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John Brown saga took place in, around Washington County

August 05, 2005|by Tom Riford and Roy Thaler

John Brown is one of the more well-known historical names of those who have visited Washington County. The dedicated abolitionist imagined his actions would begin a slave rebellion and would help outlaw slavery. The reverberations of these local events echoed around the world.

A century and a half after Brown's raid on the Federal Arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Americans have still not reached a consensus on how to characterize John Brown. But we have no doubt about his profound effect on our history. For us in Washington County, Md., and the nearby region (Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia), much of the John Brown saga is local. Today's Harpers Ferry National Historical Park encompasses more than 800 acres in Washington County.

It is instructive to examine Brown's schedule during the fateful months preceding his execution in 1859:

June 27-28 - John Brown in Chambersburg.

June 30 - John Brown in Hagerstown.

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July 3 - John Brown in Sandy Hook (Maryland side of Potomac across from Harpers Ferry).

July 12 - Brown and raiding party moved to base at Kennedy Farm, Sharpsburg.

Aug. 6-21 - Brown in Chambersburg (with Frederick Douglass).

Sept. 27 - Brown in Chambersburg, en route to Philadelphia.

Oct. 1 - Brown in Chambersburg.

Oct. 8 - Brown in Chambersburg.

Oct. 16 - John Brown's Raid on Harpers Ferry began.

Oct. 17 - The battle at Harpers Ferry.

Oct. 18 - John Brown and the few remaining living raiders were captured by Robert E. Lee and U.S. Marines at daybreak at Harpers Ferry.

Oct. 19 - Brown taken to jail in Charles Town.

Oct. 25 - Brown tried for treason.

Nov. 2 - Brown was sentenced.

Dec. 2 - Brown was hanged.

Clearly, except for one brief excursion to Philadelphia, John Brown was in our area and in own backyard for that entire period.

When John Brown got here in the summer of 1859, he was already a wanted man, who - if apprehended - would undoubtedly be hanged for his participation in the Kansas antislavery bloodshed of 1855.

Calling himself Dr. Isaac Smith and accompanied by a small group of followers, Brown moved to Chambersburg in June 1859, where they rented a house at 225 East King Street. "Dr. Smith" occupied an upstairs bedroom there, while formulating plans and securing materil for his attack on the Harpers Ferry arsenal. Today, that Chambersburg house - deemed to be of historic interest - is open to the public.

"Dr. Isaac Smith" claimed to be scouting the area as an iron mine developer. To that end he purchased tools and equipment locally, which were stockpiled - along with arms shipped in from Kansas - at the nearby Oak and Cauffman Warehouse on North Main Street. The supplies he later had transported to their chosen staging area near Harpers Ferry.

While in Chambersburg, Brown was visited by a number of abolitionist leaders - of whom Frederick Douglass is still well-remembered today. Local townspeople did not know that Brown had been among them until after the news of the rebellion at Harpers Ferry appeared in the newspapers.

Kennedy Farm

On July 3, 1859, John Brown's little party arrived by train at Sandy Hook - a small town about a mile from Harpers Ferry on the Maryland side of the Potomac River. The four men, who represented themselves as cattlemen from New York, claimed to be seeking a small farm to serve as a feeding lot for the cattle they intended to purchase. They were, of course, looking for a "jumping-off" point for their intended raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. A local man suggested the old Kennedy farm - Doctor Kennedy had died earlier that spring and the farmhouse, vacant and unfurnished, was available. Brown and his followers checked out the farm, found it suitable and leased the place for nine months. The Kennedy Farm is located at 2406 Chestnut Grove Road, Sharpsburg.

At the farm they actually did a little farming, and - to explain their secret movements - said they were looking to find mineral deposits in the region. In the meantime, two or three of his party remained at Chambersburg to receive arms, ammunition and other military stores, which had been collected for use in Kansas. These were forwarded from time to time to the farm.

Brown and his followers spent some 31/2 months at the Kennedy Farm, preparing for the famous raid. By the end of summer there were 21 members of the army hidden in the attic loft, including African American recruits. By October, the army - trained and armed - was ready to attack the Harpers Ferry arsenal.

The United States government declared the Kennedy House a National Historic Landmark. The old farmhouse has been restored with the use of federal, state and private funds under the direction of the Maryland Historical Trust at Annapolis. The premises are available to the public.

On Oct. 16, 1859, Brown led a party of 21 men in the attack on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry. He hoped that his action would encourage slaves to join his rebellion, enabling him to form an emancipation army.

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