By Scott Vierick, Historian
In 1861, less than two years after John Brown’s Raid, many of the Virginia militiamen who had stopped Brown and his raiders from seizing weapons to start a rebellion against the United States marched back towards Harpers Ferry. Their goal? Seize the same weapons and use them in a rebellion against the United States. As the militia closed in, a huge explosion rocked the town. Knowing they were outnumbered, Union forces had torched the armory and arsenal, the anchor of the town’s economy, before retreating across the Potomac River. War had come to Harpers Ferry and would remain for the next four years.
Over the next few years, the town would change hands over eight times, as both Union and Confederate forces dueled for control of the strategic location at the juncture of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. They transformed the town into a battlefield, sending artillery shells ripping through homes and buildings at several points during the war. After Confederate forces shot a Union scout helping an enslaved person escape, Union forces torched part of the town’s business district. The old engine house, John Brown’s Fort, became a prison for Confederate soldiers and civilians, while self-liberated formerly enslaved men, women, and children set up refugee camps nearby. Many pre-war residents fled. Those who stayed found themselves at risk from both armies, and several lost their lives to stray bullets and cannonballs. In 1862, Confederate General Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson’s forces surrounded the town, forcing the largest surrender of United States forces until World War II. After the surrender, Confederates kidnapped every African American they could find and forced them into slavery further south.
In 1864, history again repeated itself as formerly enslaved men carrying federally-issued weapons marched through Harpers Ferry to wage war against slavery. The 19th Regiment of the United States Colored Troops (USCT) had come to the Shenandoah Valley on a recruiting mission. The legacy of John Brown and his raiders echoed in other ways as well. President Abraham Lincoln discussed with Frederick Douglass the possibility of sending scouts to recruit enslaved people to flee to Union lines, “somewhat after the original plan of John Brown.” “John Brown’s Body,” meanwhile, became one of the most popular songs for the Union during the Civil War.
Although John Brown’s body was “a-mouldering in the grave” during the war, many of his fellow raiders who managed to escape went on to participate in the conflict. Barclay Coppoc joined the 3rd Kansas Infantry, Francis Jackson Meriam joined the 3rd South Carolina Colored Infantry, and Charles Plummer Tidd joined the 21st Massachusetts Volunteers. Osborne Anderson served as a recruiter for the United States military and also wrote A Voice from Harpers Ferry, his reminiscences of the raid.
With the end of the war, the people of Harpers Ferry, now part of the newly-formed state of West Virginia, attempted to rebuild. New businesses replaced old ones. John Brown’s Fort was moved to Chicago for the 1891 World’s Fair, before being relocated to the Murphy Farm three miles outside of Harpers Ferry. On the heights of Camp Hill, former armory buildings became a school for African Americans—something unthinkable in 1859—and eventually transitioned into an institution of higher learning. Despite racist opposition from many in the town, the faculty of Storer College educated generations of African American professionals and leaders until it closed in 1955.
The town also became a tourism destination, particularly for African American visitors, with one noting, “The scenery and the history in and around this little mountain village possess and interest that is unusual… I had never yet felt as I felt at Harpers Ferry.” The Niagara Movement, a forerunner to the NAACP, held one of its meetings here. As a sign of respect, attendees made an early morning march to the fort, where they paid homage to the abolitionists who made their final stand within its walls and sang the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “John Brown’s Body.”
The town remained a battleground in the fight over John Brown, the Civil War, and its legacy. In 1895, the B&O Railroad raised an obelisk noting the original location of John Brown’s Fort. After the fort was moved from the Murphy Farm to the Storer Campus, Storer College alumni unveiled a plaque on the building itself, which declared, “That this nation might have a new birth of freedom. That slavery should be removed from American soil. John Brown, and his 21 men gave their lives.”
By contrast, the Heyward Shepherd Memorial, erected in 1931 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans, is a case study in Lost Cause ideology that romanticizes the Confederate cause. The monument falsely portrays Shepherd, an African American civilian shot at the train station during the raid, as a defender of the antebellum order and attempts to recast race relations in the South as harmonious until disrupted by Northern abolitionist meddlers. In reality, Shepherd was an employee investigating a disturbance as part of his duties. His political opinions remain unknown. Black journalists and academics denounced this distorted perception of the war, as did Storer College choir director Pearl Tatten. Although Storer College agreed to have its choir sing at the memorial’s dedication, during the ceremony Tatten made a pointed statement against the monument and reminded the crowd that she was the daughter of a USCT soldier who had fought against slavery.
“I am the daughter of a Connecticut volunteer, who wore the blue, who fought for the freedom of my people, for which John Brown struck the first blow. Today we are looking forward to the future, forgetting those things of the past. We are pushing forward to a larger freedom… in the spirit of a new freedom and rising youth.”
As fights over the Civil War and its legacy continued, the town of Harpers Ferry faced another challenge: flooding. The area had always been susceptible to floods, but industrialization and deforestation had exacerbated the problem. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the waters of the Potomac and Shenandoah swamped the town again and again, drowning residents and destroying homes and businesses. After a particularly devastating flood in 1936, Dr. Henry McDonald, the president of Storer College, declared to Congressmen Jennings Randolph that the town should become part of the National Park Service (NPS). The NPS would help preserve the town’s history, and save the local economy. In 1944, Harpers Ferry became a national monument, and in 1963 it became a national historical park.
The acquisition of much of Harpers Ferry by the NPS did not put an end to the fight over John Brown. In the 1950s, park superintendent Edwin M. Dale declared, “My grandpappy was a Confederate, and we’re not going to talk about John Brown.” This attitude put Dale into conflict with NPS leadership, who eventually replaced him. Controversy continued with the centennial of the raid in 1959. The Civil War Centennial Commission, desiring to mollify segregationists and avoid the topic of slavery, attempted to minimize any commemoration of the raid on Harpers Ferry. The commission’s effort backfired. The local community, with cooperation from the NPS, hosted a series of successful events at Harpers Ferry that attracted over 60,000 visitors and brought national media attention to John Brown and the raid.
Today, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park spans three states and two rivers. The town of Harpers Ferry abuts the park and includes homes and businesses, many of which rely on the tourism the park attracts. The area is a major recreation destination. The heights around the city include numerous trails, including a section of the Appalachian Trail which passes by John Brown’s Fort. Tubers, kayakers, and canoeists enjoy the waters of the Shenandoah and Potomac.
At Harpers Ferry, past meets present as layers of history intersect and overlap with modern life. The natural beauty of the mountains and rivers coexists with the bloodshed and violence of the town’s history. Hiking trails stretch past old fortifications and entrenchments. Harpers Ferry Center, where staff oversees exhibits and multimedia for the entire NPS system, sits next to the former Storer College campus. Weary Appalachian Trail hikers pass Civil War reenactors on streets where people once fought, bled, and died over questions of freedom, union, law, and justice. John Brown’s Fort, the memorial obelisk, and the Heyward Shepherd Memorial stand within sight of each other. If the old fortifications and rifle lines that dot the heights around the town are artifacts of the Civil War, then these monuments are artifacts of the fight over the war’s legacy and form a key part of NPS ranger tours about history and memory at Harpers Ferry.
John Brown and his fellow raiders continue to cast a long shadow over the town, reminding visitors that the locations are not preserved in amber after a major event: they continue to evolve and change, to shape and be shaped by each generation. The NPS serves as the steward of the site, protecting its resources and interpreting its complicated past so that visitors have a chance to ask questions and debate issues that seem more relevant now than ever. Although the raid itself occurred over 150 years ago, historians and the general public continue to debate the actions of Brown, Copeland, Cook, Greene, and the other raiders. What is the best way to stand against injustice? Is it ever right to take a life to save another? Is violence ever justified in the name of change? Do the predicted ends of an action justify its unintended consequences? The story of Harpers Ferry provides insights, but no easy answers to these questions, thus making it all the more important to preserve and treasure sites like Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. There, at the intersection of past and present, we are challenged to learn, discuss, and create informed opinions. Perhaps no one has better described this immense task than Stephen Vincent Benét in his 1928 epic poem “John Brown’s Body”:
The law’s our yardstick, and it measures well
Or well enough when there are yards to measure.
Measure a wave with it, measure a fire,
Cut sorrow up in inches, weigh content.
You can weigh John Brown’s body well enough,
But how and in what balance weigh John Brown?