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WVU Libraries Mark 150th Anniversary of Harpers Ferry Raid

Posted by Monte Maxwell.
October 12th, 2009

An exhibit in the West Virginia and Regional History Collection, in Wise Library, marks the 150th anniversary of John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry.

On Oct. 16, 1859, the abolitionist and a small band of loyal followers seized control of the Harpers Ferry Armory in a plot to build an army to overthrow the South and free the slaves. Although his plan failed, the incident ignited a debate about slavery that spread across the nation and divided the country.

john brown
John Brown on Trial, sketched by David Hunter Strother

“John Brown’s Raid is one of the most poignant events in American history,” said John Cuthbert, curator of the West Virginia and Regional History Collection. “Perhaps more than any other single act, it led to the outbreak of the Civil War. John Brown has been cited as the person who contributed more than any other to the start of the Civil War.”

The exhibit contains original sketches and eyewitness accounts by David Hunter Strother, a popular artist and writer of the day. A member of the local aristocracy, Strother had unique access to Brown throughout the ordeal. Arriving in Harpers Ferry within 36 hours of the raid, he gained close contact with Brown and some of his co-conspirators.

Strother saw them lying wounded on the floor of a makeshift jail, before they received medical attention. And, even before authorities had the chance to extensively question Brown, Strother talked with him about his failed plot. He made many sketches of Brown and his men at that time and then later during Brown’s trial and execution.

“David Hunter Strother was a gifted writer and artist,” Cuthbert said. “If you wanted to find one person to document what happened there, I don’t think you could find a better person than Strother.”

A traveling version of the exhibit is currently on view at the Jefferson County Museum in Charles Town.

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