Orleans, she was launched on 16 January 1993 and commissioned on 7 January 1995.
In September 2002, Harpers Ferry relieved USS Germantown (LSD-42) as a forward-deployed warship based in Japan. In 2011, the two ships exchanged places again with the USS Harpers Ferry returning to San Diego, California as its homeport.
In December 2004 Harpers Ferry was deployed with the USS Essex Expeditionary Strike Group operating in the Northern Persian Gulf.
In August 2005 Harpers Ferry participated in Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT 2005)
In July 2007 Harpers Ferry participated in and was the flagship for CARAT 2007.
In February 2008 USS Harpers Ferry was deployed with the Essex Amphibious Ready Group (ARG). Harpers Ferry Sailors and embarked Marines performed humanitarian civic action projects throughout the western Pacific as part of Spring Patrol 2008.
In February 2009 USS Harpers Ferry was deployed with the Essex Expeditionary Strike Group which took part in Cobra Gold 2009. October 2009, Harpers Ferry participated in humanitarian rescue operations in the Pangasinan province, of the Philippines, following the impact of a typhoon that caused serious flooding.
In January 2010 Harpers Ferry conducted a spring patrol as part of the Essex ARG.
2011: Harpers Ferry was one of several ships participating in disaster relief after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. In March 2011 the commanders of the USS Harpers Ferry and USS Germantown swapped commands in preparation for a homeport swap that brought the Harpers Ferry back to the homeport of Dan Diego.