Eyewitness At Harpers Ferry


Shortly before he died, Edward White decided to put down on paper a fascinating story, which he entitled “A Personal Reminiscence of John Brown.” It is a graphic eyewitness account of Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry (1859), his capture and interrogation. White, a native of Fredericksburg, Virginia, was then nineteen years old. Nearing death almost three decades later, he began writing his report of those momentous events in a flourishing script. But he was ill and the effort was too much, so he dictated instead to his teen-age daughter Margaret. White’s account, which has never before been published, is reprinted here with the kind permission of his grand-daughter, Mrs. Murray Longley Griffiths, of Balboa Island, California. Spelling and punctuation follow the original document.


Not long since, I went from St. Louis to New York, by the Baltimore and Ohio R.R. route. I had been on the way about thirty hours, and late in the afternoon of a dull, gloomy, drizzly day, I was lying back, dozing, on the velvet cushions of a Pullman Car, when the shrill whistle of the engine partially roused me to the fact that we were entering a station. Languidly, raising my head, in that semi conscious state, between sleeping and waking, with which all are familiar; I glanced through the window at my right, when an object presented itself, which instantly roused me to a state of excited wakefulness.

We were just pulling into a station, on an elevated trestle work. On the left ran the Potomac river many feet below; on the right was a long enclosure, filled with dilapidated brick buildings, and immediately in front of me, as I looked from the window, was a small building, fallen into a state of decay, on the front of which, just over the door, were inscribed the words “John Brown’s Fort.”

I realized at once that I was at Harper’s Ferry and that the ruined building before me was the place where that misguided man John Brown had made his last stand. In an instant time was annihilated and there came vividly before my mind a like, dark, gloomy and drizzly day, twenty eight years ago, when I was in the same town of Harper’s Ferry, and when this strange man John Brown was holding this little fort against the incensed people of Virginia.


At the time of what is popularly known as the “John Brown raid” I was a boy of nineteen, but had been engaged for several months in teaching a private school at Harper’s Ferry. I was boarding at the “Wager Hotel,” which stood at the Baltimore and Ohio R.R. depot, and within a few feet of the bridge over the Potomac river. It is well known that Harper’s Ferry is situated at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, and that the business portion of the town lies at the foot of the immense hills (even mountains), which rise near the banks of the two rivers. Upon the heights are many residences but the town proper lies below, extending along the Shenandoah to the west and the Potomac to the north. For about a mile to the north the bank of the Potomac is so low that the B.&O. R.R. is elevated upon a trestle work, and for at least three-fourths of a mile leading to the station it is floored, up to the point where it enters upon the bridge. The long enclosure filled with dilapidated buildings, hereinbefore referred to, belonged to the U.S. government, and the ruined buildings were formerly the shops and offices constituting the government armory. The grounds were long and comparatively narrow. There was a roadway through the entire length on either side of which were the work-shops and offices. In front of these on both sides of the road were foot-ways or sidewalks. On the west side of the enclosure was a high brick wall; on the east the R.R. trestle work. The southern extremity was on the principal street of the town (Shenandoah); at which point there was a handsome iron fence on a stone foundation. The entrance was closed by heavy iron gates. Within this enclosure the smooth bore guns or muskets were made.

A young Virginian was visiting his brother when suddenly, in the middle of the night, the town awoke to a scene of terror

The arsenal where the surplus arms were kept was near the Shenandoah and not more than a thousand feet from the armory.

About a mile west and near the bank of the Shenandoah was the building known as the rifle works. At this time my brother a Presbyterian minister was in charge of the church at Harper’s Ferry, and was in the habit of preaching there every other Sunday. He usually arrived on Saturday and was accustomed to stay with one of the members of his congregation until Monday. I was always invited to stay and often did stay with him Saturday and Sunday nights.

One of his regular Sundays at Harper’s Ferry was the fated day October i6th, 1859. He came down on Saturday and was entertained by Mr. Welsh a member of the great milling firm of Welsh, Legg and Herr. He lived about half a mile west of the junction of the rivers and about midway between my hotel and the rifle works. After the evening service on Sunday I accepted Mr. Welsh’s invitation to spend the night with my brother.