Thursday, February 6, 2014


Harpers Ferry (officially written without an apostrophe in "Harpers") is a small, historic town located at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers:

The famous Appalachian Trail, a 2180-mile-long footpath that stretches from Georgia to Maine, goes right through town. Some day I'd love to walk parts of this trail, and it was fun to at travel a small portion of it through Harpers Ferry.
I especially liked the part that crossed the Potomac:
I would expect the convergence of two rather mighty rivers to cause a little turbulence, but the day we crossed this boardwalk, the confluence was quiet and serene. Perhaps there are more turbid and anxious undercurrents, but we did not see them.

Unlike the calm waters, Harpers Ferry has a savage history. It was the home of a wild-haired, radical abolitionist named John Brown, who one night in 1859 led 21 men on a raid of the federal armory located there. He hoped to gather the approximately 100,000 muskets and rifles in storage, spread them throughout the region, and lead a violent slave revolt. After 36 hours, Brown was captured by none other than Robert E. Lee. He was tried and convicted of murder, treason, and inciting a slave rebellion.

The event was a world-wide sensation. If there had been paparazzi press in that day, Brown would have graced the cover of a dozen magazines. As it was, he made the front page of many newspapers, at home and abroad. Victor Hugo, the French author of Les Miserables, tried to obtain a pardon for Brown. In his plea he wrote:

"Politically speaking, the murder of John Brown would be an uncorrectable sin. It would create in the Union a latent fissure that would in the long run dislocate it. Brown's agony might perhaps consolidate slavery in Virginia, but it would certainly shake the whole American democracy. You save your shame, but you kill your glory. Morally speaking, it seems a part of the human light would put itself out, that the very notion of justice and injustice would hide itself in darkness, on that day where one would see the assassination of Emancipation by Liberty itself. . . . Let America know and ponder on this: there is something more frightening than Cain killing Abel, and that is Washington killing Spartacus.

Before he was hanged about ten weeks after his raid, Brown developed an Northern States ally--America's most famous proponent of civil disobedience, Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau delivered a speech on multiple occasions painting Brown as a hero of the highest order, likening him to Jesus Christ being betrayed by his own government.

"Some eighteen hundred years ago Christ was crucified; this morning . . . Captain Brown was hung," mourned Thoreau. "These are two ends of a chain which is not without its links. He is not Old Brown any longer; he is an angel of light. I see now that it was necessary that the bravest and humanest man in all the country should be hung."

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Thoreau's neighbor in Concord, Massachusetts, opposed the Civil War and felt differently about John Brown. He wrote, "Nobody was ever more justly hanged."

Herman Melville, the author of the great American novel Moby Dick, actually wrote a poem about Brown entitled "The Portent."

Hanging from the beam,
     Slowly swaying (such the law)
Gaunt the shadow on your green,
The cut is on the crown
    (Lo, John Brown),
And the stabs shall heal no more.

Hidden in the cap
     Is the anguish none can draw;
So your future veils its face,
But the streaming beard is shown
     (Weird John Brown),
The meteor of the war.

Whatever you think of "Weird John Brown," his actions brought slavery to the forefront and were a catalyst for the Civil War, which wreaked havoc on Harpers Ferry. The little town was bounced back and forth between Northern and Southern hands EIGHT TIMES between 1861 and 1865.

While John Brown's name has become synonymous with Harpers Ferry, the structure that most dominates the city is St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church, perched on a stony hill overlooking the two rivers. Built in 1833, it somehow escaped destruction while the Civil War raged relentlessly around it, possibly because Father Costello flew the British Union Jack flag from the church as a sign of neutrality. It was extensively remodeled in 1896, converting it from "pseudo-Gothic" into "neo-Gothic."

Unfortunately, the good Catholics of Harpers Ferry have not caught the spirit of tourism and commercialism, and the church was never unlocked on the day we were there. Situated as it is on top of a pointy protuberance with only a tiny courtyard, it's hard to get an adequate photo:

Here it is again, seen from above and behind:
There were plenty of other things for us to do in Harpers Ferry other than contemplate the Civil War.  It has a nice shopping area:
. . . with very important commercial enterprises:

These old stone steps took us up the hill
. . . to the ruins of St. John's Episcopal Church:
. . . which wasn't quite as fortunate as St. Peter's Catholic Church during the War. It was built in 1852, so it was almost brand new when the war broke out. After the War, the Episcopalians relocated further up the hill.
What remains is photography paradise, even for a novice:

Continuing up up up the hill, we were excited to see Jefferson Rock was not too far:
The story is that Thomas Jefferson visited this site, which offers a beautiful view of the Shenandoah just before it joins the Potomac, on October 25, 1783. He was so moved by the view that he wrote about it in his book Notes on the State of Virginia, a book I read in graduate school and still have on my shelves:

"The passage of the Patowmac through the Blue ridge is perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in nature. You stand on a very high point of land. On your right comes up the Shenandoah, having ranged along the food of the mountain an hundred miles to seek a vent. On your left approaches the Patowmac, in quest of a passage also. In the moment of their junction they rush together against the mountain, rend it asunder, and pass off to the sea. The first glance of this scene hurries our senses into the opinion, that this earth has been created in time, that the mountains were formed first, that the rivers began to flower afterwards, that in this place particularly they have been dammed up by the Blue ridge of mountains, and have formed an ocean which filled the whole valley; that continuing to rise they have at length broken over at this spot, and have torn the mountain down from its summit to its base. The piles of rock on each hand, but particularly on the Shenandoah, the evident makers of their disrupture and avulsion from their beds by the most powerful agents of nature, corroborate the impression. But the distant finishing which nature has given to the picture is of a very different character. It is a true contrast to the fore-ground. It is as placid and delightful, as that is wild and tremendous. . . . This scene is worth a voyage across the Atlantic."

It is a beautiful viewpoint, but Jefferson's hyperbole leads you to expect more. After that grandiose build-up, seeing Jefferson Rock, which had sandstone supports placed under it in 1860 because it was "endangering the lives and properties of the villagers below," is a bit like seeing Plymouth Rock for the first time.

It was just a bit of a let-down.
As we continued uphill past this famous piece of sediment, we came upon Harper Cemetery, created by the town's founder, Robert Harper. When he died in 1782, Harpers Ferry was a booming three houses, yet he had optimistically set aside four acres for the cemetery, pretty amazing considering the fact that he himself was childless. Jefferson came through Harpers Ferry a year later, and his words about the scene being "worth a voyage across the Atlantic" may have eventually helped fill the cemetery. The graves of many Irish and German immigrants who arrived in the 1830s dot the hillside.
Having two sons who are Eagle Scouts, I especially appreciated this marker noting that the stone steps ascending the cemetery lawn had been built as an Eagle Project in 2005.

As we began our trek back down the hill, we ran into this captivating young witch out on a stroll with her dog.
Perhaps she was seeking ingredients for her next batch of brew:
We ended our day in Harpers Ferry on a delightfully eerie ghost tour led by historian and storyteller Rick Garland, a possible ghost himself, wouldn't you say?
In a town this full of history, the "O' Be Joyfull!" tour is a must.

I first encountered James McBride in the late 1990s when I read his beautiful memoir The Color of Water, a Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother. I used the book for a few semesters in my freshman composition class, and it was loved by all.

Last year, McBride released a wonderful retelling of John Brown and Harper's Ferry: The Good Lord Bird, A Novel. The winner of the 2013 National Book Award for Fiction, it tells the story of a young slave named Henry Shackleford who gets mixed up with John Brown prior to the Harper's Ferry incident. McBride's comic, frolicking writing is reminiscent of Mark Twain's tall tales, and this is a must read for anyone visiting Harper's Ferry or interested in John Brown's crazy story.


  1. Very nice post, with history and poetry galore, for a quirky little town with an even quirkier history. Jefferson's Rock fits right in, as does the ghost tour and John Brown. The tragedy is that the old bridge supports mar what would otherwise be an even more incredible view of the confluence of these two great rivers. Fun place to spend some time.

  2. I didn't know all those facts and feelings about John Brown-very interesting. Lots of fun things to visit. I'm always disappointed when those interesting old churches are closed. I'd be willing to donate to their cause for a peek inside.

  3. It was one of my favorite stops on a trip with Taffy and Bill Barnes when Taffy was living in Washington.

  4. Thomas Jefferson looked at a rock and they made a monument out of it, that is when you know you hit big time celebrity.

  5. We used to sing a song about "John Brown's body lies a mouldering in his grave. . ." and now here he is in your blog post. I laughed when I read ElderP's comment. There's a lot of that on the East Coast, I think, but you and Bob approach each one with zest and good humor: signs of good travelers.