Travel Log: John Brown Marches On

Travel Log 2

(Jan. 10, 2018) John Brown cast a long, long shadow across the United States in 1859, a shadow so long he is (in my opinion) rightly considered one of the final causes of the Civil War. I did my master’s thesis on him while I was still active duty, focusing on how, despite his spectacular failure, he became such an avatar of terror for the antebellum South.

Yesterday I finally got to see Harpers Ferry, site of his famous 1859 raid. Well, finally got to see it as an adult. My family visited here in 1980 or 1981, but I don’t remember any of that.

The federal arsenal that used to stand here was burnt during the Civil War; the only building that survives is the fire engine house (called “John Brown’s Fort” today). This building survived because it was where Brown and his men made their last stand as the federal authorities closed in. The building was actually moved four times around the country before ending up back 150 feet from its original site. Standing inside it also gave me a renewed appreciation for the need to actually visit and stand on the ground if one wishes to gain a truly intimate understanding of a site.

You see, in all my research, no one ever went into why Brown retreated to that small building. Until I stood inside it, I just never gave it much thought. But…

The main room of the building is very small, with only one way in and out, making control and defense easy. The windows are up high, minimizing the possibility of being shot by marksment, and making the escape of prisoners very difficult. And, as Brown had a great number of torches with him inside the fire engine house of an arsenal, it is possible one of his plans was to torch the arsenal after destroying the fire fighting gear (so no one could put out the fires).

John Brown's Fort
The federal arsenal’s fire engine house, known today as “John Brown’s Fort.” It sits about 150 feet from its original site after being moved around the country four times since 1859.

Brown was held in the Jefferson County jail in Charles Town, tried in the Jefferson County Courthouse, and hanged on a hill that was, in 1859, on the outskirts of Charles Town. Today a post office occupies the site of the jail, but the court house still stands. In 1859 the entire bottom floor was an open court room with the offices on the upper floor. Later renovations reversed that, but the building is there. And it’s only a five minute walk to follow the route he took as he was driven on a wagon to his execution.

Brown was a unique, man. Violent, yes. But visionary and far ahead of his time in both his belief in true equality and his prescience that slavery was only going to end through a bloody war. He was that rare man who truly lived his convictions and gave his life fighting for the freedom of the slave long before it was fashionable.

However, as I’ve dug into Jefferson County here on the tip of West Virginia’s panhandle, I’ve found so much more to our country’s story that just John Brown.

Remember, West Virginia was part of Virginia until 1863 when it seceded from secession and joined the Union as a loyal state. A young George Washington earned his keep as a surveyor, and his surveys of this land in 1748 led him to recommend his brothers buy property out here. His youngest brother, Charles, established his home out here in 1780, an estate he called Happy Retreat. Later that decade, Charles Washington donated land for a town and Charles Town was chartered in 1787. Another of the Washington brothers, Samuel, also built his estate out here, and to this day Harewood is still a private residence owned by decedents of the Washington family.

Happy Retreat has recently become the property of a historic preservation group, the Friends of Happy Retreat ( They’re working to restore and open it to the public. I got a special treat and was allowed inside because, well, I knocked and asked. A lovely young lady, Rachel, showed me around and told me a bit about the Washington’s time there. Interestingly enough, the house as Charles Washington built it was in two wings connected by a breezeway. The modern central portion of the house (turning it in a Georgian style home) was added by a later owner. There is slight evidence Charles intended to construct a middle portion to firmly connect the wings, but but died before could.

Happy Retreat
Happy Retreat, the home of Charles Washington, founder of Charles Town and youngest brother of George Washington.  You can tell the wings are the oldest parts of the building; they were the parts built by Charles.  Originally connected by a breezeway, the central portion was built by a later owner.

There’s more here than that. Thomas Jefferson surveyed this area, and was so enraptured by the site of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers merging that he waxed poetic from a rock that today bears his name. This whole area changed hands at least four times during the Civil War, with Charles Town itself changing hands about eight times.

Charles Town was the home of the redoubtable free black and abolitionist Martin Delaney. Delaney truly put his money where his mouth was, joining the Union army as soon as blacks were admitted. Delaney became the first African-American field grade officer and, upon attaining the rank of major, was the highest-ranking African-American officer in the Union army. Prior to the war he worked with the Underground Railroad and was, with Frederick Douglas, a verbal, fearlessly outspoken advocate for fully political equality for blacks.

In 1922 the Jefferson County Court House saw its second treason trial (after John Brown’s in 1859). Union leader Bill Blizzard was charged with treason after the coal wars broke out between miners and management. The war erupted when union leaders attempted to unionize nearby Logan County. Blizzard was acquitted, but but others were convicted of murder and even treason. The coal wars are a part of our history I never encountered before, but that’s part of the reason for my journey. Whenever you visit a place, yes, go see the sites you intended to see. But take time to ask a few questions. Listen to that security guard at the Jefferson County Courthouse who knows enough to be running a tourist bureau. You never know what stories you’ll run into!

After all, it’s the interweaving of these stories that has created the tapestry of the world we live in today.

Remember, my Flickr page has the whole megillah of photos I take if you care to see more than the few I put up here:

Get out there. Explore. Travel when you can. Heck, don’t ignore your own backyard. It’s so easy to let the complacency of the familiar rob us of the wonder that our own hometowns can possess.

So much happened here in Charles Town and Harpers Ferry that shaped our nation…but, admittedly, it’s the long, long arm of John Brown’s shadow that has resonated most deeply. More than a century later, that long shadow of Old Man Brown’s is still sweeping across our cultural landscape.

Bolivar Heights
Bolivar Heights above Harpers Ferry was the site of a major Union defeat in 1862.  Stonewall Jackson netted more than 12,000 Union prisoners (the largest number of Union men captured at once in the Civil War).  Later in 1864 Union General Philip Sheridan fortified these heights to keep them, and Harpers Ferry, firmly in Union hands.

#westvirginia #civilwar #harpersferry #nps #nationalparks #civilrights

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