Thursday, October 10, 2013

Harpers Ferry Part I

The Raid of Harpers Ferry Part I

The Raid at Harper's Ferry - Part I

    The village of Harpers Ferry is nestled on a spit of land at the juncture of the Potomac and Susquehana Rivers. Early settlers congregated along the banks of the two rivers, but as the population increased to three thousand the town ascended, like an Alpine Village along the shanks of a steep hill. At the pinnacle St Paul's Church stood as a sentinel; its white trimmed steeple visible from miles around. For travelers from the east Harpers Ferry served as a portal to the lush Shenendoah Valley. Flanked by the verdant Blue Ridge mountains the picturesque meeting of land and water inspired Thomas Jefferson to compose a lyrical geological narrative.

    The passage of the Patowmac through the Blue Ridge is perhaps
    one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature. You stand on a very
    high point of land. On your right comes up the Shenandoah,
    having ranged along the foot of the mountain a hundred miles
    to seek a vent. On your left approaches the Patowmac in quest of
    a passage also. In the moment of their junction they rush together
     against the mountain, rend it asunder and pass off to the sea.
    The first glance of this scene hurries our senses into the opinion
     that this earth has been created in time, that the mountains
     were formed first, that the rivers began to flow afterwards,
    that in this place particularly they have been so dammed up
     by the Blue Ridge of mountains as to have formed an ocean
    which filled the whole valley; that, continuing to rise, they have
    at last broken over at this spot and have torn the mountain down
     from its summit to its base. The piles of rock on each hand,
     but particularly on the Shenandoah, the evident marks of
    their disruptions and avulsions from their beds by the most
    powerful agents in nature, corroborate the impression.

For Thomas Jefferson Harpers Ferry was one of the loveliest landscapes in Virginia; for John Brown the bucolic village was the site of his last stand.
 On a drizzly, moonless night on Sunday October 16th, 1859 a bedraggled band of nineteen men traipsed silently in pairs down a winding Maryland road. Their destination, 5 miles away, was the B & O train trestle that crossed the Potomac River into Harpers Ferry.  Each was armed with a knife, a pistol and a Sharps rifle.  The gray shawls draped over their heads to keep out the chill gave them a ghostly appearance as they trudged through the mist.  Ahead of them a farm wagon pulled by a single horse led the way. The solitary silhouette of John Brown hunched over the reins.
Alone with his thoughts Brown guided the wagon over the rutted road that descended towards the flickering lights of Harpers Ferry.  The village on the other side of the Potomac had something that Brown and his men desperately needed - guns, lots of them.  The federal armory at Harpers Ferry was second only to the armory in Springfield, Massachusetts in size.  Inside its red bricked walls  the sprawling armory warehoused 100,000 muskets, rifles and pistols. Brown intended to attack Harpers Ferry and confiscate the weapons in order to arm a slave insurrection. There is no record of Brown's thoughts during the two hours it took to reach the train trestle, but he had much to contemplate. 

    Two months earlier at secret meeting in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania Brown had outlined his plan to the man he admired most, the black abolitionist - Frederick Douglas.  Douglas listened attentively as Brown explained how under the cover of darkness he and his men would cut the telegraph lines, take control of the B & O train trestle, and overwhelm the single watchman at the armory gate.  While some of his men secured the armory and nearby rifle factory, others would round up unsuspecting workmen, villagers, and plantation owners. Should they encounter resistance the hostages would be used to barter their way out of the town. Once the the weapons were loaded into the wagon they would be transported back across the bridge to Maryland. The raiders would stash the weapons in an isolated schoolhouse for distribution to new recruits both white and black.  When the news spread of the successful raid on the federal facility Brown was certain that slaves in Maryland and Virginia would rush to join their cause.

    There were few men that Douglas respected more than John Brown, but he thought Brown's plan ludicrous. An attack on a federal arsenal would trigger a massive military response and swing public sentiment towards slave owners. Bitterly disappointed, Brown begged the abolitionist to reconsider and support him.  "Remember the trumpets of Jericho?" Brown entreated.  "Harpers Ferry will be mine.  The news of its capture will be the trumpet blast that will rally the slaves to my standard from miles around.  Join me, Frederick.  Together we will bring slavery down."

    "Brown continued.  "The southern militia are cowards, and if they come to me they will be even less eager to fight in Virginia than they were in Kansas."  Brown's fervor staggered Douglas.  Brown's unfettered commitment to freeing the slaves clearly included sacrificing his own life. In his later writings Douglas said he felt like the light of a taper next to a burning sun. While his respect for the fire breathing abolitionist soared it did not change his dim view of the Harpers Ferry plan.  As they parted Douglas said, "You forget, John, that I have some experience with the south. Virginia will blow you and your hostages sky-high rather than let you hold Harpers Ferry for an hour."

    As they approached the river crossing Brown brushed away nettlesome doubts. Straight ahead the covered B &O trestle crossed the Potomac River into the lower section of the village.  The bridge was enclosed with a tin roof and ran for a thousand feet .  At night crossing the bridge felt like passing through a dark tunnel.  The armory was located on a strip of land a few hundred yards north of the Harper's Ferry train platform and the adjacent Wager House Hotel.  The several buildings that comprised arsenal and armory ran for 900 yards parallel to the Potomac river.  A privately owned rifle factory was located a half-mile south of the armory on Shenandoah Street.

    Shortly before 11:00 AM B&O watchman Bill Williams walked along the carriage path that ran parallel to the covered bridge tracks.  He was almost at the end of his finishing his twelve hour shift for which he was paid a dollar a day. His job was to monitor track switches, and watch for embers spewing from a locomotive stack that could start a fire.  He earned a dollar a shift.   Williams was near the Maryland end of the bridge and about to reverse direction to Harpers Ferry when he heard the clip-clop of horse hooves and the creaking of a wagon. Williams raised his lantern and peered into the gloom.  Suddenly the lantern was struck from his hand and three Sharps rifles were pointed at his chest.  Brown's "Provisional Army of the Untied States" had taken its first prisoner.