Day Thirty Five: Harpers Ferry, John Brown, More Questions than Answers

I’ll tell you right off the bat – we never made it to where I intended today. That’s happened a lot on this trip. We start off with good intentions of seeing A, B, & C. Then, we get to A, and it is so cool, and we know it will be so long before we get back to see it again, that we spend a lot more time on that than we had planned. There’s worse things than that. 🙂

Today, our “A” was Harpers Ferry. It is very hard for me to write it that way, although it is the current correct presentation of the name. I have to fight myself not to stick an apostrophe in and make it Harper’s Ferry. They didn’t consult me before making the change, so I will  honor what they have chosen.

Harpers Ferry is so named because a man named Robert Harper came through the area, saw an opportunity, and bought his way in. Interesting tidbit: Harper originally “bought” his property from a man named Peter Stephens. The problem was, Stephens was just a squatter on the property, and it wasn’t his to sell. After discovering this, Harper negotiated with the rightful owner, Lord Fairfax, and purchased the property a second time.

Robert Harper began running a ferry between two banks of an area where two rivers – The Potomac and Shenandoah – met. Thus, the name. A young man named George Washington spent time in the area as a surveryor for Lord Fairfax, and was impressed by the possibilities presented by the location – the confluence of two rivers, and an opening in the Blue Ridge Mountains. When Washington became our first President, he selected Harpers Ferry as the site of a National Armory – a place to store armaments the young nation would need in case of war.

Before we get to John Brown, let’s take a look at some of the pictures of Harpers Ferry. You can see the spire of St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church from the highway, and it’s one of the first things you see as you walk toward the town:

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The historic section of Harpers Ferry is called Lower Town, as the current, more modern town is built on higher ground. This part of Harpers Ferry, standing between two rivers, has been flooded regularly over the last few centuries, with a 1936 flood bringing floodwaters nearly up to the second story of the buildings.

Here’s where the two rivers come together at what is known as The Point.

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Standing in that spot, you can see three different states: West Virginia on the right, Maryland on the left, and Virginia seen in the distance.

Here’s what the town itself looks like:

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Walking through this town, which is now maintained by the National Park Service, it really does feel like you are walking through history. Just standing on this street, knowing everything that transpired here, was an unforgettable experience. So, what happened here? John Brown happened.

John Brown was an abolitionist who was willing to go to extreme lengths to eliminate slavery. A great idea, but his methods were questionable. John Brown’s journey from Abolitionist to what we would now call a terrorist, began in the territory of Kansas. Kansas was seeking entry into the Union, but would it be a slave state, or a free state? It was a hotly debated issue, and, not surprisingly, one that turned to violence. Lawrence, Kansas, was burned by pro-slavery forces. In retaliation, John Brown and his followers killed five pro-slavery men in Pottowatamie.

He avoided capture for this crime for three years, until 1859. That’s when he emerged from hiding and launched what became known as John Brown’s Raid in Harpers Ferry. The choice of that town was no accident – his plan was to capture the armory located there, grab huge amounts of weapons, disburse them to slaves in the area and encourage them to stage an armed uprising. His hope was that the uprising would spread through all the southern states and force them to give up slavery.

The first part of his plan worked flawlessly. With a tiny force of only eighteen men, he launched a surprise attack on the armory. He took it over without a shot being fired. For an organization that was mass-producing weapons, they were lightly guarded. His plan was to send out his small force into the country side, capture slave owners and their slaves, then bring them back to the armory, hold the slave owners hostage, arm the slaves, and encourage insurrection.

The problem was in the timing. It took much longer for his forces to locate and kidnap local landowners. While that was transpiring, the men who worked at the armory showed up for work and were met with armed men, who took them hostage. As might be imagined, the good townsfolk of Harpers Ferry didn’t take kindly to all this. A gun battle ensued. Meanwhile, President Buchanan was alerted, and he dispatched a company of Marines, led by Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart to quash the uprising.

John Brown took his hostages and meager remaining forces and barricaded himself in what came to be known as John Brown’s Fort, seen here:

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Brown attempted to negotiate with the Lee and Stuart and was told only his unconditional surrender was acceptable. Brown further barricaded himself inside the building, the marines grabbed whatever was at hand, and forced their way inside, one at a time. After three minutes of intense hand to hand combat, the battle was over. John Brown was taken alive.

That was October 17, 1859. By December 2, 1859, he  had been tried, found guilty of treason, and was hanged. Things moved a lot faster in the old days. Here are a number of pictures of Brown over the years.

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I thought he looked like Abraham Lincoln without the beard, especially in Kansas in 1856. There’s a John Brown Museum in Harpers Ferry, and when you walk in, you see him  looking like an Old Testament prophet:

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That’s the story. Looking back on it now, through the prism of today’s perspective, what does it all mean? John Brown stood on the right side of history in abolishing slavery. But, he was a fanatic that was willing to do whatever he needed to in order to push his agenda forward. He murdered people, first in Kansas, then in Harpers Ferry. He accomplished a lot – acting as a lightning rod for the issue, forcing people to take sides. But, does the end justify the means? Are some goals worth achieving via whatever methods necessary?

How does all this resonate in our world today? Lots of questions, I know, but I have no answers, just thoughts. I’ll keep those to myself for now.

I will say this. Harpers Ferry was one of the best stops in this whole Lap Around America. It got me to thinking, and that’s always a good thing.

Tomorrow, we’ll make it to B, and maybe C.

Cheers, and safe travels!

Shawn

6 comments

  1. Thank you for my American history lesson this evening. Yes, I think John Brown quite resembles Abraham Lincoln. I’m anxious to learn what B and C are tomorrow! Safe travels!

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  2. Sorry about B and C, but your questions about A are good’uns. Plus now I know of someone else who lived in Lawrence, Kansas besides Laura and Aunt Dot. (Yeah, I know, that means nothing to you. 🙂 )

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  3. Growing up in the South, I never felt that the ends justified the means. I recognized that his intent (to abolish slavery) was a good one, but his methods to achieve that were definitely terroristic – and not acceptable. Rather than the ends justifying the means, the methods negate the potential for a positive outcome. My husband’s great great grandfather wrote a letter that came down in the family – and I transcribed – from the same era. Different side of the same coin. He was robbed of everything he owned and barely escaped with his life after being accosted by “Col. Clark” believed to be a reference to William Clarke Quantrill of Quantrill’s raiders. This was about a year and a half after Quantrill’s raiders murdered about 150 men and boys in Lawrence, KS. We’re relatively certain about this connection as in his letter he states: “I fear it will be sometime before I can see you all as Col. Clark had everything I have of value taken & I only escaped with my life by promising a large sum of money, but I have learned in the last few days that the Confederates & Federals have agreed to unite in S. E. Mo & then kill, capture, or disperse Clark’s bad so it is probable that Clark will be captured by one side or the other & if so I may get something back, if not, however, I will have to occupy every moments times industriously to support my family . . . ” Ain’t history fascinatin’?

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  4. What a great history lesson! Thank you for that. Interesting place to visit, hope b & c prove as interesting. Guess we’ll have to wait & see where your next stop takes us. Onward we go!!

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  5. I love that your trip is so flexible that you can stop and stay a while wherever you decide. Loved reading about the history of this area. Safe travels

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