Most of us probably learned about John Brown’s raid on the United States Armory in a history class. After visiting Harpers Ferry we are confident that what we read in our history text books only scratched the surface in regard to John Brown’s personal history and also to the significance of the town itself.
Harpers Ferry was an important town long before John Brown’s raid. Robert Harper purchased the land from Lord Fairfax. He knew that the property would be valuable for transportation purposes because of the confluence of the two rivers and the natural passage that the Potomac cut through the Blue Ridge. Additionally, the two rivers would provide considerable hydropower for manufacturing.
Today, almost 200 years after the first trains traveled through the “hole”, the CSX Railroad is operating the freight line with 40-50 trains per day carrying coal and other commodities from West Virginia to market. Additionally, Amtrak utilizes this line for the thrice weekly Cardinal train which makes a leisurely and scenic 28 hour journey from New York City to Chicago.
George Washington was familiar with the Harpers Ferry area and chose this location as the site for the United States Armory (circa 1799) which would later become the target of Brown’s raid. By the time of Brown’s raid in 1859, Harpers Ferry was a thriving industrial center utilizing the river’s power to manufacture rifles, muskets and pistols for the United States Army. Harpers Ferry was one of only two such facilities in the country – the other being located in Springfield, Massachusetts.
John Brown was born in Torrington, Connecticut in 1800. His family moved soon afterwards and he spent most of his childhood in Ohio where his father had established a tannery.
Brown’s father, Owen, was an extremely strict Calvinist and was very overt in his oppostion to slavery – slavery being a “sin against God”. Owen Brown provided a safe house for Underground Railroad fugitives at their home in Hudson, Ohio. Not surprisingly, Brown was imbued deeply with his father’s belief that slavery was a sin against God.
John Brown was married twice and fathered 21 children. Brown owned several different businesses including a tannery but the financial crisis of 1839 precipitated a string of unsuccessful efforts to get out of debt. As a result, he and his family moved frequently in pursuit of business opportunities – none of which were particularly successful.
While always vehemently opposed to slavery, the murder of Presbyterian minister E.P. Lovejoy by a pro-slavery mob became the catlyst that moved him from abolitionist to guerilla fighter.
Brown and five of his sons left their home and traveled to Kansas to join the fight against slavery. “Free Soilers” and “Slavers” were engaged in a violent conflict over whether Kansas would be admitted to the Union as a free or slave state. This “civil war “ raged on from 1854 to 1860 as was known as Bleeding Kansas. https://ohiohistorycentral.org/w/Bleeding_Kansas
Brown was a well-known and feared figure in this war after he and a group of abolitionists (including two of his sons) murdered five pro-slavery settlers by hacking them to death with swords. This event became known as the Pottawatomie Massacre.
By 1859, John Brown was convinced that the only way slavery would be abolished was through a large scale rebellion. Brown hoped the raid of the armoury at Harpers Ferry would convince escaped slaves to join his small force and that they would become the Army of Emancipation.
Unfortunately for Brown and his group it did not play out in that manner. Brown and his band of 21 men fought fiercely for nearly two days against the local militia until they were overpowered by Colonel Robert E. Lee and a force of Marines. About half of Brown’s men (including two of his sons) were killed. Brown was wounded.
Virginia moved quickly to to try Brown – he was convicted of murder, treason and inciting slave insurrection – and hanged immediately thereafter.
Today, Harpers Ferry is part town (Pop. 281) and part National Historic Park. We found the history of the town quite fascinating. In addition to John Brown’s raid, the town was a major chess piece for the Union and Cofederate forces during the ensuing Civil War. The town changed hands 14 times between 1861 and 1865. https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/10-facts-harpers-ferry
We definitely recommend Harpers Ferry for anyone interested in American history. Additionally, there are a significant number of hiking trails in and around Harpers Ferry which provide wonderful views of the town and the confluence of the rivers. Lastly, there are several cozy inns and restaurants in town.
Be seeing you!
P.S. Don’t forget you can travel to Harpers Ferry via the Amtrak Cardinal train.
John Brown: A Biography by W.E.B Du Bois
Harpers Ferry: Images of America, West Virginia, West Virginia by Dolly Nasby
Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War by Tony Horwitz