- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 9, 2006

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. — It’s a warm and humid day in Harpers Ferry, a town at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers so steeped in the crosscurrents of American history that it’s at the core of a national historic park — one that spills across the rivers into Maryland and Virginia.

And on a trail near the Shenandoah, 150 middle-schoolers from across the country, here for a day as participants in a young leaders’ program, have just volunteered to join the Union Army.

It’s a mock Union Army, of course, under the leadership of a mock sergeant, 42-year-old Tom Bates, a summer worker for the U.S. National Park Service, decked out in blue sack coat and matching forage cap. But the spirit and the history the new “recruits” are absorbing are real.

“Company, right face!” Sgt. Bates commands as he prepares to send the youngsters toward the engine house that bulks so large in this town’s history.

“How many of you know ‘John Brown’s Body’” he asks, and when he commands them to march, the young students break out in song:

John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave…

Sparking a movement

There’s no escaping history here. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Meriwether Lewis and Frederick Douglass left their marks on the village, which is also alive with antique shops, boutiques, bookstores and contemporary restaurants built into historic structures.

But it’s the fiery — some would say crazed — abolitionist John Brown who dominates the town’s story. His 1859 attack on Harpers Ferry and his capture of the U.S. Armory and Arsenal was meant to ignite a slave uprising; instead it lit the spark of civil war.

The deed reverberates even today: Next week on the campus of Storer College at Harpers Ferry, delegates will gather to mark the centenary of W.E.B. Du Bois’ Niagara Movement, a forerunner of the NAACP that in 1906 chose this place as the site of its first public meeting on American soil — largely because of what John Brown did here.

“His plan was to free the slaves throughout the South,” explains Marsha Wassell, the public relations specialist with the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.

The raid

Born in Connecticut in 1800, Brown grew up with strong anti-slavery views and saw himself as an instrument of God. In 1855 he plunged into “Bloody Kansas,” leading guerrillas in ruthless raids against pro-slavery fighters there in the war over whether the future state would be slave or free.

In 1857, fresh from that killing ground, he began concocting a grandiose scheme to free the slaves from a base in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Harpers Ferry had weapons, and once he had captured the armory, he reasoned, slaves from all over Virginia would flock to him, forming an army. From Harpers Ferry he could escape to Pennsylvania if things got bad.

Brown attacked Harpers Ferry with a small force of 18 men — including a number of free blacks and several of his own sons — on the night of Oct. 16-17, 1859. Spreading out across town, they quickly captured the armory and many local citizens they planned to use as hostages.

“In the morning word got around quickly as to what was happening,” Ms. Wassell says. “Legend has it that the barkeeps did a very good business that day.”

Throughout the day local militias arrived. They eventually got in behind the armory, sealing off Brown’s escape.

“This was originally the fire engine house for the United States Armory,” explains Ms. Wassell, sitting on one of the benches inside the small, cupola-topped structure that stands just off Shenandoah Street. “Brown and his men ended up holed up in here.”

Measuring only about 35½ by 24 feet, “John Brown’s Fort” is surprisingly unpretentious. The facade of the one-story brick building features three large portals, two of them mounting double doors for the horse-drawn fire engines. Three of the walls are cut by high, semicircular windows.

The windows were too high for Brown and his men to use, and the raiders had to chisel firing holes out of the walls in order to return fire.

“The following morning 90 Marines arrived under the command of Col. Robert E. Lee,” Ms. Wassell says. “He conferred with the local militia, closed the taverns, and got his men ready for the assault. At first light, 12 were handpicked.”

Using a heavy ladder, they battered through the double doors, and — after a violent bayonet and saber fight in which one Marine and two of Brown’s men were killed and Brown himself was wounded — put an end to the “insurrection.”

Success in failure

In the course of John Brown’s 36-hour raid on Harpers Ferry, not a single slave joined him in his cause. Tried in nearby Charlestown for murder, treason and inciting slave rebellion, John Brown and six of his compatriots were eventually hanged.

“Let them hang me,” Brown remarked upon hearing of his conviction. “I am worth inconceivably more to hang than for any other purpose.”

Indeed, because Judge Richard Parker allowed the press free access to Brown, his trial provided him a national audience. With his hanging he became a powerful anti-slavery martyr.

And he continues to shape Americans’ views.

“In my mind the Civil War started here in Harpers Ferry,” says 20-year-old Kwan Blount-Hill from Dayton, Ohio. A student at Tuskegee University, Mr. Blount-Hill is in his second summer here as an interpreter.

Dressed in linen shirt and dark wool vest like a typical mid-19th-century merchant, he stands inside a fully stocked dry goods store on Shenandoah Street, telling visitors about its operation. Tall shelves hold medicines, boxes of coffee, men’s shirts, canned peas and peaches, china, and spices like mace, allspice and ginger in artfully painted tins.

“Brown recognized black people as his brothers,” Mr. Blount-Hill says. “The 1859 raid here was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Because of John Brown slavery became an American issue — he made it an American problem.”

Rivers and mountains

There may be no more naturally beautiful place to tell the American story. Harpers Ferry occupies an angle of land where the Potomac and the Shenandoah meet. Shaped like an arrowhead, this angle — the Potomac forming its top, and the Shenandoah its bottom, edges — points east toward Baltimore, 60 miles away.

The town was founded in 1747, when Peter Stevens established a ferry here across the Potomac River. Stone mason and millwright Robert Harper passed through this area and saw potential. Harper was given a monopoly on the ferry traffic and purchased 150 acres in the angle between the rivers from Lord Fairfax.

“Nature set the stage here for the human story to follow,? Ms. Wassell says.

Here it’s easy to appreciate the power of water, which shaped the land and the history here. In ancient times these rivers forced their way through the surrounding mountains.

Writing in 1783, Thomas Jefferson — who passed through here with daughter Patsy on the way to Philadelphia — called the sight “perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in nature.” Later, in 1803, Jefferson would send Meriwether Lewis here to purchase equipment for the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

Knowing the location’s water-power potential, President George Washington had the second U.S. Armory and Arsenal built in the town in the 1790s. By 1801 muskets were being produced.

The story doesn’t stop with the early days, or even with John Brown: Confederate Gen. Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson captured Harpers Ferry — along with its 12,000-man Federal garrison — during the Antietam Campaign in September of 1862.

The mountains have an equal role to play.

“This place was once called ?the Hole,’” Ms. Wassell says. “When you’re in lower Harpers Ferry you’re in the bottom of a bowl with mountains on three sides — you’re surrounded by Bolivar Heights to the west, Loudoun Heights across the Shenandoah in Virginia, and Maryland Heights over the Potomac.”

Loudoun and Maryland heights tower, seemingly almost vertically, above the two rivers. Jagged cliffs randomly adorn their heavily wooded slopes.

Bolivar Heights rises up behind the historic district, also called the Lower Town. The national park today comprises about 2,500 acres, including the Lower Town itself, and dozens of artfully restored historic buildings arrayed along three principal streets.

A town preserved

Running parallel to the Potomac, Potomac and High streets intersect with Shenandoah Street a mere 400 feet from the point, the rivers’ confluence.

High Street features gift shops, antique shops and restaurants. In one structure Molly, the Rebel Shop — selling gifts, antiques, and souvenirs — sits next to the Cannonball Restaurant offering subs, pastas, and salads.

The lower portion of the street, however, contains some of the town’s most beautiful brick buildings. Here’s the re-created Confectionary owned from 1845 to 1861 by German baker Frederick Roeder alongside a building featuring displays on the 1862 Battle of Harpers Ferry.

The sign on the one-story, wooden structure next door reads “A. Burton: Fine Repairing.” Inside, several glass cases hold ladies’ jewelry and men’s pocket watches.

Across the street is the beginning of a walking trail. A 10-minute hike up the steep slope — aided by much-worn stairs cut into the rock itself — takes visitors to Jefferson Rock, the precariously perched boulder from which Thomas Jefferson viewed the rivers.

Up High Street sits the Wax Museum. Ingeniously packed into three stories, the museum’s 13 vignettes, featuring 87 wax figures, depict the most important moments of John Brown’s tragic life. Although stilted — obviously put together decades ago and never updated — some of the tableaux nonetheless prove effective.

The last, in the basement, is perhaps the best. Set below the viewing area, John Brown is climbing the stairs to the gallows, his hands tied behind him.

“He wanted to free the black people of this nation,” says the narrator while “John Brown’s Body” plays in the background, “to lift the sin of slavery from the conscience of America.”

With these words a light illuminates John Brown and the automaton lifts his head and stares visitors right in the face, eyes glowing.

His soul goes marching on.

• • •

John Brown’s body may lie a-mouldering in the grave, but his spirit continues to move people in sometimes surprising ways.

From Aug. 18 to Aug. 20, Storer College at Harpers Ferry will host the 100th anniversary commemoration of the first meeting on American soil of the Niagara Movement, the nation’s first civil rights organization and the predecessor of the NAACP — a gathering that took place here because of John Brown.

The prospect for full civil rights for American blacks seemed rather bleak at the beginning of the 20th century. The Reconstruction that followed the Civil War had failed to grant ex-slaves full rights, and the Supreme Court’s 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision approved of the states’ right to segregate the races.

In response, in 1905 the black author and editor William Edward Burghardt Du Bois drafted a “Call” for “aggressive action on the part of men who believed in Negro freedom and growth.”

The resulting meeting of 29 civil rights activists took place soon thereafter at the Erie Beach Hotel in Ontario, Canada — because they were denied hotel space in Buffalo, N.Y. There, during the three-day conference, the Niagaraites put together committees, adopted a constitution and by-laws, and wrote a Declaration of Principles.

In 1906, from Aug. 15-19, the Niagara Movement held its first meeting in the United States at Harpers Ferry on the campus of Storer College. Founded in 1867 by Freewill Baptists and dedicated to educating ex-slaves, Storer for the next 25 years remained West Virginia’s only upper-level school for blacks.

Naturally, to the country’s black citizens, Harpers Ferry was an extremely symbolic location. Many considered John Brown the instigator of the Civil War, and John Brown’s Fort, the old engine house, a national civil rights shrine.

The weeklong conference was filled with meetings, speeches and commemorative ceremonies. On John Brown’s Day, an entire day devoted to his memory, attendees removed their shoes and marched around the engine house singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “John Brown’s Body.”

At the convention’s conclusion, an address penned by Du Bois was read in which he stated that “We will not be satisfied to take one jot or tittle less than our full manhood right. We claim for ourselves every single right that belongs to a freeborn American.”

The Niagara Movement lasted only five years, but it helped to lay the groundwork for the founding of the NAACP in 1909.

The Harpers Ferry centennial commemoration opens on Aug. 18 with an evening public reception followed by a gospel concert, an opening keynote address and a presentation entitled “Women of the Niagara Movement.”

Saturday’s events include a panel discussion, concerts, and a historical re-enactment of Reverdy C. Ransom’s soul-stirring 1906 address on “The Spirit of John Brown.”

On Aug. 20, participants will re-create the 1906 events at John Brown’s Fort.

For more information contact the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park at 304/535-6298 or see www.nps.gov/hafe/niagara.

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