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Retracing John Brown’s incendiary footsteps

As many as 300 people will follow the footsteps of John Brown, 150 years after the radical abolitionist launched the raid that kindled the Civil War.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Just as cold, damp weather couldn't quench John Brown's incendiary fervor, it didn't discourage those determined to follow the radical abolitionist's footsteps Friday, 150 years after he launched the raid that kindled the Civil War.

As many as 300 people, some in period attire, planned to march nearly five miles from a well-preserved log farmhouse along dark rural roads and across the Potomac River to Harpers Ferry National Historical Park in West Virginia.

The event led by park chief historian Dennis Frye kicks off the Civil War sesquicentennial. Historians cite the failed attempt by Brown and 18 fervent followers to seize weapons from the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry as the opening salvo in the War Between the States because it incited strong passions, especially in the South.

The war was fought from 1861 to 1865.

Friday's rain and unseasonable chill — temperatures in the low 40s were forecast — delighted Frye, because the conditions mirrored those Brown and his raiders faced when they set out from the Kennedy farmhouse near Dargan that Sunday night in 1859.

"It adds a sense of reality and also a sense of misery to the event — and a sense of foreboding of the unknown," Frye said.

'Reverent and soulful'
Frye, dressed as one of Brown's raiders and carrying a lantern, planned the procession as a "reverent and soulful experience."

"These men are about to go to war," he said. "Most of them will end up dead or captured in less than 48 hours."

Brown's crew quietly seized the arsenal by midnight. But the situation soon became a standoff when local militia and townsfolk sealed escape routes, killed some of the raiders and surrounded the armory. Marines dispatched from Washington finally broke in and captured the wounded Brown, who was hanged six weeks later.