Harpers Ferry to Re-enact the Fiery Abolitionist’s Attack On Its Arsenal a Century Ago This Month
By Nona Brown
Harpers Ferry, W. Va.—The first shots to initiate the centennial of the Civil War will be fired this month in this dramatic town, where John Brown’s famous raid—the subject of the local commemoration—came in 1859 as a shocking and bloody precursor to the hostilities that broke out eighteen months later.
John Brown, the abolitionist fanatic, stormed and seized the Federal arsenal to Harpers Ferry on Oct. 16, 1859, and, by so doing, became a martyr to the fervent cause that soon led to war. Thus the small village at the spectacular confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers achieved its unforgettable niche in American history.
Since Harpers Ferry and John brown’s Raid stand somewhat apart from the main stream of Civil War events, the forthcoming observance is being arranged by the local citizenry without aid or recognition by the Civil War Centennial Commission. The commission, it was learned, has decided that the official calendar of centennial events would not start before January, 1961.
This ruling, as Harpers Ferry discovered, means that the recall of events leading up to the outbreak of hostilities will have to be undertaken without official imprimatur or help, including that which might be forthcoming from state or other funds made available for Civil War commemorations.
“John Brown’s Raid was embarrassing and untimely when it occurred in 1859,” a Harpers Ferry resident remarked, “and it apparently still is today.”
There is also some suspicion that the Federal commission was not over-eager to be involved in commemorating a treasonable act.
So local citizens with a sense of history, and a wish to revitalize the dormant town, banded together in the Harpers Ferry Area Foundation, and this in turn sponsored the Harpers Ferry Centennial Association. It is the latter group that has planned and organized four days of festivities to commemorate (not “celebrate,” as one of the officials noted with emphasis) John Brown’s raid. All told, some 200 residents of Harpers Ferry and adjacent Bolivar are participating in the program—out of a total population for the town of about 1,500.
The centennial observance will run from Oct. 15 through 18, with various programmed events from morning through evening. One daily feature is a performance by professional and local talent of “The Prophet,” a play about the life of John Brown by Dr. Wallace Dace. Although the play was written several years ago, it has never been previously performed. There will be evening performances on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Oct. 15, 16, 17, and a matinee on Sunday, the 18th. Tickets are $1.22 to $2.44, including tax.
There will be two other major dramatic events during the observance, both involving gunnery displays. On Saturday, Oct. 17, during Governor’s Day, there will be a complete re-enactment of the storming of the “Fort” where John brown and his raiders had taken refuge. The fort was in fact the engine house of the United States Arsenal. Although Brown and his zealous colleagues had succeeded initially in taking all the buildings of the arsenal and the armory, they had established headquarters in the engine house and finally were captured there by militia and United States Marines.
For the re-enactment, a special Marine Corp unit named Forney’s Battalion, after a Civil War marine outfit, will participate, along with the Sharpsburg Rifles, another historic unit, and some Boy Scouts. Both Forney’s Battalion and the Sharpsburg Rifles have been established in recent years to help make history come alive by providing troops in authentic costumes with authentic firearms for Civil War commemorations.
As in the actual battle of Oct. 18, 1859, John Brown and a handful of raiders will be captured by the attacking soldiers under the command of Col. Robert E. Lee and Lieut. J. E. B. Stuart (played by two Marine officers). The re-enactment will be staged on the campus of Storer College, a defunct Negro institution, near the actual old engine house which was moved to this site many years ago.
The other dramatic event will be a sham battle, on Sunday afternoon, between a Union Unit and a Confederate Unit on Bolivar Heights overlooking Harpers Ferry. This is more a commemoration of the many Civil War skirmishes fought in and around strategic Harpers Ferry than of John Brown’s raid, but it is part of the spirit of the observances. It was these Civil war battles that left Harpers Ferry a burned-out ghost town which is just beginning to revive under the impetus of National Park Service restoration work in the area of the Government arsenal and the raid.
Self-conducted tours of the historic national monument area are available to Harpers Ferry visitors at times, and will be especially emphasized during the Centennial. As an extra contribution, the National Park Service has opened a temporary branch museum with John Brown memorabilia. While restoration work in the monument area is perhaps only half finished, there is much to be seen, including the first excavations on the site of the old arsenal.
Another daily feature, except Sunday, of the Centennial will be an antique show and sale in Anthony Hall, on the Storer College campus. Exhibitors are expected from a wide area of Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and Washington.
Harpers Ferry is a small town with limited hotel accommodations—Hilltop House and the Cliffside Motel—and restaurant facilities. To meet the latter deficit, local churches will serve luncheons for the public. Visitors who may wish to spend just one day in Harpers Ferry might do well to take one of the Baltimore and Ohio excursion trains. Round-trip tickets cost $3.30 from Baltimore, $2.50 from Washington Travel time from Washington is about one hour.
Visitors traveling by automobile will find ample hotel or motel accommodations in nearby Charles Town, W. Va., or near Frederick or Hagerstown in Maryland. All are within easy driving distance of Harpers Ferry, which is situated off U. S. 340 at the borders of Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland, and offer a chance for a quick side trip to Antietam.
Source: clipping in Boyd B. Stutler Collection, West Virginia State Archives