The 150th anniversary of the Civil War is approaching. Fort Sumter is still a year and a half away, but key events that led to that moment are being remembered. This weekend at Harpers Ferry, John Brown’s Raid, which began on October 16, 1859, was commemorated. Brown and 21 others killed seven men, injured about a dozen others and seized weapons at the Federal Arsenal. On December 2, the Abolitionist was found guilty of murder, treason and inciting a slave insurrection. He and nine others were hung in nearby Charles Town, Virginia.
The John Brown 150th Anniversary Quad-State Committee hosted commemoration events that included re-enactments, art exhibits, book signings, academic lectures and special tours. Through an off and on pouring rain, Roberta and I drove up (an hour and a half from Alexandria). Would have been great to have blue skies as a backdrop to the changing leaves, but we haven’t seen the sun in these parts since Wednesday. The cold and rainy conditions put a damper on things and kept attendance, at least yesterday, down, but according to historian Dennis Frye, the chief historian at Harpers Ferry Historical National Park, the sloppy conditions matched with those of the night Brown snuck into this gateway mountain town. "It adds a sense of reality and also a sense of misery to the event — and a sense of foreboding of the unknown," Frye said.
Harpers Ferry is a remarkable place. With a population of just 300 and some, it lies sleepily at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. Walking up and down its main street is a quiet walk back in time. I imagine visitors turn their cell phones off just out of respect.
After checking out the book tent, and eating lunch at a new restaurant associated with Stone Feather Farm, (great homemade salsa and friendly service), we attended the John Brown Address by Frederick Douglass. Actor and historian Fred Morsell portrayed Douglass, the great orator. Douglass did not agree with Brown’s plan, but he certainly supported the greater cause.
It’s not easy to reconcile what John Brown (when I was a kid, I thought he was black) did 150 years ago, and some historians have said had his raid not occurred, the Civil War would have happened anyway. But these words by historian David Reynolds, don’t seem an exaggeration: (From Smithsonian magazine, article by Fergus Bordewich).
John Brown was in effect, a hammer that shattered Lincoln’s opponents into fragments. Because Brown helped to disrupt the party system, Lincoln was carried to victory, which in turn led 11 states to secede from the Union. This in turn led to the Civil War.