Harper’s Ferry And John Brown

The Potomac, having flowed more than two hundred miles through beautiful gorges and the “finest scenery of these mountains, finally breaks out at Harper’s Ferry, receiving here its chief tributary, the Shenandoah, coming up from Virginia, the Potomac River passage of the Blue Ridge being described by Thomas Jefferson as ” one of the most stupendous scenes in nature.” The Shenandoah—its name meaning ” the stream passing among the spruce-pines “—flows through the fertile and famous ” Valley of Virginia,” noted for its many battles and active movements of troops during the Civil War, when the rival forces, as fortunes changed, chased each other up and down the Valley; and Harper’s Ferry, at the confluence of the rivers, and the towering Maryland Heights on the northern side and the Loudon Heights on the Virginia side, the great buttresses of the river passage, being generally held as a northern border fortress. These huge mountain walls rise fifteen hundred feet above the town, which has a population of about two thousand.

Harper’s Ferry was also the scene of ” John Brown’s raid,” which was practically the opening act of the Civil War, although actual hostilities did not begin until more than a year afterwards. ” Old John Brown of Osawatomie” was a tanner, an unsettled and adventurous spirit and foe of slavery, born in Connecticut in 1800, but who, at the same time, was one of the most upright and zealous men that ever lived. In his wanderings he migrated to Kansas in 1855, where he lived at Osawatomie, and fought against the pro-slavery party. His house was burnt and his son killed in the Kansas border wars, and he made bloody reprisals. Smarting under his wrongs, he became the master-spirit of a convention which met at Chatham, Canada, in May, 1859, and organized an invasion of Virginia to liberate the slaves. Having formed his plans, he rented a farmhouse in July about six miles from Harper’s Ferry, and gathered his forces together. On the night of October 16th, with twenty-two associates, six being negroes, he crossed the bridge into Harper’s Ferry, and captured the arsenal and armory of the Virginia militia, intending to liberate the slaves and occupy the heights of the Blue Ridge as a base of operations against their owners. A detachment of United States marines were next day sent to the aid of the militia, and, after two days’ desultory hostilities, some of his party were killed, and Brown and the survivors were captured and given up to the Virginia authorities for trial. His final stand was made in a small engine house, known as “John Brown’s Fort,” which was exhibited at the Chicago Exposition in 1893. Brown and six of his associates were hanged at the county-seat, Charlestown, seven miles southwest of Harper’s Ferry, on December 2d, Brown facing death with the greatest serenity. His raid failed, but it was potential in disclosing the bitter feeling between the North and the South, and it furnished the theme for the most popular and inspiring song of the Civil War :

“John Brown’s body lies mouldering in the grave, But his soul goes marching on.”