Tidying Up the Past
A history tour at Harper’s Ferry suggests that “commemoration” and “desecration” might be two sides of the same coin.
[Editor’s Note: Over the course of 2022 and 2023, New American History Executive Director Ed Ayers is visiting places where significant history happened, and exploring what has happened to that history since. He is focusing on the decades between 1800 and 1860, filing dispatches about the stories being told at sites both famous and forgotten. This is the sixth installment in the series.]
For the next leg of our journey, Abby and I set out to explore historical sites in New York and Massachusetts. It had been a while since Bertha, our RV, had been on the road.
The delay had come while I worked to finish a draft of the book that inspired this journey. The shape of that book continually changed as I learned more about the early 19th century, and as I struggled to weave disparate elements into a coherent form. On the morning we left, I sent the latest version of the manuscript to my editor. It was humbling to see the labor of years compressed to an attachment of 522.6 KB. Navigating narrow roads, locating parking for a 25-foot vehicle, and setting up camp each night proved helpful distractions as I waited for my editor’s suggestions.
We had learned some things about RV life on our previous trips, but we were not prepared for what we discovered before we left home this time. Mice had found our rolls of paper towels, and had used the luxurious material to build lovely, fluffy white nests in an astonishing array of cozy places. We launched a cleaning campaign, and Abby searched the internet for strategies to rid Bertha of her unwelcome inhabitants. It turned out that mice hate the smell of Irish Spring soap, pieces of which we placed in every drawer and cabinet. We never saw nor caught any mice, but when we turned on the air conditioning our first evening, white flakes blew over everything from nests the mice had built in the ducts. A small vacuum cleaned up the mess, but the snowstorm repeated itself each evening in diminishing amounts until we turned on the heat in the mountains, when another squall descended on us.
Our journey north would take us from Niagara Falls east to Concord, Massachusetts. In the nation’s early years, an astonishing array of religious and reform movements took shape there, including abolitionism, the women’s rights movement, Mormonism, and spiritualism. Defining works of American culture emerged in that region as well, from the painting of Thomas Cole to Moby-Dick, and from the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass to Walden. It was a lot to see.
Niagara Falls lies almost exactly north of Charlottesville, but no interstate would take us there. Instead, we would wend our way through the mountains of Virginia, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania, stopping first in Harpers Ferry, a place I had written about near the end of my book. I had been there before and knew the site of John Brown’s 1859 raid to be a powerful place. I was eager for Abby to see the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, and the small building where Brown had been captured. We had enjoyed the television production of The Good Lord Bird, in which Ethan Hawke had played Brown. I had read the prize-winning novel that inspired the series, told from the perspective of a young Black boy disguised as a girl who found himself swept up in Brown’s crusade against slavery. I had also written about the meeting between Brown and Frederick Douglass in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.
As we were in the habit of doing at National Park Service sites, we joined an official tour led by a park historian. And, as always, we were impressed by the skill of guides who must read an audience and respond in real time. As we sat on benches facing the junction of the rivers, hearing the story of the site’s evolution, I was embarrassed to find myself distracted by the faint traces of a faded sign painted on the facing mountainside. It was obvious that the sign was not from the years of the new nation, and so I should have ignored it. But I could not.
I was perversely relieved when the ranger, finishing his interesting account of the roles of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Meriwether Lewis at the armory of Harpers Ferry, asked what we thought might be the most frequent question he heard each day. The answer was “What does that sign over there say?” He wondered if we could make out any of the words and I, always the kid eager to put his hand up, suggested that the last word appeared to be “powder.” To my unquenchable satisfaction, I was right. Others then attempted to piece together other words, guessing that perhaps the sign, reflecting the armory’s long history, might be “rifle” or “black” powder. That proved incorrect, for in fact the sign told passengers on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, preparing to pass into a tunnel, that they should purchase “Mennen’s Borated Talcum Toilet Powder.” The sign had been painted early in the 20th century, with no concern for the gravity of the events across the river.
The site had also been violated in other ways. After we walked the short distance to the small brick building where Brown had fought, been wounded, and then captured, the park historian recounted the story of that event with suitable drama. At the end of his presentation, he revealed that the evocative building beside us had not originally been located there. In fact, it had been dismantled, brick by brick, to be reconstructed off the main grounds of the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, where only 11 visitors reportedly discovered it. The investors in that failed enterprise then sold the bricks to Kate Field, a journalist in Washington who launched a campaign to return the building to Harpers Ferry. The B&O carried the materials to a nearby site free of charge, where it was reconstructed in a field overlooking the Shenandoah River. From there, Storer College purchased the building to move to its Harpers Ferry campus, where the historically Black institution used the building for a museum. Finally, in 1968, the National Park Service moved the building to its current site, 150 yards from where it stood in 1859.
None of the visitors seemed disappointed or concerned by the building’s broken history. Indeed, the story attested to the way shared memory always works as a project of recovery, reconstruction, and reinterpretation. The intrusive Mennen sign testified to the relentless flow of time, as did the colorful padlocks attached to the bridge across the Potomac, symbolizing the love of people who fastened their devotion to something that seemed permanent.
John Brown’s raid itself had been a product of modern times. Despite the Old Testament appearance of the man with the long white beard, Brown had decided to assault Harpers Ferry because of the 15,000 state-of-the-art guns made there by innovative machinery that pioneered the invention of interchangeable parts. His plans had been betrayed by the same trappings of modernity, as the telegraph instantly carried news of the raid, and as the rail cars of the B&O rushed Robert E. Lee and J. E. B. Stuart of the U.S. Army to the site. Brown’s failure became a triumph as news of his capture, trial, speeches, and hanging spread across the nation in illustrated newspapers.
The struggle at Harpers Ferry continued into the 20th century, when white southerners erected a monument in honor of Heyward Shepherd, a free Black man killed in John Brown’s raid, as a symbol of “the character and faithfulness of thousands of Negroes who, under many temptations throughout subsequent years of war, so conducted themselves that no stain was left upon a record which is the peculiar heritage of the American people, and an everlasting tribute to the best in both races.” Upon the monument’s 1931 dedication by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, however, a Black woman, Pearl Tatten from Storer College, protested that she was the daughter of a Union soldier who “fought for the freedom of my people, for which John Brown struck the first blow.” The National Park Service now posts Patten’s image and words next to the monument as a rebuke and correction.
Harpers Ferry presaged a pattern that Abby and I would find wherever we visited: the past is perpetually under construction, reconstruction, and revision. Historical sites embody their own history as well as the history they portray. Each place reveals the alterations, intentional and otherwise, that history brings. Some of the alterations must count as sheer loss, even desecration; other alterations come as restoration, recreating what once existed; and other alterations speak to new generations in ways that landscapes and walls alone cannot. That is a reason for gratitude, not regret.
This is the sixth installment in Discovery of America: A Journal, a travelogue documenting my visits to public history sites around the country. Read the rest of the series here.