Harpers Ferry raid had lasting ‘Charlestown’ impact

When people think of the John Brown Raid in October 1859, they think of Harpers Ferry and the attack and capture of the federal arsenal. Yet much more occurred in nearby Charlestown in the aftermath of the raid.

The siege at the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry began around 10 p.m. on Oct. 16 and ended with Brown’s capture in the early hours of Oct. 18. However, the citizens of Charlestown — it wasn’t Charles Town until the early 1900s — contended with the topic of this fiery abolitionist from the day the prisoners arrived until March 16 of the following year, when the last raiders were executed — almost five months.

John Brown is shown at his trial in the Jefferson County Courthouse in this 19th-century illustration.

Neither Harpers Ferry nor Charlestown, small communities that they were in rural Virginia, were ready for the implications of Brown’s raid. And neither town has even been quite the same since. Even now, more than 150 years later, the events of the day are historically significant, not just in the region, but in the nation.

Frederick Douglass, in a speech at Storer College on May 30, 1881, said it was at Harpers Ferry where the War Between the States began.

“If we look at the dates, places and men for which this honor is claimed, that not Carolina, but Virginia — not Fort Sumter, but Harpers Ferry – not Colonel Anderson, but John Brown began the war that ended American slavery,” he said.

The Episcopalian Reading Room at the northeast corner of Liberty and Lawrence streets is a private residence today,
but during the trial of abolitionist John Brown, the building was the site of Shakespearean readings by John Wilkes
Booth, who came to Charlestown to witness Brown’s trial.

Douglass might also have added Charlestown, Virginia, for many of the key moments in the John Brown story took place not in Harpers Ferry but in Charlestown.

It was in Charlestown at the Jefferson County Courthouse where John Brown and his men — John Cook, Edwin Coppic, Shields Green, John Copeland, Albert Hazlett, and Aaron Stephens — were all tried. They were all held in the jail, which was located where the U.S. Post Office stands today. And they were all hanged at a site on South Samuel Street in Charlestown.

More than 1,000 soldiers patrolled the streets of Charlestown throughout these trials and executions. There were more soldiers in Charlestown during this time than had assembled in the Commonwealth of Virginia since the surrender of British General Cornwallis at Yorktown. The soldiers stopped anyone who was on the streets and asked for identification and proof they belonged here.

Because officials feared that men were on their way to try to free Brown, martial law was invoked several times during his captivity with soldiers stationed here from the Virginia Military Academy, Martinsburg, Charlestown, Shepherdstown, Richmond, Petersburg, Winchester, Hampton and Frederick, Md.

Men from Charlestown also sat as jurors during the trials, which were argued by Charlestown attorneys. Charlestown residents endured weeks of subsisting on less food than normal as the town struggled to feed all its temporary visitors. Citizens such as Mr. and Mrs. Robert Brown, Mrs. Keyes and Sallie Brown opened their homes to soldiers.

Soldiers also slept in the Charlestown Presbyterian Church and the Zion Episcopal Church and at warehouses. Some soldiers camped at the west end of town.

National and world newspapers covered the news from Charlestown, while out-of-towners tried to get into the trial and get a close up look at the notorious and infamous abolitionist. Among these visitors were Thomas J. Jackson, then an instructor at the Virginia Military Institute, and John Wilkes Booth, a little known Shakespearean actor who had been performing at a theater in Richmond.

Jackson, who would become as Gen. “Stonewall” Jackson one of the Confederacy’s most beloved military leaders, was sent with his artillery battery and cannons to guard Brown and his men. The 84 VMI cadets —21 of whom were under Jackson’s command — stood out from among the other soldiers with their red flannel shirts and gray pants.

Booth, who had been known during that time as J. B. Wilkes to keep critics from comparing his acting to his father’s, was not a member of the Richmond Grays, but bought parts of uniforms — he made about $30,000 in 1859 when the average worker made less than $1,000 a year — and climbed on board the train to ride with them to Charlestown. He had promised his mother that he would not enlist to be a soldier. Booth was not required to stand sentry duty as a soldiers of the Richmond Grays. Instead, he spent evenings doing Shakespearean readings for audiences in the Episcopalian Reading Room at the northeast corner of Liberty and Lawrence Streets in Charlestown.

Brown, who had been found guilty of treason, inciting slaves to rebel, and murder, was hanged on Dec. 2, 1859. Martial law prohibited almost everyone except the soldiers from viewing the hanging.

Government officials did allow observers to view the Dec. 16 hangings of Cook and Coppic and blacks Green and Copeland — both of whom had been cleared of the charges of treason because they were not U.S. citizens but were hanged anyway. Spectators were also allowed to witness the March 16, 1860 hangings of Hazlett and Stephens.

In attendance at Brown’s execution was both Jackson and Booth, as well as future Confederate officers, Jubal Early, John B. McCausland, along with Edwin Ruffin, who is believed to have fired the first shot at Fort Sumter, and John Thomas Gibson, who was from VMI and commanded 800 soldiers in Charlestown. Gibson later returned to Charlestown to build the house that stands on the grounds where the execution took place.

According to state records, the five-month occupation of Charlestown by militia cost Virginia $287,459.10 in wages and equipment.

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