Salena Zito

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. – Stepping onto the platform of a Victorian-era train station here, you wouldn’t know you are standing over the foundation of Harpers Ferry’s original armory and arsenal buildings.

Built in 1799, the federal armory was championed by President George Washington because of his familiarity with the town as a former investor and first president of the Patowmack Company, which was formed to complete improvements along the Potomac River.

“It is the very arsenal that drew John Brown here for his infamous raid,” says John Addy, mayor of the town of 320 residents along the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers.

“Three-hundred-twenty is also about the number of people who once worked in the arsenal,” he adds.

Between 1801 and the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, this was a thriving industrial market of more than 3,000 people. The armory was in full production; several industries, including a sawmill, a flour mill, a machine shop, two cotton mills, a tannery and an iron foundry, flourished here.

This also was home to many of Washington’s relatives, Addy says, and his “descendents still live here, in the same home his brother Charles had built when George was president.”

The town’s fortunes changed in 1859 with the arrival of John Brown, wanted for committing murder during the “Bleeding Kansas” slavery battle, and his “Provisional Army” of 16 whites and five blacks.

He planned to seize the arsenal’s guns in order to arm rebelling slaves throughout the South.

The raid ended quickly: After 36 hours, U.S. Marines led by then-Lt. Col Robert E. Lee stormed the building and captured Brown.

He was tried, convicted and executed in less than two months. One handsome young man in the crowd of hundreds who witnessed his hanging was actor John Wilkes Booth.

In April 2011, our country marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fort Sumter, which most historians consider to be the start of the Civil War (although, technically, the first shots were fired at Sumter in January 1861).

One can argue, however, that Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry really was the first shot, says James McPherson, Civil War historian and professor emeritus of history at Princeton University. “It vastly intensified Southern fears of Northern anti-slavery forces, and Brown's martyrdom by hanging increased anti-slavery sentiments in the North,” McPherson says.

When Harpers Ferry marked the sesquicentennial of Brown’s raid in 2009, Mayor Addy says, very little push-back came from residents. “There were some letters to the editors in the papers and, privately, a handful of people questioned the political correctness of the festivities,” he recalls.

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.