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Excerpts from Documents relative to the Harpers Ferry Invasion
appended to Governor Wise's Message

Doc. No. I. Governor's Message and Reports of the Public Officers of the State, of the Boards of Directors, and of the Visitors, Superintendents, and other Agents of Public Institutions or Interests of Virginia. Richmond: William F. Ritchie, 1859. Pp. 61-67

Appendix to Message I. Documents relative to the Harpers Ferry Invasion.

Letter of Col. Gibson to Governor Wise.

HARPERS FERRY, October 18, 1859.


Your order, per telegraph, dated Richmond, Va., the 17th instant, calling my "attention to section 1st, chapter 29, of the Code, and to the fact that the arsenal and government property at Harpers Ferry were in possession of a band of rioters," was not received till about 11 o'clock A. M. to-day, in consequence of the telegraphic posts round about here having been cut down by an audacious band of insurgents and robbers.

On the morning of the 17th instant I received information at Charlestown, that a band of abolitionists from the north had taken possession of the arsenal and workshops of the government located here; that they had killed several of our citizens, taken others, and held them as prisoners; and that they had in possession a large number of slaves, who on the night of the 16th instant were forcibly taken from their masters.

I immediately ordered out the Jefferson Guards and the citizens of Charlestown; which order was quickly responded to, and by 10 o'clock A. M. were armed and en route for this place.

We left Charlestown with about one hundred men; and on reaching Halltown (midway between Charlestown and Harpers Ferry) we learned that the insurgents were in large numbers; and we at once dispatched orders Col L. T. Moore of Frederick county, and to the Hamtramck Guards and Shepherdstown Troop, to reinforce us immediately. We reached Harpers Ferry about half past 11 o'clock A. M. and took our position on Camp hill. We immediately dispatched the Jefferson Guards, commanded by Capt. J. W. Rowan and Lieutenants H. B. Davenport, E. H. Campbell and W. W. B. Gallaher, to cross the Potomac river about one mile west of the ferry, and march down on the Maryland side, and take possession of the Potomac bridge, and a company of the citizens of Charlestown and vicinity, commanded by Capt. L. Botts and Lieut. F. Lackland, to cross the Winchester and Potomac rail road, by way of Jefferson rock, and take possession of the Galt house in rear of the arsenal, and commanding the entrance to the armory yard. Capt. John Avis and R. B. Washington, Esq., with a handful of men, were ordered to take possession of the houses commanding the yard of the arsenal. All these orders were promptly and successfully executed. The bridge across the Shenandoah river and that of the Baltimore and Ohio rail road at the west end of the trestle work, and the street leading from the rifle factory, were guarded by small detachments of men.

Between three and four o'clock P. M. the Hamtramck Guards, Shepherdstown Troop, and a company from Martinsburg, commanded by Capt. G. Alburtis, arrived on the ground. The company from Winchester, commanded by Capt. B. B. Washington, did not arrive till late in the evening.

All the insurgents, save those who were killed and wounded through the day, entered with their prisoners into the guard-house and engine-room just inside of the gate of the armory yard, which was firmly locked. About three o'clock P. M. the enemy, with the most prominent of their prisoners, concentrated in the engine room, leaving a large number of their prisoners fastened up in the guard-house. At this point, and after the arrival of the reinforcements from Shepherdstown and Martinsburg, Col. R. W. Baylor assumed the command, and will furnish you with the details of what followed.

The avowed and confessed object of the insurgents was to free the slaves of the south. They had at their head quarters near Harpers Ferry, 200 Sharpe's rifles, 200 revolvers, 1,000 pikes, a large number of picks and shovels, and a great quantity of ammunition and other things used in war. All these were taken, and are in possession of the federal government.

Very respectfully,

Your ob't serv't,
Comdt. 55th Regiment.

His Excellency HENRY A. WISE,
Governor of Virginia.

Letter of Col. Baylor to Gov. Wise.

CHARLESTOWN, Oct. 22, 1859.


Having received intelligence from Harpers Ferry, on the morning of the 17th instant, that the abolitionists had invaded our state, taken possession of the town, government property and arms, I immediately proceeded to the scene of action.

In passing through Charlestown, I met Col. Gibson, with the Jefferson Guards, under arms. We proceeded to Halltown in the cars, where the citizens of that place informed me I could proceed no further with the train, as not only the Winchester, but also the Baltimore and Ohio rail road track had been taken up. At this place I learned they had taken 75 or 100 of our citizens prisoners, and had carried off many of our slaves. Thereupon I issued the following order to Col. L. T. Moore of the 31st regiment of Virginia militia:

"OCT. 17, 1859.

Col. L. T. Moore:


You are ordered to muster all the volunteer forces under your command, fully armed and equipped, and report to me forthwith at Harpers Ferry.

Col. 3d Reg't Cavalry."

I placed the above order in charge of Capt. Bailey, the conductor on the Winchester road, and directed him to return with his train to Winchester and deliver the order to Col. Moore. I proceeded on with the few troops we had under arms, on foot, to Harpers Ferry, where we arrived about 12 o'clock. I found the citizens in very great excitement. By this time the insurgents occupied all the lower part of the town, had their sentinels posted on all the different streets, and had shot one of our citizens, and a negro man, who had charge of the depot on the Baltimore and Ohio rail road. I here formed two companies of the citizens, and placed them under the command of Capt. Lawson Botts and Capt. John Avis. Their forces were variously estimated at from 300 to 500 strong, armed with Sharpe's rifles and revolvers.

I detached the Jefferson Guards, under the command of Capt. Rowan, and ordered them to cross the Potomac river, in boats, about two miles above Harpers Ferry, and march down on the Maryland side, and take possessor of the bridge, and permit no one to pass. This order was strictly executed. The command under Capt. Botts was ordered to pass down the bill below Jefferson's rock, and take possession of the Shenandoah bridge; to leave a strong guard at that point, and to march down to the Galt house, in rear of the arsenal building, in which we supposed their men were lodged. Capt. Avis' command was ordered to take possession of the houses directly in front of the arsenal. Both of the above commands were promptly executed. By this movement we prevented any escape. Shortly after this, a report reached me that Geo. W. Turner and Fontaine Beckham, two of our most esteemed citizens, had been shot. About 4 o'clock we were reinforced by the arrival of the Hamtramck Guards, under the command of Captain Butler, the Shepherdstown Troop, under the command of Capt. Reinhart, and some thirty citizens of Martinsburg, under the command.of Capt. Alburtis. I ordered Capt. Alburtis to march down Potomac street, through the armory yard, to the arsenal. The Hamtramck Guards and the Shepherdstown Troop (dismounted and armed with muskets), under my command, proceeded down High street to the centre of the town, in front of the arsenal. During this march the insurgents having secreted themselves in the engine-house in the armory yard, opened a brisk fire on Capt. Alburtis' company. The fire was quickly returned by Capt. Alburtis' company, who behaved very bravely. The different companies near at hand rallied to Capt. Alburtis' rescue. The firing at this time was heavy, and the insurgents could not have retained their position many minutes, when they presented at the door a white flag. The firing thereupon ceased; and I ordered the troops to draw up in line in front of the arsenal. During this engagement and the previous skirmishes, we had ten men wounded - two I fear mortally. The insurgents had eleven killed, one mortally wounded, and two taken prisoners - leaving only five in the engine-house, and one of those seriously wounded.

In this engagement we rescued about thirty of our citizens whom they held as prisoners in the guard-house. They still held in the engine-house ten citizens and five slaves.

Immediately after the troops were withdrawn, Capt. Brown sent to me, through Isaac Russell, one of their prisoners, a verbal communication, stating, if I would permit him to cross the bridge with his prisoners, to some point beyond, he would set them at liberty. I sent him the following reply in writing:


Capt. John Brown:


Upon consultation with Mr. Isaac Russell, one of your prisoners, who has come to me on terms of capitulation, I say to you, if you will set at liberty our citizens, we will leave the government to deal with you concerning their property, as it may think most advisable.

Col. Commandant."

In reply, I received the following answer in writing:

"Capt. John Brown answers:

In consideration of all my men, whether living or dead, or wounded, being soon safely in and delivered up to me at this point, with all their arms and amunition, we will then take our prisoners and cross the Potomac bridge, a little beyond which we will set them at liberty; after which we can negotiate about the government property as may be best. Also we require the delivery of our horse and harness at the hotel.


To the above I returned the following answer:


Capt. John Brown:


The terms you propose I cannot accept. Under no consideration will I consent to a removal of our citizens across the river. The only negotiations upon which I will consent to treat, are those which have been previously proposed to you.

Col. Commandant."

These terms he declined. Night by this time had set in, and the weather being very inclement, I thought it best, for the safety of our citizens, whom they held as prisoners, to cease operations for the night. Should I have ordered an attack at that hour, and in total darkness, our troops would have been as likely to have murdered our own citizens as the insurgents, all being in the same apartment. Having concluded to postpone another attack until morning, guards were posted around the armory, and every precaution taken to prevent escape. Our troops by this time required some refreshment, having been on active duty, and exposed to a heavy fall of rain all day. A little after night we were reinforced by Col. L.T. Moore of 31st regiment, having under his command the Continental Guards, commanded by Capt. Washington, and the Rifles, commanded by Capt. Clarke - also three companies from Frederick, Maryland, under the command of Col. Shriver. About 12 o'clock Col. Lee arrived, having under his command eighty-five marines from Washington. The government troops took possession of the government property, and formed inside of the armory yard, in close proximity to the engine-house. In this position Col. Lee thought it best to remain until morning. The night passed without serious alarm, but not without intense excitement. It was agreed between Col. Lee and myself, that the volunteer forces should form around on the outside of the government property, and clear the streets of all citizens and spectators, to prevent their firing random shots, to the great danger of our soldiers, and to remain in that position whilst he would attack the engine-house with his marines. As soon as day dawned, the troops were drawn up in accordance with the above arrangement. After which, Col. Lee demanded of the insurgents a surrender, upon the terms I had before proposed to them, which they still declined. The marines were then ordered to force the doors. The attempt was made with heavy sledges, but proved ineffectual. They were then ordered to attack the doors with a heavy ladder, which was lying a short distance off. After two powerful efforts, the door was shattered sufficiently to obtain an entrance. Immediately a heavy volley was fired in by the marines, and an entrance effected, which soon terminated the conflict. In this engagement the marines had one killed and one slightly wounded. The insurgents had two killed and three taken prisoners. After the firing ceased, the imprisoned citizens walked out unhurt.

Ascertaining that the whole party within the town were either killed or taken prisoners, I disbanded all the troops, with the exception of the Jefferson Guards, whom I retained on duty to prevent any further disturbances, should they arise.

About 12 o'clock on Tuesday, information having been received that a large number of arms were secreted in a house in the mountain, the Independent Grays of Baltimore were dispatched to search for them. They returned about 6 o'clock, having found 200 Sharpe's rifles, 200 revolvers, 23,000 percussion caps, 100,000 percussion pistol caps, 10 kegs of gunpowder, 1,300 ball cartridges for Sharpe's rifles, 1 major general's sword, 1,500 pikes, and a large assortment of blankets and clothing of every description. On Wednesday the prisoners were placed in the custody of the sheriff of our county, and safely lodged in jail. Disturbances still occurring on the Maryland side of the river, I marched the Jefferson Guards over and made a thorough examination of their rendezvous - found it deserted, and every thing quiet. We returned about 6 o'clock to the ferry. Shortly after, there was another general alarm, which caused great excitement. The alarm was occasioned by a gentleman, residing in Pleasant valley, riding into town in great haste, and stating that he saw firing and heard the screams of the people, and that a large number of insurgents had collected, and were murdering all before them. Forthwith, Col. Lee, with thirty marines, proceeded to the spot, and the Jefferson Guards took possession of the bridge. In about three hours Col. Lee returned, the alarm having proved to have been false. Nothing further having occurred during the night to disturb the quiet of the town, on the following morning I disbanded the company, and returned home.

I feel it my duty, before closing this report, to state that the arms in the possession of the volunteer companies in this section of the state are almost worthless. I do not think we have 100 muskets in the county of Jefferson - a border county, and one the most exposed of all others. With such arms as we have, it is butchery to require our troops to face an enemy much better equipped. Col. Moore of the 31st regiment informs me, in his report, that out of one hundred and thirty-five men on duty, he had not thirty pieces that would fire with any effect.

If the state expects her volunteers to protect her, she must arm them better. Knowing the great interest that will be felt throughout the state, and to vindicate the honor and valor of the troops under my command, I have been more than necessarily minute in this report.

I am pleased to inform you that they obeyed every order with alacrity, and with a full determination to do their duty.

The prisoners were doing well, and I do not fear any attempt will be made to rescue them, or that any further disturbances will occur.

I have the honor to be,

Very respectfully,
Col. commanding the Va., Troops at Harpers Ferry.

Chapter Ten: The Raid

His Soul Goes Marching On

West Virginia Archives and History