In an effort to separate fact from fiction

Posted on November 15, 2008 by


Just shifting gears a bit this evening and focusing on the complications of Civil War-era memory at the level of a small community. By no means is the following some earth-shattering historical finding, but I use it here to give an example of how we should take care in interpreting what we read… and what is told to us in family stories.

John Brown, Photograph by Black and Bachelder. 1859. Library of CongressWhen I first located an article in the Page News & Courier from 1920 recounting the appearance of abolitionist John Brown in Luray, I was skeptical but excited at the possible addition of such an interesting event to the recorded history of Page County. After contacting both the National Park Service at Harpers Ferry and two prominent Civil War-era historians, I became more skeptical as it appears rumors of John Brown’s appearance at several different towns in the middle Shenandoah Valley seem to have been more folklore than fact.

But, there were several aspects to the story that can easily be confirmed. For one, the “setting” for the story was the John Lionberger house (also known as the W.M. Rosser house) along Main Street in Luray. Additionally, the person (Mrs. Mary Yager) who conveyed the story to the PN&C was a steady flow of information regarding the Lionbergers during that time.

Though no specific dates were mentioned as to Brown’s “arrival” in Luray, if true, it seems likely that it would have occured in the late summer/early fall of 1859. The story from the newspaper follows:

Brown came here disguising his real purpose and as that was a day when strangers were few and hospitality was the universal rule he found entertainment in the home of John Lionberger, one of the most prominent men of Luray. Mr. Lionberger was an anti-secessionist like numerous people in Virginia, and possibly Brown sought him out for this reason.

All at once the doors of the Lionberger home were closed to the insurrectionist [John Brown] for Mr. Lionberger detected the mysterious guest often engaged in conversation with the slaves at his home and elsewhere. A very urgent invitation to leave town was at once extended the abolitionist who but a few weeks later was captured after the famous episode at Harpers Ferry and later was hanged.

Considering Brown’s activities in “Bloody Kansas” were well known by this time, there is little doubt that if he did come to Luray, he disguised not only his intent but also his name. This is where Clement Evans’ Confederate Military History comes into play. The source states that Brown apparently did a bit of leg work in the Shenandoah Valley a few months prior to his attack on the Federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Brown, “under the assumed name of Isaac Smith, appeared in the neighborhood of Harpers Ferry about the 1st of July, 1859, and there is evidence to show that he extended his examination of the country for future strategic purposes, as far up the Shenandoah Valley as Staunton, concealing his purposes by giving out that he was a farmer from New York, with his two sons and a son-in-law, desiring to rent or purchase land.”

As for Brown’s “host” John Lionberger, according to more than one story I have seen, Lionberger was indeed an anti-secessionist… and also owned slaves. He, along with John Shuler of Grove Hill (who had freed his slaves and later had a son in the service of the Stonewall Brigade), and Dr. James Lee Gillespie of near Alma, had all been known to give anti-secession speeches in the county (one which took place at Newport was well-documented in later years by Isaac Shuler) on the eve of the Civil War, whereas the same articles that cited this, also provided the names of a few other men in the county who were ardent secessionists – Benjamin Grayson and Peter B. Borst being among the men named.

So, the question remains, did John Brown really visit Luray (and the central Shenandoah Valley) or was this simply a tall-tale generated around a smaller incident in which a person, in the spirit of abolition (who happened to be in Luray at some point prior to the war), stirred-up a little trouble? Maybe one day some solid proof will surface and shed some light. Fact of the matter is however, that a person would be hard-pressed to find someone in Luray today who has even heard the story about Brown coming to Luray.