What is Harpers Ferry’s most significant aspect?
It’s an unusual park in that it encompasses several historical themes: 19thcentury industry, John Brown’s raid, the Civil War, African-American history and transportation. I can’t say that one theme is any more significant than another. The natural environment leads to the development of the factory, which leads to John Brown, which leads to the Civil War, which leads to African-American education and civil rights. One of the most overlooked stories is Captain John Hall, considered the father of interchangeability in weaponry.
The final version of the Minié ball was developed here by James Burton.
When the Federal Army occupied Harpers Ferry and built a quartermaster depot, this is where Phil Sheridan got his supplies for his 1864 Shenandoah Valley campaign.
How do you interpret the site’s varied history?
All of our themes are interrelated. If we’re talking about emancipation and John Brown’s raid, then you can tie it to the development of the Freedmen’s Bureau. My favorite place is the armory engine house, which is the only building left from John Brown’s raid.
Union soldiers would walk by it during the war singing “John Brown’s Body.” It was moved to Chicago for the World’s Fair. The NAACP began as the Niagara Movement, and when they had their meeting here, they entered the building barefoot out of respect. The U.S. Marines revere it because a Marine was killed there. It’s all one strain, one unbreakable thread.
What role does reenacting play in park interpretation?
Living history here is done by our rangers, interns and volunteers. We have a mid- 19th-century town, so if you add the element of period clothing, it tends to immerse the visitor in the 19th century even more, and when they leave they have a greater appreciation. It’s almost essential here. Most of the staff love this place, and a lot of them have been here a long time. With 200 years of history, you never learn the whole story of Harpers Ferry.
How did you get into Civil War collecting?
What inspired me was that my father was a colonel in World War II, and he collected items related to the Holocaust. It influenced my respect for handling tangible items and gave me a moral yardstick for my own experience in the Army. There’s something sacred in handling the original artifacts.
My favorite piece, by the way, is a handwritten, 12- page manuscript written by a soldier from the 21st Massachusetts who was a prisoner at Andersonville with my great-grandfather.
My great-grandfather had a farm in Massachusetts, and on the anniversary of his release from Andersonville, he would have other former prisoners of war over and they would read from that manuscript. The whole idea of the Civil War was not too removed from my life. My great-grandfather died only 16 years before I was born.
Who had a better beard, General Lee or John Brown?
Brown’s beard always appears fiercer, and Robert E. Lee’s appears dignified and reserved. If Lee had Brown’s beard, and Brown had Lee’s, I wonder how that would have affected their personalities? I probably prefer Lee’s beard. My beard is sort of sparse, but I’m trying to make it look more like Lee’s.
Originally published in the November 2008 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.