Scene of the Crime
Oct 27, 2008
|Harpers Ferry remembers John Brown - Monday, October 27
Harpers Ferry is a town of great scenic beauty. It sits at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers an hour west of Washington D.C., a location that has linked it forever to our country’s past. The list of people who have walked the streets of Harpers Ferry reads like a Who’s Who of American History.
George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Meriwether Lewis, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, George Armstrong Custer, J.E.B. Stuart, General Philip Sheridan, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois. All these men and more have come to Harpers Ferry and left their mark. Yet one name stands out from all the others - John Brown.
While others made their names as statesmen, politicians and generals, John Brown secured his place in history as a revolutionary. While others made laws and enforced them, John Brown broke the law and was hanged for it. His three day raid on the Federal Arsenal at Harpers Ferry was meant to secure guns and ammunition for fighting a revolution to free the slaves. The raid itself ended in failure, with Brown and most of his followers being killed or captured.
Brown and three of his followers were tried for treason, murder and inciting a slave rebellion. All three were convicted and two months later they were executed at Charles Town, Virginia. Yet this convicted felon is not only remembered today, he is revered and admired. His name eclipses all those others who came to Harpers Ferry, even the great Robert E. Lee who was a Union officer at the time, and who came with a contingent of Marines to capture Brown.
When I was a kid racism was a given, segregation was the law of the land and history books were written by white people, who even if they were not racist were victims of the prejudices of the day. John Brown was given a paragraph at most in the history books, and he was invariably portrayed as a lunatic who did outrageous things in a hopeless cause. And seen against the background of the day he was all those things. Yet today he is recognized and appreciated for the hero he was.
On the National Park Service brochure for Harpers Ferry, John Brown is pictured standing in front of all those other men. There is more copy devoted to Brown and his story than to any other event in the history of Harpers Ferry. All over the town there are references to him, and there is one whole building devoted to the raid and to John Brown’s place in history.
Black people revered him from the beginning, and men like Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois eulogized him. Douglass said, “His zeal for our cause surpassed even my own.” While the raid seemed to have failed at the time (1859) it is credited today as being one of the flash points that raised tensions to the boiling point, and brought the country to war. One of the last things Brown wrote was that he had vainly flattered himself into thinking that slavery could be ended without much bloodshed. By the time he went to the gallows he knew that war was coming, and he took comfort in knowing that his raid had helped to bring it about.
Old Town Harpers Ferry is well preserved, and it is served by a shuttle system that allows visitors to park at the Visitor Center and not take their cars down into the town. The streets are lined with original stone and brick buildings, and in many of them there are fascinating exhibits that tell the story of Harpers Ferry, as a hub of industry, as a crossroads in war, and as a wellspring of new hope after the war.
From the day George Washington designated Harpers Ferry as the site of the National Armory, the town’s arms manufacturers provided guns and ammunition for every venture from Lewis and Clark’s explorations, to all of our wars up to the Civil War. This is where the concept of interchangeable parts for firearms was pioneered and developed. The towns other industries included grain and paper mills that took advantage of the ready supply of water power.
Harpers Ferry was also a transportation hub, served by river traffic, and by the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. It’s scenic beauty has been recognized by everyone from Thomas Jefferson to the many artists who have come to draw and paint it. Gone are the old bridges seen in the prints and paintings of the past, but their foundations still remain to remind us of their passing. Standing at the point between the two rivers is an experience to be savored and enjoyed. The Potomac comes in from the left. It is joined by the Shenandoah coming in from the right, and the two flow together down the canyon toward Washington and the sea.
The sight is beautiful to behold, and the sense of history is real and alive. Harpers Ferry changed hands eight times in the Civil War. It has been ravaged by fires and floods, and by the folly’s of man - but it remains in all it’s splendor to tell it’s story to anyone who wants to listen. The place and the story are well worth the time and the effort to come here.