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Doc. 34.-Harper's Ferry armory and history.

The recent appearance of the first instalment of several works devoted to the war, suggests to those who are familiar with the events the duty of correcting at once the errors necessarily incident to the haste with which these volumes have been prepared before such errors are permanently incorporated into the recognized authorities on the subject of the rebellion. And an article in a late number of a popular magazine is so palpably deficient in fact, and so erroneous in deduction, as to call for a response. In truth, histories of the great rebellion are so rapidly multiplying that the power of the press seems to be severely taxed to supply the demand, the varieties being suited to every taste, from the baffled malignity and dismal lamentations which form a pleasing climax to that gem in the literature of treason known as the “Lost cause,” to the ponderous compilations which make up the pages of the “Rebellion record.” Very little time has been lost “in the improvement of the subject,” and writers and publishers have been alike anxious to

Catch, ere she change, the Cynthia of the minute.

Whether there has not possibly been an undue haste in the preparation of these works, whether the facts have been sought and eliminated with sufficient industry and care, whether reference has been had in all cases to the best authorities, and whether the passions and prejudices pertaining to the conflict have sufficiently subsided to secure a thoroughly faithful and impartial narrative of events so complicated and momentous, are questions which I do not propose to discuss. All will admit, however, that every fact which is not below the dignity of history is worthy of being told correctly; and it cannot be altogether uninteresting or unprofitable to glance at some of the statements touching one incident which marked the commencement of the rebellion, and to show how widely these statements vary from the whole truth. As every work on the subject of the war to which the writer has had access pretends to describe this incident with more or less minuteness, the facts connected therewith may be considered of sufficient consequence to justify an appeal to the testimony as found in the official records. The substance of what is herein related may be found in the evidence given before the committee of the senate which investigated the matter, and of which Mr. Senator Grimes was the acting chairman.

This historic perversion has finally assumed so considerable a magnitude as to be found in the newspaper and the magazine; in the incidental summaries of the biographer, in the more elaborate disquisitions of the historian, and in the quasi authoritative reports of the war department. In his history of the “American conflict,” Mr. Greeley introduces the fiction with commendable brevity; Mr. Lossing, according to the character and purpose of his work, goes more into detail, and supports himself by a formidable array of marginal references; the authors of Harper's “Pictorial history” repeat the story with additions, and General Strother, who was on the ground, and who ought to have known, and evidently intended to narrate the facts in his spirited sketch in Harper's Magazine for June, 1866, indorses the general error. In Holland's admirable life of Mr. Lincoln, the story is thus told:--

“The government works at Harper's Ferry were blown up and burned by Lieutenant Jones, in command of a company of regulars, moved by the intelligence of an advance of a large confederate force.” Mr. Secretary Cameron, whose forgetfulness, as will be shown, is very extraordinary, in his official report at the extra session of Congress in 1861 uses the following language:--

“In this connection it is a pleasurable duty to refer to the very gallant action of Lieutenant Roger Jones, at Harper's Ferry, and the handsome and successful manner in which he executed the orders of the government at that important post.” Other quotations are not necessary, as the essence of the fiction is contained in these two brief passages, though in the “histories” referred to the story is considerably amplified and embellished. Lieutenant Jones was never in command at Harper's Ferry. For several [321] months preceding the assault on Fort Sumter he had been stationed at the armory in command of a guard of about fifty men. The superintendent of the armory was a delegate to the Richmond convention, but though elected as a Union man, voted with the majority for secession, and immediately hastened home to surrender his command to the traitors. On the day that Virginia “seceded,” Captain Kingsbury, of the ordnance department, then on duty in Washington, was ordered, at the suggestion of General Scott, to proceed immediately to Harper's Ferry and assume command.

That order was couched in the following terms:--

Adjutant General's office, Washington, April 17, 1861.
Sir: By direction of the Secretary of War you will immediately proceed to Harper's Ferry, Virginia, and perform the duties of superintendent of the armory at that place until further orders.

I am, Sir,

Very respectfully, &c.,


L. Thomas, Adjutant-General. To Captain Charles P. Kingsbury, Ordnance Department.

Should it occur to the reader that there is a slight discrepancy between the language of Mr. Cameron's report as already quoted, and the terms of this order, I must refer him to that ex-official for an explanation. And it would also be satisfactory if a copy of “the orders of the government,” which were “executed in such a handsome and successful manner,” could be furnished at the same time by the Secretary. Before leaving Washington, Captain Kingsbury received verbal instructions from General Scott. On the morning of the eighteenth of April he assumed control of the armory. The ordinary operations of the post were continued until after the arrival of the first passenger train from the east. On that train came the late Superintendent of the armory with a few friends, and their advent was signalized by a disloyal demonstration on the part of a crowd in attendance upon the depot. The cry, “Virginia will take care of Harper's Ferry!” was loudly and defiantly repeated. An intense excitement soon prevailed in the village, and extended to the shops. It was evident, from the confidence of the traitors, that in their opinion the place would soon be in their possession, and if it was to be defended no time must be lost in organizing the Union forces. The shops were accordingly closed, by order of Captain Kingsbury; the men were assembled, and in a brief address the commanding officer described the situation, and called for volunteers. The workmen had been formed into military companies since the John Brown raid. All who were faithful to their allegiance, and willing to protect and defend the property of the United States, were directed to assemble with their company organizations at one o'clock P. M. The order was received with applause; the men dispersed, as was supposed, for their arms and equipments; but the appointed hour arrived, and brought with it no such force as had been expected. Only a small number of the men employed responded to the appeal, and it was uncertain, in view of the active and evil influences then at work around them, how many of these could be relied on at the decisive moment. To attempt to defend the post with the small detachment of regulars, would have been preposterous; for before one o'clock it was believed, on the authority of a telegram from Washington, that an armed force was en route from Richmond to capture the place, and secure the fifteen thousand arms which were still in store, and which Floyd and his coadjutors had been unable to dispose of. There was then but one alternative by which to defeat the purpose of the traitors, and the destruction of the arms became a military necessity. About three o'clock P. M. a report was received that several Virginia companies were marching from Charlestown to the Ferry, and it was also ascertained that the agents of the railroad to Winchester had been specially instructed to keep the track clear that night, which was an unusual order, as only day trains were habitually run upon that road. As the necessity for active measures arose much sooner than had been anticipated the preparations were necessarily hastily made; and as the civil employees of the government could not be relied upon, the details of the affair were of course confided to Lieutenant Jones and his men. The powder belonging to the armory was in the magazine on the heights, and orders were given by Captain Kingsbury to have it transferred where it would be at once available. Government powder is packed in barrels, holding one hundred pounds each, and these, from their size, could not be conveyed to the storehouses containing the arms without revealing the fact, and possibly exciting suspicion as to the object of the transfer. Fortunately several small kegs were found, which proved to have been carried thither by John Brown, and which were admirably adapted to the holy and patriotic purpose for which it was now wanted. The boxes containing the arms were so arranged as to be most favorable to ignition, the fagots were piled and the powder distributed, ready for the application of the fire at the given signal. Care was taken in the arrangement of the powder to prevent, as far as practicable, any injury to private dwellings or their occupants by the explosion; and as the prime object of the Virginia expedition was plainly the seizure of the arms, their destruction was considered of such importance as not to be hazarded by a diversion of the means to other parts of the establishment. It therefore became necessary to rely upon the natural combustibility of the materials for the destruction of the workshops and machinery. Between nine and ten o'clock P. M. a gentleman arrived from the direction of Charlestown, and reported that about two thousand men were within a short distance of the place. As this information appeared reliable, the match was soon applied to the trains already laid in the arsenals, and to the combustible materials in the carpenter's [322] shop, and the room containing the gunstocks. The rifle works, in which there were but a small number of finished arms, on account of their remoteness, could not be conveniently fired. As soon as the buildings were fairly lighted, Lieutenant Jones with his guard left for Hagerstown, while Captain Kingsbury was hardly authorized to leave then, and, was also unwilling to depart before learning the result of his efforts to baffle the Richmond conspirators. For sometime after the beginning of the conflagration the streets of the village were deserted. At length one man, who appeared more enterprising than his neighbors, entered one of the burning arsenals and hauled therefrom into the street a box of arms. On opening it, and not finding the rifle muskets he evidently expected, he rushed again towards the building for the probable purpose of trying his luck upon another, when the first discharge of old John Brown's powder caused him to recoil, and it is believed that no other attempt was made to enter the storehouses before the contents were destroyed. Captain Kingsbury, therefore, had the gratification of ascertaining, that although the shops and machinery were not seriously damaged, of the fifteen thousand or sixteen thousand rifles and muskets in store, which were intended to arm the battalions of treason, only a few hundred--and not thousands, as has been stated — that were scattered among the buildings escaped destruction.

The entire responsibility of the affair thus devolved upon Captain Kingsbury. He sought to defend the place by arming the operatives, and when this was found impracticable, it was by his orders and through his instrumentality that the only means at hand were made available to destroy the arms, and thus defeat the object of the assault.

Of all those engaged in the affair he was the only one exposed to personal peril. At one time, surrounded by an infuriate mob, with a bayonet at his breast, he might probably have been the first victim of the rebellion but for the generous interposition of a gentleman present, to whom he was almost a stranger. A citizen of Harper's Ferry thus wrote to him, on the twenty-fifth of April: “The feeling against you rose very high, and I was glad to learn that you had left the place. If you had not, I have no doubt but your person would have sustained injury.” After escaping from the hands of his captors, Captain Kingsbury was enabled, by a night tramp of twenty-two miles over the cross-ties of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, to reach Washington on the evening of the nineteenth, where he found, on his arrival, that the pressure of official duty was such that he had no time to make a written report of his conduct. That, however, was not then necessary, as the facts were not only well known in military circles, but also among the rebel sympathizers of the capital. Yet, notwithstanding all this, the name of the officer who originated the movement, and carried it to a successful conclusion, was suppressed at the time by the northern papers, and carefully excluded from an official report of the affair by the very Secretary by whose order he was thus suddenly placed in a position of such responsibility; and the same version or perversion of the facts is still reproduced by all the historians of the rebellion. But while Captain Kingsbury's name was thus systematically ignored at the north, and by the war department of the government, his efforts for the cause of the Union were promptly recognized and appreciated elsewhere. In the “Staunton (Va.) Spectator,” and other southern newspapers, he was denounced for his action at Harper's Ferry as a “diabolical monster,” and his name held up for reproach and execration among his friends and relatives at the south.

A brief glance at the circumstances connected with the attack on Harper's Ferry will show that the events of that night probably had a far more important bearing upon the final result of the rebellion than has ever been publicly ascribed to them. The object of Wise — who it was understood originated the raid — and his fellow-conspirators was, evidently, to capture the arms, proceed at once to Baltimore, arm the ruffians then having control of that city, and complete the then easy conquest of the national capital. An extra locomotive of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, with steam on, was in waiting at the Harper's Ferry bridge; a mysterious party from Baltimore was on the ground, one of whom positively refused the use of the engine to carry Captain Kingsbury beyond the power of the mob from which he had just made his escape; and the next day — the day of the slaughter of the Massachusetts troops — these arms would doubtless have been in the hands of the myrmidons of treason on a triumphal march to Washington.

This view of the matter is forcibly presented in Abbott's history of the rebellion, and is sustained by the following extracts from letters written by officers holding at that time high position in the military service. General Craig, who was then Chief of Ordnance, thus writes: “There can be no doubt the destruction of the arms there (Harper's Ferry) was cause of great disappointment to the conspirators, who evidently calculated on being able by their means to equip a force sufficient to capture the capital, half filled as it was with traitors and lukewarm officials.” General Cullum, who was then on the staff of Lieutenant-General Scott, writes as follows: “It was doubtless the design of the rebels to procure arms there (Harper's Ferry) and move on Baltimore. Washington was doubtless the ultimate point of attack; but the whole rebel project failed by the destruction of the arms at Harper's Ferry.” If these views are correct, is it not probable that not only the capital, but the nation, was thus saved? For if the traitors had then obtained possession of Washington, the concession of belligerent rights by France and England would have been promptly followed by unconditional recognition, and the bastard progeny of rebellion — to quote the language of Edmund Burke, similarly applied — begotten “in a drunken delirium, produced by hot spirits drawn from the alembic of hell,” would have become legitimatized by a successful revolution.

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