John Brown Sesquicentennial Events planned for 2009

By Bob O’Connor


(Bob O’Connor works in Harpers Ferry and is the author of “The Perfect Steel Trap Harpers Ferry 1859” a book written in 2006 that was named Finalist in the 2006 Best Book Awards by USA Book News. The book is available at


In 2009, John Brown’s raid of Harpers Ferry on October 16, 1859, will become the focal point of almost seventy different commemorative activities throughout the entire year in a four-state area around Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, marking the 150th anniversary of the event.


If you think John Brown and his raid are ancient history consider this.  In 2005, a historical marker was placed in Harpers Ferry by the NAACP honoring John Brown as “a heroic martyr”. In 2007, a daguerreotype of John Brown sold at auction for $97,500.  In 2008, the grave of Annie Brown, one of John Brown’s daughters, was finally found in Eureka, California following a serious search by the family of over a dozen years.  Annie, who was at the Kennedy Farm with her father and the raiders prior to the raid was Brown’s only child whose grave had not been located. In 2008, John Brown’s family, for the first time, started documenting the family’s oral history of their infamous relative.


In 2009 with the election of President Obama, John Brown’s name has appeared over and over again in conversations about the 100th anniversary of the NAACP, the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln and the newly elected president.


When John Brown came to Harpers Ferry, Virginia in 1859, his target was the federal arsenal.  He was attempting to capture the guns made at the federal gun factories at Harpers Ferry, to arm the slaves.  His hope was to lead the slaves into the nearby mountains of Maryland and to freedom.


By 1859, Harpers Ferry and it’s gun factories had produced 600,000 muskets.  It was one of the two main arsenals in the United States producing the Harpers Ferry rifle with its innovative interchangeable parts.  The other arsenal was at Springfield, Massachusetts where they made the Springfield rifle. The arsenal at Harpers Ferry was placed thereupon the suggestion of George Washington because of the water power available from the confluence of the Potomac River and the Shenandoah River.


John Brown, freshly back from his time in Kansas where he was a principal figure in the uprisings there to bring Kansas into the country as a free state, led twenty men, including five colored men, in his quest to free the slaves.


Notably absent from his raid was Frederick Douglass the national leaders of the four million Negroes in bondage.  Brown urged Douglass to attend the raid in a secret meeting in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania in early fall 1859. Douglass refused, telling Brown that in attacking a government installation, the government would send troops and Brown would be captured. Douglass said that capture would hurt their efforts to free the slaves, as they needed support from the government along the way.


Ironically the first local man killed in the raid (there were four locals killed) and the first of John Brown’s raiders killed in the action to free slaves were both free colored men.  Hayward Shepherd, the colored baggage carrier for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was shot on October 16. He was a former slave who had been freed.  The following morning, Dangerfield Newby, a free colored raider with a wife and seven children still held as slaves, was gunned down by militia and volunteers called in to quell the insurrection.


Brown’s raid failed, much as Frederick Douglass had predicted.  Brown and several of his men were captured, while others were killed in the raid, including two of Brown’s sons, Oliver and Watson.  U.S. Army Brevet Colonel Robert E. Lee (aided by J.E.B. Stuart) and a contingent of U.S. Marines from Washington Navy Yard stormed the engine house where Brown and his men had taken refuge. They captured John Brown without firing a shot, fixing bayonets to protect the hostages Brown was harboring with him.


Seven of the raiders escaped, but two, John Cook and Albert Hazlett, were recaptured in Pennsylvania and brought back to trial in Charlestown, Virginia (today Charles Town, West Virginia) to stand trial.


John Brown and six of his men were tried for murder, inciting slaves to rebel, and treason in the Jefferson County Courthouse in nearby Charlestown.  John Brown was hanged on December 2, 1859.  Four others (John Cook, John Copeland, Shields Green, and Edwin Coppic) were hanged on December 16, 1869.  Albert Hazlett and Aaron Stevens were tried later and hanged on March 16, 1860.  All were hanged in Charlestown.


The two colored men, Copeland and Green were actually found innocent of treason, They were not citizens and therefore could not be convicted of that offense as they were considered property.


By the time John Brown was hanged, he had gotten his message out to a plethora of newspaper reporters who interviewed him about the evils of slavery. People of the North agreed that slavery was evil.  People in the South feared their slaves would rise up against them.


Brown himself has been called a “heroic martyr” and a “terrorist”.  Frederick Douglass later said of the event in Harpers Ferry and of its leader John Brown, “if John Brown did not end the war that ended slavery, he did at least begin the war that ended slavery. If we look over the dates. places, and men, for which this honor is claimed, we shall find that not Carolina, but Virginia – not Fort Sumter, but Harpers Ferry and the arsenal – not Colonel Anderson, but John Brown, began the war that ended American slavery and made this a free Republic.”


Harpers Ferry National Historical Park is offering visitors a unique year-long opportunity in 2009 to find out in detail, the short and long-term effects of the raid at Harpers Ferry as they commemorate the 150th anniversary of events leading up to the John Brown raid.

Many of the events are free.


For most of that 150 years, historians have debated the importance of John Brown’s raid.  The Virginia Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission is so sure of its importance, that they have marked the event as the kick-off to the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War.


While Harpers Ferry certainly is the focal point of the commemorative events, communities in a four-state area of Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland will participate in events important to their connections to John Brown and the infamous raid.


Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, for instance, will tell the story of their connection to John Brown.  Frederick Douglass, Shields Green, and John Brown met in Chambersburg at an old quarry prior to the raid.  At that time, Douglass declined an invitation to join the raid, telling Brown he was about the fall into “the Perfect Steel Trap”. But Green, hearing the same arguments, decided to go with John Brown.


Many of John Brown’s supplies (guns, ammunition, and pikes) were shipped via the railroad to a warehouse in Chambersburg and brought by wagon to the Kennedy Farm.  One of John Brown’s men, John Cook, who escaped from Harpers Ferry, was captured near Mont Alto, Pennsylvania, just east of Chambersburg, and was held overnight in the Franklin County jail in Chambersburg. The Cook monument at Mont Alto will be rededicated in 2009.


Chambersburg is also the site of the John Brown House, where many of the raiders congregated prior to the raid.  The house was Mrs. Ritner’s boarding house (now called the John Brown House).  She was an avowed abolitionist and an important conductor for the Underground Railroad. Mrs. Ritner also aided several of the raiders who escaped from Harpers Ferry when the soldiers surrounded John Brown and his men in the engine house.


Frederick, Maryland will host events commemorating the call-up of militia units from Frederick fire companies, to quell the disturbance at Harpers Ferry.  Hagerstown, Mary-land will focus on the visit of John Brown and his sons to a local hotel prior to the raid and to activities in southern Washington County at the Kennedy Farm.  John Brown under the alias of Isaac Smith rented the Kennedy Farm in July 1859.  It was from this farmhouse that the raid was planned.  Captain Brown and his raiders walked from the farmhouse on October 16, 1859, to Harpers Ferry at the start of the raid.


That march will be recreated on October 16, the actual 150th-anniversary date of the original event.


Nearby Charles Town, WV will have activities to educate visitors about the trial of John Brown held at the Jefferson County Courthouse in Charles Town and the execution held several blocks from the courthouse.  Lectures and dramatic readings will take place throughout the year. Special events will also be held on December 2, the date of John Brown’s hanging, and on December 16, when four other raiders were hanged. A two-act play “Sword and the Spirit” depicting John Brown’s letters to his wife, Mary, will be performed.  And tours of the Blessing House will be available.  John Blessing was a local man who befriended John Brown while the abolitionist leader was in jail in Charles Town.


At Harpers Ferry, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and the Harpers Ferry Foundation will host many activities during 2009 including an academic symposium, a dramatic reading of “John Brown’s Body”, special walking tours, book signings, a teacher workshop and more. Activities will take place throughout most weekends in the national park with special emphasis on the October 16-18 weekend.


Throughout the year, re-enactors will portray Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Frederick  Douglass.  Descendents of the participants in the actual event will be honored as they return to the scene of the conflict.


An exhibit to Fontaine Beckham, Mayor of Harpers Ferry and one of the casualties of the raid, will be opened at the Harpers Ferry Train Station.  An exhibit to the “Secret Six” will be opened in the national park, commemorating the six men from Boston who were abolitionists and funded John Brown’s activities. Luke Quinn, a U.S. Marine and the only soldier who died in the raid, will be honored with activities during the year.


A visit to the town of Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) will give the impression of a Civil War era town, although the town predates 1800. In Charles Town.  the Courthouse where John Brown was tried and the site of his execution still exist.  The Jefferson County Museum in Charles Town has the wagon he rode on to his execution, the desk from his jail cell and the gurney he was carried back and forth from the courthouse to the jail. Exhibits in the museum include a copy of Brown’s provisional Constitution, several pikes, and other memorabilia from the event.


Historians will be on hand to answer questions and debate the raid itself.  The authors will discuss the events and John Brown himself.  Descendents of people actually involved in the situation will be revisiting the area, including descendants of John Brown.


Both the African American Heritage event in August and the Charles Town Heritage Day (Sept. 19) will also focus on John Brown.


A special website has been set up to give you details of all the events including contact information.  The website will be updated on a regular basis as new activities are planned.  Please visit the website at  Or call Jefferson County Convention and Visitors Bureau for details at 1-866-HELLO-WV.

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