Torrington, CT and Harper's Ferry, WV
With J.J. Kwashnak
As we celebrate the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War, NOT spent some time looking at a person who, while not in the Civil War, is considered by many to be a spark that led to the war between the states. John Brown led the famous raid on the U.S. Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, situated at the joining of the Shenandoah and Potomic rivers in what is now West Virginia (but was Virginia at the time).
Before he would become famous for his abolition causes, he was born in 1800 in a small unassuming farmhouse nestled into the northwestern hills of Connecticut.
Though he would only live there a couple of years before the family moved west to Ohio, the house was preserved and restored in the early 20th century as one of the first house museums in Connecticut.
Unfortunately a chimney fire destroyed the house in 1918, the clearing in the woods has been preserved ever since, noting the birth of one of the most famous abolitionist activists.
John Brown’s family moved west to open a tannery. During the War of 1812 the family supplied beef to the Army, where a young John was given the task of driving cows to army posts. Along the way, he claims that he had his first encounters with slavery when, during his drives, he often stayed with a gentleman farmer who held slaves including some around John’s age. As he grew up he became a dedicated abolitionist. During the 1850’s he led raids in Bleeding Kansas including the Pottawatomie Massacre where 5 pro-slavery settlers were killed. Over time he became convinced that the end of slavery would not occur without violent insurrection actions. So he planned to seize the U.S. armory at Harper’s Ferry in order to arm slaves and launch a guerilla war.
October 16, 1859, Brown led a group of self-proclaimed solders down a winding road from a farm in Maryland, across the river to the sleeping town of Harper’s Ferry. Under cover of night, the band overpowered the guard at the armory and entered the facility. While there, the band set up a command post in an engine house (for fire engines and a guardhouse) in the armory.
The small brick building, around the size of a two car garage, became known as John Brown’s Fort. As the insurrection began to collapse around him, and the hoped for slave uprising failed to materialize, Brown and his raiders settled in to make their last stand.
A detachment of U.S. Marines, led by Army Colonel Robert E Lee arrived to take charge of the situation. Early in the morning, after Brown rejected calls for his surrender, the troops moved in and stormed the “fort.”
Several of the raiders were killed during the skirmish, including Brown’s son Oliver. Another son, Watson, was also killed during the raid outside the fort. Brown was wounded and captured, as were most of the raiders in the fort with him (though several died in the fighting). The captured raiders were taken to nearby Charles Town to be jailed and tried. All were found guilty and hanged.
John Brown’s Fort had an interesting history, having been disassembled multiple times and travelled around the country. It survived action on the city during the Civil War as well as relic hunters. In 1891 it was shipped to Chicago and displayed for the World’s Fair. Following the fair, it was returned to Harpers Ferry and rebuilt in a field. In the early 1900’s it was purchase by Storer College, an historically black college founded in the town after the Civil War, where it was reassembled on the campus. The college closed in 1955, and in the late 60s the building was moved for the final time to its present site as part of the National Historic Park in Harpers Ferry.
Th The original location is noted with a monument that sits atop a railroad ridge that was built in later years on the site of the armory.
The building now stands about 150 feet away from its original site.
An interesting monument is nearby the fort. The first person to die in the raid was Heyward Shepherd, a free black man, who died in the early hours of the raid, though who fired the shot that killed him (raider or townsperson) is unknown. In the subsequent years, Shepherd was embraced by many as a symbol of the “faithful Negro” for the Confederate Cause. In 1931 the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected a granite monument in his honor as “an antidote to the John Brownism of the period.”
The town of Harpers Ferry today is a national historical area commemorating not only the pre-Civil War raid, the Civil War battle but also American industry and manufacturing.
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Photos courtesy of J.J. Kwashnak
Last Updated July 2012