The saga of Harpers Ferry

SUN JOURNAL

History: Abolitionist John Brown went willingly to the gallows after his abortive raid in 1859. A small town in West Virginia captures the moment of his lifetime.

March 01, 2004|By Mike Adams | Mike Adams,SUN STAFF

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. -- John Brown's last shot came from the fire engine house at the foot of Shenandoah Street; his Bible and a broadsword from Bleeding Kansas are on display in a nearby museum.

Nearly 145 years have passed since Brown led 21 raiders on a mission to seize 100,000 guns stored here at the federal arsenal. A militant abolitionist, Brown hoped that runaway slaves would join his "liberation army," which would take refuge in nearby mountains and fight a guerrilla war against slaveholders.

About 36 hours after the raid began, Brown was captured in the engine house. Most of Brown's army, which included three of his sons and five free blacks, had been killed or wounded. Brown was charged with treason, murder and conspiring with slaves to rebel. He was hanged Dec. 2, 1859.

Today, Harpers Ferry's historic area looks much as it did in 1859, the result of a restoration effort by the National Parks Service. The town sits in Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, which includes nearly 3,000 acres in West Virginia, Maryland and Virginia.

David N. Fox, a park ranger, has spent 14 years studying Brown. He says there are many layers to the Brown saga and that each reflects our views on slavery, secession, emancipation and civil rights.

Brown's trial put him on the front pages of newspapers for the last six weeks of his life. He became an international figure, Fox says, a hero to those fighting repressive regimes around the world.

Speaking in his defense, Brown told the court: "Now if 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."

Those who did not know about Brown, or who had dismissed him as a madman, got a fresh look during the trial.

"He reached the moment of a lifetime," says Fox, "and it appears he knew it."

The park service runs the John Brown Museum, at Shenandoah and Potomac streets, in what's known as the Lower Town. Among the items on display are Brown's Bible and a sword, two symbols that say much about the man.

A devout Christian, Brown declared a holy war on slavery.

"Brown could quote Scripture with the best of them," says Fox, pointing to the sword and Bible.

Anti-slavery and pro-slavery forces wielded swords in Kansas, where a bloody conflict erupted over the issue in the years before the Civil War. Brown and five sons fought on the side of the abolitionists. In 1856, Brown led a band that hacked to death five unarmed pro-slavery men at Pottawatomie Creek.

Brown's role in the killings, which became known as the Pottawatomie Massacre, was not widely known until about 20 years after his death, Fox says, adding that the sword on display might have used in the attack.

Brown called the killings "God's will."

"Despite the Pottawatomie Massacre, people still consider Brown to be a hero," says Fox. "Brown never admitted taking part in them, and the news of Pottawatomie did not travel with Brown when he went east to raise money to put the Harpers Ferry plan together."

Southerners lived with the constant fear of slave rebellions, and they were outraged by Brown's attempt to forge an army of runaway slaves, Fox says.

"In terms of its shock effect, what Brown did here was comparable to an attempt to take over a nuclear bomb plant in our day and age."

Although the Harpers Ferry raid was a failure, Fox says, Brown ultimately scored an unexpected victory, pushing North and South past the point of compromise on slavery.

"There was no room for compromise in the halls of Congress; both sides were ready for a fight," says Fox. "Two days after Brown was executed, a congressman said: `The only member here without a pistol and a knife is the member with two pistols.'"

In August 1859, Brown met with Frederick Douglass in Chambersburg, Pa., and tried to persuade the nation's foremost abolitionist to participate in the raid. Fox says Douglass refused, telling his old friend, "You're walking into a perfect steel trap, and you will never get out alive."

Before leaving, Douglass turned to Shields Green, a fugitive slave from South Carolina, and asked what he planned to do. Green coolly replied, "I b'lieve I'll go wid de old man." Brown was 59 years old when he led the raid, an old man according to the actuarial tables of the day.

Green was captured at Harpers Ferry and executed. The bodies of Green and other members of Brown's party were taken to Winchester Medical College in Virginia, where they were dissected and their body parts put on display. Union troops, angered by the treatment of the corpses, burned the school to the ground during the Civil War. Brown's body was turned over to his wife and buried in upstate New York.

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