Archive for June 3, 2021

SHAKO: Two Monuments and the Continuing Irony of U.S. History

In the Line of Duty.

Monument to the one U.S. Marine — Private Luke Quinn — killed during  John Brown’s raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry (then) Virginia in 1859. (Copyright John M. Doyle, 4GWAR Blog)

HARPERS FERRY, West Virginia — While visiting Harpers Ferry, West Virginia during the recent Memorial Day weekend, mostly to hike in the eponymous  National Historical Park to see little bit of nature, but also for little taste history, your 4WAR Blog editor encountered two stone monuments we had never seen nor heard of before.

The first, seen above, is dedicated to Irish-born Private Luke Quinn, the only Marine killed during abolitionist John Brown’s raid on the U.S. Army Arsenal in Harpers Ferry. On the night of October 16, 1859, Brown led an integrated group of 21 men on a mission to seize the strategically important town at the intersection of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. Brown wanted to arm local slaves in Virginia and touch off a mass uprising of enslaved people across the South.

The next day more than 80 Marines arrived by train from Washington under the command of then-Army Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee to end the incident, which had turned into a hostage crisis. Among the Marines was Private Quinn, born in Ireland (County Meath). When Brown and his men refused to surrender, Lee ordered the Marines to assault Brown’s refuge, a brick fire station known as the Engine House, with fixed bayonets to avoid shooting the hostages.

The inscription at the base of the monument to Private Quinn unveiled in 1940. (Photo copyright by John M. Doyle 4GWAR Blog)

Private Quinn, the second Marine through the battered door, was mortally wounded. He died later that day at the age of 24. Brown was captured, tried by Virginia authorities and hanged December 2, 1859.

Brown’s death fanned flames North and South over the emotional issue of slavery. Northerners celebrated Brown as a hero; Southerners declared him the devil, according to the American Battlefield Trust.

We see some irony, not in Private Quinn’s courageous service, fighting to regain illegally seized federal property, one of the nation’s two arsenals — but that his death came while fighting men, admittedly wrongheaded and murderous in their methods, who were fighting against slavery, and consequently defending the property rights of Virginians, including the right to own people.

Thank You for Not Rebelling.

Monument to Heyward Shepherd, a free Black man, killed in John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry 1859. (Copyright photo John M. Doyle, 4GWAR Blog)

The second monument, just up the street from Quinn’s is dedicated to a free black man, Heyward Shepherd, who was the first victim of Brown’s “attempted insurrection.”

Shepherd worked as a baggage handler at the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad station in Harpers Ferry. On the night of the raid, Shepherd encountered Brown’s men who ordered him to halt. When he didn’t comply, they shot him fatally. Over the years, many have noted the irony of Shepherd being killed by the very men who said they were fighting to free blacks.

That point wasn’t lost on the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans when they erected the Shepherd monument in 1931. Early on, critics complained that the final sentiment carved in stone propagated the myth of the Lost Cause and that slavery wasn’t all that bad.

The text that brings one up short, is near the bottom:

This boulder is erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans as a memorial to Heyward Shepherd, exemplifying the character and faithfulness of thousands of negroes who, under many temptations throughout subsequent years of war, so conducted themselves that no stain was left upon a record which is the peculiar heritage of the American people, and an everlasting tribute to the best in both races.

In an era where calls for removing municipal monuments to the Confederacy and renaming U.S. Army forts bearing the names of Confederate generals abound, the irony here is obvious: Praise for a black man that then turns into a kind of defense of black servitude.

The National Association of Colored People (NAACP) installed a plaque praising Brown in 1932 at Storer College in Harpers Ferry that read in part: Seven “slaves and sons of slaves” fought with Brown, who was “crucified”. It was written by W. E. B. Du Bois, a biographer of John Brown and an NAACP co-founder.

The battle over this monument is captured in an academic article by Akiko Ochiai in The Japanese Journal of American Studies.


June 3, 2021 at 11:31 pm Leave a comment


June 2021


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