Weekend Drive: Retrace the steps of John Brown and the beginning of the Civil War

Friday, October 16, in drizzling rain and cool temperatures, 300 people or so, many clad in pre-Civil War attire, at least four of them dressed like abolitionist John Brown, set out on foot for Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.

The beginning of their five-mile walk, the log farmhouse in western Maryland, is the very spot where Brown and his raiders left for the Federal Arsenal in Harpers Ferry. Their aim? To seize the weapons necessary for establishing a colony for runaway slaves.

As a result of the raid, Brown, zealous about his cause, was wounded and captured in a stand off with townspeople and the militia. Brown’s bold move is credited with starting the Civil War.

It also found him swinging at the end of a hangman’s noose six weeks later after he was found guilty of treason for his efforts. Although Brown wasn’t successful, his actions, along with those of his men, did put the nation’s attention firmly on the issue of slavery.

The original march, also on October 16, was 150 years ago. The march that led to the raid on Harpers Ferry, isn’t the only event being held to commemorate Brown’s important place in American history. There are several more happening this month and into November.

With fall foliage still showing it’s glory, these are perfect days for taking a drive to trace Brown’s journey, both on that night years ago and at other parts of his life. Here are suggestions for a do-it-yourself John Brown sesquicentennial celebration that takes in parts of Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia.

Chambersburg, Pennsylvania

  • John Brown House, 225 East King Street. On the second floor of this once boarding house, Brown planned the raid on Harper’s Ferry. Also, Chambersburg is where Brown had a meeting with Fredrick Douglass who tried to talk Brown out of his plan. The plan took a long while to hatch so Brown became part of the Chambersburg community, but under the name of Isaac Smith. The Franklin County Historical Society is responsible for the house.

Sharpsburg, Maryland

  • Kennedy Farmhouse (John Brown’s Headquarters) Chestnut Grove Road. This is the farmhouse where Brown and his men practiced for the raid. Brown, along with his two sons, Owen and Oliver, and eventually 20 followers, lived in the house from July 29, 1859 until the night of October 16. The restored house is a National Historic Landmark.

Harpers Ferry, West Virginia (Harpers Ferry National Historical Park) The park’s land is also in Maryland and Virginia.

  • Harpers Ferry Armory Engine House (John Brown’s Fort) After John Brown and his raiders snagged the weapons and captured 60 hostages, they were forced to take cover here by townspeople and the local militia. The next day, U.S. marines came, broke down the door and captured Brown.
  • On October 25, a park ranger will lead participants past 30 buildings significant to Brown’s raid. The two hour walking tour of Harper’s Ferry titled “In the Footsteps of John Brown” begins at 11 a.m. and will include the significant people as well as the places.

Charles Town, West Virginia.

  • Jefferson County Courthouse. Beginning on October 25, 1859, John Brown was tried in this courthouse built in 1836. You can go in the courthouse on weekdays.
  • Jefferson County Historical Society Museum in Charles Town, Here you can find the wagon that Brown road in to the place he was hanged, the weapons he carried the night of the raid and his personal copy of the constitution he wrote for a provisional government.
  • John Blessing House: John Fredrick Blessing became friends with John Brown when he was in prison. Before he was excuted, Brown gave Blessing his jailhouse Bible. The house is currently not open for public tours but occassionally is open for special events. On October 24th and November 28, there is a tour at 10 a.m. The house is located at 303 East North Street.
  • Historical Marker outside the Gibson-Todd House, 515 S. Samuel Street. This marker indicates the site of the gallows where John Brown was hung. He was brought here in the furniture wagon that is now housed at the historical society. The house was built in 1891 by John Thomas Gibson who helped lead the effort to stop John Brown’s raid.

On October 25th or November 22th, leave your car for a couple of hours to take a guided walking tour of Charles Town. The walking tour, sponsored by the Jefferson County Black History Preservation Society, will highlight the town’s buildings significant to John Brown.

Winchester, Virginia.

  • The Hollingsworth Mill-Winchester-Frederick County Historical Society, 1360 S. Pleasant Valley Road. Through October 30th, “From the First Shot to the Gallows.” An exhibition that highlights Winchester’s involvement with the John Brown Raid. Winchester is only 30 miles away from Harpers Ferry.

For a road map of this tour thanks to the Maryland Office of Tourism , click here. As I was working on researching John Brown travel, their website was a huge help. For more John Brown events, click here.