The Firestorm Unleashed Here: Recalling Harpers Ferry

By Mondoch, Helen | The World and I, October 2009 | Go to article overview

The Firestorm Unleashed Here: Recalling Harpers Ferry


Mondoch, Helen, The World and I


Strolling the picturesque streets of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, one easily forgets that American history took a dramatic turn here.

Harpers Ferry is nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. It offers scenic overlooks and winding footpaths--the perfect retreat for jaded northern Virginia residents who can drive here in under an hour. On this cloudless, midsummer afternoon, my family and I are among the happy hordes that come from all over to browse the shops, lunch at casual cafes, and catch a glimpse of the past. From the walking bridge that cuts through this swath of the famed Appalachian Trail, we see a river spotted with paddling kayakers and drifters lazing on yellow tubes.

There is something elevating, in more ways than one, about a nineteenth-century town that sits almost 250 feet above sea level, surrounded by rocks and rippling currents. That the town is named for Robert Harper, a resident who operated a small ferry business here in the mid-1700's, is telling. So much of Harpers Ferry's past and present life, including its gun factories, railroad industry, and tourism, derives from the waters that envelope it.

Indeed, Harpers Ferry is a place immersed in the aura of its past. We pause to observe a solemn cannon salute, delivered by soldiers in full-dress uniform under a blazing sun. Later, we pick up our pace and catch up to a group whose gaze is fixed on a costumed interpreter. Pointing to the historic engine house that stands before us, the young woman in the hooped dress and bonnet is expounding the explosive events of October 16, 1859, a night that propelled Harpers Ferry into the annals of American history.

The quaint serenity of this town belies the violence and heart-stopping tensions that erupted here. Many historians believe that the infamous raid on a federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry triggered--or at least hastened--the American Civil War.

Wolf by the ears

Certainly by the late 1850's, the nation was already afflicted with a terrible fissure over slavery and states' rights. Abolitionists and pro-slavery forces had already engaged in deadly confrontations in the Kansas territory and elsewhere. North and south were growing increasingly polarized.

In 1820, Thomas Jefferson had declared that in maintaining the institution of slavery, the United States held "the wolf by ears." As he explained, "We can neither hold him, nor safely let him go." Similarly, George Mason had brandished slavery a "slow poison" that would eventually wreak havoc upon the nation. As Enlightenment thinkers, both Mason and Jefferson understood that human bondage was incompatible with the radical principles of freedom and equality upon which the nation had been founded. As slave holders themselves, they also sensed with agonizing clairvoyance that the push for abolition would engender a terrible conflict.

No figure in American history embodies the rage over slavery's injustice more than the man at the center of the raid on Harpers Ferry--abolitionist John Brown, the man with the small frame and fiery eyes. And while history texts reveal that the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, in the spring of 1861, some say it really started here in this quiet river valley, in this town then claimed by Virginia.

"... Many believe that it was Brown that fired the first shot of the American Civil War and struck the first blow for freedom," says visitor services director Todd Bolton, quoted in a recent issue of the Martinsburg Journal. In a similar vein, historian-author David W. Blight, in a 2005 Washington Post book review, called Brown's attack at Harpers Ferry "the Pearl Harbor of the Civil War."

Given the enormity of that agonizing conflict--a war that pitted "brother against brother" and took more than 600,000 lives over its four-year course--its origins are worth contemplating. …

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