- Historic Sites
Eyewitness At Harpers Ferry
February 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 2
I am convinced that there has never been a time in the history of the world when the inhabitants of a community large or small retired to their beds more peacefully, or more free from apprehension of danger, than did those of Harper’s Ferry on that Sunday night. My brother and I sat up, in our room, until a late hour, discussing matters of interest to us, and it seemed to me, I had scarcely fallen into a doze, (though in point of fact I had slept several hours), when our host awakened us. A single glance sufficed to show us that something very unusual had occurred. His countenance wore a troubled look and was pale as death. In answer to our anxious inquiries as to what had happened, he stated that the town was in possession of armed men; that they had captured the armory buildings and arsenal and were supposed to be in great strength, and that a detachment had just passed up the road to occupy the rifle works. The general opinion was, he said, that they were abolitionists.
These were indeed serious tidings. We were hastily engaged in our toilet.
I must confess, that through my mind floated vague visions of horns and hoofs and forked tails, for be it remembered I was very young, had never been north of Mason and Dixon’s line, and from my tenderest years had been led to regard abolitionists as being nearly allied to his Satanic Majesty. After a mere pretense of breakfasting we went out upon the street.
That which struck me then, and which has since seemed to me one of the most solemn and impressive circumstances connected with that strange affair, was the dead calm or hush that seemed to have fallen upon the whole community.
Every where were groups of men, and sometimes of women, engaged in deep and earnest conversation; but they spoke with bated breath, and awe struck countenances. And when they moved they did so with cautious tread, as though they feared to attract attention, or to come suddenly upon some unseen enemy.
Should any reader of this article be inclined to attribute this fact to cowardly fear, let me say, such reader is greatly mistaken. I have personal knowledge that many of those whom, on that day, I saw anxious and awestruck in the streets, proved themselves in the great war which soon followed, the bravest of the brave.
The truth is, the community had been struck as though by lightning. They believed themselves to be in the power of an overwhelming force of those, whom they had regarded as their deadly enemies.
The man who had said to them that this audacious invasion, had been made by nineteen men, would at that hour of the morning have been laughed to scorn.
They believed the many armory buildings to be filled with armed men, and not dreaming that even such a force, would attempt, unsupported , to assail, not only the State of Virginia, but the United States Government itself; they saw vaguely limned upon a dark background, the outline of a countless host of abolitionists, ready to come to the rescue of the invaders.
Can it then be wondered at that the people of this peaceful town were for the time dazed and confounded?
We approached one of the groups and entered into conversation, but had scarcely done so when a man (who proved to be Mr. Throck Morton clerk of my hotel), came up from the east. He had been sent on some errand to that part of the town, and was to return immediately. I, at once, announced my intention of going back with him. This was warmly opposed by my brother and other friends, as they thought I would be incurring unnecessary danger. I was young, as I have said, full of sentiment and romance. I had a number of friends, male and female, at the hotel, and I felt that my leaving them on Sunday night, (though totally unconscious of impending danger), was in some sort a desertion; and that the only reparation in my power was to go back and share their fate. Accordingly my friends took leave of me, as though I was being led to immediate execution, and I went with the clerk.
For a time we walked along the railroad track, and then turned into Shenandoah street. This street ran parallel to the Shenandoah river, from the western limits of the town to a point near the bank of the Potomac.
As we passed down this street, the groups became fewer and fewer, until at last the street seemed entirely deserted. An ominous stillness prevailed. I have not mentioned that all this time the skies were lowering, and drops of rain fell from time to time, while over the great heights on the opposite sides of both Potomac and Shenandoah, hung great banks of mist; giving to all nature a most gloomy and threatening aspect. The eastern terminus of Shenandoah street was immediately in front of the armory gates, and from that point running south, was a short street, not more than four hundred feet long, terminating at certain buildings erected near the banks of the Shenandoah. One of the entrances to the “Wager Hotel” was on this short street, and the distance from its door to the engine house, which was John Brown’s final place of defense, did not exceed one hundred feet.
As we approached the armory we saw several groups, or rather couples of men, hard featured, roughly clad, wrapped in blankets or rubber cloths, beneath which protruded the sinister muzzles of Sharp’s rifles. “There they are” said my companion “keep quiet.” And I kept quiet.