Harpers Ferry Marks 150th Anniversary of John Brown's Raid

150 years ago in Harpers Ferry, John Brown led a raid on the town to capture weapons in an attempt to lead a slave uprising. His attempts were thwarted by U.S. troops and Brown was tried for treason and hanged.
By Scott Elder
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Another God-fearing man might have balked at committing violence on the Sabbath, but not John Brown. After darkness cloaked the route to the Virginia town of Harpers Ferry on the evening of Oct. 16, 1859, he told his 21 recruits -- 16 white, five black -- to gather their arms. Brown's wrathful God had given him a mission: Invade Harpers Ferry, equip a runaway slave army with the 100,000 rifles and muskets in the town armory, and wage holy war on the "great sin against God" -- slavery.

Around 8 p.m., the men emerged from their hideout in Western Maryland, five miles from Harpers Ferry. Under a moonless sky, they made their way down the steep country road, crossed the Potomac into the sleeping town, dashed to the armory and seized the guard. "I want to free all the Negroes in this state," Brown told the terrified man. "I have possession now of the United States armory, and if the citizens interfere with me I must only burn the town and have blood."

Today, people either love Brown or they hate him, said Todd Bolton, chief of visitor services at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, when I visited recently. "To some, he was a freedom fighter. To others, he was a terrorist."

This weekend marks the 150th anniversary of Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry, which has been part of breakaway West Virginia since the Civil War. The park has organized a program of special events beginning on Friday, the anniversary of the day the raid was launched, and ending on Sunday, exactly a century and a half after the revolt was stamped out by U.S. Marines led by a colonel named Robert E. Lee. "We're not celebrating Brown," explains Bolton, who helped organize the events. "We're commemorating an important chapter in American history."

As the distinction makes clear, John Brown remains one of that history's most controversial figures. If his crimes were committed in the name of ending slavery, should history absolve him? Ranger-led tours, discussions and performances will help visitors form their own judgments and put the raid in context. For the latter goal, Harpers Ferry is ideal.

Many of the 19th-century buildings in the Lower Town, at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, have been restored and now house exhibits and museums. One, the John Brown Museum, displays reproductions of the pikes Brown brought along on the raid to arm slaves until they could be trained to operate firearms. Museum exhibits also confront the infamous "Pottawatomie Massacre," in which Brown ordered the execution of five pro-slavery agitators (with swords) in retaliation for the sacking of "Free Soil" Lawrence, Kan., in 1856.

Around the corner, visitors will find the stone memorial to Hayward Shepherd, the train station's free black baggage master. He stumbled upon some jumpy raiders and became the first person killed in a crusade to free his race. Adding to the irony, the inscription on the memorial, which was commissioned by descendants of Confederates, presents Shepherd as an exemplar of blacks who stayed loyal to the South during the war.

Today's scenic pedestrian bridge over the Potomac runs close by the stone ruins of the one the raiders crossed into town. The morning after the raid began, local militiamen -- who'd heard about the insurrection before any of the slaves who might have joined it -- seized the bridge, thereby cutting the raiders off from both their means of escape and their small rear guard in Maryland. Soon after, a panicked young raider named William Leeman tried to wade back across the Potomac but was gunned down on one of the islets.

Overall, the setting stimulates reflection and discussion: I overheard a father earnestly educating his teenage son about the abolitionist movement. (He applied the spelled-out form of p.o.'d to Brown.)

One of the commemoration's headliners is jazz trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis, of the famous Marsalis family. He will premiere a "theatrical jazz" production composed specifically for the commemoration, combining music and a spoken-word performance of passages from Stephen Vincent Benét's epic poem, "John Brown's Body."

Another highlight will be actor and historian Fred Morsell's reenactment of an address the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass gave in Harpers Ferry in 1881 eulogizing Brown, a close friend and ally. In fact, Brown had invited Douglass to join the raid, but Douglass had declined, warning Brown that he was "going into a perfect steel trap."

The "Walk of the Descendants" program will retrace the raiders' route through town and honor the people who were killed, wounded or otherwise engaged in the fighting. At appropriate locations, descendants of participants from both sides will step forward and briefly discuss their ancestors and their roles, then set down a carnation in their memory.

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