The Ghost At Harpers Ferry


At the war’s outbreak Confederate soldiers removed the Harpers Ferry gunmaking machinery, then burned the armory buildings when Union troops forced them to evacuate the town. A little more than a year later. Stonewall Jackson seized an entire Union army at Harpers Ferry.

At war’s end Harpers Ferry industry lay in ruins. The townspeople tried to rebuild, but manufacturing America had changed: steam had replaced waterpower as the prime mover, and those powerful rivers were useful only for diversion. So Harpers Ferry has been primarily a tourist attraction for a century now, and it has learned how to be charming. The National Park Service has set up good displays on every aspect of the place’s history in the old shale buildings in the lower town, and cozy stores on the hillsides above offer homemade cookies, fudge, and other tourist indispensables.

But still, this most pretty town raises provocative questions: What does mechanization do to a society? What happens to a place when it loses its industrial base? and, perhaps most urgent, When does freedom fighting become terrorism?

Harpers Ferry has been primarily a tourist attraction for a century now, and it has learned how to be charming.

For it is John Brown’s uneasy spirit that dominates Harpers Ferry, and that is especially evident in the small, blank brick enclosure of the only surviving scrap of the rifle works, the enginehouse where he waited out the mortal night and told his son Oliver, as the boy writhed with his death wound, “If you must die, die like a man.” Brown’s is not a comforting legacy, as some 1890s entrepreneur found out when he shipped the little building to the Chicago world’s fair. In ten days eleven people came to see it.

Brown’s odyssey ended a few miles west of Harpers Ferry in Charles Town, the Jefferson County seat. The fine, tallpillared courthouse where they put him on trial—and he put slavery on trial—was closed the day I went there, but the Jefferson County Museum nearby had some unusually arresting Brown memorabilia, among it the spidery iron cot from which he testified and the wagon in which he rode, sitting on his coffin, to the gallows.

Many of these mementos came from the collection of John Gibson, the Virginia militia colonel who commanded at the execution. John Brown has a way of getting under people’s skin. He got under Gibson’s, so much so that the man finally bought the land where the scaffold had stood and built his home on it. Today the site is on a serene street of comfortable middle-class houses built in the 1880s and 1890s, and Gibson’s is one of the most substantial of them. There it stands, a burly, foursquare red-brick building, looking out over the plot of grass where the air still vibrates with mute, enormous questions. Seen together, the house and its haunted yard are at once unsettling and consoling, and it is well to remember that as Brown himself approached this patch of ground, he looked around, his fury purged, his job done, and said to the mild December morning, This is a beautiful country. I never had the pleasure of seeing it before.”

—Richard F. Snow