Prelude to the Civil War

Four states mark the 150th anniversary of John Brown’s raid.

A series of reenactments, dramatic productions, family activities and special tours are scheduled this year as Civil War sites in West Virginia, Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania commemorate the 150th anniversary of abolitionist John Brown’s October 1859 raid on the arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Although the raid itself failed, it succeeded in exacerbating the divide between North and South, pushing the nation closer to civil war.

“Before the raid, negotiations and a compromise between North and South might have been possible; however, after the attack—and Brown’s trial and hanging—emotions ran so high that armed conflict became inevitable,” says Tom Riford of the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

At the time, Brown was denounced on both sides of the Mason–Dixon Line as a terrorist and an enemy of the Union, but others just as passionately revered him as a martyr. Brown inspires those same polarized opinions among today’s visitors to Harpers Ferry National Historical Park (, says Todd Bolton, events committee chair for the John Brown Sesquicentennial Quad-State Committee ( “Our job at Harpers Ferry is to present the facts and the history, and let people decide for themselves,” he says.

There will be plenty of opportunities this year to learn about Brown, beginning on April 18 with the first Signature Event of the sesquicentennial: “Prelude to History: The Wedding of Virginia Kennedy” at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. The day’s attractions include a dramatic monologue about the raid told from the perspective of the wife of raider John Cook. Visitors can also enjoy period music, youth activities and tours of the Lower Town at Harpers Ferry, which has been preserved as it appeared during the Civil War era.

The town of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, lies at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, bordering Maryland and Virginia. The 3,500-acre National Park extends into all three states. Brown had his northern headquarters in Pennsylvania, the fourth member of the quad-state committee. On May 22, the John Brown House in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, will be rededicated and reopened after a major renovation.

The Kennedy Farmhouse in Samples Manor, Maryland, staging place for the raid, will host a rare open house with tours and demonstrations July 12. Frederick County, Maryland, attracts the spotlight August 8–9 for its Militia and Fire Company Days, with displays of antique fire-fighting equipment. Other events happen throughout the summer and fall, including regular ranger-guided tours of Brown-related sites in the National Park and surrounding areas.

The centerpiece of the sesquicentennial observation takes place in the Harpers Ferry area October 16–18, 150 years to the day after the raid and subsequent siege. Following a twilight reenactment Friday of Brown’s six-mile march to Harpers Ferry, the commemoration continues on Saturday and Sunday with a full slate of music, living history, family activities and ranger-guided programs.

Because of the significance of the raid, the John Brown Sesquicentennial is regarded as a prelude to the Civil War Sesquicentennial, which the nation will observe from 2011 to 2015.

—Theresa Gawlas Medoff


The information in this story was accurate when it was published in the March/April 2009 issue of AAA World, but dates, times and prices may have changed since then. We suggest you verify such details directly with the listed establishments before making travel plans.

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