April 18, 1861: Federal Soldiers Set Fire to Harpers Ferry Armory

Apr 18, 2018

Credit David Hunter Strother / Library of Congress

On April 18, 1861, U.S. Army regular soldiers and volunteers set fire to the U.S. Armory and Arsenal at Harpers Ferry. 

The day before, Virginia politicians had voted to secede from the Union and join the Confederacy. Confederates quickly targeted the Harpers Ferry Armory and Arsenal for its stockpile of guns. On April 18, 360 Virginia militiamen began a 10-mile march from Charles Town to seize the Armory.

Outnumbered more than five to one, Lieutenant Roger Jones, the Army commander at the armory, decided to abandon the site but not before torching the buildings in an attempt to keep the weapons out of Confederate hands.

When the pro-Southern militiamen arrived, they extinguished enough of the blaze to salvage most of the weapon-making machinery, which was transferred to the Confederate Armory in Fayetteville, North Carolina. In July 1861, the Confederates abandoned Harpers Ferry after setting fire to the rest of the Armory. The federal government never rebuilt the Armory and Arsenal, ending 62 years of weapon making at Harpers Ferry.

Today, the only remaining Armory building is the engine house, better known as John Brown’s Fort.