John Brown's moonlight march: 150 years ago, a zealous abolitionist embarked on a hike that ended in violence and presaged a war

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Author: Tim Rowland
Date: Sept. 2009
From: America's Civil War(Vol. 22, Issue 4)
Publisher: World History Group, LLC
Document Type: Article
Length: 3,215 words
Lexile Measure: 1190L

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On a chill foggy autumn evening in 1859, abolitionist John Brown and a rough gang of 21 men with guns and pikes and revolt in their hearts quietly hiked five miles from a farm in Western Maryland to the federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Va. Their ambitions were outrageous: surprise the guards at the armory, capture wagonloads of rifles and then flee, distributing the guns among slaves. Brown hoped for nothing less than a full uprising of servant against master.

He had spent four months living on the farm simply trying to fit in. The hike to Harpers Ferry had become routine. A new beard and a shock of Lyle Lovett hair kept locals from recognizing him as the devil who had massacred slave owners in Kansas three years before. Soon the disguise would be irrelevant. "Men, get on your arms," he famously declared on the night of October 16, "we will proceed to the Ferry."

Now, 150 years later, walking in Brown's footsteps remains an eerily timeless experience. Roads that were dirt are now paved, the bridge Brown used to cross the Potomac River has been replaced, and buildings in Harpers Ferry throw off electric light. But most of the route remains pitch-black after sunset; trees that witnessed that night are still there, and woodstoves continue to scent the air.

Civil War buffs have been making this pilgrimage for better than three decades. In 1979--the 120th anniversary of John Browns raid--National Park Service historian Dennis Frye and 20 re-enactors, decked out in period clothing and shouldering period weapons, hiked from the Kennedy Farm in Washington County to the Harpers Ferry armory. They read from 1850s newspapers to get into character.

"We tried to transport ourselves back in time," Frye said. "It was very respectful."

Perhaps the most memorable part of the trek occurred midway, when an approaching car flashed its high beams and slowed. The lights belonged to a squad car from the Washington County Sheriff's Department. Staying in character, the soldiers sauntered on--there were no squad cars in 1859. Once past, the deputy turned around and reapproached at the same slow speed, high beams blazing. As he neared, "I expected the red and blue lights to come on," Frye said.

Instead, the deputy drew even with the procession, took one last gander, and then peeled out at full speed, apparently wanting no part of the apparition.

Unlike those earlier cultish marches, the hike planned for this fall's 150th anniversary will be publicized and well attended. Organizers expect hundreds of enthusiasts. The path is mostly downhill to the Potomac and flat after that, as the road hugs the riverbank on its way downstream to the confluence with the Shenandoah River. The relative ease of the hike will not diminish the experience. "It's still sparsely settled," Frye said, "and still quite dark"--as dark as when John Brown hitched up his team, shouted words of encouragement and set off on a mission to change the world.

"It's been debated over the last century and a half when the Civil War began," Frye said. "The conventional wisdom says Fort Sumter. I disagree with that. John Brown invoked a fear that communities had not experienced before."

Brown intended to raid the federal armory and use the weapons to establish a series of forts where fleeing slaves could join his army of marauders. At a time when the going rate for an 18-year-old male slave was $1,200, a plantation that lost most of its slaves would be equivalent to a modern farm stripped of all its tractors, harvesters, plows and irrigation equipment. Further, Brown hoped that a slave rebellion in the midst of the harvest season would damage plantations even more.

The Maryland staging area for this ambitious plan was a small, two-story farmhouse that Brown rented under the name of Isaac Smith. The most notable feature is a small attic where 20 men lived in a room the size of a garage. "It must have been hotter than the hinges of hell up there," said local historian Tom Clemens. "That's commitment."

Staying out of sight was essential. Brown pretended to be a humble prospector. If any of his neighbors thought it curious that there wasn't anything worth prospecting in that neck of the woods, or that any self-respecting prospector had already been lured west, they kept their suspicions to themselves.

The prospector story was good cover for crates of pikes and guns that could be explained away as mining tools. Clemens said the blacks in Brown's band were armed with pikes until they could be taught how to use firearms. Brown used his daughter and daughter-in-law to add to the delusion. To all eyes, Brown was what he said he was: a good family man scratching out a living from the land.

In 1859, Harpers Ferry was "a bustling industrial town of 3,000," Clemens said. It remains unbelievably scenic, carved out of cliffs that put the squeeze on the gushing Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. Today, people from Baltimore and Washington, D.C., drive for an hour to picnic on the shore, rafters and kayakers pirouette through challenging rapids, and fishermen hope for bass, but often reel in carp.

The lower town is one of the National Park Service's better accomplishments. Subtract the tourist with the Hawaiian shirt, and it's easy to be transported back in time, among restored buildings, period actors and cobblestone streets. The fire engine house Brown used as a refuge during his raid, now in its fourth location, is neatly preserved, mostly. In 1892, it was disassembled, transported to the Chicago World's Fair, reassembled, disassembled and reassembled in Harpers Ferry as a mirror image of itself; tradesmen based their work on a photographic impression that was a negative.

One of the many floods that have ravaged Harpers Ferry since the raid washed away the bridge John Brown crossed to enter the town. In its place today is a high pedestrian bridge that accommodates Appalachian Trail hikers.

Fifteen decades ago, Harpers Ferry had one of two national armories, yet there was no militia garrisoned on site because no one anticipated a raid, much less a war. The night Brown arrived, weapons were guarded only by a snoozing night watchman. A baggage man for the B&O railroad named Hayward Shepherd proved more problematic.

When Shepherd saw a band of armed men trundling across the bridge into town at 1:30 a.m., he apparently thought they were bandits planning to rob the mail train from Wheeling. Shepherd hustled up the tracks to flag it down. In the darkness, Brown's men couldn't have known Shepherd was a free black man. They leveled their guns and fired.

A century and a half later, some historians speculate that Shepherd was in on the raid but got cold feet. And some suggest he was asked to join in, but refused. Arguments have led to what Clemens called Harpers Ferry's "dueling monuments."

In 1931 the United Daughters of the Confederacy and Sons of Confederate Veterans dedicated a monument to Shepherd, celebrating him as a black man who did not flee or take up arms against whites. But purported racists objected that blacks deserved no recognition in history, let alone a monument.

For decades, however, prominent African-Americans--including W.E.B. DuBois--have objected to the notion that Shepherd be revered for an ambivalence, real or imagined, toward slavery.

The monument was removed from display during a park construction project in the mid-1970s. And as opposing factions quibbled over whether it should be returned, "for years the monument sat in a warehouse with a tarp over it," Clemens said. It was returned to its location in 1981, but was covered up until 1995, when the park service added a plaque to explain everything.

Back on the bridge, Brown and his men stopped the train, then let it steam off down the tracks. A reasonable person might consider that Brown should have focused on seizing the armory's guns and getting out of town before releasing the train.

Instead Brown lingered--shooting at townsfolk, taking prisoners and raising hell--knowing trouble would be on the way as soon as the B&O reached its next stop. Perhaps Brown was truly daft. Perhaps he wanted to be captured, despite the obvious penalties.

"That's the critical question," Clemens observed. "Is he crazy, or is he a shrewd manipulator of public opinion?" Brown had a family history of mental infirmities, yet Clemens thinks "it's too easy to write him off as crazy."

Frye believes Brown must have realized that if he held the train, people at the next station would come to investigate. Whether he held the train or not made no difference ... word would get out either way. Besides, Brown's plan was too involved to be fulfilled with one small, deadly statement. Brown believed he was "a man of God, called by God to rid the nation of slavery," Frye said. So he stayed put, the consequences be damned.

Brown's true undoing, however, had little to do with the train: It was trying to save Shepherd. Gunshots had awakened physician John Starry, who ran out to see what the commotion was about.

Taking advantage, Brown hurried the doctor to the porter's side. After Starry pronounced the wounds fatal, Brown let him go.

"Starry is the Paul Revere of Harpers Ferry," Frye said. The doctor threw himself onto his horse and headed for the militia in Charles Town, seven miles away.

The militia kept Brown corralled until Col. Robert E. Lee arrived to break down the door of the fire engine house where Brown and his raiders had holed up. Ten, including two of his sons, were killed. Six were captured and five escaped. The raiders killed four--including Harpers Ferry Mayor Fontaine Beckham--and wounded nine. Within days Brown was charged with treason for taking up arms against Virginia.

Brown's attorneys begged him to plead insanity to avoid the gallows. But Brown worried that if he were declared insane his cause might be seen that way as well. With little defense to offer, Brown was convicted by a jury on November 2, and hanged on December 2.

Although slaves did not revolt because of Brown's actions, the effect on the rest of the population was immense. "The fear that gripped the country after that October was like the fear that gripped America after September 11," Frye said. "Before, people avoided talking about slavery; after John Brown, no one stopped talking about it."

Brown had appeared to be an everyman on his rented farm. In the South, people began to look at every nearby everyman and wonder. In 1860, there were 5 million whites and 4 million slaves in the South. Might that quiet, pleasant next-door neighbor be planning a revolt?

"He was living among people under an assumed name under peaceful circumstances. It was every slaveholder's nightmare," Clemens said.

In the North, people were against slavery in theory, but still largely racist. The thought of millions of slaves roaming the streets as free men and women competing for jobs was frightening.

Following his execution, Brown was buried near a small farm he owned in Lake Placid, N.Y.A hapless preacher from Vermont presided at Brown's funeral. His parishioners did not see it as the Christian thing to do; soon he was out of a job.

Abolitionists remained a fringe group, yet Brown's attack on Harpers Ferry was eventually seen, at least in the North, as the exploit of a martyr, and even a hero.

Newspaper columnist and history junkie Tim Rowland loves to hike, but supports his habits by writing. His latest book, Maryland's Appalachian Highlands: Massacres, Moonshine and Mountaineering, was released by The History Press in June.

For information on events commemorating the 150th anniversary of the raid on Harpers Ferry

visit: *e-mail: or contact: Guinevere Roper

John Brown Raid 150th Anniversary Committee, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, P.O. Box 65

Harpers Ferry, WV 25425

(304) 535-6166 * e-mail:

One last quiet season

Unsuspecting residents of Harpers Ferry, Va., tended to normal routines in early autumn 1859. "Normal" ended when John Brown brought his personal crusade to town. The man Herman Melville called "The Meteor" still fascinates, 150 years after this preface to America's Civil War.

RELATED ARTICLE: Six Degrees of John Brown

John Brown had been a serial failure--at farming, at tanning, at real estate, at trade and a long list of other ventures. But despite his personal setbacks, his rabid commitment to abolition helped him win friends and influence people. Wealthy people. Prominent people. In fact, the "Secret Six," Northern abolitionists who bankrolled Brown's adventure in Harpers Ferry, tied him to some of the loftiest levels of the Northeast's upper class and intelligentsia.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson was a controversial Unitarian minister and Transcendentalist, a Harvard graduate descended from a member of the Continental Congress. He was a distant cousin of Boston Symphony founder Henry Lee Higginson, and was nearly as fervent an abolitionist as Brown. Higginson was an essayist and editor as well, and a frequent contributor to Atlantic Monthly. In that capacity, he carried on a correspondence with reclusive poet Emily Dickinson that began during the war and continued until her death. Higginson volunteered to lead the 1st South Carolina Colored Troops, one of the first black Federal units of the war. Atlantic Monthly editor and future diplomat James Russell Lowell was a childhood friend, and Man Without a Country author Edward Everett Hale was a Harvard classmate.

Theodore Parker also was a controversial Unitarian minister whose associates included much of the New England literati--Ralph Waldo Emerson, Branson Alcott, Louisa May Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, William Lloyd Garrison and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. It was his grandfather, John Parker, who commanded the Lexington Militia at the Battle of Lexington and reportedly said, "Don't fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here." The younger Parker was also a friend of William Herndon, law partner of Illinois politician Abraham Lincoln. At the time of John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry, Parker was in Italy in the company of his friends, poets Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and suffering from tuberculosis. He died there in May 1860 and was buried in Florence.

Samuel Gridley Howe was a physician, a freedom fighter and humanitarian. His wife, Julia Ward Howe, wrote the poem that would become the "Battle Hymn of the Republic"--set to a tune originally called "John Brown's Body." He was a friend of novelist Charles Dickens, who wrote in American Notes about Howe's efforts to educate the blind and deaf. Howe's grandfather, Edward Compston Howe, had participated in the Boston Tea Party; his great-uncle, Richard Gridley, had served at Bunker Hill. His father was a friend of Paul Revere, and Howe himself had befriended the Marquis de Lafayette while on a jaunt through Europe--where Howe had fought with the Greeks against Turkey and with the French against resurgent Bourbons, and sought to aid Polish rebels. The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow introduced him to Julia. Howe championed the physically and mentally disabled, helping found educational institutions for them in Massachusetts along with John Dix Fisher and Dorothea Dix. During the war, he was a director of the Sanitary Commission.

Franklin Sanborn was a Massachusetts journalist who was a friend of Emerson, Thoreau and the Alcotts, and an acquaintance of Nathaniel Hawthorne--whose son Julian attended a school Sanborn ran in Concord, Mass. Sanborn fled to Canada with Howe and another co-conspirator, industrialist George Luther Stearns, to avoid arrest after correspondence with Secret Six members was found at the Kennedy farmstead in Western Maryland--but Emerson eventually coaxed him back to Massachusetts, where Sanford continued working as an editor, wrote several biographies of Concord's men of letters and was involved with a number of charities.

George Luther Stearns was a Boston-area businessman who had by the late 1850s accumulated enormous wealth and equally enormous stature in the city's philanthropic circles. His friends and associates included Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, future governor John Andrew and activist Wendell Phillips. He had been an abolitionist for years, and gave the bulk of the group's financial support to Brown-it was Stearns, in fact, who "owned" the pikes and guns Brown took to Harpers Ferry. He returned to Massachusetts after Brown's execution, and during the war, was appointed a major and recruited more than 13,000 black soldiers for the U.S. Army.

New Yorker Gerrit Smith was one of the wealthiest men in America. His father, Peter Gerrit Smith, was a partner of businessman John Jacob Astor. Smith's grandfather, Colonel James Livingston, had helped foil Benedict Arnold's escape during the American Revolution. Smith's father-in-law, William Fitzhugh, was a cofounder of Rochester, N.Y. Elizabeth Cady Stanton was a first cousin. Smith served briefly in Congress, resigning over the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854; ran twice for governor of New York and was a three-time presidential nominee from minor parties. Smith had sold Brown a small farm in North Elba, N.Y. After the Harpers Ferry raid, Smith denied any knowledge of Brown's plans and became so distraught he checked into an asylum. Senator Jefferson Davis unsuccessfully sought to have Smith tried along with Brown. After the war, Smith, Horace Greeley and Cornelius Vanderbilt underwrote the former Confederate president's bond, freeing Davis from prison.

RELATED ARTICLE: Peril on a cold mountain

John Brown almost didn't get the chance to march the five miles to Harpers Ferry, because he nearly succumbed not too long beforehand on another five-mile hike--one from Keene Valley, N.Y., to his home near present-day Lake Placid.

Brown had bought into the rough, mountain area known as North Elba because, as a wanted man. he was unlikely to be found there--and because he admired the efforts of Gerrit Smith, who had attempted to establish a farming colony for poor black farmers who had escaped from the South. As historian Alfred Donaldson wrote in 1920, that effort was a pure failure. Accustomed to warm, Southern climes and deep fertile soils, the former slaves did not do well in the high rocky and frigid peaks of the Adirondacks. They were given tracts of land for their farms, but wound up huddled together in shacks with an equally comical and heart breaking flag fluttering overhead that read. "Timbuktu."

Brown maintained the spot as a stop on the Underground Railroad, but he visited rather infrequently. Once, trying to save money by eschewing a horse, Brown set out on foot on a winter's night over a ridiculously rough mountain road in the Adirondacks, only to be overcome by fatigue and collapse into a snowbank. Willpower alone forced him back up and on to his lonely farm in the wilderness.

It was from this farm that Brown sallied forth in mid-June 1859, on his last mission. He had some somber words with his family before he left, and took the time to carve his initials into the rock he had acquired for his tombstone.

That shouldn't be seen as a sign Brown considered the coming months as some sort of suicide car-bombing mission, insists Harpers Ferry historian Dennis Frye. Nor should the fact that he waged war on the U.S. government with a 22-man army be seen as evidence he was insane, as some have surmised. Brown's primary plan was for a war of economics.--Tim Rowland

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A203767395