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The Ghost At Harpers Ferry

March 2023
5min read
At Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, the Shenandoah joins the Potomac after each river has made a final, splendid rush over boulders and through shallows. At their confluence a high, thin arrow of land points east toward the Blue Ridge Mountains. Three states come together here. Across the Shenandoah from the town, Virginia rises steeply; across the Potomac loom the hills of Maryland, with the old Chesapeake and Ohio Canal snaking along at their base. The whole effect is just as scenic as it sounds, and just as calm as a superseded fixture like the C&O Canal would suggest.

Initially, in fact. Harpers Ferry struck me as almost willfully picturesque and wholly remote from the world’s concerns. But the visitor who wants to find out what happened there will discover a place as disturbing as it is charming, for those steep, quiet streets hold an immense amount of history whose implications are very much with us today.

These implications extend beyond the famous raid that is the pivotal event in the town’s fortunes. John Brown chose Harpers Ferry as his target largely because there was a federal arsenal there; and at that arsenal various manufacturing techniques had been worked out that not only would help decide the outcome of the conflict Brown did so much to ignite, but would shape the way Americans live in the twentieth century.

But before John Brown, before the arsenal, before there was a town, there was a place of extraordinary beauty—“one of the most stupendous scenes in nature,” wrote Thomas Jefferson, who found it “worth a voyage across the Atlantic.” An architect named Robert Harper thought so, too, and in 1747 he built a gristmill there. The village that bore his name began to grow, and it got its definitive boost in 1796 When George Washington chose it as the site for an armory.

By 1810 the works at Harpers Ferry was turning out ten thousand muskets annually. A decade later John Hall, a Maine gunsmith, won a government contract, set up shop in Harpers Ferry, and began experimenting with building muskets in a new way—one that combined a distant forebear of assembly—line techniques and a minimum of handwork with a high standardization of parts. There was the inevitable friction between disgruntled craftsmen and the new, less skilled workers, but by the early 183Os Hall had pioneered the techniques of mass production.

The abundant water that drove the musket works also powered a foundry, mills, and a machine shop. In the 1830s the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and the C&O Canal both got there, and by the 1850s Harpers Ferry had become a busy industrial city. All the mills and shops and foundries are gone now; only some ruined turbines, the canal, the railroad edging the town with its wooden trestle, and the sense of falling water everywhere suggest the sometime vigor of the place. The armory, which by 1859 had grown to twenty workshops, is gone too, but what went on there is clearly and economically explained by weapons-making exhibits in the master armorer’s handsome house. Its only tenant, Armistead Ball, didn’t have a very tranquil stay there. In 1859 John Brown seized him as a hostage; two years later he was making guns for the Confederacy.

John Brown led his “Provisional Army of the United States” across the B&O bridge on the night of October 16, 1859. The fifty-nine-year-old zealot had come a long, grim road to Harpers Ferry. Steeped by his father in the abolition movement and the most stringent Calvinism, tried by failure after failure, he had murdered five pro-slavers out in Kansas, and had come back east to interest certain Boston abolitionists in financing a new scheme. Brown planned to seize the armory, set up a free state defended by the slaves who would rally to his cause, and go on to destroy slavery in America. He had eighteen of his twenty-one men (five black, thirteen white, among them his sons Owen and Oliver) along to help him.

At first everything went well. The raiders cut the telegraph lines, secured the armory, and collected hostages. Then the shooting started.

Soon the alarm was out, the militia was rallying, and all through a long, violent, random day filled with the slam and chatter of gunfire one after another of the raiders fell. Trapped in the enginehouse with a few hostages and the remnants of his Provisional Army, one son dead at his feet and the other dying, John Brown waited for morning. With it came regulars, under Col. Robert E. Lee. The marines rushed the “fort”—one was killed—and battered in the door, and that was that. The messy, foolish incident was over, and best forgotten.

Except they didn’t kill John Brown. He was beaten senseless, and as soon as he regained consciousness, he began speaking in the reasonable, articulate, calm, and eloquent voice that would be stilled only by the noose. During the weeks between the raid and the gallows, he underwent the transformation in a good part of the public mind from the figure in John Steuart Curry’s only well-known painting—the frenzied madman clutching gun and Bible, summoning the great storms about him in Kansas—to the gentle patriarch laying down his life to atone for a grievous national wrong.

A year and a half after his execution, the armies followed John Brown south.

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  

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