April 18, 2023

Iconic Locations: Harpers Ferry

Long before Harpers Ferry, Virginia became the emotional halfway point for Appalachian Trail thru hikers, it was a site of great promise for the United States in the years after the Revolutionary War. Americans like Thomas Jefferson envisioned the...

Long before Harpers Ferry, Virginia became the emotional halfway point for Appalachian Trail thru hikers, it was the site of one of the most important events in 19th century American history. In the fall of 1859, the abolitionist John Brown and 22 of his compatriots attacked the federal arsenal there, hoping to spark an insurrection against slavery in the American South on the eve of the Civil War.

On today's episode, historian Jonathan Earle of Louisiana State University explores Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry and the landscape hikers now pass through today.

Further Reading:

AT hiker photographs: [https://athikerpictures.org/]

Jonathan Earle, John Brown's Raid on Harpers Ferry: A Brief History with Documents (2008).

Harpers Ferry Stories from the National Park Service: https://www.nps.gov/hafe/learn/historyculture/stories.htm

Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia: An Annotated Edition, ed. Robert Pierce Forbes (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2022), 36-38. 

Pete Seeger, America’s Favorite Ballads, Vol. 3, Folkways Records, 1959, vinyl. https://folkways.si.edu/pete-seeger/american-favorite-ballads-vol-3/american-folk/music/album/smithsonian.

Harpers Ferry Stories from the National Park Service: https://www.nps.gov/hafe/learn/historyculture/stories.htm.


Iconic Locations:
Harpers Ferry

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[Sound of a horse trotting through water]

MILLS KELLY: In October 1783, Thomas Jefferson visited Harpers Ferry, in what was then western Virginia. Earlier that summer, he had been elected as a delegate to the Continental Congress, and that fall he was traveling from Monticello to Annapolis, Maryland, where Congress was meeting at the time.  

[Epic music]

KELLY: The Revolutionary War had just ended, and now that the United States was an independent nation, there was much to do. But first, Jefferson stopped to take in the view at Harpers Ferry and what he saw amazed him. As he later wrote….

JONATHAN EARLE: “The passage of the Patowmac through the Blue Ridge is perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in nature. You stand on a high point of land[.] [O]n your right comes up the Shenandoah[.] [O]n your left approaches the Patowmac in its quest[.] In the moment of their junction, they rush together against the mountain, rended asunder, and pass off to the sea…This scene is worth a voyage across the Atlantic.”

KELLY: That was historian Jonathan Earle quoting from Jefferson’s description of Harpers Ferry, now West Virginia, the emotional halfway point of the Appalachian Trail. In the 1780s, Americans like Jefferson envisioned the town as a major transportation hub that would be vital for the young nation’s development. But nearly eighty years after Jefferson passed through Harpers Ferry, and long before AT hikers stopped to marvel at its beauty, it became the site of a famous raid by abolitionists on the eve of the Civil War. 

[Intro Music]

KELLY: Hello, and welcome to The Green Tunnel, a podcast on the history of the Appalachian Trail. My name is Mills Kelly, and I’m your host.

KELLY: As Thomas Jefferson noted almost 240 years ago, Harpers Ferry is an incredibly beautiful town, sitting as it does at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. If you hike a few miles north along the AT to Weaverton Cliffs in Maryland you will see one of the more spectacular views anywhere along the trail. From the cliffs, you can see the two rivers, Loudoun Heights in West Virginia, the C&O Canal, and the historic town spread out below. Trust me, that hike should be on your fall bucket list.

KELLY: For Appalachian Trail thru hikers, Harpers Ferry feels like the halfway point of their hike, even though it’s about 80 miles south of the actual halfway point in Pennsylvania. It feels halfway because it’s in Harpers Ferry that hikers can stop at the headquarters of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and have their picture taken on the front steps of the organization’s headquarters. This has become a tradition and you can see 50 years worth of those pictures by following a link in our show notes to the AT Museum’s database. 

[Concerning music]

KELLY: But Harpers Ferry is also home to one of the most important historic sites in 19th century American history. In the fall of 1859, the abolitionist John Brown and 22 of his compatriots attacked the federal arsenal there, hoping to spark an insurrection against slavery in the American South. 

KELLY: So, who was John Brown?

EARLE: He's a religious zealot. And he also became one of the most profoundly anti-slavery Americans of the 19th century. I think you almost have to go to actual ex-slaves and African American abolitionists to find more tenacious opponents of slavery than John Brown. “For a white man,” and I'm quoting Frederick Douglass here, “he has suffered the Pierce of slavery as you and I have.” Frederick Douglass writes to one of his African American abolitionist compatriots, he really believed in racial equality in a way that is truly, if not unique, almost unique among white Americans of the 19th century.

EARLE: He ends up coming up with a plan to at first bleed the South of its slave labor by setting up in the Appalachian Mountains and attracting freed enslaved people to to to escape, and then becomes basically a plan for one cataclysmic assault on American slavery that he hoped would in one fell swoop destroy an institution that had lasted for centuries. 

KELLY: But why Harpers Ferry? These days, it’s just a sleepy little tourist town at the junction of two beautiful rivers.

EARLE: Even before John Brown came onto the scene, Harpers Ferry is just this very important nexus. It's an industrial center, because there's so much natural waterpower it is an It is a place where the United States is manufacturing firearms for its tiny but growing army, you know, one of only two federal Arsenal's so Springfield, Massachusetts and Harpers Ferry, Virginia. And then it becomes a place where kind of by accident kind of because of this strategic geography, if you will, it becomes a place where the United States gets set on an inevitable path to civil war in the fall and winter of 1859-1860.

KELLY: Unfortunately for Brown’s compatriots, he may have been a zealot, but he wasn’t much of a military strategist.

EARLE: The idea as much as historians like making gather because it's not a great plan when you give it thought is to invade the south hole up in the Appalachian somewhere in the Blue Ridge and make it known that you are you are armed you have Pike's you have guns you have knives any enslaved person on plantations nearby is free to come and join you and then raid to rescue kinfolk, other slaves, and eventually established some kind of a unnamed Free State in the Old South, which will be a haven for escapees, and a place to base for further ambitious raids. So many problems of this plan. There aren't a whole lot of enslaved people in that part of the country. Why would you risk your own life or your family's life to go join some crazy Yankee up in the hills. He didn't pack lunch. He's not a great logistics guy. But he is audacious. And he does, in fact cross the Potomac on the night of October 16 Dating 39 to enlist this plan with 22 compatriots Black and white and sets off on the raid. The raiders were were amazing cross section of society, some atheists, some evangelicals, some old people, some young people, some some literary folks and some illiterate people. 

KELLY: Brown’s audacity and the bravery of his fellow raiders were no match for a contingent of United States Marines under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Robert E. Lee. Yes, that Lee. The raid ended almost as soon as it began.

EARLE: It's incredibly fast. The raid itself lasts 36 hours total. It happens so fast and furious. They take Harpers Ferry with no violence. Basically, it takes two hours to take over the the town, the rifle factory, the arsenal. And one of the first things the Raiders did was they cut the telegraph line. So, you know, that was smart. It's all going great for about three hours,  then a train comes going east. It's the one train bridge over the Potomac. There's not even one in Washington DC at this point. It's the B&O Railroad. The train comes and John meets with the conductor of the of the train himself and basically allows him to pass and of course, what this conductor does is as soon as he crosses the river, he lights up the telegraph wires, wires with news of this slave insurrection in Harpers Ferry, all his details were wrong. He said 150 People Raiders had taken the town that it was a negro insurrection, that it was, you know, brutality on the streets. But it was enough to raise the alarm down stream in Washington. They found Robert E. Lee on leave at his house in Arlington. And he didn't have time to get his uniform. So he goes straight on the train back. He and a band of Marines.  And they get there really within 18 hours. And they're basically passing notes back and forth, a crack big enough in the engine house door that they can pass notes. They say, you know surrender and John Brown says hell no. And they exchanged fire. And finally they get a battering ram. They get a battering ram they bash through the door and capture John Brown alive in the engine house after just 30-36 hours after the group enters the sleepy town of Harpers Ferry.

KELLY: The Marines and the townsfolk went out of their way to make an example of the Black men who fought alongside Brown. 

EARLE: Of the people who survived, very few of these African Americans made it and and the ones who were captured and who were shot during the raid were made an example of their bodies literally riddled with bullets from townsfolk and from from Marines and left to float and rot in the river. 

[Music: “John Brown’s Body” by Pete Seeger]

KELLY: Brown was put on trial after the raid and convicted of both murder and treason. Just a little more than two months after the raid on Harpers Ferry, he was hanged for his crimes, becoming the first person executed for treason in the history of the United States.

KELLY: When hikers walk downhill from ATC headquarters toward the river, they pass the place where Brown’s raid happened, well, kind of. 

EARLE: Everything was ruined during the Civil War and during subsequent floods. So the carriage house that was John Brown's fort has been moved from its original position. It was actually part of the Chicago Exposition of 1893. They brought it back brick by brick to where it is now, which is not the correct place for it.

KELLY: The relocation of all those buildings is just one more reminder that the historic landscape we pass through when hiking on the AT is often quite different from the landscape that existed 100 or 200 years ago. The Harpers Ferry that Thomas Jefferson, John Brown, and Brown’s compatriots knew is much different than the modern hiker haven. As we hike through those landscapes it’s worth remembering that the AT and its surroundings have layers of history, and they’re always on the move. 

[Closing music]

KELLY: The Green Tunnel is a production of R2 Studios, part of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. 

KELLY: Today's episode was produced by me, Mills Kelly and The Green Tunnels’ executive producers, Jeanette Patrick and Jim Ambuske. 

KELLY: The archival music you heard was “John Brown’s Body” performed by Pete Seeger. Thanks to the Smithsonian Institution’s Folkways Recording Collection for allowing us to feature this song, which appeared on America’s Favorite Ballads, Volume 3 in 1959. You’ll find a link to the full album in our show notes for this episode. 

KELLY: Our original music is performed by Scott Miller of Swope, Virginia and Andrew Small and Ashley Watkins of Floyd Virginia. Additional music is provided by Artlist.io

KELLY: Thanks to Jonathan Earle for sharing his deep knowledge of the history of Harpers Ferry and John Brown. 

KELLY: Thanks so much for listening, and we'll see you back here soon.

Jonathan Earle

Jonathan Earle, dean of the LSU Ogden Honors College, is an historian of American politics and culture who focuses on the early republic and antebellum periods. He is the author of numerous books and articles including John Brown's Raid on Harpers Ferry: A Brief History with Documents (2008); Jacksonian Antislavery and the Politics of Free Soil (2005); Bleeding Kansas, Bleeding Missouri: The Long Civil War on the Border (2013); and the Routledge Atlas of African American History (2000, 2022). A native of suburban Washington, DC, he now lives in Baton Rouge and New Orleans.