On a chill foggy autumn evening in 1859, abolitionist John Brown and a rough gang of 21 men with guns and pikes and revolt in their hearts quietly hiked five miles from a farm in Western Maryland to the federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Va. Their ambitions were outrageous: surprise the guards at the armory, capture wagonloads of rifles and then flee, distributing the guns among slaves. Brown hoped for nothing less than a full uprising of servant against master.
He had spent four months living on the farm simply trying to fit in. The hike to Harpers Ferry had become routine. A new beard and a shock of Lyle Lovett hair kept
locals from recognizing him as the devil who had massacred slave owners in Kansas three years before. Soon the disguise would be irrelevant. “Men, get on your arms,” he famously declared on the night of October 16, “we will proceed to the Ferry.”
Now, 150 years later, walking in Brown’s footsteps remains an eerily timeless experience. Roads that were dirt are now paved, the bridge Brown used to cross the Potomac River has been replaced, and buildings in Harpers Ferry throw off electric light. But most of the route remains pitch-black after sunset; trees that witnessed that night are still there, and woodstoves continue to scent the air.
Civil War buffs have been making this pilgrimage for better than three decades. In 1979—the 120th anniversary of John Brown’s raid—National Park Service historian Dennis Frye and 20 re-enactors, decked out in period clothing and shouldering period weapons, hiked from the Kennedy Farm in Washington County to the Harpers Ferry armory. They read from 1850s newspapers to get into character.
“We tried to transport ourselves back in time,” Frye said. “It was very respectful.”
Perhaps the most memorable part of the trek occurred midway, when an approaching car flashed its high beams and slowed. The lights belonged to a squad car from the Washington County Sheriff’s Department. Staying in character, the soldiers sauntered on—there were no squad cars in 1859. Once past, the deputy turned around and re-approached at the same slow speed, high beams blazing. As he neared, “I expected the red and blue lights to come on,” Frye said.
Instead, the deputy drew even with the procession, took one last gander, and then peeled out at full speed, apparently wanting no part of the apparition.
Unlike those earlier cultish marches, the hike planned for this fall’s 150th anniversary will be publicized and well attended. Organizers expect hundreds of enthusiasts.
The path is mostly downhill to the Potomac and flat after that, as the road hugs the riverbank on its way downstream to the confluence with the Shenandoah River. The relative ease of the hike will not diminish the experience. “It’s still sparsely settled,” Frye said, “and still quite dark”—as dark as when John Brown hitched up his team, shouted words of encouragement and set off on a mission to change the world.
“It’s been debated over the last century and a half when the Civil War began,” Frye said. “The conventional wisdom says Fort Sumter. I disagree with that. John Brown invoked a fear that communities had not experienced before.”
Brown intended to raid the federal armory and use the weapons to establish a series of forts where fleeing slaves could join his army of marauders. At a time when the going rate for an 18-year-old male slave was $1,200, a plantation that lost most of its slaves would be equivalent to a modern farm stripped of all its tractors, harvesters, plows and irrigation equipment. Further, Brown hoped that a slave rebellion in the midst of the harvest season would damage plantations even more.
The Maryland staging area for this ambitious plan was a small, two-story farmhouse that Brown rented under the name of Isaac Smith. The most notable feature is a small attic where 20 men lived in a room the size of a garage. “It must have been hotter than the hinges of hell up there,” said local historian Tom Clemens. “That’s commitment.”
Staying out of sight was essential. Brown pretended to be a humble prospector. If any of his neighbors thought it curious that there wasn’t anything worth prospecting in that neck of the woods, or that any self-respecting prospector had already been lured west, they kept their suspicions to themselves.
The prospector story was good cover for crates of pikes and guns that could be explained away as mining tools. Clemens said the blacks in Brown’s band were armed with pikes until they could be taught how to use firearms. Brown used his daughter and daughter-in-law to add to the delusion. To all eyes, Brown was what he said he was: a good family man scratching out a living from the land.
In 1859, Harpers Ferry was “a bustling industrial town of 3,000,” Clemens said. It remains unbelievably scenic, carved out of cliffs that put the squeeze on the gushing Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. Today, people from Baltimore and Washington, D.C., drive for an hour to picnic on the shore, rafters and kayakers pirouette through challenging rapids, and fishermen hope for bass, but often reel in carp.
The lower town is one of the National Park Service’s better accomplishments. Subtract the tourist with the Hawaiian shirt, and it’s easy to be transported back in time, among restored buildings, period actors and cobblestone streets. The fire engine house Brown used as a refuge during his raid, now in its fourth location, is neatly preserved, mostly. In 1892, it was disassembled, transported to the Chicago World’s Fair, reassembled, disassembled and reassembled in Harpers Ferry as a mirror image of itself; tradesmen based their work on a photographic impression that was a negative.
One of the many floods that have ravaged Harpers Ferry since the raid washed away the bridge John Brown crossed to enter the town. In its place today is a high pedestrian bridge that accommodates Appalachian Trail hikers.
Fifteen decades ago, Harpers Ferry had one of two national armories, yet there was no militia garrisoned on site because no one anticipated a raid, much less a war. The night Brown arrived, weapons were guarded only by a snoozing night watchman. A baggage man for the B&O railroad named Hayward Shepherd proved more problematic.
When Shepherd saw a band of armed men trundling across the bridge into town at 1:30 a.m., he apparently thought they were bandits planning to rob the mail train from Wheeling. Shepherd hustled up the tracks to flag it down. In the darkness, Brown’s men couldn’t have known Shepherd was a free black man. They leveled their guns and fired.
A century and a half later, some historians speculate that Shepherd was in on the raid but got cold feet. And some suggest he was asked to join in, but refused. Arguments have led to what Clemens called Harpers Ferry’s “dueling monuments.”
In 1931 the United Daughters of the Confederacy and Sons of Confederate Veterans dedicated a monument to Shepherd, celebrating him as a black man who did not flee or take up arms against whites. But purported racists objected that blacks deserved no recognition in history, let alone a monument.
For decades, however, prominent African-Americans—including W.E.B. DuBois—have objected to the notion that Shepherd be revered for an ambivalence, real or imagined, toward slavery.
The monument was removed from display during a park construction project in the mid-1970s. And as opposing factions quibbled over whether it should be returned, “for years the monument sat in a warehouse with a tarp over it,” Clemens said. It was returned to its location in 1981, but was covered up until 1995, when the park service added a plaque to explain everything.
Back on the bridge, Brown and his men stopped the train, then let it steam off down the tracks. A reasonable person might consider that Brown should have focused on seizing the armory’s guns and getting out of town before releasing the train.
Instead Brown lingered—shooting at townsfolk, taking prisoners and raising hell—knowing trouble would be on the way as soon as the B&O reached its next stop. Perhaps Brown was truly daft. Perhaps he wanted to be captured, despite the obvious penalties.
“That’s the critical question,” Clemens observed. “Is he crazy, or is he a shrewd manipulator of public opinion?” Brown had a family history of mental infirmities, yet Clemens thinks “it’s too easy to write him off as crazy.”
Frye believes Brown must have realized that if he held the train, people at the next station would come to investigate. Whether he held the train or not made no difference…word would get out either way. Besides, Brown’s plan was too involved to be fulfilled with one small, deadly statement. Brown believed he was “a man of God, called by God to rid the nation of slavery,” Frye said. So he stayed put, the consequences be damned.
Brown’s true undoing, however, had little to do with the train: It was trying to save Shepherd. Gunshots had awakened physician John Starry, who ran out to see what the commotion was about.
Taking advantage, Brown hurried the doctor to the porter’s side. After Starry pronounced the wounds fatal, Brown let him go.
“Starry is the Paul Revere of Harpers Ferry,” Frye said. The doctor threw himself onto his horse and headed for the militia in Charles Town, seven miles away.
The militia kept Brown corralled until Col. Robert E. Lee arrived to break down the door of the fire engine house where Brown and his raiders had holed up. Ten, including two of his sons, were killed. Six were captured and five escaped. The raiders killed four—including Harpers Ferry Mayor Fontaine Beckham—and wounded nine. Within days Brown was charged with treason for taking up arms against Virginia.
Brown’s attorneys begged him to plead insanity to avoid the gallows. But Brown worried that if he were declared insane his cause might be seen that way as well. With little defense to offer, Brown was convicted by a jury on November 2, and hanged on December 2.
Although slaves did not revolt because of Brown’s actions, the effect on the rest of the population was immense. “The fear that gripped the country after that October was like the fear that gripped America after September 11,” Frye said. “Before, people avoided talking about slavery; after John Brown, no one stopped talking about it.”
Brown had appeared to be an everyman on his rented farm. In the South, people began to look at every nearby everyman and wonder. In 1860, there were 5 million whites and 4 million slaves in the South. Might that quiet, pleasant next-door neighbor be planning a revolt?
“He was living among people under an assumed name under peaceful circumstances. It was every slaveholder’s nightmare,” Clemens said.
In the North, people were against slavery in theory, but still largely racist. The thought of millions of slaves roaming the streets as free men and women competing for jobs was frightening.
Following his execution, Brown was buried near a small farm he owned in Lake Placid, N.Y. A hapless preacher from Vermont presided at Brown’s funeral. His parishioners did not see it as the Christian thing to do; soon he was out of a job.
Abolitionists remained a fringe group, yet Brown’s attack on Harpers Ferry was eventually seen, at least in the North, as the exploit of a martyr, and even a hero. n
Newspaper columnist and history junkie Tim Rowland loves to hike, but supports his habits by writing. His latest book, Maryland’s Appalachian Highlands: Massacres, Moonshine and Mountaineering, was released by The History Press in June.