An hour and a half from Washington, D.C. you’ll find Harpers Ferry, site of one of the most famous and consequential acts of political terrorism in American history. On the night of October 16, 1859, abolitionist John Brown and 21 other men attacked and captured the U.S. Armory there. Their goal was to use the armory’s 100,000 rifles and muskets to arm the slaves of Virginia and launch a guerilla war against slaveholders, one Brown hoped would spread across the South. The plan went awry when, on October 18, a party of Marines under the command of then-Colonel Robert E. Lee stormed in, killed half the men, and captured half of the rest. Just five escaped. Brown was hanged barely two weeks later.
The event terrified supporters of slavery. Many were convinced that Brown represented the true face of abolitionism and that Republicans like Abraham Lincoln were lying when they said they only wanted to halt the spread of slavery to new states. When Lincoln was elected, they were sure they had no choice but to secede.
Today, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park comprises nearly 4,000 acres in Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. It surrounds the small town of Harpers Ferry, home to some 300 residents and full of shops. You can tour John Brown’s Fort (the armory building where he and his men made their last stand) and learn a lot about life in the 19th century by visting a preserved boarding house, a Provost Marshal’s office, a blacksmith shop, clothing and weapons factories, and much more.
You can also visit the field of the Battle of Harpers Ferry, a precursor to the Battle of Antietam and the occasion of the largest single surrender of Union troops during the Civil War, with nearly 12,500 men captured.
2009 marked the 150th anniversary of John Brown’s raid. The four states and four counties surrounding Harpers Ferry joined together to put on a yearlong slate of special historical programs. For more information, visit www.johnbrownsraid.org, or visit the National Park web site at www.nps.gov/hafe.
Harpers Ferry National Historical Park
Hours: The park is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Years Day.
Admission: $10 per car, or $5 per person arriving on foot or bicycle.
Parking: On site.
Metrorail: Not accessible by Metro. MARC commuter trains run to and from Harpers Ferry, but they run in the wrong direction for most day-trippers (two from Harpers Ferry to Washington, D.C. in the morning, and three from Washington, D.C. to Harpers Ferry in the evening). Amtrak runs one train a day in each direction, with the same proviso. Your best bet is to drive. Coming from Washington, D.C. itself, take the Beltway to I-270 North in Maryland, then get on I-70 West at Frederick. Take Exit 52 onto U.S. Route 340 and drive 22 miles to Harpers Ferry.
Antietam National Battlefield