Harper’s Ferry – Historic Landmarks

IT was a wet Monday in October, on my return from a journey, with a large party of friends and acquaintances, as far north as Chicago and as far south as St. Louis and the Iron Mountains. We were gradually nearing home, and the fun and jollity grew apace as we got closer to the end of our holiday and to the beginning of our everyday work.

Our day’s ride was intended to be from Cumberland (on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad) to Baltimore. The murky drizzle made our comfortable car all the more cosy, and the picturesque glories of that part of Western Virginia, through which we had come very leisurely and enjoyably, were heightened by the contrast of the dull cloud that hung over the valley of the Potomac.

At Martinsburg the train was stopped for an unusually long time; and in spite of close questioning, we were obliged to satisfy our curiosity with a confused story of an outbreak and a strike among the workmen at the armoury, with a consequent detention of trains, at Harper’s Ferry. The train pushed on slowly, and at last came to a dead halt at a station called The Old Furnace.

There a squad of half a dozen lazy Virginia farmers—we should call them a picket just now, in our day of military experiences—told us half a dozen stories about the troubles ahead, and finally the people in charge of our train deter-mined to send it back to wait for further news from below. A young engineer who was employed on the railroad was directed to go along the track to examine it, and see what, if any, damage had been done. As I had brushed up an acquaintance with him, I volunteered to accompany him, and then was joined by a young Englishman, a Guardsman on his travels, one of the Welsh Wynns, just returning from a shooting tour over the prairies. We started off in the rain and mud, and kept together till we came to a bridle-path crossing the railroad and climbing up the hills. Here we met a country doctor, who offered to guide us to Bolivar, whence we could come down to the Ferry, and as the trains would be detained there for several hours, there would be time enough to see all the armoury workshops and wonders. So off we started up the muddy hillside, leaving our engineer to his task on the railroad ; for what pedestrian would not prefer the worst dirt road to the best railroad for an hour’s walking?

My guide—Dr. Marmion was the name he gave in exchange for mine—said that the row at the Ferry was nothing but a riotous demonstration by the workmen. He came from quite a distance, and, hearing these vague reports, had turned off to visit his patients in this quarter, so that he might learn the real facts; and as it was then only a little past nine, he had time to do his morning’s work in Bolivar. So there we parted, he agreeing to join me again at the Ferry; and he did so later in the day.

Turning to the left on the main pike, I found little knots of lounging villagers gathered in the rain and mud, spitting, swearing, and discussing the news from the Ferry. Few of them had been there, and none of them agreed in their account of the troubles; so I plodded on over the hill and down the sharp slope that led to the Ferry. Just as I began the descent, a person rode up on horseback, gun in hand, and as we came in sight of the armoury, he told me the true story—that a band of men were gathered together to set the slaves free, and that, after starting the outbreak on the night before, they had taken refuge down below. He pointed with his gun, and we were standing side by side, when a sudden flash and a sharp report and a bullet stopped his story and his life.

The few people above us looked down from behind the shelter of houses and fences—from below not a soul was visible in the streets and alleys of Harper’s Ferry, and only a few persons could be seen moving about the building in the armoury inclosure. In a minute, some of the townspeople, holding out a white handkerchief, came down to the fallen man, and, quite undisturbed, carried him up the hill and to the nearest house—all with hardly a question or a word of explanation. Shocked by what was then rare enough to be appalling—sudden and violent death by firearms in the hands of concealed men,—I started off again, meaning to go down to the Ferry, with some vague notion of being a peacemaker, and at least of satisfying my curiosity as to the meaning of all these mysteries : for while I saw that fatal rifle-shot meant destruction, I had no conception of a plot.

Just as I had reached the point where I had joined the poor man who had fallen—it was a Mr. Turner, formerly a captain in the army, and a person deservedly held in high esteem by all his friends and neighbours,—a knot of two or three armed men stopped me, and after a short parley directed me to someone in authority, who would hear my story. The guard who escorted me to the great man was garrulous and kind enough to tell me more in detail the story, now familiar to all of us, of the capture of Mr. Lewis Washington and other persons of note in the Sunday night raid of a body of unknown men. The dread of something yet to come, with which the people were manifestly possessed, was such as only those can know who have lived in a Slave State; and while there was plenty of talk of the steadiness of the slaves near the Ferry, it was plain that that was the magazine that was momentarily in danger of going off and carrying them all along with it.

The officers of the neighbouring militia had gathered together in the main tavern of the place, without waiting for their men, but not unmindful of the impressive effect of full uniform, and half a dozen kinds of military toggery were displayed on the half dozen persons convened in a sort of drumhead court-martial.

I was not the only prisoner, and had an opportunity to hear the recitals of my fellows in luck. First and fore-most of all was a huge, swaggering, black-bearded, gold-chain and scarlet-velvet-waistcoated, piratical-looking fellow, who announced himself as a Border Ruffian, of Virginia stock, and now visiting his relations near the Ferry; but he said that he had fought with the Southern Rights party in the Kansas war, and that when he heard of the ” raid,” as he familiarly called the then unfamiliar feat of the Sunday night just past, he knew who was at the top and bottom of it, and he described in a truthful sort of way the man whose name and features were alike unknown to all his listeners,—” Ossawatomie Brown,” ” Old John Brown.” Garnishing the story of their earlier contests with plentiful oaths, he gave us a lively picture of their personal hand-to-hand fights in the West, and said that he had come to help fight his old friend and enemy, and to fight him fair, just as they did in M’souri.” He wanted ten or a dozen men to arm themselves to the teeth, and he’d lead ‘em straight on. His indignation at his arrest and at the evident incredulity of his hearers and judges was not a whit less hearty and genuine than his curses on their cowardice in postponing any attack or risk of fighting until the arrival of militia, or soldiers, or help of some kind, in strength to overpower the little band in the armoury, to make resistance useless, and an attack, if that was necessary, safe enough to secure some valiant man to lead it on.

My story was soon told. I was a traveller; my train had been stopped ; I had started off on foot, meaning to walk over the hill to the Ferry, and expecting there to meet the train to go on to Baltimore. The interruptions were plentiful, and talk blatant. I showed a ticket, a memorandum-book giving the dates and distances of my recent journey, and a novel (I think it was one of Balzac’s) in French, and on it was written in pencil my name and address. That was the key-note of plenty of suspicion. How could they believe any man from a Northern city innocent of a knowledge of the plot now bursting about their ears? Would not my travelling companions from the same latitude be ready to help free the slaves? And if I was set at liberty, would it not be only too easy to communicate between the little host already beleaguered in the armoury engine house and the mythical great host that was gathered in the North and ready to pour itself over the South? Of course all this, the staple of their everyday discussions, was strange enough to my ears; and I listened in a sort of silent wonderment that men could talk such balderdash. Any serious project of a great Northern movement on behalf of Southern slaves was then as far from credible and as strange to my ears as it was possible to be. It seemed hardly worth while to answer their suggestions; I therefore spoke of neighbours of theirs who were friends of mine, and of other prominent persons in this and other parts of Virginia who were acquaintances, and for a little time I hoped to be allowed to go free; but after more loud talk and a squabble that marked by its growing violence the growing drunkenness of the whole party, court and guard and spectators all, I was ordered along with the other prisoners to be held in custody for the present. We were marched off, first to one house and then to another, looking for a convenient prison, and finally found one in a shop. Here—it was a country store—we sat and smoked and drank and chatted with our guard and with their friends inside and out. Now and then a volley was fired in the streets of the village below us, and we would all go to a line fence where we could see its effects: generally it was only riotous noise, but occasionally it was directed against the engine house or on someone moving through the armoury yard.

As the militia in and out of uniform, and the men from far and near, armed in all sorts of ways, began to come into the village in squads, their strength seemed to give them increased confidence, and especially in the perfectly safe place where I sat with half a dozen others under a heavy guard. Now and then an ugly-looking fowling-piece or an awkwardly handled pistol was threateningly pointed at us, with a half-laughing and half-drunken threat of keeping us safe. Toward afternoon we were ordered for the night to Charlestown, and to the jail there that has grown so famous by its hospitality to our successors.

Early morning was very welcome, for it brought the court-martial up to Charlestown, and I was soon ready for a hearing. Fortunately, after a good deal of angry discussion and some threats of short shrift, a message came up from the Ferry from Governor Wise; and as I boldly claimed acquaintance with him, they granted me leave to send down a note to him, asking for his confirmation of my statements.

While this was doing, I was paroled and served my Kansas colleague by advice to hold his tongue; he did so, and was soon released; and my messenger returned with such advices, in the shape of a pretty sharp reprimand to the busy court-martial for their interference with the liberty of the citizen, as speedily got me my freedom. I used it to buy such articles of clothing as could be had in Charles-town, and my prison clothes were gladly thrown aside. Some of my fellow-travellers reached the place in time to find me snugly ensconced in the tavern, waiting for an ancient carriage; with them we drove back to the Ferry in solemn state. The same deserted houses and the same skulking out of sight by the inhabitants showed the fear that outlasted even the arrival of heavy militia reinforcements.

We stopped at Mr. Lewis Washington’s, and, with-out let or hindrance, walked through the pretty grounds and the bright rooms and the neat negro huts, all alike life-less, and yet showing at every turn the suddenness and the recentness of the fright that had carried everybody off. Our ride through Bolivar was cheered by a vigorous greeting from my captor of the day before,—the village shoe-maker, a brawny fellow,—who declared that he knew I was all right, that he had taken care of me, that he would not have me hanged or shot, and ” wouldn’t I give him sum’t to have a drink all round, and if ever I came again, please to stop and see him “; and so I did, when I came back with my regiment in war-times; but then no shoe-maker was to be found.

I paid my respects to Governor Wise, and thanked him for my release; was introduced to Colonel Lee (now the Rebel general), and to the officers of the little squad of marines who had carried the stronghold of the ” invaders,” as the Governor persistently called them.

In company with ” Porte Crayon,” Mr. Strothers, a native of that part of Virginia, and well known by his sketches of Southern life, I went to the engine-house, and there saw the marks of the desperate bravery of John Brown and his men. I saw, too, John Brown himself. Wounded, bleeding, haggard, and defeated, and expecting death with more or less of agony as it was more or less near, John Brown was the finest specimen of a man that I ever saw. His great, gaunt form, his noble head and face, his iron-grey and patriarchal beard, with the patient endurance of his own suffering, and his painful anxiety for the fate of his sons and the welfare of his men, his reticence when jeered at, his readiness to turn away wrath with a kind answer, his whole appearance and manner, what he looked, what he said—all impressed me with the deepest sense of reverence. If his being likened to anything in history could have made the scene more solemn, I should say that he was likest to the pictured or the ideal representation of a Roundhead Puritan dying for his faith, and silently glorying in the sacrifice not only of life, but of all that made life dearest to him. His wounded men showed in their patient endurance the influence of his example; while the vulgar herd of lookers-on, fair representatives of the cowardly militia-men who had waited for the little force of regulars to achieve the capture of the engine-house and its garrison, were ready to prove their further cowardice by maltreating the prisoners. The marines, who alone had sacrificed life in the attack, were sturdily bent on guarding them from any harsh handling. I turned away sadly from the old man’s side, sought and got the information he wanted concerning ” his people,” as he called them, and was rewarded with his thanks in a few simple words, and in a voice that was as gentle as a woman’s.

The Governor, as soon as he was told of the condition of the prisoners, had them cared for, and, in all his bitterness at their doings, never spoke of them in terms other than honourable to himself and to them. He persistently praised John Brown for his bravery and his endurance; and he was just as firm in declaring him the victim of shrewd and designing men, whose schemes he would yet fathom.

The day was a busy one; for little squads of regulars were sent out on the Maryland Heights to search for the stores accumulated there; and each foraging party was followed by a trail of stragglers from all the volunteers on the ground, who valiantly kept on to the Maryland side of the bridge that crossed the Potomac, and then, their courage oozing out of their fingers and toes both, stopped there and waited for the return of the regulars. On the instant of their arrival, each time fetching a great hay-waggon full of captured goods, tents, picks, spades, pikes, the tag-rag and bobtail party at once set to work to help themselves to the nearest articles, and were soon seen making off homeward with their contraband of war on their backs. The plunder, however, was not confined to the captured property. A strong force of militia soon invaded the armoury, and every man helped himself to a rifle and a brace of pistols, and then, tiring of the load, began to chaffer and bargain for their sale. Governor Wise was called on to interfere and preserve the Government property; he came into the little inclosure of the works, and began an eloquent address, but seeing its uselessness, broke off and put his Richmond Greys on guard; and then the distribution of public property was made through the regular channels—that is, the men in-side brought guns and pistols to the men on guard, and they passed them out to their friends beyond, so that the trade went on almost as free as ever.

Night soon came, and it was made hideous by the drunken noise and turmoil of the crowd in the village. Matters were made worse, too, by the Governor’s order to impress all the horses; and the decent, sober men trudged home rather out of humour with their patriotic sacrifice; while the tipsy and pot-valiant militia fought and squabbled with each other, and only ceased that sport to pursue and hunt down some fugitive negroes, and one or two half-maddened drunken fellows who in their frenzy proclaimed themselves John Brown’s men. Tired out at last, the Governor took refuge in the Wager House—for an hour or two, he had stood on the porch haranguing an impatient crowd as ” Sons of Virginia “!

Within doors the scene was stranger still. Huddled together in the worst inn’s worst room, the Governor and his staff at a table with tallow candles guttering in the darkness, the Richmond Greys lying around the floor in picturesque and (then) novel pursuit of soft planks, a mot-ley audience was gathered together to hear the papers captured at John Brown’s house—the Kennedy farm on Mary-land Heights—read out with the Governor’s running comments. The purpose of all this was plain enough. It was meant to serve as proof of a knowledge and instigation of the raid by prominent persons and party leaders in the North. The most innocent notes and letters, common-place newspaper paragraphs and printed cuttings, were distorted and twisted by the reading and by the talking into clear instructions and positive plots. However, the main impression was of the picturesqueness of the soldiers resting on their knapsacks, and their arms stacked in the dark corner—of the Governor and his satellites, some of them in brilliant militia array, seated around the lighted table,—and of the grotesque eloquence with which either the Governor or some of his prominent people would now and then burst out into an oratorical tirade, all thrown away on his sleepy auditors, and lost to the world for want of some clever shorthand writer.

In the morning I was glad to hear that my belated train had spent the last forty-eight hours at Martinsburg, and I did not a bit regret that my two days had been so full of adventure and incident. Waiting for its coming, I walked once more through the village, with one of the watchmen of the armoury, who had been captured by John Brown and spent the night with him in the engine-house, and heard in all its freshness the story now so well known.