Crowd Retraces John Brown’s Incendiary Footsteps

David Dishneau, Comcast News, October 16, 2009

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Nearly 300 history lovers, some in period attire, stepped off at 8 p.m. from the grounds of a well-preserved log farmhouse in western Maryland to walk nearly five miles along dark rural roads and across a Potomac River bridge to Harpers Ferry National Historical Park in West Virginia.

The event led by park chief historian Dennis Frye kicked 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.

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Friday’s occasional rain and temperatures in the low 40s 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.

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Frye, dressed in 19th century-style woolens and carrying a lantern, planned the procession as a “reverent and soulful experience.”

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The marchers, from across the country and as far away as England, included at least four John Browns, bearded and dressed in black. Not surprisingly, virtually all the participants considered Brown a heroic martyr rather than a deranged terrorist.

“To say he is a homicidal maniac misses the point,” said Kerry Altenbernd, 57, a law librarian from Lawrence, Kan. “He is someone who could not live with 4 million people in bondage and had to do something about it.”

Janise Mitchell, 50, a middle-school social studies teacher from Brooklyn, N.Y., called Brown a genius who championed equal opportunity not just for blacks like her but for all Americans.

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