History, Research, and Current Themes

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

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Wednesday, July 04, 2012

From the Field-- 


                                                by H. Scott Wolfe *

         As promised in your faithful correspondent’s posting of April [27th] 2011, I recently returned to Harpers Ferry National Historic Park for my annual inspection tour.

The celebrated Dr. DeCaro's book in the
window of the Harpers Ferry bookstore
(photo by the celebrated Dr. DeCaro)
            Customarily, my first stop is the park bookstore on Shenandoah Street…where I sprint to the “John Brown shelf” to make sure that ample copies of Fire From the Midst of You are displayed for sale. (There were several.) I then, nonchalantly, amble to the checkout counter, where I discretely inform the clerks that I am personally acquainted with Dr. Louis DeCaro, Jr., celebrated author of that aforementioned volume. And then, finally, I retreat to a distant corner of the shop, where I eagerly absorb their admiring glances. This exercise never fails to elevate my self-esteem.

The view from the balcony, with the "Secret Six 
Tavern" menu (photo by H. Scott Wolfe)
            My next stop was the “Secret Six Tavern” on High Street…for having, earlier in the day, marched many miles on the Antietam battlefield, my stomach was growling louder than the report of a Sharps rifle on the plains of eastern Kansas. The weather being quite fine, we were escorted to their outdoor seating…a wooden balcony overlooking the now restored Harpers Ferry railroad station.

            After ordering a pint of dark beer, (necessary for proper brain function), I set to the momentous task of deciding between the “Union Burger” or the “Confederate Burger” as my luncheon entrée. As a native Wisconsinite with abolitionist tendencies, I felt compelled to order the former. And while awaiting its delivery from the crematorium, we amused ourselves by gazing at the flocks of Harpers Ferry vultures (this is NOT a metaphor) hovering over Maryland and Loudoun Heights…and by commiserating with the occupants of vehicles unable to find parking spaces on Potomac Street below.

            And then I noticed it…a sizable knot of people at the base of a nearby stairway…all closely examining what appeared to be a gray granite monument.
            “Do you remember that stone down there?,” I inquired of my bitter half. I heard only a subdued mumble, for she was half buried in her Grecian salad.
            “I’m going to have to check it out,” a ketchup-daubed strand of raw onion waving merrily as I spoke.

            Following our repast, we headed for the monument in question. Of course we passed the nearby “John Brown Wax Museum,” the Old Man still peering, gun in hand, through the gauzy curtains in the front window. I am convinced that this place has been in business since well before October of 1859. I once patronized it…many moons ago…and can still remember Brown’s motorized neck muscles (needing a bit of oil), as he strained to see me prior to mounting the scaffold. To this very day I still reflect upon this visit…especially when I take the car in for servicing.

            We had soon descended to Potomac Street…and there it was! Something novel since my last sojourn! It was, indeed, a brand-spanking-new memorial…placed ever so strategically between the bright red and yellow baggage car of the “Southern Smoke BBQ and Grill” and two green waste barrels. The historical ambience was most impressive. It was the monument to Private Luke Quinn…casualty of the U.S. Marine assault upon “John Brown’s Fort.” (See on this blog the posting entitled: “The Unlucky Irishman Gets a Monument.” [16 Jun. 2011)
The monument to Private Luke Quinn
(photo by H. Scott Wolfe)

            Of course, the monument to Private Quinn is nowhere near the site of his fatal wounding…that spot sits beneath thirty feet of B&O railroad fill. But I did take personal comfort in the fact that it reposes quite near its namesake…”Private Quinn’s Pub”…a local establishment dedicated to pious libation and intellectual discussion. “Cheers, Private Quinn!”

            The memorial itself is quite substantial…a 7-foot, 3,500 pound mass of polished granite…which now resides on “a spit of donated land abutting the sidewalk on Potomac Street.” Upon its face, standing at parade rest, is the image of a generic mid-19th century U.S. Marine…and, upon the base, is inscribed a brief biographical sketch of Private Quinn…which is a full 94% correct. (His birth year of 1835 is mistakenly given as his year of immigration to the United States.)

            This monument was the brainchild of local military veterans, led by James L. “Dixie” Wiltshire…himself a U.S. Marine during the Korean conflict. (An interesting note: The foreman of the jury that convicted John Brown was a gentleman named John C. Wiltshire.) The granite was donated by a Martinsburg, West Virginia firm…and the Harpers Ferry/Bolivar area veterans raised more than $2,800 toward its creation. But despite their spirited efforts, these warriors encountered a problem…that being: Where shall we locate our igneous ode to Private Quinn?

            “I went to the Park Service first, and then I went to the Town Council, but I was turned down both places,” said “Dixie.” Harpers Ferry Mayor Jim Addy suggested that the monument be “placed on the hill where the engine house stood during the raid” (that is, the “hill” created later by the B&O railroad). This plan was squelched by Park Superintendent Rebecca Harriett, who, in classic bureaucracy-speak, declared that “the monument’s design would not fit in with the planned transformation of the site where Brown’s fort stood and its proposed cultural landscape.” She went on to say that “placing a monument on Federal park property is a very involved process,” and “would also need the permission of the Director of the National Park Service.”

            Poor Ms. Harriett. She is caught in a troublesome pickle. The truth is that the last thing the National Park Service wants at Harpers Ferry is the installation of another memory of John Brown’s raid…particularly one relating to the killing of a United States Marine. And doubly so, in this day and age, when the powers that be seek to conjure up a terrorist on every citizen’s doorstep. It’s enough to give a Park Superintendent a nightmare…a really scary one…consisting of a shimmering image, properly illuminated by a raging thunderstorm, of the monument to Hayward Shepherd.

            We all know Hayward Shepherd, the free black/Harpers Ferry baggageman, who was the tragic first casualty of Brown’s incursion. Back in the 1930s, a monument in his memory was erected on Potomac Street…a mere couple of blocks from Private Quinn. This chunk of gray granite was championed by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Its inscription recognizes Shepherd, “an industrious and respected colored freeman,” who was “mortally wounded by John Brown’s raiders in pursuance of his duties as an employee of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company.”
The monument to Hayward Shepherd
(photo by H. Scott Wolfe)

            It is a memorial to the subservient Negro, whose idyllic life was shattered by the Civil War and the issuance of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Its purpose: “exemplifying the character and faithfulness of thousands of negroes who, under many temptations through subsequent years of war, so conducted themselves that no stain was left upon a record which is the peculiar heritage of the American people.” A “peculiar heritage” all right….as in “peculiar institution.”

            The NAACP launched a protest and W.E.B. DuBois penned an inscription for a “counter-monument:”
Here/John Brown/Aimed at human slavery/A Blow/That woke a guilty nation./With him fought/Seven slaves and sons of slaves/And 4,000,000 freemen/Singing/”John Brown’s body lies a mouldering in the grave/But his Soul goes marching on!/In gratitude this Tablet is erected/The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People/May 21, 1932
            The Hayward Shepherd monument was briefly removed during the 1980s, “during renovations.” But as they say in the movies: “It’s ba-a-a-a-ck!”…and the controversy continues. During the Sesquicentennial of Brown’s Raid in 2009, a press release, issued by The Army of Northern Virginia--Sons of Confederate Veterans, announced that they would hold their annual meeting at “the Block House” (John Brown’s Fort). The purpose of the gathering was “to announce that October 16 will be known as HAYWARD SHEPHERD DAY, honoring the unfortunate black citizen who met his death as John Brown’s first victim 150 years ago…murdered in furtherance of John Brown’s nefarious scheme to capture the arsenal in that famous city.” A “Mr. Richard Hines, a well-known historian from Alexandria, Virginia” was to “discuss the real John Brown.” The release ended by noting that: “Many today try to whitewash Brown’s crimes and call him a martyr. Mr. Hines will discuss Brown’s true motivations…”
Wax recreation of the dying Hayward Shepherd 
at the John Brown Wax Museum 

            Does Park Superintendent Harriett want to replay this record by erecting a memorial to a slain Marine within the bounds of her bailiwick? I think not. It’s enough to give a bureaucrat the heebie-jeebies.

            In my posting which followed last year’s visit to Harpers Ferry, I expressed the personal belief…and received some critical comments thereby…that the National Historic Park at that place seeks to minimize its interpretation of Brown’s raid in favor of a varied array of less controversial topics. In light of the positioning of the monument to Private Quinn, I hold to my original opinion.
The "backwards" John Brown's Fort
(photo by H. Scott Wolfe)

            Really…when you think about it…how is John Brown and “The Raid” represented at Harpers Ferry National Historic Park?  There is the Hayward Shepherd monument. There is the old “John Brown’s Fort” obelisk set atop the railroad embankment. And, of course, there is “The John Brown Story,” the small museum which, like most of its contemporaries, contains a handful of artifacts…along with the ubiquitous video screens and interactive toys deemed essential for the edification of our suburban youth.

            And then there is the peripatetic Engine House itself…reduced in size, having shed several museum cabinets-full of souvenir bricks…its bell residing, since 1892, in Marlborough, Massachusetts…and the entire structure, unbeknownst to most park visitors, inexplicably reconstructed BACKWARDS. After its long, historic journey…from the armory grounds…to Chicago’s Columbian Exposition…to the pasture of the Murphy Farm…to the campus of Storer College…it now unabashedly stands near the Harpers Ferry “Point,” a reversed image of its true self.  The “true John Brown’s Fort” can only be viewed by female visitors…their backs to the building…while adjusting their makeup and peering into their pocket mirrors.

            The backwards Engine House. Now this IS a metaphor…for the interpretation of John Brown at Harpers Ferry… and perhaps for the century-and-a-half of historical and biographical writing since the rope tightened around his neck at Charlestown.

            Sleep well, Superintendent Harriett…Private Quinn is beyond the boundary, awash in “Southern Smoke.”

Note: In regard to the creation of the monument to Private Luke Quinn, I have quoted several items first appearing in the Hagerstown (MD) Herald-Mail. Also, I failed to say that the “Union Burger” was quite tasty.
History Comes Alive: July 4, 2012, the bellicose Col. Wolfe
accomplishes his annual task of firing the Civil War 
cannon in Galena's Grant Park. Huzzah!

* H. Scott Wolfe is the Historical Librarian of the Galena, Illinois, Public Library District and now a regular correspondent and contributor to this blog. He has devoted many years of grassroots research on John Brown, the Harper's Ferry raiders, and related themes.

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