"Daingerfield Newby . . . William Leeman . . . William Thompson . . . John Kagi . . . Stewart Taylor . . ."
Roll call. Twenty-two men stood around a wagon in the chill October night, hunching their shoulders against the rain. Behind them the rough-hewn, chinked boards of the Kennedy farm loomed barely visible in the dark.
"Men," said John Brown, "get on your arms. We will proceed to the Ferry . . ."
So began John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, at 8 o'clock on the night of Oct. 16, 125 years ago. The long-bearded abolitionist with the wild eyes was going to capture the armory, free the slaves and start a revolution. It all ended 36 hours later in an old brick engine house at the Ferry when federal troops broke through the door and overwhelmed the trapped defenders.
Tuesday night, a group of 45 history buffs reenacted the five-mile march that, some say, made the Civil War inevitable. Led by warden John Fiedor and other National Park Service staffers, the group drove to the farm on a night that was surely as dark as the original, but warm and overcast.
Some were dressed in period costume. A few held old-fashioned candle lamps and kerosene lanterns. Someone read from Brown's statement in court before he was sentenced to be hanged.
". . . Now it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel and unjust enactments. I say, let it be done . . ."
He was 59. He had already freed some slaves on a raid in Missouri and taken them to Canada. Emerson and Thoreau admired him. He had killed five men. The left side of his face didn't match the right.
Someone read a passage from Steven Vincent Benet's epic poem "John Brown's Body." The group stood in respectful silence. On the dark hillside a dog barked.
Then they called the roll, and people answered to the names of men long dead.
". . . Lewis Leary . . . Oliver Brown . . . Dauphin Thompson . . . Jeremiah Anderson . . . Watson Brown . . ."
Watson and Oliver Brown were John Brown's sons. Oliver would die in the raid, his father shouting down his cries: "Be quiet! If you must die, die like a man." Watson would be mortally wounded. Another son, Owen, left to guard the farmhouse, would escape and live on for 40 years.
People have been retracing John Brown's march since 1977. Some years there have been as few as three of them. Once a group, straggling down Harpers Ferry Road toting rifles in the night, was passed by a state police car. The car drove by, slowed, turned around, paused . . . and then came warily back. "Uhhh," said the driver. "It's all right, officer," said the leader, "it's just history."
There were no guns Tuesday night. The group came from as far away as Baltimore and Washington, included boys, mothers, scholars, tobacco-chewing locals. Along the way they talked about John Brown, who is a hero in these parts. People like Fiedor and park service part-timers Susan Journell and Richard Gillespie seemed to know the story minute by minute: how Brown collected his men at the farm, some of them veterans of his guerrilla raids in Kansas slave territory, and how he had counted on sparking a slave uprising on that Sunday night at the Ferry, and why it failed (there were only 356 slaves in the town, it appears, nearly all of them docile house slaves), and his every move from there to the gallows at Charles Town.
It was the brisk dawn attack by 90 federal troops under Col. Robert E. Lee, assisted by Lt. J.E.B. Stuart, that did him in, they said. Storming the six-inch-thick doors just as a truce talk ended, the troops burst in, bayoneting one man against the wall like a fly on a pin, knocking down Brown and quickly subduing the other survivors. After that, it was just a matter of keeping them from being lynched by the villagers.
The walkers ranged far ahead of the lanterns, pausing at times for the rest to catch up, remembering that other drizzly night when the men constantly had to shove the mired wagon ahead through the mud.
It was a dirt road then. Three years after Brown's raiders passed this way, A.P. Hill's men would trot up the same road in their desperate daylong race to stop the Yankees at Antietam -- the bloodiest day of the war that the raid helped ignite.
Harpers Ferry Road is macadam now, with dark hollows and the incessant song of crickets.
Nearing the point where the old wooden bridge stood over the Shenandoah, a bridge that was burned early in the war, the walkers crossed on the tracks of a modern railroad bridge. They came at last to the engine house, which has been moved several times but stands within a few yards of its original site near the arms factory that had attracted Brown to Harpers Ferry.
Some 100,000 rifles were stored there at the time. Brown hoped to pass these around among the instant army he expected to spring up. In his wagon he had collected pikes for the freed slaves to use, those who couldn't handle guns.
Now the walkers gathered in the engine house, a small, stark brick building with walls 12 feet high and three broad doors crowned by semicircular fanlights. A humble building. In the center of the rough brick floor, 22 candles had been set in a little circle around five others, representing the five, some of them from the village, who died in the raid.
One by one the names were read off, and the dates of death, and one by one the candles were lit.
". . . John Cook . . . John Copeland . . . Edwin Coppoc . . . Shields Green . . . Albert Hazlett . . . Aaron Stevens . . . Barclay Coppoc . . . Charles Tidd . . . Francis Meriam . . . Osborn Anderson . . . Owen Brown . . ."
The last was John Brown, dead by hanging, Dec. 2, 1859.