Brown, Blue, Gray & Today

Member Group : Salena Zito

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va.- Stepping onto the platform of a Victorian-era train station here, you wouldn’t know you stand above the foundation of Harpers Ferry’s original armory and arsenal buildings.

Built in 1799, the federal armory was championed by President George Washington because of his familiarity with the town as a former investor and first president of the Patowmack Co., formed to complete improvements along the Potomac River.

"It is the very arsenal that drew John Brown here for his infamous raid," says John Addy, mayor of this town of 320 along the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers.
"Three hundred twenty is also about the number of people who once worked in the arsenal," he adds.

Between 1801 and the Civil War’s outbreak in 1861, this was a thriving industrial center of more than 3,000. The armory was in full production and a sawmill, flour mill, machine shop, two cotton mills, a tannery and an iron foundry flourished.

This also was home to many of Washington’s relatives, Addy says, and his "descendents still live here, in the same home his brother Charles had built when George was president."

The town’s fortunes changed in 1859 with the arrival of John Brown, wanted for committing murder during the "Bleeding Kansas" slavery battle, and his "Provisional Army" of 16 whites and five blacks.

He planned to seize the arsenal’s guns to arm rebelling slaves throughout the South.

Brown’s raid ended quickly: After 36 hours, Marines led by then-Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee stormed the building and captured Brown.

He was tried, convicted and executed in less than two months. Among the hundreds who witnessed his hanging was handsome young actor John Wilkes Booth.
In April, our country will mark the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fort Sumter, which most historians consider the start of the Civil War (technically, the first shots were fired there in January 1861).

One can argue, however, that Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry really was the first shot, says James McPherson, Civil War historian and professor emeritus of history at Princeton University. "It vastly intensified Southern fears of Northern anti-slavery forces, and Brown’s martyrdom by hanging increased anti-slavery sentiments in the North," he says.

When Harpers Ferry marked the raid’s sesquicentennial in 2009, Addy says, little push-back came from residents. "There were some letters to the editors in the papers and, privately, a handful of people questioned the political correctness of the festivities.

"Some people considered Brown a terrorist, but most blacks consider him a freedom fighter."

In many respects, everyone — blacks, whites, Northerners, Southerners — is uncomfortable with the issues surrounding the Civil War. It was the most contentious time in our history, yet it did happen, we did learn from it, and we did move forward.

Harpers Ferry’s businesses, homes, even its cobbled streets remain remarkably tied to a different era. You almost feel you are somewhere very special, whether you arrive by train, hike through on the Appalachian Trail, or come by car to retrace history.

"What happened here in 1859 caused a panic across the country," says Caroline Janney, a Purdue University history professor. "While the majority of white Northerners denounced Brown’s actions, there was enough mixed reaction (church bells ringing in his honor, newspapers praising him) to cause a stir among white Southerners."

A massive slave rebellion long had been one of the South’s great fears.
"As the 150th anniversary of the war approaches, we should seek to avoid the pitfalls that beset the Civil War’s centennial, which was mired in racism and Cold War politics," Janney says.

That does not mean we should avoid controversial topics such as slavery.
By engaging in thoughtful, meaningful dialogue about the war’s causes and consequences, Janney hopes, we can better understand contemporary politics and race relations.

Addy says the mayor during Brown’s raid, Fontaine Beckham, died during the attack. "People expect you, as mayor, to do something," he says. "Well, he did. Beckham stuck his head out and was shot.

"The townsfolk still expect the mayor to do something even today. Only now, the worst thing I have to do is to pick up the trash."

Salena Zito
Tribune-Review Political Reporter