A memorable place, it is a small town, located at a point where steep mountains sweep down into deep water. In 1859, before the Civil War broke out, this town was unfortunate to be located at the wrong spot, between the warring states.
When the Civil War broke out, the South, with a population less than half that of the North (just over 6 millions compared to over 13), had 347,000 slave owners – 1 in every 18 Southern whites. In the Capitol, there were 30 senators from the 15 slaveowning states, with 32 senators representing the 16 free states. In the House of Representatives, 90 representatives came from the slaveowning states, and 144 from the free states.
We were familiar with the battle hymn John Brown’s Body that was sung by soldiers from the Union marching into the Confederate states:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:His truth is marching on.
So we wanted to learn a little bit more about this divisive figure, and the tiny village he chose as the launching pad for his attempted insurrection of slaves in the South.
|John Brown's Fort|
We wanted to walk down the narrow streets, getting a feel for how the place looked during the Civil War. Like so many of the Civil War sites, there were many well-drafted and very informative plaques which guided us, including period photographs which gave us a clear idea of what was there during the War.
On October 16, 1859, the fiery John Brown and 21 followers invaded the federal Armory in Harpers Ferry. They had surprise on their sides, and swiftly took over the US armory, arsenal, and rifle works, and the bridges over the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers.
What on earth was this shaggy, bearded man up to? What did he want to achieve, and why did he fail in the takeover, but succeed – after his death – in becoming such a hero to the North?
We strode the streets, reading the plaques, visiting the John Brown Museum and later on the Master Armorer’s House, searching for answers.
|John Brown's pikes|
As rain dripped down, on the street in front of the John Brown Museum, we met two men who were shooting a documentary of the times, and waiting for the rain to clear up so that they could get on with it. It was a question of light, the producer explained. From Maryland, they were delighted to fill us in on some of the details of events of the time.
|Master Armorer's House at Harpers Ferry|
We then spent some time inside the Museum itself, which was well laid out.
In 1857 Brown had ordered two thousand long, sharp pikes from Charles Blair of Connecticut, and intended them to be used by slaves rising up against their owners. Now, Brown’s target was the thousands of rifles, muskets and pistols in the two warehouse arsenals there.
Brown expected locals to support him, but none did and hundreds of militiamen flocked into the small town to fight the raiders.
By midday Monday half of Brown’s forces were shot, and the townspeople used some of the bodies for target practice.
By nightfall on Monday, only Brown and four men were left, holed up in the building that became known as Brown’s Fort – the small armory fire engine house.
This is where young General Lee enters the picture.
|Inside John Brown's Fort|
Leading the U.S. Marines, Lee ordered his men to use sledgehammers and a heavy stepladder to break into the wooden door of the fort, shooting some of Brown’s raiders before rescuing the hostages trapped inside the little building.
One marine, twenty-four year old Private Luke Quinn, arrived late at night at Harper’s Ferry in a special train provided by the Baltimore & Ohio Tailroad; one of about ninety Marines sent from the capital to sort things out.
|Private Luke Quinn memorial|
Quinn was the only Marine who died. He was killed as he entered Brown’s fort, a bullet entering his abdomen. His body lies in the nearby St. Peter’s Catholic cemetery. Inside the Brown Museum, a plaque records his dying words:
Recently, a 3,500 granite monument has been erected to honor Private Quinn, some quarter of a mile up the road from Brown’s Fort. Quinn stands at attention, in full uniform (his birth year of 1835 incorrectly is used as the year Quinn emigrated to the US from Ireland).
Inside the Master Armorer’s House we listened to a park ranger explain some of the events of the day.
Lieutenant Green dashed inside the opening in the smashed door, and came to grips with Brown. He thrust his sword at Brown, but because he carried only a light dress sword, and not the heavy-duty one he carried into battle, the slash to the side of Brown’s throat did not kill the rebel, but only knocked him down. Green then thrust his sword into Brown’s chest, but its point bent back. So Green thumped Brown with the bent sword until he lost consciousness.
“I see a book kissed, which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament ... It teaches me further to remember them that are in bonds as bound with them. I endeavored to act up to that instruction ... I feel entirely satisfied with the treatment I have received in court... But I feel no consciousness of guilt...”
|Sledgehammer used by Lee's Marines to break into John Brown's Fort|
Brown was dead, but the dispute over his raid, his role, and over whether the United States could survive half-free and half-slave, now deepened, leading to the outbreak of the vicious, bloody and lengthy Civil War.
John Brown hoped to use the nearby entry into the Appalachian Mountains – what he called The Great Black Way – to penetrate into the South, wage guerilla war and hide runaway slaves. He hoped to make the keeping of slaves too costly to continue.
Nestled on the border between the North and South, the sleepy little town of Harpers Ferry was one of the most contested pieces of real estate in the whole bloody Civil War, changing hands eight times during those long, dreadful years. The fighting drove the 3,000 inhabitants out, until only one hundred were left there. Harpers Ferry’s grim fate arose because it was on the Potomac River, the watery divide between the warring states, and because it was the gateway to the rich Shenandoah Valley.
In 1862 Stonewall Jackson beat the Union troops who defended Harpers Ferry during fierce fighting over three days, and forced the largest number of Union troops to surrender during the Civil War – 12,500 men. This victory allowed General Lee to go on to the bloody battle of Antietam.
|Stonewall Jackson note on taking Harpers Ferry|
After meeting with Grant at Monocacy Junction in 1864, General Phillip Sheriden took a one-car special train to Harpers Ferry, and then rode to Halltown to take over his command and launch his scorched earth invasion of the luckless Shenandoah Valley in 1864. He was to strip the Valley clean so that, in Grant’s words, a crow flying over it would have to take its own food along on its journey.
After our long visit to the remarkably interesting John Brown Museum, we strode kitty-corner across rainswept street to the Master Armorer’s House.
|Pastor Lance K. Braun, Volunteer, Harpers Ferry National Park - in The Bedroom|
A handsome, two-storeyed, brown-bricked building, that today looks the same as it did in 1859, sports high, green-shuttered windows on three sides.
Through one of its windows we could see tourists entering the small brick building known as John Brown’s Fort. Since its beginning in 1848, Brown’s Fort had been moved four times. The last time it landed where you can now see it through the windows of the Master Armorer’s House; only this time, when it was carefully put together again, brick by brick, a mirror image of the plans was used. The result? The small door on the right hand side of the building (viewed from the Armorer’s House) should really be on the left side!
|John Brown's Fort through the window of the Armorer's House|
The Master Armorer’s House was completed on July 5, 1859, just two days before Brown came in secret into the town to scout it out. Because the Master Armorer Benjamin Mills deemed the location of the house too dangerous for his family, the Paymaster’s Clerk John Daingerfield lived there instead. He became one of Brown’s hostages during the raid.
Inside, Pastor Lance K. Braun, a volunteer at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, gave us a brief lecture on the role of the Armorer’s House during the Civil War period. When he mentioned that both General Lee and General Grant had slept in the main bedroom upstairs, my ears pricked up.
He then kindly led me upstairs to view the room.
In 1864 General Ulysses S. Grant (known popularly as Unconditional Surrender Grant, after his successful taking of Fort Donelson), slept in the same bedroom in the house that Lee had slept in when he ended Brown’s insurrection.
A small metal-grilled fireplace is in the center of the large bedroom, with its own chimney rising up to the roof.
As the only house in all of America that these two enemy generals had used, the bedroom had a special interest for me. These two men are members of my personal Panel of Heroes – men and women from the present and past who inspire me by virtue of their thoughts and deeds.
I spent a few moments in the bedroom with the Pastor, thinking of the irony. Lincoln was desperate for a general who would wage total war, and when he finally found Grant, never let him go.
And Grant, once he locked horns with Lee’s army, sank his teeth into his enemy’s forces like some battle-trained bulldog, and steadfastly fought him, almost daily, for nearly nine months until finally these two courteous, dignified, and fearless men sat down opposite each other in the Maclean House in Appottomax, and America’s long nightmare was finally over.
The two generals stood up, Lee left on his horse, Traveller, and Americans stopped killing Americans in battle. Over 620,000 men died during that brutal war, with 185,000 killed in battle (for every one who died in battle, two men died from illness0, and over 569,000 wounded.
When I left that room, I suggested to Pastor Braun that the Park should place a plaque on the wall, with details of this one room that both these fierce warriors had once slept in, one before the war began, and the other close to its ending.
|Death Mask of Robert E. Lee from National Portrait Gallery|
|Death mask of General U.S. Grant, from National Portrait Gallery|