Harper's Ferry & Charles Town: A Post-War Ruin, 1865 

By John Townsend Trowbridge (1827-1916)


John Trowbridge was born the son of a farmer in 1827. Besides starting as editor of “The Nation” in 1850 in Boston, he became widely known writing under the nom de plume of “Paul Creyton” about tales and life of New England.  Also an original contributor to “Atlantic Monthly,” he wrote several books and John Burroughs said of him: “He knows the heart of a boy and the heart of a man, and has laid them both open in his books.”


The following self-explanatory account is taken from Trowbridge’s “The South: A Tour of its Battlefields and Ruined Cities: A Journey Through the Desolated States and Talks With the People, Being a Description of the Present State of the Country, Its Agriculture, Its Railroads, Business, and Finance,” Hartford, CT, L. Stebbins, 1866.


(Arriving from Boonsborough, MD, Trowbridge takes a room at Harper’s Ferry, WV. - ED)



(p. 62) “. . . There was no paper on the walls, no carpet on the rough board floor, and not so much as a nail to hang a hat on.  The bed was furnished with sheets which came down just below a man's knees and a mattress which had the appearance of being stiffed with shingles.  Finding it impossible by dint of shouting and pounding, for there was no bell or even by visiting the office to bring a servant to my assistance . . . luckily, I had a shawl with me.  Never, - let me caution thee, O fellow traveler, - never set out on a long journey without a good stout shawl . . .”


“Yet no device availed to render the Shenandoah House a place favorable to sleep . . . How often during the night the train passed I cannot compute; each approaching and departing with clatter and clang, and shouts of men and bell ringing and sudden glares of light, and the voices of the steam-whistle projecting its shrill shriek into the ear of horrified night, setting the giant mountains to tossing and re-tossing the echo like a ball . . .”


“The next morning I was up at dawn refreshing my eyesight with the natural beauties of the place. It was hard to believe that those beauties had been lying around me during all the long, wearisome night . . .”


(p. 66) “I count that lonely walk (under Loudon Heights) amid the cool, dewy scents stealing out of the undergrowth and the colors of the evening sky gilding the cliffs, as one of the pleasantest of my life.  What is there as you look at those soaring summits and the low clouds sailing silently over them that fills the heart so full?  But the town is reverse of agreeable.  It is said to have been a pleasant and picturesque place formerly.  The war has changed all.  Freshets tear down the center of streets and the dreary hillsides present only ragged growths of weeds.  The town itself lies half in ruins.  Of the bridge across the Shenandoah only the ruined piers are left, still less remains of the old bridge over the Potomac.  And all about the town are rubbish, and filth and stench.  Almost alone of the government buildings John Brown’s engine house has escaped destruction . . .”


(p. 67)  “. . . a genial old gentleman accosted me. ‘So they took the old man and hung him and all the time the men that did it were plotting treason and murder by the wholesale.  They did it in a hurry because if they delayed they wouldn’t have been able to hang at all.  A strong current of public feeling was turning in his favor.  Such a sacrifice of himself set many to thinking on the subject who never thought before; many who had acknowledged in their hearts that slavery was wrong and that old John Brown was right.  I speak what I know, for I was here at the time.  I have lived in Harper’s Ferry fifteen years.  I was born and bred in a slave State but I never let my love of the institution blind me to everything else.  Slavery has been the curse of this country and she is now beginning to bless the days she was delivered from it. ”


“I was interested in the conversation of an intelligent colored man waiter at the hotel. He had formerly been held (p. 68) as a slave in Staunton.  ‘There wasn't much chance for me up there.(“up there” refers to coming from “up the Valley”- ED)  Beside I came near losin’ my life before I got away.  You see, the masters soon as they found out they couldn't keep their slaves, began to treat them about as bad as could be.  Then, because I made use of this remark that I didn't think we colored folk might to be blamed for what wasn't our fault for we didn’t make the war, and neither did we make ourselves free - just because I said that, not in a saucy way, but as I say it to you now - one man put a pistol to my head and was going to shoot me.  I got away from him and left. A great many came away at the same time, for it wasn’t possible for us to stay there.’


“‘Now tell me candidly,’ said I, ‘how the colored people themselves behaved.’

‘Well, just tolerable. They were like a bird let out of a cage. You know how a bird that has been long in a cage will act when the door is opened; he makes a curious fluttering for a little while.  It was just so with the colored people. They didn’t know at first what to do with themselves.  But they got sobered pretty soon, and they are behaving very decent now. . . ’ ”


A Trip to Charles Town


(p. 69) “One morning I took the train up the Valley to Charles Town, distant from Harper's Ferry eight miles.


“The railroad was still in the hands of the government.  There were military guards on the platforms, and about an equal mixture of Loyalists and Rebels within the cars.  Furloughed soldiers, returning to their regiments at Winchester or Staunton, occupied seats with Confederate officers just out of their uniforms.  The strong, dark, defiant self-satisfied face typical of the second-rate ‘chivalry’ and the good-natured, shrewd inquisitive physiognomy of the Yankee speculator going to look at Southern lands, were to be seen side-by-side in curious contrast.  There also rode the well-dressed wealthy planter, who had been to Washington to solicit pardon for his treasonable acts, and the humble freedman returning to the home from which he had been driven by violence, when the war closed and left him free.  Mothers and daughters of the first families of Virginia sat serene and uncomplaining in the atmosphere of mothers and daughters of the despised races late their slaves or their neighbors, but now citizens like themselves, free to go and come and as clearly entitled to places in the government train as the proudest dames of the land.


“We passed through a region of country stamped all over by the devastating heel of war.  For miles not a fence or cultivated field was visible.  ‘It is just like this all the way up the Shenandoah Valley,’ said a gentleman at my side, a Union man from Winchester. ‘The wealthiest people with us are now the poorest.  With hundreds of acres they can't raise a dollar. Their slaves have (p. 70) left them and they have no money, even if they have the disposition to hire the freed people.’


“I suggested that farms, under such circumstances should be for sale at low rates.  ‘They should be, but your Southern aristocrat is a monomaniac on the subject of owning land.  He will part with his acres about as willingly as he will part with his life. If the Valley had not been the best part of Virginia, it would long ago have been spoiled by the ruinous system of agriculture in use here.  Instead of tilling thoroughly a small farm, a man fancies he is doing a wise thing by half-tilling a large one.  Slave labor is always slovenly and unproductive.  But everything is being revolutionized now.  Northern men and northern methods are coming into this Valley as sure as water runs downhill.  It is the greatest corn, wheat and grass country in the world.  The only objection is that in spots the limestone crops out a good deal.  There was scarcely anything raised this season except grass; you could see hundreds of acres of that, waving breast-high without a fence.’ 


“At the end of a long hour's ride, we arrived at Charles Town, chiefly of interest to me as the place of John Brown's martyrdom.  We alighted from the train on the edge of boundless unfenced fields, into whose melancholy solitudes the desolate streets emptied themselves - rivers to that ocean of weeds. The town resembled to my eye some unprotected female sitting, sorrowful on the wayside, in tattered and faded apparel, with unkempt tresses fallen negligently about features which might once have been attractive.”


“On the steps of a boarding house I found an acquaintance whose countenance gleamed with pleasure ‘at sight,’ as he said, ‘of a single loyal face in that nest of secession.’ He had been two or three days in the place waiting for luggage which had been miscarried.


“‘They are all Rebels here - all rebels!’ he exclaimed as he took his cane and walked with me.  ‘They are a pitiable poverty-stricken set, there is no money in the place, and scarcely anything to eat.  We have for breakfast salt-fish, (p.71) fried potatoes and treason.  Fried potatoes, treason, and salt-fish for dinner. At supper, the fare is slightly varied, and we have treason, salt-fish potatoes, and a little more treason.  My landlady' s daughter is Southern fire incarnate; and she illustrates Southern politeness by abusing Northern people and the government from morning ‘till night, for my especial edification.  Sometimes I venture to answer her, when she flies at me, figuratively speaking, like a cat.  The women are not the only out-spoken Rebels, although they are the worst.  The men don’t hesitate to declare their sentiments, in season and out of season.’ 


“My friend concluded with this figure: ‘The war feeling here is like a burning bush with a wet blanket wrapped around it.  Looked at from the outside, the fire seems quenched.  But just peep under the blanket and there it is, all alive and eating, eating in.  The wet blanket is the present government policy; and every act of conciliation shown the Rebels is just letting in so much air to feed the fire.’ 


“A short walk up into the centre of the town took us to the scene of John Brown's trial.  It was a consolation to see that the jail had been laid in ashes, and that the court-house, where the mockery of justice was performed, was a ruin abandoned to rats and toads.  Four mossy white brick pillars, still standing, supported a riddled roof, through which God’s blue sky and gracious sunshine smiled.  The main portion of the building had been literally torn to pieces.  In the floorless hall of justice, rank weeds were growing.  Names of Union soldiers were scrawled along the wall.  No torch had been applied to the wood-work, but the work of destruction had been performed by the hands of hilarious soldier-boys ripping up floors and pulling down laths and joists to the tune of ‘John Brown’ - the swelling melody of the song and the accompaniment of crashing partitions, reminding the citizens who thought to have destroyed the old hero, that his soul was marching on.”


“It was also a consolation to know that the court-house and the jail would probably never be rebuilt, the county seat having been removed from Charles Town to Shepherdstown" -  (p. 72) ‘forever' say the resolute loyal citizens of Jefferson County, who refuse to vote it back again.


“As we were taking comfort, reflecting how unexpectedly at last justice had been done at that court-house, the townspeople passed on the sidewalk, ‘daughters and sons of beauty,’ for they were mostly a fine-looking, spirited class; one of whom, at a question which I put to him, stopped quite willingly and talked with us.  I have seldom seen a handsome young face, a steadier eye, or more decided pose and aplomb, neither have I ever seen the outward garment of courtesy so plumply filled out with the spirit of arrogance.  His brief replies spoken with a pleasant countenance, yet with short, sharp downward inflections, were like pistol shots. Very evidently the death of John Brown, and the war that came swooping down the old man's path to avenge him, and to accomplish the work wherein he failed, were not pleasing subjects to this young southern blood. And no wonder.  His coat had an empty sleeve.  The arm which should have been there had been lost fighting against his country.  His almost savage answers did not move me; but all the while I looked with compassion at his fine young face, and that pendant idle sleeve.  He had fought against his country; his country had won; and he was of those who had lost, not arms and legs only, but all they had been madly fighting for, and more, - prosperity, prestige and power.  His beautiful South was devastated, and her soil drenched with the best blood of her young men.  Whether regarded as a crime or a virtue, the folly of making war upon the mighty North was now demonstrated, and the despised Yankees had proved conquerors of the chivalry of the South.  ‘Well may your thoughts be bitter,’ my heart said, as I thanked him for his information.


“To my surprise he seemed mollified, his answers losing their explosive quality and sharp downward inflection.  He even seemed inclined to continue the conversation and as we passed we left him on the sidewalk looking after us wistfully, as if the spirit working within him had still no word to say different from any he had yet spoken. What his (p. 73) secret thoughts were, standing there with his dangling sleeve, it would be interesting to know.


“Walking through town we came to other barren and open fields on the further side.  Here we engaged a bright young colored girl to guide us to the spot where John Brown's gallows stood.  She led us into the wilderness of weeds waist-high to her as she tramped on, parting them before her with her hands.  The country all around us lay utterly desolate without enclosures, and without cultivation.  We seemed to be striking out into the rolling prairies of the West, except that these fields of ripening and fading weeds had not the summer freshness of the prairie-grass.  A few scattering groves skirted them; and here and there a fenceless road drew its winding, dusty line away over the arid hills.  ‘This is about where it was, ’ said the girl, after searching some time among the tall weeds.  ‘Nobody knows now just where the gallows stood.  There was a tree here, but that has been cut down and carried away, stump and roots and all, by folks that wanted something to remember John Brown by.  Every soldier took a piece of it, if it was only a little chip.’  So widely and deeply had the dying old hero impressed his spirit upon his countrymen; affording the last great illustration of the power of Truth to render even the gallows venerable, and to glorify an ignominious death. 


“I stood on the spot the girl pointed out to us, amid the gracefully drooping golden rods, and looked at the same sky old John Brown looked his last upon, and the same groves and the distant Blue Ridge, the sight of whose cerulean summits, clad in Sabbath tranquility and softest heavenly light, must have conveyed a sweet assurance to his soul. 


“Then I turned and looked at the town, out of which flocked the curious crowds to witness his death.  Over the heads of the spectators, over the heads of soldiery surrounding him, his eye ranged until arrested by one strangely prominent object.  There it still stands on the outskirts of the town, between it and the fields - a church (Zion Episcopal Church - ED) pointing its silent finger to heaven and recalling to the earnest heart those texts of Scripture from (p. 74) which John Brown drew his inspiration and for the truth of which he willingly gave his life. 


“I had the curiosity to stop at this church on our way back to the town.  The hand of ruin had smitten it.  Only the brick walls and zinc-covered spire remained uninjured.  The belfry had been broken open, the windows demolished.  The doors were gone.  Within, you saw a hollow thing, symbolical.  Two huge naked beams extended from end-to-end of the empty walls which were scribbled over with soldiers' names, and with patriotic mottoes interesting for proud Virginians to read.  The floors had been torn up and consumed in cooking soldiers’ rations, and the foul and trampled interior showed plainly what use it had served.  The church, which overlooked John's Brown's martyrdom, and under whose roof his executioners assembled afterwards to worship, not the God of the poor and the oppressed, but the god of the slaveholder and the aristocrat had been converted into a stable.”