JOHN BROWN’S BASS
Photographs and artwork courtesy of author
Harper’s Ferry is a quiet place where the gentle hiss of river current is the only consistent sound, especially at night. It was quiet a century and a half ago on the night of October 16th, 1859 as less than two dozen men, led by the messianic abolitionist from Kansas, John Brown, crossed the Potomac and slipped into the town streets to initiate what Brown believed would be the end of slavery in America. A staunch Calvinist who believed that he was on a mission from God to end slavery, Brown intended to bring to life his favorite passage from the Bible: “Without the shedding of blood, there is no remission of sins.” The sin of slavery would be paid for with Brown’s own blood if need be.
Thomas Jefferson said that the view from Harper’s Ferry Virginia (now West Virginia) where the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers join was so “stupendous” as to be worth a trip across the Atlantic just to see its beauty. Thirty three years after our third President’s death, this little town saw played out what was arguably the seminal event leading to the Civil War – a drama seen through the lens of terrorism or martyrdom. Today, the bass fishing is fabulous in and around this tiny town so woven into the fabric of our nation’s past. For those fishermen with a historical bent, it’s easy to miss the strikes of hard hitting smallmouths due to the irresistible temptation to gaze at nearby Maryland Heights where Stonewall Jackson’s guns blasted the town into submission in 1862 (and forcing the largest surrender of Union forces in the Civil War); or the stately stone Harper house; or the old railroad bridge; or the fire engine house where Brown and his holdouts took cover; or any of a host of intriguing sites. A fisherman in the river is surrounded by bass under the surface and three states on the shorelines. So much to see, catch, and think about…so little time.
Although largely a National Park today, Harper’s Ferry was an industrial town conceived by George Washington as a serendipitously located government factory village where converging waterways, upstream from the new capital, would drive the production of armaments for the incipient military of a fledgling nation. Jefferson’s protégé, Captain Meriwether Lewis, was provisioned for his Corp of Discovery here. By the mid Nineteenth Century the country had become consumed by the controversy over the expansion of slavery and Brown, a man who by all accounts had failed at every endeavor he’d undertaken, had pledged his life to the struggle against the South’s “peculiar institution” and set his sights on Harper’s Ferry.
John Brown was completely committed. Some thought him mad. After cutting his teeth in Bleeding Kansas where he committed several heinous murders of defenseless pro slavery men, Brown concocted a plan to move his personal war against slavery east and seize Harper’s Ferry and its weapons. He believed when news of his capture of the town spread that slaves to the south would hear the news and, undoubtedly with the help of divine providence, rise up against their masters and march in unison to join Brown, from whom they would receive the captured weapons. Thus armed, a slave revolt would snowball across the land and the institution of slavery would fall. When Brown proposed his plan to some prominent abolitionists in the North he was mostly rebuffed. Frederick Douglas thought his plan impossible and refused to participate. Nevertheless, Brown did get some backing by some who shared the growing frustration of many abolitionists who had come to feel that speechifying, rhetoric, and the publishing of treatises were toothless against the nation’s great sin.
After several months of planning on a farm in Maryland, Brown was ready to strike. When he and his band crept into town that night they had, nevertheless, taken no rations with them nor did Brown seem to have any systematic operational plan to hold the town, spread the news, and develop the situation. It was a mess from the start. The raiders sent out parties in the night to detain local citizens and confiscate weapons and Harper’s Ferry remained fairly quiet through the night, but word soon began to spread and by daybreak local citizens, having discovered something awry, began a steady resistance and gunfire grew louder. The blood of locals, some innocent bystanders, and Brown’s followers began to flow in the streets. Brown seemed not to know what to do next and by morning had lost the initiative to a growing force of local militiamen and armed citizens. The local militiamen, enraged at the “vile abolitionists” and eager to avenge the deaths of townspeople, mutilated the bodies of some of Brown’s followers or cast them into the river. Panic and rumors soon spread across Virginia that an army of abolitionists were swarming down from the north and that a slave revolt was brewing. Many Southerners thought the raid a distraction, just the beginning of a larger assault. The South’s Great Nightmare seemed to be coming to life.
Although groundless, the rumors fueled a massive reaction with ripple effects felt in Washington by afternoon. On temporary duty in the Capital was Colonel Robert E. Lee and a reaction force of several dozen Marines and a couple field guns were hurriedly marshaled, placed under his command, and sent by train to Harper’s Ferry to put down what Lee called the “insurgents” and their “gross outrage against law and order.” Following this force were hundreds of militiamen and local vigilantes galvanized by the sensationalized headlines and rumors.
By the time Lee and his force reached the town in the pre-dawn hours of the 18th, much of the fighting had died down and Brown and his remaining fighters and their hostages had holed up in a fire engine house from which they had managed to keep up enough gunfire to hold the townspeople and militiamen at bay. The situation stalemated, a tense calm had settled over the town.
Lee had a lieutenant named J.E.B. Stuart, under a flag of truce, approach the engine house and offer terms. Brown refused and spent the rest of the night barricading the doors and preparing his defense. He had only a couple followers left unscathed. The local African Americans who he’d coerced into his force showed little enthusiasm for the fight. At dawn, Stuart returned to the engine house, received Brown’s final refusal to surrender, and the Marines promptly began their assault, battering the doors with hammers and eventually breaking through using a ladder as a ram. The troops quickly overwhelmed the defenders, killing one of Brown’s sons in the fight. Brown himself was struck down, wounded by a sword blow from Lieutenant Green who had led the assault into the engine house. Unapologetic and defiant, Brown was hauled off to face trail for insurrection and what he undoubtedly knew was an inevitable date with the gallows.Part 2 of 2