1999 Road Trip: Harpers Ferry & John Brown

The little town of Harpers Ferry (located on a West Virginian peninsula between the Potomac & Shenadoah Rivers and across from both Virginia and Maryland) was central to much of the action of the Civil War (it is only around 20 miles away from Antietam and contained a U.S. Armory) and changed hands eight times during the conflict.

The entire armory and most of the industrial buildings were destroyed during the war. The surrounding hills in Virginia and Maryland were at various times fortified by both the Union (in fact some of the original paths up the hills were built by Union soldiers from Massachusetts) and the Confederacy. Whoever controlled the hills could control Harpers Ferry as cannon in the hills could readily pummel the town.

Confederate General Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson had failed to take Harpers Ferry earlier in the war, but tried again with a portion of the Confederate Army (the rest was with General Robert E. Lee near the Antietam Creek) on September 15, 1862, and after taking the surrounding hills captured Harpers Ferry. Over 12,000 Union soldiers surrendered to Gen. Jackson; this was the largest U.S. surrender up until World War II.

While all this in and of itself makes Harpers Ferry a significant Civil War site, it is even better known for events prior to the war that some say made the war inevitable. Abolitionist John Brown (born in Connecticut, educated in Connecticut and Massachusetts), a key figure in the "Bleeding Kansas" guerrilla fighting and the man responsible for the Pottawatomie Massacre, came to Harpers Ferry in 1859.

Brown, with secret funding from six wealthy abolitionists in New England, was planning on taking the Harpers Ferry Armory and starting a slave revolt. In order to make his money go further, in addition to purchasing rifles he obtained 1000 pikes. Plans were to arm the slaves with the pikes until they could be trained to properly use the captured firearms. His band consisted of twenty-one men, including some ex-slaves and one Canadian.

His men gathered to train and prepare in a small farmhouse in Maryland (known as the Kennedy Farmhouse, see the pictures of house and shed below) about fifteen miles outside Harpers Ferry. One of his daughters and one of his daughters-in-law also stayed in the house to help hide the fact that a small military group was staying there. On the night of October 16, 1859 the "Army of Liberation" left the farmhouse and raided Harpers Ferry, quickly taking several key strategic points including the armory. The U.S. military (led by then Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee) responded before John Brown's group could distribute the pikes or 100,000 captured muskets from the Armory.

A full contigent of marines and the local militia worked together against Brown's attack, and just thirty-six hours after the takeover of Harpers Ferry, John Brown and his band were nearly all killed or captured. Brown himself had been struck in the neck but survived to stand trial for murder, treason, and attempting to start a slave insurrection. He was found guilty and sentenced to hang. He was executed on December 2, 1859 at the age of 59. His execution focused the U.S. on the slavery issue, helped the splitting of the Democratic Party, and deepened the rift between North and South.