Civil War history is close at hand in Harpers Ferry Recreation: Harpers Ferry National Historical Park encompasses more than 2,300 acres in West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland.

June 18, 1998|By Randy Kraft | Randy Kraft,allentown morning call

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. - Some historians view John Brown as a terrorist and a murderer. When he was a Kansas militiaman, he participated in the massacre of five members of a pro-slavery family.

With only 21 men, including three of his sons and five free blacks, Brown moved on Harpers Ferry on Oct. 16, 1859.

His plan was to capture weapons, liberate slaves, then flee into the mountains to lead an army of free blacks in guerrilla warfare against the South.

At the time, about 10 percent of Harpers Ferry's residents were black, half of them slaves.

Brown had wanted black abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass to join him. But Douglass declined, warning him that Harpers Ferry was "a perfect steel trap."

Brown and his men captured the lightly guarded U.S. Armory, where weapons were made, and the U.S. Arsenal, which held 100,000 new weapons.

Ironically, the first person killed by Brown's raiders was Hayward Shepherd, a former black slave who worked for the railroad.

The town's mayor also was among four civilian fatalities in Brown's raid.

For some reason, possibly because he met more resistance than he anticipated from townsfolk and the local militia, Brown took hostages (including the great grand-nephew of George Washington) and remained in Harpers Ferry rather than gathering weapons and fleeing into the mountains.

No one's sure why he did not flee. Some suggest he intentionally sought martyrdom.

State and federal officials soon learned of his raid. A contingent of 90 Marines, led by Robert E. Lee, was dispatched from Washington.

Thirty-six hours after the raid began, Brown was captured in the firehouse. Most of his men had been killed or wounded.

Brown was swiftly tried in Jefferson County Courthouse in nearby Charles Town. Found guilty of murder, treason and inciting slaves to rebellion, he was hanged on Dec. 2, 1859.

More than John Brown

But the story of Harpers Ferry is about much more than John Brown. Thomas Jefferson praised the beauty of this spot, and George Washington arranged the construction of its armory and arsenal.

The heart of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park is an attractive 19th-century community with a fascinating history in a stunning location, tucked between rugged mountain ridges where two rivers and three states meet.

Active rail lines flank two sides of the village, as do the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. There are bridges, a tunnel, rocky cliffs on steep, tree-covered slopes and a church high on a hill. Many of the hillside community's tall stone and brick houses have balconies and dormers.

Harpers Ferry has national significance primarily because of Brown's raid on its federal armory, the first and only move in his unsuccessful attempt to start a slave rebellion in the South.

The park's historical displays make a persuasive case that Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry really did increase polarization between North and South that led to the Civil War.

Visitors also can learn something about Civil War history, industrial history and black history in Harpers Ferry from park displays:

For example, the largest surrender of U.S. troops during the Civil War took place at Harpers Ferry on Sept. 15, 1862, when 12,500 Union soldiers surrendered to Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson. It was the largest surrender of American forces until the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines during World War II.

Other displays show that some free blacks owned black slaves in the South before the Civil War and that Northern textile mills profited from Southern slavery; that even though Southerners considered slavery a vital economic necessity, a majority of them were not slave owners; and that Brown's was not the first attempt to initiate a slave rebellion in the United States.

Many people who come to Harpers Ferry are pleasantly surprised, said Kelly Todd of the Jefferson County Visitor and Convention Bureau. "They don't realize the town is the national park. They think a national park will be trees and woods, that kind of thing.

"And when they get down there, they are surprised at how pretty it is."

"Most people come in the morning and stay most of the day," said park ranger Toni Hicks.

The lower end of Harpers Ferry is the most popular area, said Todd Bolton, chief of visitors services, but that's only a very small portion of the entire park.

2,300-acre park

The park encompasses more than 2,300 acres in West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland. It includes hiking trails to scenic overlooks and areas such as the once-industrialized Virginius Island and Bolivar Heights, where the Yankees were defeated.

Eight years ago, a new park visitors center and a 1,000-car parking lot opened more than two miles from the heart of the village. Buses provide free transportation between the visitors center and the town.

Before the new lot and visitors center opened, traffic congestion was severe in what is called the Lower Town.

The most famous building in Harpers Ferry is the old armory's firehouse, which became Brown's fort and is where he was captured.

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