Jefferson County

Where the free Republic began

03/21/2011  |  BOB O’CONNOR
Celebrating History

With the beginning of the Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War starting in April 1861, we take a look today at the role Jefferson County, Virginia (now West Virginia) played.

The country had been awakened in October of 1859 by the actions of John Brown and his raid on Harpers Ferry. Historians cite John Brown’s attempt to capture the federal arsenal and guns at Harpers Ferry to free the slaves as the opening salvo of the conflict. In 1881, Frederick Douglass said, “If John Brown did not end the war that ended slavery, he did at least begin the war that ended slavery. If we look over the dates, the places and men, for which this honor is claimed, we shall find that not Carolina but Virginia — not Fort Sumter, but Harpers Ferry and the arsenal — not Colonel Anderson, but John Brown, began the war that ended American slavery and made this a free Republic.”

By the time Brown was hanged in Charlestown on December 2, 1859, America had taken sides. Those in the north and the south had different ideologies and thereby, looked at John Brown as a historic martyr or a madman, whichever suited them. Either way, Brown’s actions had added gasoline to the smoldering feelings of a nation by then quite divided.

With the election of Republican Abraham Lincoln, who received not even one vote in the southern states, South Carolina led a parade of states seceding from the Union. They formed their own Confederate States of America. Virginia was slow to accept secession. The locals favored the Union and in fact, the first vote by the Virginia convention in February favored staying with the Union by a vote of 122 to 30 against secession.

With the bombardment of Fort Sumter in the harbor at Charleston, South Carolina and the subsequent call of troops by President Lincoln, the Virginia convention met again. On April 17, Virginia delegates re-voted, this time favoring secession by a vote of 88 to 55. The following day, Virginia militia marched to Harpers Ferry and the federal arsenal. Arsenal employees set fire to the arsenal to keep the arms from falling into enemy hands.

Within a few days, local Virginia boys from nearby Shepherdstown , Charlestown and the surrounding area ascended upon Harpers Ferry to enlist in the Confederate army. They became part of the 2nd Virginia Infantry. The boys camped on the hill above Harpers Ferry at Bolivar Heights. General Joseph Johnston sent a young instructor from Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia, to train the young recruits. That man was Colonel Thomas J. Jackson.

Jackson trained his men morning, afternoon and night, causing some of the boys to protest and grumble. They thought he was working them too hard.

The command of the Confederate army determined that the encampment at Bolivar Heights was not defensible and moved the men. The 2nd Virginia burned the bridges along the Potomac River, the dividing line between the north and the south and then marched to Martinsburg, Virginia. There Jackson’s men burned the Baltimore and Ohio railroad roundhouse and much of the railroad stock. They removed many of the railroad engines to Winchester, Virginia for possible use on the CSA railroads.

At the end of June, Jackson moved his men north of Martinsburg, in an attempt to head off a Union force amassing at Williamsport, Maryland and heading into Virginia. That invasion took place in the early morning hours of July 2, 1861 when General Robert Patterson brought about 35,000 Union soldiers into the Commonwealth of Virginia, crossing the Potomac River and marching toward Martinsburg. Jackson’s much smaller force including several artillery and about 3,500 of his men, slowed the enemy down, but was in no position to do much damage. Jackson retreated as the Union army marched towards Martinsburg. Patterson’s forces procrastinated around Martinsburg, and then instead of following Jackson, Patterson sent his men to Charlestown where they camped.

Shortly after that, on July 21, Jackson’s forces reinforced Confederate forces at Manassas, Virginia (in the battle of Bull Run/first Manassas) and Patterson was relieved of command. Just prior to Bull Run, Jackson had received word that he had received a new rank and was now General Thomas J. Jackson. Following the actions in that battle, he became known as “Stonewall” Jackson, a name he said he would rather have conferred on his men.

In looking back, the “famed “Stonewall” brigade who performed throughout the war and even after their leader was killed, was actually born at Bolivar Heights, right above the visitors center at Harpers Ferry, Virginia.

Today a visit to Jefferson County West Virginia offers many sites to see the actual places and mementos left that help tell the story of the early Civil War. Visit the Harpers Ferry national Historical Park and see the town as it looked in 1859 when John Brown and his men captured the federal arsenal. Several short movies in the John Brown building will acquaint you to that story. The national park information can be found on their website at The education department at the national park has a significant number of educational programs for groups.

You can see several John Brown items with a visit to the Jefferson County Museum in Charles Town where you can see the wagon that carried him to his execution, the gurney he sat on in the courtroom during his trial, a pike he had made to arm the slaves, the desk he used, a door from his jail cell and other significant Brown-related items.

Contact the museum at 304-725-6828 or visit The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday 11-4 and can accommodate groups.

A short distance from the museum is the courthouse where the Brown trial was held. Down the street is the executive site.

At Bolivar Heights, a short trail with a series of interpretive signs gives you the feel of the Confederate camp where the Stonewall brigade was original trained. In September 1862, Union soldiers camped on the heights, only to be captured by Stonewall Jackson, who of course had been very familiar with the ground. The 12,500 Union troops who surrendered was the largest surrender during the entire Civil War.

Ranger walks in the lower town will help identify war related sites and activities that took place there.

Check the park calendar of events ( for details, including times of programs and events concerning the Civil War.

Bob O’Connor is a historian and author of five books on the Civil War. His website is
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