History of Jefferson County
Civil War and American History
There was action in Jefferson County in every year of the Civil War, including but not
limited to the surrender of 12,500 Union troops to Stonewall Jackson's forces in
September 1862 at Bolivar Heights. The other military actions included the many
raids of General John S. Mosby and his men, the Great Train Robbery, the two battles of
Charles Town, the battle of Shepherdstown and when General Early faced General
Sheridan at the battles of Summit Point and Smithfield. Historians recently identified
thirty-three Civil War sites in Jefferson County.
John Brown brought his men to Harpers Ferry, Virginia and commandeered the federal
arsenal on the late evening of October 16, 1859. Their purpose was to secure the guns at
the arsenal to arm and free the slaves. He was captured in the engine house (later known
as 'John Brown's Fort') on the morning of October 18 when a dozen U.S. Marines knocked
down the door and captured or killed the raiders. The raid itself was a failure, but Brown
was able to captivate the nation as he was interviewed by many of the nation's journalists.
Frederick Douglass in a speech on May 30, 1881 at Storer College in Harpers Ferry clarified
John Brown's role in saying that "if John Brown did not end the war that ended slavery, he
did at least begin the war that ended slavery."
The courthouse in Charles Town, which is still in use today, was the site of the Brown trial
and two of the only three treason trials in the United States. The Jefferson County Museum in
downtown Charles Town has on display many John Brown and Civil War items including the wagon
that carried Brown to his execution, several pikes (weapons), the desk he used in his jail
cell, a copy of the provisional constitution and the gurney he laid on during the trial.
The historic Charles Town Walking Tour includes the hanging site, the trial site, the museum
and the reading room where John Wilkes Booth did Shakespearean readings to entertain persons who
attended the John Brown trial.
In Jefferson County, many homes became hospitals throughout the war. Quite often, brother fought
against brother. Homes, local businesses and government businesses were destroyed as troops marched
back and forth across the area.
West Virginia, the state, was born during the Civil War. This area seceded from what was western
Virginia and became a new state on June 20, 1863.