The Forgotten Mass Grave at Harpers Ferry; A Strange Trip for Eight Raiders

Three feet down, the men struck something: a pine box. Waterlogged and rotting, yes, but a pine box nonetheless–exactly what they’d come looking for. They pried off the lid. A man’s spine was stuck to it. They closed the coffin, refilled the hole, placed a couple crude headstones, knowing all the while there’d soon be another raid on Harpers Ferry.

The year was 1896, thirty-seven years after John Brown’s disastrous attack on the federal armory there, a failed attempt to incite an apocalyptic slave rebellion. Dr. Thomas Featherstonhaugh was a U.S. government employee (his sixteen-letter last name no doubt the bane of bureaucratic bookkeepers) as well as a scholar, collector and admirer of all things John Brown. He had long believed that the eight men buried in two shallow graves on the east bank of the Shenandoah River deserved more than they got. He was determined to make that happen.

Featherstonhaugh had traveled to Harpers Ferry from his home in Washington D.C. many times, looking for these unmarked graves, but had always come up empty-handed. Just when he thought they would never be found, a local old-timer led him to two small depressions at water’s edge, a half mile upstream from the Shenandoah River bridge, opposite the pulp mill. Featherstonhaugh confirmed they contained the remains of Brown’s foot soldiers, and set in motion a gutsy plan to give the men a proper burial once and for all. Regrettably, the location and circumstances of this clandestine raid on Harpers Ferry are little remembered now.

Harpers Ferry 2     Harpers Ferry 4

L: Ruins of the Shenandoah Pulp Factory; R: East bank across from the pulp mill

At Harpers Ferry National Historical Park

I ran across an article by University of North Dakota history professor Dr. Gordon Iseminger titled “The Second Raid On Harpers Ferry, July 29, 1899: The Other Bodies That Lay A’Mouldering In Their Graves,” which appeared in the Spring 2004 issue of the journal Pennsylvania History. In it Professor Iseminger gives a good account of this daring exhumation.

“Many people have heard of the first raid and are aware of its significance in our nation’s history,” writes Professor Iseminger. “Few people have heard about the second raid on Harpers Ferry. Nor do many know why the raid was carried out and why it, too, reflects significantly on American history.”

The remains Featherstonhaugh sought out were those of eight (although Featherstonhaugh at the time incorrectly believed it to be seven) of Brown’s followers killed in action during the October 1859 attack on the town. Seven others, including Brown himself, were captured and hanged. Five men escaped. Winchester Medical College claimed two more of the dead for dissection and study.

But the men Featherstonhaugh was concerned with met their end in the thick of things, some in horrid ways, thanks to the palpable lust for blood among the townsfolk and militiamen who showed up to crush Brown’s doomed uprising.

“…[T]he atmosphere around Brown’s position in the armory…grew ugly and anarchic,” describes Tony Horwitz in Midnight Rising; John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War. “During the course of the day, armed men had continued flowing into Harpers Ferry, most of them aligned with no organized unit but ‘fighting on my own hook,’ as one man put it. Many fortified themselves at the Gault House and other bars in and around the Point.”

The results were gruesome. Brown follower and former slave Dangerfield Newby, for instance, was nearly decapitated by a spike-turned-musket ball. His corpse was allowed to languish in the street. Hogs rooted the disfigured and bloody remains. People kicked and beat the body. A relic hunter cut off parts of his ear to take as a souvenir. Nine other men shared Newby’s fate and seven of them–Oliver Brown (John Brown’s son), John Henry Kagi, Lewis Leary, William Leeman, Stewart Taylor, Dauphin Thompson and William Thompson–went to the grave with him.

The end of Brown’s raid presented a dilemma for local officials about what to do with the dead men they had on hand. They settled on an unmarked, out-of-the-way grave and paid two local men to dispose of the corpses on a remote stretch of the Shenandoah riverbank opposite town. The impromptu undertakers bundled the the eight bedraggled cadavers into two simple pine storage boxes and buried them without ceremony or marker. The long years of the Civil War and Reconstruction overshadowed any shot these men had of prominence in the annals of history.

Featherstonhaugh had a different idea. He believed them to be martyrs deserving of eternal rest beside their beloved leader. It’s what they would have wanted, he reasoned. They’d be spinning in their grave to know their final resting place was in soil that had sanctioned slavery for so long.

Featherstonhaugh returned to Harpers Ferry in July 1899, having recruited two other men, Captain E.P. Hall and Professor Orin G. Libby, an eccentric historian who made a name for himself in part by exposing the plagiarism of two other well-known scholars, and who was a nephew of one of the Harpers Ferry raiders who had escaped.

The men worked secretly, beginning at first light, so as not to attract the attention of locals, law enforcement or the press. The assault on Harpers Ferry, even forty years later, was still a polarizing event in the United States. Some considered Brown a hero, others, a traitor. Featherstonhaugh and company ran a genuine risk of inciting a riot.

Harpers Ferry 6      Harpers Ferry 3

L: Ruins of the Shenandoah River Bridge. Confederates destroyed the bridge that existed in 1859, which was about 300 yards upstream from these more modern foundations.  R: The Shenandoah River at the old cotton mill

The crew found a sodden mess in the coffins, the same scene Featherstonhaugh had encountered three years earlier. “The bones were very much decayed and friable,” Feathersonhaugh wrote, “and the skulls had dropped to pieces…Identification of any particular body was, of course, impossible, for the bones were all jumbled together and the mud from the river had washed in and filled the receptacles.”

The large bits of the skeletons–femurs and humeri, for instance–were still intact, as were the woolen shawls and other garments in which the dead bodies had been wrapped. The trio took men’s long bones from the grave, leaving to molder in the West Virginia countryside the coffins, sludge and all the decomposed remains they couldn’t cart off without attracting attention.

They took the bones, stowed in a common traveling trunk, to the Summit House in Harpers Ferry then to North Elba, New York where they laid them to rest beside the remains of John Brown. Three thousand people showed up for the reinterment. Attendees gave them a hero’s send-off, replete with a flag-draped casket and rousing hymns–all the pomp and circumstance denied them the first go-round.

But what of their remains that stayed behind in the West Virginia countryside, the bones that had “crumbled away,” that were “very much decayed” and the skulls that had “dropped to pieces”? They stayed on the east bank of the Shenandoah River, and that’s where they are today. Or, more likely, where they were.

The Shenandoah is a moody river, prone to freshets that reconfigure the banks every now and again. Whatever was left after Featherstonhaugh, Libby and Hall took the long bones from those anonymous graves has likely been washed on toward Washington many times over.

Harpers Ferry 1      Harpers Ferry

L: The east bank is overgrown and trail-less R: The Shenandoah River

There’s not much use trying to find the spot; the east bank of the Shenandoah has no trail and is thick with wild growth. The spot Featherstonhaugh identified, about half a mile upstream from the Shenandoah River bridge, is best seen from the west bank now, round about the ruins of the cotton mill. Dennis Frye, Chief Historian at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and author of Harpers Ferry Under Fire: A Border Town in the American Civil War says there’s a good chance the site is buried beneath rock fill for the modern highway U.S. Route 340. Those two crude headstones that Featherstonhaugh put there to mark the spot? Good luck trying to find them among the thousands and thousands of rocks there now.

Still, the site is sacred and should be treated as such–a patch of earth that cradled the remains of American men who sacrificed everything for a noble cause. National Park Service officials do not currently identify or interpret the site, although they have indicated a willingness to create a wayside recognizing the grave site. These men may not have shared the renown of Brown, but they nevertheless shared the same fate, giving their lives for the freedom of other humans, a final act deserving some small acknowledgement.

Harpers Ferry 9      Harpers Ferry 7 Harpers Ferry 5

Top: Harpers Ferry is gorgeous in autumn. Bottom: John Brown’s Fort

About Ben Swenson

Ben lives in Williamsburg, Virginia. He is writing a book on places of historic value that have been forgotten and are being reclaimed by nature. Abandoned Country is a companion blog to that project. You can contact him at benswenson@cox.net
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2 Responses to The Forgotten Mass Grave at Harpers Ferry; A Strange Trip for Eight Raiders

  1. Peggy Cochran says:

    That was “very interesting”….Keep up the good work!

  2. Keith Bryant says:

    Mr. Swenson,
    I was enjoying your site until I read this entry. Claiming that the criminals who invaded Virginia with the purpose of killing Virginians is extremely callous and historically naïve. If the madman Brown had achieved his goal many innocent Virginians would have been murdered. The Nat Turner Insurrection showed how non-slaveholders, women, and children were targeted and comprised the majority of the dead. John Brown was the Charles Manson of his day; there are many similarities between their two objectives and methods. Glorifying Brown and his accomplices was one of the causes that led to Southern secession and still today shows an indecent rancor towards Virginians, their ancestors, and their acclaimed history.
    Keith Bryant
    Hanover, Virginia

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