[the rugged topography surrounding Harpers Ferry was extensively surveyed during the Civil War; this map, made in 1863, clearly shows the Potomac and Shenandoah passing through the Blue Ridge Mountains, with the low point at the confluence occupied by the Harpers Ferry Arsenal and Armory, and the small incorporated town of Bolivar (named for the Liberator himself) located uphill on the way out of town to the west]
[The towns of Harpers Ferry and Bolivar today, surrounded by National historical parkland; the Amtrak railroad still stops in Harpers Ferry, though the highway passes the towns on the southern Virginia edge of the pass before switching over to the Maryland side just downstream]
[the booming site of Harpers Ferry at the start of the Civil War; the railroad and power canals are built, along with large industrial factories including flour and saw mills, in addition to the Arsenal and Armory; worker's housing lines the roads out of town, which is surrounded by a wooden stockade; to the right up on the hill is the local church]
[Harpers Ferry in 1861 during the Civil War, looking east from a hill near Bolivar; the church can be seen downhill in the center; soldiers and cannon occupy the foreground; like many border states West Virginia was a conflicted battleground, raising regiments for both the Union and Confederate Armies; Harpers Ferry changed hands several times though West Virginia would ultimately settle as a Union state]
The result was something of a wild west boomtown. Not only was John Hall off in a factory perfecting the machine process of interchangeable parts that would revolutionize manufacturing, but southern gunsmiths were cranking out firearms to meet federal quotas, bristling at Yankee foremen, and drinking and hunting when their counterparts up in Springfield were hammering away. The construction and operation of the Armory was badly mismanaged by local landed gentry who’d received federal posts through good connections. All while a constant stream of homesteaders made their way through the town, working for a season or a fortnight until they had enough money to keep heading west, looking to take advantage of westward expansion and the soon-to-be-signed Homestead Act. There were also tons of guns just lying around the town.
[Harpers Ferry looking west across the Potomac from Maryland]
[Harpers Ferry in 1862, the B & O Railroad Bridge was destroyed after the Antietam Campaign in Maryland]
[a map showing the Union and Confederate states as well as the western territories beyond the Mississippi; Harpers Ferry was not only tossed back and forth between North and South and at the very center of the jurisdictional ripping-in-two of the state of Virginia; the third state, Maryland had its own major conflicts, being a slave-owning Union state; Harpers Ferry was also a gateway across the Appalachians and into the Ohio River Valley for the multitudes that were thronging west along with the railroads]
A flashpoint occurred just before the civil war, when abolitionist John Brown set up shop and hatched a plan to take over the US Federal Armory with twenty-two trained men, capture and distribute the weapons stored there and incite a slave rebellion throughout the Southern States. The raid on the armory was successful but the rebellion decidedly less so. He and his remaining men were captured by federal forces two days later. Civil war wasn’t far.
But rather than a nuanced and/or redneck rehashing of Civil War themes and stories, what we are most interested here today is the landscape condition of Harpers Ferry at that historical moment. In 1862, when the Homestead Act was signed, this landscape was the locus of a violent collision between North, South, and West, each with their own ideas, mythologies, and regimes of control. Like the Triple Frontera in South America or the Darien Gap in Central America, this landscape has something to teach us about the American frontier landscape- patterns emerge. A large federal infrastructure (the canals, Armory, and railroad), oppositions within local politics, a difficult terrain, cultural violence and collision, overlapping and ambiguous jurisdictions heavy with potentiality created the conditions for an American frontier landscape.