Harpers Ferry may have become a footnote to history as a town ravaged by floods and passed by with the advent of railroads and highways, if not for the events of October 1859. The events were precipitated by the actions of John Brown, a preacher and an abolitionist.
On the night of the 16-th, Brown and eighteen of his raiders marched from the Kennedy farm in Maryland across the old Potomac River Bridge and into Harpers Ferry. They attacked the US Arsenal and Armory with the intent of taking the weapons and ammunition, instigating a slave rebellion, and waging war against slavery from the Appalachian Mountains. Local militia penned raiders in the armory firehouse, now referred to as John Brown's fort.
On the morning of October 18, a party of 12 marines under the command of Col Robert E. Lee, stormed the fort and capture Brown and his raiders. In all seventeen people were killed: two slaves, three townsmen, a slaveholder, one Marine and ten raiders. Brown was charged with murder and treason. The trial in Charles Town lasted 5 days. He was found guilty and sentenced to hang on the gallows. Brown was executed on December 2 and his body returned to New York for burial. Six of his raiders were also tried and executed; five escaped.
The building where John Brown was captured was the only armory building to survive the war, however souvenir hunters had vandalized it. The notoriety of John Brown made it of interest to historians and the public. In 1891, it was dismantled and shipped to Chicago for the Exposition. In 1895 it was returned to Harpers Ferry and exhibited at a nearby farm. In 1909 the fort was purchased by Storer College and moved to the Harpers Ferry campus. Then in 1968 the Park Service moved it to its present location, about 150 feet from its original site.
The entrance to the John Brown Museum is under the flag in the picture above. It contains portraits, information on his life and video presentations of the raid.
This year is the sesquicentennial anniversary of John Brown's raid and several events are being planned to commemorate the event, including a symposium and re-enactment of the march to Harpers Ferry. For more information see the web site johnbrownraid.org.
It is ironic that Brown's first victim was a free African-American employee of the B&O Railroad. Brown's raiders stopped an approaching train on the bridge and Heyward Shepherd went to investigate. He was shot and killed.
These events further inflamed the passions on the issue of slavery. At the time of John Brown's raid , Harpers Ferry was part of Virginia. In 1861 the War Between the States began. The counties in the northwestern part of Virginia split from the rest of the state and became the state of West Virginia on June 20, 1963. The Confederate Army destroyed the bridges, arsenal and armory in Harpers Ferry. The bridges were rebuilt and destroyed several times during the war. The town changed hands several times during the course of the war.