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"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Friday, August 12, 2011

Two Harper's Ferry Items in the News

It's Hammer Time

The Fredericksburg [Maryland] Free Lance-Star and the Washington [D.C.] Examiner websites have recently published a feature story by Clint Schemmer about the donation of a 28-pound sledgehammer to the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Triangle, Virginia.  The sledgehammer was used by the marines during the final assault on John Brown and his men in the Harpers Ferry armory engine house on October 18, 1859.  After the raid, the sledgehammer was picked up by a local doctor, who gave it to someone else, who later sold it to someone else, where it was passed down through the family line for nearly one hundred years.  There were two other sledgehammers used, one is held by the National Park Service at Harper's Ferry, and the other is lost to history.

Of course, the sledgehammer method didn't work; Brown had secured the doors from the inside to flex sufficiently under these blows.  Most historians point out that the marines then picked up a nearby ladder with which they successfully were able to ram through the engine house doors.  Only Jean Libby, who has studied the raid quite closely, has explained that the ladder was used the day before by a group of railroad men who were repelled by Brown's heavy fire.   As methods go, the railroad men were probably more effective in attacking the engine house than the marines, who brought the wrong tools for the job.  One wonders how much longer it would have taken Lee and the Leathernecks to take the engine house if they had not happily stumbled over the ladder.  As Homer Simpson would put it, "Doah!"

At any rate, the sledgehammer will be installed in a gallery entitled, "Defending the New Republic."  Gretchen Winterer, a curator of the museum, pointed out that the raid by Brown was intended to "arm slaves and start a revolt throughout the South."  Of course, she is correct, although it is interesting to consider such a revolt from the eyes of Ms. Winterer, the Marine Corps, and the slave owning interests that the marines served in those "turbulent times."   It gives us pause to remember that what freedom-loving people today consider a heroic action by John Brown, the National Museum of the Marine Corps will label as a threat against "the New Republic."  Likewise, this should remind us that in 1859, the marines were a de facto arm of the slave power, and no pretense of nobility and patriotic virtue can change that fact.

Winterer makes an interesting observation, that the marines were sent into the engine house without loaded guns, only bayonets.  Certainly, John Brown and his men had no knowledge of this fact.  However, she says this was ordered "because they didn't want to harm any of the hostages."  Well, that's partially true.  But it was also because they didn't want to "harm" any of the hostages' dark-skinned property that might get in the way as the Leathernecks set about butchering Brown's raiders inside the engine house.  Even though Winterer portrays the marines as "seizing the raiders," the reality is that they butchered them and were under orders to do so, because that's what slave masters do to people trying to free their slaves.

To reiterate: the attack on John Brown and his men at Harper's Ferry was the putting down of a slave revolt, not the defense of a nation.  At that moment in U.S. history, the marines were the bad guys.  It's probably not the last time that the marines functioned as bad guys with respect to U.S. action, but here the marines were used by slave masters to seize black people and return them to slavery and to kill the U.S. citizens who were trying to set them free.

Hammer that.

Bell & Howl

I've actually been ignoring this controversy for weeks, but I would be remiss not to at least mention that there is a hot little debate going on over the so-called John Brown Bell, which hangs in a tower on Union Common, in the town of Marlborough, Massachusetts.  Why the controversy?   The bell originally hung over the Harper's Ferry armory engine house, the very site where Brown made his last stand against the powers of slavery and white supremacy.  The bell was taken by Union soldiers during the Civil War and hidden for thirty years, after which it was taken up and carried north to Marlborough in 1892.  Until the 1960s, it was suspended on the front of the Marlborough Grand Army of the Republic and American Legion building, after which it was moved to its present site.

Ken McGagh, MetroWest Daily
-2008 (Framingham, Mass.)
According to the late Boyd Stutler, in the time of the Harper's Ferry raid, the bell served both as a fire alarm as well as the armory "work whistle," signaling shift ends and starts.  Stutler speculated that the bell may have been used even before the erection of the fire engine house on the armory grounds.  He never found a picture of the engine house taken prior to the raid, nor did he find any orders or authorization from the Union army to have the bell removed.

That's the bell part.

The howl part is that recently, some well-meaning protest has arisen, particularly from a howling commercial real estate broker named Howard Swint, who is from Charleston, West Virginia.  Mr. Swint is a well-meaning gentleman who believes that the bell should be returned to the Harper's Ferry engine house.  The folks at Marlborough see it differently.  Mr. Swint is persistent; like Stutler, he has done research to discover if there was any federal order to have the bell removed and has found none.  No surprise, since Stutler was quite thorough in his work.  Frankly, the bell was stolen by some Massachusetts men in blue, carefully hidden, and then carried off many years after the War had ended. As Swint would point out, the lack of authority in removing the bell probably mitigates against Marlborough's interests, but then again, I'm not a lawyer and this is not just any stolen bell.

The late Boyd Stutler took an interest in this bell in the 1940s, and being both a journalist and a John Brown documentary scholar, he did research and interviews.  Swint would be happy to know that Stutler agreed that the bell should be returned to Harper's Ferry.  Of course, with all due respect, both  Swint and Stutler reflect the special interest of West Virginia, the 1863 invention of Lincoln's administration and the state that subsumed Harper's Ferry.

Despite the mockery and criticism that Swint has taken online from certain pro-Marlborough writers, he is trying to take the high road.  Lately he has proposed that Marlborough and Harper's Ferry develop a sister-city relationship that would allow joint custody of the bell.  So far, Marlborough's city fathers have not responded to the sister-city pitch and Swint is disappointed, according to the Framingham [Mass] Daily News (Aug. 12).  Somehow compromise between North and South just doesn't seem to work well.  Incidentally, Harvard historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. has expressed his willingness to sign on in support of Swint's proposed compromise.

Whether or not Swint realizes it, cracking the Liberty Bell is probably easier than cracking the case of the "John Brown Bell" of Harper's Ferry, er Marlborough, Massachusetts.  Even in the mid-20th century, when Boyd Stutler was on the ground at Marlborough to interview local citizens, he found they showed "considerable pride of possession" (Stutler to Barnes, 28 Sept. 1962, Stutler Collection).  In response to a piece about the bell that Stutler wrote in a West Virginia paper in 1962, a local named Orlo Strunk, Jr. (Stutler Collection) published a poem that reflects Mr. Swint's current appeal:
They came and sacked the fire house bell,
"The spoils of civil war," they said.
The Northern soldiers sent it home;
"Too bad," they said to Johnny Reb. 
The years have mellowed civil strife,
The men of Company One are dead,
The ghost of Mister Brown is gone,
And Harpers Ferry moves ahead. 
I pray the Marlborough children hear
The message of the pillaged bell;
And come to know the cost of hate--
To sense the claim of freedom's knell.
Stutler doubtless appreciated the sentiment of this contemporary poem, but he also held a poem written in 1917 from the Marlborough perspective, by Edith Folsom (Stutler Collection).  The poem is somewhat more lengthy and readers can use the link to read it in its entirety.  As the poem illustrates, Folsom perceived a strong link between the pro-Brown sentiment of Marlborough at the time of the Civil War and the meaning of the bell, which by then was already wed to the city's spirit as well as its landscape:
In the quaint bell-tower in Marlboro [sic] town,
Old men in blue still the swinging cord.
"His soul is marching on, O Lord!"
The air re-echoes, "John Brown - John Brown."
A good friend recently asked me for an opinion about the bell.  My response is bifurcated.  The reasonable part of me thinks that compromise is the best solution.  After all, the bell first belonged to federal property and at the very least, compromise would mean sharing it with a National Park Service facility, which is also federal property.  It's not like handing the bell back to Wise, Hunter, and the rest of John Brown's judicial murderers.  A compromise would even give Marlborough a little publicity, I suppose, and Boyd Stutler would probably smile in his grave.

On the other hand, the loss of the bell can also be perceived as symbolic of the price that was paid by slaveholders for their brutality, greed, and perfidy.  Jesus taught, "count the cost before you go to war."  Wise and the rest of the Old Dominion did not sufficiently count the cost, and a great deal was lost, especially in life--all for the sake of expanding slavery.  There was nothing noble in the Southern cause, and notwithstanding the stubborn, ahistorical pride that reigns in Dixie to this day, the Confederate soldiers died as fools, fighting for a cause that today overshadows their descendants.  The bell was taken in war by Union soldiers.  Yes, the bell was stolen--really stolen twice, once during the Civil War, and then again thirty years later, long after the war was over.  But a lot of things were lost in the war because Virginia and other states chose to secede.  Contrary to the Strunk poem, there is more to keeping the bell than hate.

First, the people of Marlborough paid in blood and tears for a war that they didn't start and didn't want.  The thieving men in blue who swiped the bell would not have been in Harper's Ferry were it not for the same people who hanged John Brown and afterward pushed their own state out of the Union into secession, rebellion, and war.  Like it or not, West Virginians may have to own up to the historical consequences of the war as symbolized by the loss of "their" bell.  Second, the "John Brown Bell" has been part of Marlborough's life and history for over a century now, perhaps longer than it was actually situated atop the engine house at Harper's Ferry.  Shouldn't the State of Virginia return John Brown's papers to Alice Keesey Mecoy and other Brown family descendants?  The point is lots of stuff gets stolen by superior force in times of conflict and a case can be made for this stuff to be returned.  But the city of Marlborough may wonder why they should be expected to do so, simply because some folks in West Virginia want "their" bell returned.

Finally, the leaders and citizens of Marlborough may very well see returning the bell as a concession to the spirit of the Confederacy, even if Mr. Swint is representing an entirely different approach.  After all, the white South pretty much recovered everything after the defeat of Reconstruction--land, power, and the right to revise the meaning of the Civil War, even in places like Harper's Ferry.  Given the strongly anti-Brown sentiment that pervades the National Park Service at Harper's Ferry today, and the consistent way in which Brown is misrepresented in NPS tourist narratives, frankly it gives me a little satisfaction in knowing that the engine house bell is out of their reach and may be for sometime.  Bells represent resounding clarity, something that is not typical of the NPS at Harper's Ferry.

The postscript to this is that, in the grand scheme of things, all this hoopla over a bell seems overdone, the kind of controversy that white folks have the privilege to indulge in.  It reminds me of an outraged property owner who was also a realtor in a real estate office in Florida where I was temping many years ago.  One day I happened to hear the realtor raging over the phone because someone had intentions of constructing a building that would ruin the front view from his plush condominium.  "It's unconscionable!" he declared.  "Unconscionable?" I said to myself.  "I can think of a lot of other things  that are unconscionable."  I feel the same way about the "John Brown Bell" affair.  After all, if Uncle Sam is not willing to officially apologize to black people and Native Americans, let alone pay reparations or return stolen land, why should it really matter if the "John Brown Bell" is returned to the National Park Service facility in West Virginia?  To borrow the words of Jesus, it seems to me we're "straining out gnats and swallowing camels," and it's white folks doing all the straining.

Postscript (16 Aug): Visit the Marlborough Historical Society's website for more information and downloadable materials about the John Brown Bell.

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