The lure of living history … and John Brown’s body

When you were a kid did you sing that song, John Brown’s body lies a-moulder’n in the grave? I remember wondering why people sang about a mouldy old corpse.

Somewhere along the way I got the message – this was an anti-slavery call to arms, a song about the famous abolitionist, John Brown from the days before the American Civil War.

US Marines attack John Brown's 'fort'

Well, it turns out I was wrong. This is a marching song for the northern Union army in that civil war, and refers to Sergeant John Brown of the Second Battalion, Boston Light Infantry Volunteer Militia. It was taken up by supporters of ‘my’ John Brown after that.

Why would an Australian teenager have been curious about a long-dead American abolitionist? Mainly, because of a book from my small town’s library. Don’t know its name now, but I remember there were engraved pictures of his tragic end in 1859. What I had forgotten was the importance of the town of Harpers Ferry to the whole terrible saga of John Brown and his fellow abolitionists.

There we were, with my sister, Robyn driving to Harpers Ferry up the ‘highway through the cradle of the Civil War‘ (apologies to Paul Simon) … this region is more like the heart of the American Civil War. It’s north-west of Washington DC in West Virginia, right where the beautiful Shenandoah River meets the Potomac before it heads to the nation’s capital.

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Harpers Ferry_where the Shenandoah River meets the Potomac

If you’re interested in the unfolding drama in Harpers Ferry during that year of 1859 there are heaps of references around. In a nut-shell: in an attempt to start a slave rebellion, John Brown and his small band of supporters led a raid on the federal armoury at Harpers Ferry.

Seven people (including a free black) in the township were killed, and ten or more were injured. He intended to arm slaves with weapons from the arsenal, but the attack failed. Within 36 hours, Brown’s men had fled or been killed or captured by local farmers, militiamen, and U.S. Marines led by Robert E. Lee.

John Brown was captured by federal forces, his trial for treason to the state of Virginia, and his execution by hanging in Charles Town, Virginia played a major role in starting the American Civil War sixteen months later. Church bells rang out for him, guns were fired and large memorial meetings took place throughout the North when he was hanged. Many famous writers of the times praised him in the newspapers and stirred up the population.

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School children tour the engine house that was John Brown's 'fort'

Brown’s role, actions and tactics still make him a controversial figure today. Many regard him as a heroic (if not foolhardy) martyr and a visionary; others still vilify him as a ‘madman and a terrorist’.

Harpers Ferry is steeped in the past – now restored as a picturesque, historical town on the cliffs and slopes in the cleft between the two rivers; it’s hard not to be sucked into the feeling of living history. We stay overnight. The next day being Monday means the tourists have gone and it’s peaceful in the early morning sunlight.

Several busloads empty their load of school-children and they follow their leader (a guide dressed in traditional costume: Union soldier, Confederate major, colonial woman) around the historical buildings.

This is also where, after the American Civil War the first school for freed African Americans opened. The leaders of Storer College always emphasised John Brown’s courage and beliefs for inspiration.

Further down the road in Maryland is Antietam. I’ve never known much about the actual battles of the American Civil War – except for watching Ken Burns’ excellent documentary on SBS.

Antietam (pronounced An-tee-tam) is where, on September 17th, 1862 in the bloodiest one-day battle in American history, 23,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or missing after 12 hours of savage combat.

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Battlefields at Antietam...the heart of the American Civil War

The National Parks Historical Battlefield Visitors Centre overlooks the valley where it happened. The cornfields and the farmhouses are still there and so is the history. It is palpable on this clear, autumn morning as a park ranger (passionate, like all the other rangers in National Parks we visited) takes us through the terrible events of the day the Antietam battle raged between the Confederate battalions and the northern Union army.

The battle was inconclusive, but a strategic Union victory, combined with the continuing fervour over John Brown’s execution politically enabled the president, Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation that declared freedom for all slaves in the Confederate States.

Being anti-war, post-hippie types, both Ross and I are surprised when we too become engrossed with this place. I understand why American Civil War history fascinates many people, not just Americans.

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'Bloody Lane'_another Antietam battle site

As we look out across the landscape from a small hill on a chilly, autumn morning, our ranger, a brilliant story-teller, brings alive the sounds and sights of the battles raging backwards and forwards: like the Irish Brigade from New York as they marched under their emerald green banner into the trap of a narrow ditch, now called ‘Bloody Lane’, and the slaughter on both sides that followed.

And like memorials at Gallipoli and Flanders, those killed were mostly boys … many of them the same age as our 22-year-old.

There is something telling in the fact that while these sites are officially called the Antietam Battlefield there are many Americans who refer to them as Sharpsburg, the name of the nearby, then Confederate supporting town. In the 21st century, neither side gives way or forgets.

The landscape itself is beautiful – so peaceful with the late harvest cornfields still tawny-coloured, and in the distant hills splashes of red, yellow and gold.  At least the land has healed itself.

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The site of the Battle of Burnside Bridge


2 thoughts on “The lure of living history … and John Brown’s body

  1. I’m pleased now that I did – somewhere on a plane across the Pacific I think I lost my notebook. Luckily the things I’m writing about on the blog are etched on my brain. But I still feel sad about its loss.


  2. Ah Sheryl you put me to shame. I wish now I’d kept a better record of all our travels. Great stuff.


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