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Posted March 26, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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City's role in Brown raid focus of exhibit


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By Stacey Keenan -- Daily Staff Correspondent

WINCHESTER -- On Oct. 16, 1859, in a picturesque town where the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers meet, the townspeople were turning in for the night, unaware of how the events of the next two days would change the nation.

Soon, abolitionist John Brown and his men slipped into Harpers Ferry, W.Va., seizing the United States Armory and Arsenal in an effort to gather weapons for an uprising against slavery.

A few hours later, just shortly before 1:30 a.m., when a Baltimore & Ohio passenger train failed to arrive at the station on time, Heyward Shepherd, a free black from Winchester who worked as a porter, went to investigate the delay and was shot to death by Brown's men.

This event marked the first in a series of ways in which Winchester and John Brown's Raid were woven together. A new exhibition sponsored by the Winchester-Frederick County Historical Society takes visitors through this web of connections with a variety of rare artifacts.

"From the First Shot to the Gallows: Winchester's Involvement in the John Brown Raid," which opens on April 1 at Hollingsworth Mill, offers visitors different perspectives on the events that some feel helped lead to the Civil War. "2009 starts the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Civil War. There are all kinds of anniversary dates. [John Brown's Raid] is the first thing that affects our area," says Cissy Shull, executive director of the historical society. "We look at all those connections and tie it together in one exhibit. This is our kick-off to the 150th anniversary."

As soon as word about the raid spread on that October night, local militias from the Winchester area were called to Harpers Ferry. Some of the exhibits discuss the role that the members of the Continental Morgan Guards, Marion Guards, Mount Vernon Riflemen and the Newtown Light Dragoons played when they arrived in Harpers Ferry.

Visitors will want to pay special attention to two authentic uniforms from the Continental Morgan Guards, one of which belonged to Captain George W. Kurtz, a Winchester native who later served in the Civil War.

There are also a few rifles on display from the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry, including one made in 1859.

"The guns are awfully heavy. I didn't know they would be that heavy," says Shull, pointing to the weapons. "We also have the top of one of [Brown's] pikes. It's similar to a spear."

During the course of the two-day battle, people went to Harpers Ferry from all over the Northern Shenandoah Valley, including students from a small school known as the Winchester Medical College. One portion of the exhibit tells the story of the medical school's connection to the raid.

"The students got caught up in the excitement and got on the train," says Shull.

In Harpers Ferry, the students discovered bodies, and brought the cadavers back to Winchester to use for academic and dissection purposes, adds Shull.

"One of the bodies was one of John Brown's sons, so the Union troops burned the college to the ground during the Civil War, and it never started up again," Shull said.

Other sections of the exhibit explore the connections of some Winchester residents to the ensuing trial and hanging of Brown, including Judge Richard Parker, who, as Circuit Court judge for Winchester and the counties of Frederick and Jefferson, presided over the trial, and John Avis, who served as the deputy sheriff and jailer in charge of Brown during his imprisonment. Visitors will also see the jail key used by Avis.

From this exhibit, Shull hopes that "people will start thinking about the Civil War and what all events led up to that period in our history. It was 150 years ago, really not that long ago."

"From the First Shot to the Gallows: Winchester's Involvement in the John Brown Raid" opens on April 1 at Hollingsworth Mill at 1360 S. Pleasant Valley Road in Winchester. The exhibit is open daily, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and from noon to 4 p.m. on Sunday. Free admission. The exhibit runs through Oct. 31. For more information, call the Winchester-Frederick County Historical Society at 662-6550 or visit the Web site at www.winchesterhistory.org.

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