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Virginia Seizes Harpers Ferry

April 18, 1861

After Union troops at Fort Sumter surrendered to the Rebel forces on April 14, 1861, events quickly followed that wrenched four more states out of the Union. The next day, April 15, President Lincoln called for 75,000 militiamen to put down the rebellion. The state of Virginia, forced at last to announce her allegiance in the coming struggle, refused to send her sons to fight her sister slave states. On April 16 a state convention met in Richmond intent on secession. That night, a group of avid secessionists, led by ex-governor Henry Wise, met secretly in Richmond’s Exchange Hotel and plotted to capture the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, wich was defended by a garrison of only 45 men. Wise said the Southern Confederacy should “draw the sword instead of blow the horn,” and orders to call out Virginia militiamen were issued in spite of Gov. John Letcher’s disapproval of the plan.

All the next day, three columns of Confederate militiamen advanced toward the river town, but their hoped-for surprise attack was not to be. One of the conspirators from the meeting in the Exchange Hotel had traveled quickly by rail and arrived at Harpers Ferry by noon, revealing Wise’s plan to the garrison commander. By evening, the Richmond convention had passed an ordinance of secession, and the Virginia militiamen were moving into position for a dawn attack.

Before first light on April 18, however, the Rebel commander on the heights above the town observed a fire at the arsenal. He sent in his men rapidly, but the Union garrison escaped across the river after first attempting to destroy the weapons and workshops. They were only partially successful. The Rebel militiamen saved more than 5,000 usable rifles and most of the machinery to manufacture them. Harpers Ferry’s strategic location gave Rebel control to a long section of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, a major lifeline for the city of Washington, D.C.

Fascinating Fact: A student company from the University of Virginia was one of the militia units moving toward Harpers Ferry. Among its ranks was a 17 year old boy named Robert E. Lee, Jr., son of the future Confederate general.