Monday, May 9, 2011
From Brown to Blabber
May 7: If you have heard tell of Harper's Ferry, West Virginia before one man is almost certainly due the credit: John Brown. His raid on the US armory there is considered by many to have been the true first shot of the Civil War, with apologies to my Charleston homies.
If John Brown was alive today he would almost certainly be confined to a straight-jacket. His zealotry in the name of abolition was legendary even before the ill-fated raid. Brown's involvement in the battle over whether Kansas would be a slave state contributed to the period's "Bleeding Kansas" moniker.
Escaped slave Frederick Douglass said of the man, "his zeal in the cause of my race was greater than mine." With only a handful of men Brown decided to take the National Armory at Harper's Ferry and all the weapons within as part of his anti-slavery crusade. What twenty or so men would do with such a mass of armaments was unclear, but the raid was at first successful.
GREAT MOMENTS IN IRONY 1: the only casualty of the initial raid was the death of a black freedman.
The US army sent in a few marines under the command of some Colonel named Robert E. Lee and they quickly took back the facility. After a trial John Brown and his compatriots were executed. Southerners had wanted his head, but their blood lust backfired, resulting in Brown's martyrdom. "John Brown's Body" was part of the Billboard Hot One Hundred mix constantly being over-played by Union DJs during the subsequent conflict.
Of course there is more than just the one shining moment in Harper's Ferry's history. For instance, the city changed hands eight times during the war. Earlier in American history, the armory had provided goodies for the Lewis and Clark expedition, including his much ballyhooed canvass fold-up boats that turned out to be completely useless.
Sitting astride the Potomac and Shenandoah as it does, water helped make the town a transportation hub during the 19th century. Flooding was always a serious issue, however, with devastating deluges in 1889,1924,1936, and 1942 to name just a few. After much of the town had been obliterated about ten times the citizenry wised up and quit building right on the river.
Before another flood rolled in John and I decided to head up the road to Antietam. After spending the morning in Harper's Ferry and with rain scheduled for later in the day we decided the nine miles to the campground near the famous battlefield was sufficient. We have now put Virginia behind us and are walking in Maryland with West Virginia on the opposite shore across the Potomac (we crossed a bridge into Harper's).
The walk was uneventful until I reached Antietam Aqueduct just before our planned campsite. Once there I met a biker whom we will call Maximum Blabberus. After I managed to say I was walking with someone who had done the canal five or six times Maximum took over. He spent ten minutes regaling me with every detail of the C&O and its history, mentioning several times that he had done the entire trail on 48 occasions (on a bike and staying in hotels, not the same thing believe me). Luckily, he was interrupted when John, who was walking behind me, showed up on the scene. Blabberus asked John if he had indeed circuited the canal a few times before. After Swagman answered yes Blabberus launched into a thirty minute monologue directed towards him. I sat behind John on the stonework trying to stifle my urge to chuckle at the man's pomposity.
The Swagman was trapped in the Jupiter-like gravity of Maximum's pie hole as he pontificated upon trips to Katahdin, the Alleghenys, the Upper Peninsula, and the Grand Canyon without even pausing to breathe. Finally feeling sorry for my compatriot, I mentioned our dire need to put up our tents before the rains came. John took the hint and we escaped without further harm.
9 miles/179 total miles