From the PATC Archives

The following is an historic reprint from the April 1958 Edition of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club Bulletin, precursor the PATC's current newsletter, the Potomac Appalachian.


Part 1 - John Brown's Raid on Harpers Ferry

By John P. Cowen

This is the first of a series of monographs concerning those landmarks on the Appalachian Trail which are remembered as the scenes of stirring events in the War Between the States. The observance of the centenary of that conflict two years hence, under the direction of the United States Civil War Centennial Commission, will put new spirit in hiking over the familiar path. Between 1861 and 1865 the trailside was crossed and re- crossed by a million soldiers in uniforms of blue and gray. The soil was reddened by the blood of men who fell in a score of battles and skirmishes along the Trail in southern Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia. Hikers will have an opportunity to review their history and recall the deeds of brave men who fought with many of America's greatest military leaders. The articles to follow at intervals will appear in chronological order.

If you had lived 100 years ago and assumed the precursory role of a hiker on the eventually- to-be Appalachian Trail you very probably would have started from Washington or George Town and traveled by stagecoach to Key's Gap near the summit of the Blue Ridge. Striking northward through woodland and rocky fields you would find yourself in two or three hours on the brink of a precipice called Loudoun Heights. Before you is a breathtaking panorama of rugged mountains and deep winding valleys. At your feet, hundreds of feet below, are two silvery rivers rushing eastward to their junction where cuddles the famous village of Harpers Ferry. The nearest stream is the Shenandoah; the other, approaching from the north, is the Potomac. On the opposite side of the canyon is Jefferson's Rock, so named because in 1801 Thomas Jefferson stood there and declared the surrounding scenery worth a trip across the Atlantic. You'll agree with him.

On the northeast a frowning cliff rises almost perpendicularly from the Potomac. This is a projection of the mountain on which you stand, and being across the river, is called Maryland Heights. A series of lesser ridges on the northwest constitute Bolivar Heights. Man-made features are equally interesting and you marvel how the dwellings seem to cling to the cliffs. You have read in Davenport's Gazetteer that the population of the place in 1850 was above 4,000. You don't doubt this when you observe the activity of the inhabitants moving about in surprising numbers and who appear like pygmies in the distance.

A railroad track emerges from the mountain on the Maryland side and curves over a low bridge across the Potomac, following close to the foot of the cliff where the main street winds up the lofty hill. A branch railroad follows close to the Shenandoah and loses itself behind the hills of Bolivar. The main line is the Baltimore & Ohio which extends across the Alleghenies to the Ohio river. The branch runs to Charlestown and Winchester.

After standing awhile at your vantage point in the shadow of Chimney Rock you realize that Harpers Ferry is no sleepy village. On the flat ground between the railroad and the Potomac is a cluster of buildings that resound with the noise of machinery and the voices of hundreds of workmen, and from tall chimneys wisps of smoke curl up from numerous forges. This is the United States Arsenal, established in 1796 for the manufacture of ordnance for the Army and Navy. Here also is Hall's Rifle Works. Conspicuous among the structures in the arsenal grounds is a one-story brick building with strangely castellated ornaments and a fancy cupola. It is the engine house and you will hear a lot about it later.

The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal squeezes between the river and the Maryland cliffs and curves sharply under the railroad bridge. Its traffic is lighter since the coming of the iron horse. Down the valley you hear the shrill blast of a whistle. Moments later a locomotive, belching black mist from its funnel-shaped smokestack, rushes noisily across the bridge and draws up importantly at the little station. It stops with a jerk in response to rasping brakes. Trainmen, porters, mail-carriers, messengers, and passengers scurry around in an air of suppressed excitement. Railroad travel is still a novelty and has glamour for the populace.

Your exploration of the town necessitates a hazardous descent on a narrow, zigzag path down to the brink of the Shenandoah. If the shaky bridge has been washed away, a signal to a ferryman will bring a boat, and in a jiffy you'll be at the intersection of Shenandoah and High Streets, the business center of town. Of course you will climb the natural stone stairway, visit Jefferson's Rock and the Harper house, and stroll through the old armory to see stacks of Harpers Ferry muskets. You will note that the town arsenal is not used by the workmen or townspeople.

You are having a pleasant day. People are friendly and make you feel at home. You are impressed by the wide-awake atmosphere of the place. For your return to Washington you decline a conveyance to the stage at Leesburg and wait for the late afternoon train. You still enjoy the fascination of riding on the cars.

A fellow passenger from Kentucky hands you a copy of the Wheeling lntelligencer which he has been reading on the long trip across the state. He remarks: "The abolitionists are still keeping up trouble in Kansas. Watch out for old John Brown. He's a dangerous man. Seems he's been quiet lately." The man's talk ruffles your patience. Kansas is so far away! Anyhow, if the agitators on both sides would calm down you think the question would settle itself.

Eighteen months later, on October 18, 1859, the country was stunned by the news that the arsenal at Harpers Ferry had been seized on the previous night by a body of armed men who announced that they "came to free the slaves." Many people in the South - and particularly in the capital - had been predicting just such an explosion, and now declared that this was "it".

Since early in June a stranger, known simply as Smith, had rented a house on the Maryland side of the Potomac a short distance above Harpers Ferry and represented himself as a prospector for minerals. Well authenticated reports reaching Washington now identified Smith as John Brown of Osawatomie, the abolitionist leader from Kansas.

It was a night of terror in Harpers Ferry. The invaders roamed through the village, carrying off prominent citizens, whom they locked up as hostages. Frightened by the fusillade of gunfire, many people remained indoors, but a few armed themselves and challenged the attackers. Trains were halted, but after a time were allowed to proceed, thus spreading the alarm to the surrounding country, whence the news was telegraphed to the outside world. After sunrise, militia companies from nearby Virginia and Maryland converged on the town and the battle continued.

Federal authorities acted promptly and a company of United States Marines was dispatched from Washington. These troops were placed under command of Col. Robert E. Lee, of Arlington, who had served on the staff of Gen. Winfield Scott in the Mexican War. He was joined by Lt. J. E. B. Stuart, of the 2d. United States Dragoons, recently returned from Kansas where he had known John Brown.

Late at night, when Lee and Stuart arrived, the insurrectionists had taken refuge in the engine house with their captive hostages and were surrounded in the arsenal enclosure by Maryland and Virginia militia. In order to protect the hostages Lee resolved to send a flag of truce with an offer of safe conduct if the leader of the band, still known vaguely under the name of Smith, would surrender. The parley was postponed till daylight. During the night a few random shots were exchanged.

At 7:30 in the morning Lt. Stuart went forward with his flag. A door was opened a few inches and the young officer faced a carbine held by a tall man with a shaggy beard whom Stuart instantly recognized as "Osawatomie Brown", a leader of the abolitionist faction in Kansas. Brown ignored Col. Lee's offer and opened a violent argument. At a given signal 24 Marines with unloaded rifles and fixed bayonets rushed forward with strict orders not to fire. Failing to breach the doors with sledges, a ladder was used as a battering ram and entrance was gained. A scattered volley was fired by the insurrectionists, but they soon were overpowered. One Marine was mortally wounded and Brown was pinioned by an officer's sword but not critically hurt. The hostages were unharmed.

The killed numbered 15, including two of Brown's sons, and 12 were wounded. Five insurrectionists escaped, but Brown and six others were lodged in the county jail at Charlestown. Brown was indicted for treason against Virginia, convicted, and hanged on December 2, 1859. During his trial he stoutly refused to allow his lawyer to plead insanity and went to his death unflinchingly. Fervent abolitionist looked upon him as a martyr to the cause of freedom. Sixteen months later war came to Harpers Ferry when Confederate troops poured down the Shenandoah Valley. Federal soldiers applied a torch to the arsenal to prevent the capture of great stores of government munitions.

Paradoxically, the hero of Harpers Ferry was Heywood Shepherd, a free Negro, employed at the railroad station. He was the first person shot down by Brown's men, having failed to obey their order to halt. A tablet to his memory was erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

The Civil War, Part 2