Harpers Ferry–Then and Now

One hundred and sixty years ago, John Brown and his abolitionist brigade played a pivotal role in American history by raiding the South’s largest federal armory in Harpers Ferry with the intention of fueling a rebellion of slaves from Virginia and North Carolina, and envisioning a subsequent society where all people–regardless of color–would be free and equal.

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The initial siege caught U.S. soldiers off guard and the armory and munitions plant were captured with little resistance. Brown’s marauders took sixty townsfolk hostage (including the great grandnephew of George Washington), and slashed the telegraph wires in an attempt to isolate the town from outside communication.

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However, a B&O passenger train, originally detained at the bridge, was allowed to continue its journey to Baltimore, where employees sounded the alarm and troops were immediately dispatched to quell the insurrection.

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In another of Brown’s miscalculations, the local militia pinned down Brown’s insurgents inside the engine house while awaiting reinforcements,

militia

yet newly freed slaves never came to his rescue.

St. Peters

Ninety U.S. Marines under Colonel Robert E. Lee’s command arrived by train the next evening and successfully stormed the stronghold the following day. When the dust had settled, ten of Brown’s raiders were killed (including two of his sons),

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five had escaped, and seven were captured, including John Brown.

questioning after capture

John Brown was quickly tried and convicted of treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia.

trial

Just before his hanging on December 2, 1859, Brown prophesied the coming of civil war: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”

hanging

How right he was! To the North, Brown was a martyr; to the South, he was a traitor. To a fractured and fragile country, he was the first American to be sentenced and executed for treason.

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John Brown’s raid and subsequent trial hardenened the separatism between the country’s abolitionist and pro-slavery factions,

Appalachian Trail

…and advanced the disparate and insurmountable ideologies of the North and the South, until only the Civil War could satisfy the issue and begin healing the nation.

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The term treason has been loosely bandied about of late and with tremendous fanfare, albeit little distinction. It’s become a familiar talking point for Donald Trump, whose insulting language and hyperbolic demagoguery continue to rouse his supporters as it diminishes the civility of our national conversation.

Bold and courageous public servants and patriots who are honor bound to defend democracy have been branded as traitors and accused of treasonous behavior because they dare to speak out against corruption and wrongdoing inside the White House.

white house

And the implications are worrisome, for the stakes are high. In a country that values free speech, treason is not about displaced loyalties; it has nothing to do with political dissent; and it has no standing in speaking truth to power. Treason is about pledging allegiance to power and greed instead of American values, like diversity and unity.

As before, politics continues to polarize the nation,

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while our Legislative Branch of government seeks a constitutional remedy against the Executive Branch through an impeachment process. And once again, ideological differences have fostered veiled threats of civil war.

If history is to be our guide, then John Brown must be our beacon. During his sentencing he lamented, “…had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends…and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.”

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Sounds remarkably familiar.

More than ever, we must steer through political currents, and find our way around deception, obfuscation and misdirection if our democracy is to stay afloat.

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Eat and Get Gas

Towing a silver behemoth is welcome news for the oil industry. With an average 10 mpg, I have become gasoline’s new best friend. With an extended range fuel tank capacity of 36 gallons, Leah and I have agreed to limit our truck trips to one fill-up per day when moving from one location to another. It keeps down the daily expense, and caps our driving time to approximately 6 hours.

After a day of unfulfilled scenery following the plumes of coal exhaust along the highway to White Sulphur Springs, WV, we stopped at a Shell station that was refreshing its reservoirs by a fellow who operated a Reliant Oil tanker. Given that it takes a while for both of us to fill empty tanks, we had a chance to chat. He greeted me and shook my hand.
“I just want to thank you for helping me help keep my job by you helping to buy gas here, and I really do appreciate it.”
With his Santa-esque appearance, he would make a welcome addition to the C & O Train Depot-turned-Christmas Store operated by the Greenbrier Resort down the road.

His day was almost over, with one more stop to make at an Exxon station.
“You mean to say that Shell and Exxon share the same gas?” I asked.
“That’s about right, since it’s cheaper to hire me than have both companies service their own pumps.”
“But look at the signs,” I protest. “Shell claims they sell nitrogen-enriched gas while Exxon, across the street claims they sell Synergy gas. How can that be if it comes from the same truck?”
He looked at me as if the answer was obvious. “You ever eat your grandma’s cake, an’ it’s so good. An’ then you eat your mom’s cake, an’ it tastes just as good? Well, cake is cake an’ gas is gas.”
“By the way, you’re not allowed to call us hillbillies anymore,” he continued. He lived local, about 50 miles from Lewisburg—named “The Coolest City in America” in 2011—and advised me that his kind preferred to be called “Appalachian proud”.
I asked him about the area’s high unemployment and the many unfriendly reports of poverty-level living with so many coal mines shut down.
“Don’t let these people fool ya. All them shacks with mud floors along the road without heat and electricity? They live that way ‘cause they want to. This way they ain’t beholden to no government.”
“I’ll bet the still behind the house helps to make them forget,” I added.
“Shhh…,” he whispered, pulling a grease-stained finger to his lips. “That’ll be our little secret.”

There’s a Bunker in the Hill, and It’s Revolutionary!

Dave was our guide for the 90-minute bunker tour below The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, WV.

Hallway (3)

It was Dave’s 532nd tour in the two and one-half years since he retired from selling Chevys in town. His wife had begged him to go out and do something that will keep him away from her while keeping him fit. Always a fan of history and meeting people, Dave now claims he’s found the perfect job since it requires walking just over I mile per tour while he lets us in on a secret withheld from the public for thirty years.

Dave led us past the hotel indoor swimming pool, built in 1914,

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and considered the largest of its kind, built at the turn of the century.

pool end

Dave revels in the trivia.

“Do you know,” he asserts us, “that this pools has exactly 961,000 individual tiles set into the pool walls and floor, and I challenge you to tell me otherwise.”

“Exactly 961,000?” I contest.

“Exactly!” Dave reaffirms. “Don’t believe me?…Then count them yourself!”

Dave leads us through the ballroom,

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and towards the newer wing.

Dave explains that Ike commissioned the clandestine bunker during the height of the Cold War so Congress could be sequestered in the event of a nuclear attack on DC. While it would not withstand a direct hit since it was only 60 ft. below ground, it could seal and protect against radioactive fall-out. The 2-level 112,00 sq. ft. bunker was built between 1958 and 1961, 720 ft. into the mountainside beneath the newly conceived West Virginia wing of the opulent hotel, so as not to attract public attention.

The bunker was readied daily–just in case–by attendants who masqueraded as TV repairmen, and remained secret until the Washington Post broke the story in 1992, calling a halt to Project Greek Island.

Dave also speaks highly of white knight, billionaire Jim Justice, who owns the hotel and also occupies the governor’s mansion in Charleston. Despite being a Democrat, Justice was elected last November with 49% of the vote in a self-funded campaign, despite Trump carrying the state by nearly 70%. Justice rescued the Greenbrier from insolvency in 2009, and spent $100s of millions on refurbishing, including a casino that required a county referendum to pass.

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A final thought: While I understand the principle behind building and supplying the bunker back then to preserve and protect Congress for the continuity of our democracy, there’s no way that I could justify a safe refuge for today’s elected Representatives and Senators. There’s no way they deserve to survive us all.

Notes:

The breaking story that put an end to the bunker that was hiding in plain sight:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/local/daily/july/25/brier1.htm

The Greenbrier boasts about itself: