A Lost Opportunity: Fort Harrison

Fort Harrison, looking soutwest from outside the northeast corner of the fort, photograph by author

During the summer of 1864, Union General U. S. Grant made several attempts to break Lee’s lines by attacking both sides of the James River, hoping to stretch the Confederates to the breaking point. In July, he sent troops to the north bank of the James and attacked (First Deep Bottom). That effort failed, as did the disastrous attack at Petersburg that today is known as the Battle of the Crater. In August, he tried a similar strategy, attacking across the James (Second Deep Bottom) and in Petersburg. Again, no advantage was gained.

By early September Grant was thinking of sending troops south to Cape Fear to close the port there, but the commander of the Army of the James, General Benjamin Butler, had another idea. With the information gained from spies like Elizabeth Van Lew, he believed there were only about 3,000 Confederate troops north of the James, and many of those were “home guard,” government clerks, invalids or men too old for the draft. The estimate was off… there were actually about 8,000 total troops, but only half of those were veterans. Butler proposed to Grant that he would send his 10th and 18th corps from his Army of the James north of the river, make a surprise attack, and capture Richmond. While no fan of Butler, the commanding general figured there was nothing to lose. Butler’s plan might work, and it would at least pull troops away from Meade, who was commanding the Army of the Potomac in front of Petersburg. Perhaps the final breakthrough could be made. Butler was told to draft his plans, but he must attack in late September. It was an election year and victories were needed quickly to secure Lincoln’s re-election. Continue reading

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Governor Wise’s Response To John Brown’s Raid

Henry Wise, Library of Congress

When violence broke out at Harper’s Ferry, Henry A. Wise was governor of Virginia. In the aftermath of the raid, Virginians were on edge: fears of slave revolt were everywhere and the feeling grew that the Federal Government could not protect them.

Following the raid, Governor Wise ordered Virginia militia to guard Harper’s Ferry as well as other key sites in Virginia. He also wrote President James Buchanan. He sums up widespread sentiment on the raid, and criticizes the arsenal’s lack of security, which “made that arsenal a positive danger instead of being a protection to the surrounding country . . .” Wise goes on to state that, “there was no watch worth naming kept at the arsenal, and no military or civil guard whatever. Finding, on Thursday morning last, that the U. States Marines, under Col. Lee, had been ordered away from Harpers Ferry, and that there was no guard left there, I organized a corps of volunteers, to watch and guard the confines of Virginia contiguous to & around the arsenal & grounds attached thereto, ceded to the U. States, and incidentally to afford protection to the same as well as to the people and territory of Virginia . . .” Continue reading

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Hiking to Harpers Ferry for the John Brown 160th

John Brown's Raid

AT Crampton's Gap TrailheadBill Bryson did for the Appalachian Trail what Tony Horowitz did for the Civil War. In his 1998 book A Walk in the Woods, Bryson recounted his adventures hiking portions of the AT with his woefully under-prepared friend Stephen Katz, sharing stories about the people he met and the things he learned along the way, employing the kind of immersive journalistic approach Horwitz used in Confederates in the Attic.

This week, I’m combining the two—the Civil War and the AT—in conjunction with the 160th anniversary of John Brown’s raid on the Federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. Continue reading

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Book Review: Midnight Rising

…follow him they did, swearing allegiance to his revolutionary government and marching into Virginia to found a new order. Within two years, entire armies would cross the Potomac, and this obscured the magnitude of what happened in 1859. The street violence at Harpers Ferry came to seem almost quaint by comparison with the industrial-scale slaughter at Antietam and Gettysburg. In time, the uprising became known as John Brown’s Raid, a minor-sounding affair, like one man’s act of banditry.

But no one saw it that way at the time. A month after the attack, under the headline “HOW WOULD IT FIGURE IN HISTORY,” a Baltimore newspaper listed the many labels given to the recent violence in Virginia. The most common were “Insurrection,” “Rebellion,” “Uprising,” and “Invasion.” Further down the list appeared “War,” “Treason,” and “Crusade.” There were twenty-six terms in all. “Raid” was no among them….

Continue reading

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October The Sixteenth – “Alive With Ghosts Today”

You will remember
John Brown.

John Brown
Who took his gun,
Took twenty-one companions,
White and black,
Went to shoot your way to freedom
Where two rivers meet
And the hills of the
And the hills of the
Look slow at one another—
And died
For your sake. Continue reading

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ECW on C-SPAN: Grant’s Second Petersburg Offensive

Will Greene book signing

Will Greene signs books after his symposium talk

C-SPAN 3’s continuing coverage of the Sixth Annual Emerging Civil War Symposium at Stevenson Ridge heads to the gates of the Cockade City this weekend.

A. Wilson Greene’s keynote address focused on Ulysses S. Grant’s lesser-known second Petersburg offensive, which took place in June 1864. His talk will debut Saturday night at 6 p.m. ET and re-air Sunday morning at 3:50 a.m. ET on C-SPAN 3.

After it airs, you’ll be able to see it on C-SPAN’s website here:


Also, Kristen Pawlak’s talk on Wilson’s Creek re-airs Sunday morning at 10 a.m. ET:


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Podcast Additional Resources: “A Chat with Brian Steel Wills”

Last week a new episode of the ECW podcast released. Dan Welch had a chat about a variety of historical topics with author and historian Brian Steel Wills.

We’ve combed through the archives and found a few articles related to the discussion topics and hope you’ll enjoy these additional resources. If you haven’t had a chance to listen to the new podcast, just login to your Patreon account (or sign up). This episode is available to all ECW Podcast subscribers. Continue reading

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Dangerfield Newby and John Brown’s Raid

John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry was planned to be a small beginning to a large outcome. Twenty-one men–twenty-two counting Brown himself–planned to seize the Federal armory and arsenal in the town and ignite a war against slavery that, they hoped, would stamp out the institution for good in the United States.

All of Brown’s followers had a personal hatred of slavery. They witnessed its horrors but few understood what life was like as enslaved humans. Dangerfield Newby was one of those men and his motivation for joining Brown’s force was more personal than perhaps any other. Continue reading

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An Eyewitness Account of John Brown’s Raid

Reverend Michael Costello was the pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church at Harpers Ferry, [West] Virginia during John Brown’s Raid. A native of County Galway, Ireland, Costello studied at All Hallows College in Dublin for the Diocese of Richmond. On arriving to Richmond in 1857 he was assigned as pastor at Harpers Ferry, arriving there in November 1857. Costello had a thriving pastorate in Harpers Ferry, the many Irish and German immigrants working in the armory and arsenal filling the 400-500 seat church for two masses each Sunday.

Rev. Michael Costello wrote a detailed account of the raid at Harpers Ferry and his interactions with John Brown…(History of Saint Peter’s Church – 1930)

On February 11, 1860, Costello wrote a letter to Reverend D.C. Harrington, a classmate from All Hallows College. In this letter Costello shares his unique observations as a witness to John Brown’s Raid. The letter was ‘rediscovered’ in the archives of the Diocese of Richmond in 1971. The pertinent content of the letter follows… Continue reading

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Question of the Week: 10/14-10/20/19

In your opinion, who was the best “army organizer” during the Civil War?

(This does not automatically imply the person successfully handled the force in the field.)

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