Tag Archives: Harpers Ferry

Repatriating the Civil War

Kevin Levin recently noted the case of three captured Confederate flags that are going to be sent back home to North Carolina.  I think it’s a fine gesture.

Coincidentally, there’s another story about repatriating Civil War artifacts in the news right now.  In 1861, the 13th Massachusetts Volunteers decided to make the most of their time in Harpers Ferry by picking up a souvenir—the bell from the firehouse where John Brown made his last stand.  They passed it along to a Maryland woman, and it remained in her possession until 1892, when some of the veterans from the 13th Massachusetts retrieved it and took it back to their home state.  It’s still there, hanging in a tower in the town of Marlborough.  Now West Virginia real estate broker Howard Swint thinks it belongs back home, and he’s going to court to try to make it happen.

According to the article, “Swint thinks the bell is a national treasure that should be returned to Harpers Ferry where visitors can see it.”  Fair enough.  It’s certainly a part of Harpers Ferry’s history.  The National Park Service manages Harpers Ferry’s historic sites, and an exhibit featuring the bell and the story of its journey from West Virginia to Massachusetts and back would give the NPS a pretty neat opportunity to teach visitors about the way the Civil War has been remembered down through the years.

Still, the bell has been in Marlborough for so long that it’s become a part of that town’s history, too.  Like all artifacts, the bell has acquired its particular importance from the events that have happened to it.  Artifacts, I think, are subject to Lamarckian biology; the events they undergo become permanently wired into their DNA.  That, after all, is why we cherish some objects above others.

Some of the comments left on the web article indicated that Swint has stirred up controversy before, so I Googled him and came up with an editorial written by someone with that name just a few months ago, arguing for the removal of a Stonewall Jackson monument on the grounds of the West Virginia capitol.  In this piece, Swint (assuming, of course, it’s the same Howard Swint of West Virginia) claims that a Confederate monument at the capitol is inappropriate, given all the Confederacy’s unsavory aspects.

Here, too, I think it’s easy to oversimplify matters.  I tend to be dismissive of efforts to put up new monuments, but when it comes to the ones that have been around for a century or more, my preservationist instincts kick in.  Yes, slavery and racism are inextricably intertwined with the history of the Confederacy, and yes, Confederate symbols continued to be employed for racist purposes well into modern times.  But there comes a point at which things like old monuments or works of art are artifacts in themselves.  They tell us something about the way we used to be (or wanted to be, or wanted to think we were), so I say leave them be.

Just as the bell’s long stay in Massachusetts has become an intrinsic part of its history, so the idealized legacy of the most famous West Virginian to fight in the war has become an intrinsic part of the state’s history.  Tearing down an old monument seems sort of like getting a tattoo of your ex-wife’s name removed—you won’t have to look at it anymore, but all the baggage goes a lot deeper than the ink in your skin, so you might as well acknowledge it and try to develop some perspective and become better for it.

As for the bell, I don’t know how I’d make that call.  Since it’s not my call to make, I guess that doesn’t matter.



Filed under Civil War, History and Memory

Night of the Wax Abolitionists

To celebrate Halloween, I direct your attention to the creepiest historical attraction in the known world—the John Brown Wax Museum in Harpers Ferry.

My first visit was at the age of seven or eight, when my family stopped at the Ferry on a trip to Maryland and D.C.  This was well before I had any real interest in history, so most of what I saw on that trip went far over my head.  At the National Museum of American History, the one item that impressed me the most was an original Kermit the Frog puppet, if that tells you anything.  In fact, for years afterward, I remembered hardly anything from Harpers Ferry.

But the John Brown Wax Museum made an impression.  Oh, yes indeed. 

It scared the living hock out of me.

It was in one of the town’s older buildings.  The exhibits consisted of a series of tableaux with life-size sets and wax figures set up behind glass windows, each scene depicting an episode from Brown’s life.  So basically I had to wander around a series of dark corridors populated by wax dummies wielding guns and pikes, posed in various states of distress with anguished expressions on their faces.

To make matters even worse, some of the scenes had switches that made the figures move.  One scene showed the mortal wounding of Hayward Shepherd, the black railroad employee killed in the raid; Shepherd was lying on the floor of the set, wearing a bright red shirt.  A push of a button made his torso heave to simulate heavy breathing.  In and out, in and out, in and out.  By the time we got to the last scene, which depicted Brown at the gallows (nothing like a public execution to wrap up an educational museum visit), I had my hands over my face, with just a few fingers cracked to enable me to see where I was going.

Then it was off to Antietam, where I was treated to stories of corpses lying in rows and creeks running red with gore.  I slept with the light on for about two decades after that.

Summer before last, I went back to Antietam and Harpers Ferry with my mom.  It was my first time setting foot in either place since that original horror-laden vacation.  I was shocked that I remembered so little from the first trip.  Both Harpers and Antietam are stunningly beautiful, two of the most picturesque, well-preserved, and professionally-interpreted parks in the whole NPS system.

And the John Brown Wax Museum was still in operation after all those years.  The admission was a little steep, but Mom and I went in anyway, for old time’s sake.


Filed under Civil War, Museums and Historic Sites

Secession on display in the Tar Heel State

Here’s an item I just received from the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources:

RALEIGH – For North Carolina, the Civil War officially began in the State Capitol. On May 20, 1861, delegates from across the state adopted the Ordinance of Secession in the House of Commons, officially withdrawing the state from the Union. This event followed months of tense debate between Unionists and Secessionists, slavery advocates and abolitionists.

 A new exhibit, Crisis at the Capitol: North Carolina on the Eve of War, explores what the State Capitol was like on the eve of the conflict and introduces visitors to many of the individuals working and living here in a time before secession and before the war. The exhibit opens Sept. 17 and will remain on display through May 13, 2011. Admission is free.

 The exhibit is based on documents left behind by 11 different people, each with a different perspective on the impending crisis. Visitors will learn the stories of John Copeland, a Raleigh native who participated in John Brown’s infamous raid on Harpers Ferry, Va.; Harriet Jacobs, once enslaved in Edenton, who escaped and became active in the abolition movement; and John Thomas Jones, a student at the University of North Carolina who supported secession and enlisted in the army despite of his father’s Unionist views. The viewpoints of President Abraham Lincoln, N.C. Governor John Ellis, and famed abolitionist author and Mocksville native Hinton Rowan Helper are also highlighted.

 The State Capitol’s mission is to preserve and interpret the history, architecture and functions of the 1840 building and Union Square. The State Capitol is at One Edenton Street, Raleigh, NC 27601. Visit www.nchistoricsites.org/capitol/default.htm or call (919) 733-4994 for more information.

Administered by the Division of State Historic Sites, the State Capitol is part of the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources, the state agency with the mission to enrich lives and communities, and the vision to harness the state’s cultural resources to build North Carolina’s social, cultural and economic future. Information is available 24/7 at http://www.ncdcr.gov/.

Looks pretty nifty!

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Filed under Civil War, Museums and Historic Sites