Exhibit focuses on John Brown
By Stephanie M. Mangino
The Winchester Star
Winchester — In October 1859, Harpers Ferry was still part of Virginia. So it shouldn’t be surprising that John Brown’s Oct. 16 raid on the town’s federal arsenal affected the people of Winchester — just 30 miles away — from the raid’s first moments to Brown’s last breaths.
As part of a four-state effort to mark the 150th anniversary of the raid, a free exhibit mounted by the Winchester-Frederick County Historical Society — “From the First Shot to the Gallows: Winchester’s Involvement in the John Brown Raid” — is telling the story of the city’s connection with an event that helped to spark the Civil War.
The exhibit in the society’s headquarters at the Hollingsworth Mill (1360 S. Pleasant Valley Road) opened Wednesday.
Brown, an abolitionist, hoped to seize the arsenal and arm slaves in an uprising. But that did not come to be.
Instead, in a tragically ironic twist in the story of the failed raid, the first man killed was Hayward Shepherd, a free black man and B&O Railroad baggagemaster who lived in Winchester. Little is known of Shepherd, whose Winchester-area gravesite appears to have been lost to time.
While information on Shepherd’s life is scant, facts about other Winchester connections to the raid, Brown’s trial and incarceration, and his execution in Charles Town, (then in Virginia, now in West Virginia) abound.
Winchester-based militia units responded to the raid, and their number included the Morgan Continental Guards, according to Cissy Shull, executive director of the historical society.
Two uniforms from members of the guards, including one worn by George Washington Kurtz, whose portrait as an older man is also on display, are part of the exhibition. The militia unit later became part of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia’s famed “Stonewall Brigade” under Maj. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson.
Armaments like those that would have been found at the Harpers Ferry arsenal are in the show, as is an iron blade from one of the pikes that Brown hoped to give to slaves. Other artifacts include a medical bag used by a doctor on the faculty of the Winchester Medical College and a course catalog from the school, which was burned during the war.
Students from the school, who had to acquire their own cadavers, went to Harpers Ferry after the raid, and one of the bodies they returned with was Brown’s son Owen, Shull said. The burning of the facility by Union soldiers was retaliation for the students’ dissection of Owen.
The medical school section “was the hardest to do for artifacts,” Shull said, because they don’t seem to be available.
Photographs of some of the instructors at the school, including Hunter McGuire, are also part of the exhibit. McGuire clipped a lock of Stonewall Jackson’s hair after the latter’s 1863 death. Jackson was also connected to the raid, Shull said, because he was part of the force called to keep order at Brown’s execution. The lock of hair McGuire clipped — tawny brown and in a small velvet-lined box — can be viewed at the exhibit.
The judge at Brown’s trial, Richard Parker, also lived in Winchester, and his baby cup and dice cup are part of the show.
Even the iron key to Brown’s jail cell is on display. Brown’s jailer John Avis was also from Winchester, Shull said.
As she considered all the artifacts — borrowed from private collectors, the Handley Regional Library, and the historical society’s collection — Shull said, “We lucked out, didn’t we?”
“Where’d you get all this?” Sally Coates, visitor and community relations manager for the Winchester-Frederick County Convention and Visitors Bureau, exclaimed when she saw the exhibit a day before it opened to the public.
“Oh, Cissy, it is beautiful,” she added. “You outdid yourself.”
Shull had kept the particulars of the exhibit under wraps, Coates said. “She hadn’t told us — she kept all this secret.”
The CVB is the local point agency for the four-state John Brown commemoration effort, and Coates said the exhibit “is a great lead-in” to the Civil War sesquicentennial efforts that will soon begin.
“It’s fabulous,” she said of the exhibit. [The historical society has] done a terrific job.”
Shull said that during the three-month process of assembling the show, she saw items and noted, “Oh, I can use this for later.”
It was a fun exhibit to put together, she added. “We learned a lot.”
And while it is heavy on artifacts, it also focuses on the effect the raid had on the people of Winchester.
Stories are told of a visit to see John Brown in his Charles Town cell, the burning of the medical college, and more.
A quote from the Rev. Benjamin F. Brooke, pastor of the Winchester Station, shows that people understood what the raid meant in the greater scheme of things.
On Dec. 5, 1859, three days after Brown’s hanging, he wrote, “Read full account of the execution of John Brown and of the various sympathy meetings in the North. Is it possible that the Northern mind is committed to such a principle? This thing will end in the dissolution of the Union.”
Brooke knew what he was talking about. Two years later, the Confederate states had seceded from the Union, and the nation’s Civil War had begun.
The exhibit will continue through Oct. 31, and during its latter months, people who want to experience history in a slightly different way can head to the Wayside Theatre in Middletown, which will present “Robert E. Lee and John Brown; Lighting the Fuse,” a play that focuses on the lead-up to the Civil War.
The show will be presented as part of the commemoration of the raid. The play, which had its world premiere at Wayside in 2004, will be offered from Aug. 29 through Sept. 26.
Visitors can see the exhibit from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday.
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Winchester Star, Used by Permission