One narrow vision… followed by a more remarkable set of 19th century observations by Brantz Mayer

Posted on July 11, 2014 by


I read, somewhere recently, about how someone holds such low regard for Harper’s Ferry… because… as this person sees things… the site interprets John Brown as a hero.

It’s actually odd, but John Brown only crosses my mind a couple of times when I visit (which, as regular readers know, is often) Harper’s Ferry, and when he does, it can bring on some serious thinking. The “hero or villain argument” aside, the point is that the place has a great deal more historical content than what happened there in a couple of days in October, 1859. In fact, the place is interpreted with a much larger lens than… as one person suggested… one focused on the John Brown Raid alone.

I see the place for the time before, during and after the Civil War… and even well into the early 20th century. But, before I digress, I’ll get to the point of today’s post…

Brantz Mayer

Brantz Mayer

I found a piece published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine that I thought was a great read, and I wanted to share a portion. Published in April 1857, it was written by Brantz Mayer… an interesting man in his own right… and a Maryland Unionist… you can read a little about him here.

Titled “A June Jaunt” (which, considering the time of its publication, in April 1857, was likely reflective of his adventure which I’m guessing took place in June, 1856), the story about Mayer’s visit to Harper’s Ferry begins…

Such, with few intermissions, is the character of scenery from the Point of Rocks to Harper’s Ferry, which is built on a narrow, declivitous tongue, lying directly in the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac, and washed on either side by those noble streams. The railway reaches it by a stupendous curving bridge of nine hundred feet over the latter; and as the mountain steeps converge precipitously at all points about the gap, but small space is left for building with accessible convenience. Nearly all the level river-margin has been used for the National Armory, so that the town scrambles picturesquely among the upland bluffs, till the hill-top, like the end of all things, is terminated by the groves and monuments of a cemetery.

Image of Harper's Ferry which accompanied Mayer's article.

Image of Harper’s Ferry which accompanied Mayer’s article.

Our first visit was to the Armory, where we were introduced to all the mysteries in this wonderful assemblage of contrivances for death. Every thing was exhibited and set in motion – from the ponderous tilt-hammers, which weld steel into solidity, down to the delicate operations by which the impulse of a hair can put these terrible engines in action. I was soon struck by the fact that, after all, it is not so easy to kill a man – especially, If we consider the intricate preparations which have to be made in constructing weapons for human slaughter. We learned that a musket consists of forty-nine pieces, and that the number of operations in competing one – each of which is separately catalogued and valued – amount to three hundred and forty-six; all, in some degree, requiring different trades and various capacities for execution; so that, perhaps, no man, or no two men in the establishment, could perform the whole of them in manufacturing a perfect weapon!

A popular image of the Arsenal... which did not appear with the Mayer article.

A popular image of the Arsenal… which did not appear with the Mayer article.

I confess that, with but little turn for mechanical science, most of these complicated machines were rather surprising than comprehensible to me; so that, while my companions strolled through the apartments in quest of instruction, I followed leisurely in their rear, rather grieving than glorifying in the inventive skill that had been lavished on their construction under national auspices. It may be considered more sentimental than practical in the present belligerent state of mankind, to doubt the wisdom of making military preparations under the amiable name of “defense,” yet I have never been able to understand why it should not be “constitutional” to create as well as to kill, and to make a sickle as well as a sword! Why is it that political law allows millions for the belongings of war, and denies a dollar to those genial arts which, in ten years, would do more for the progress of humanity than centuries of traditionary force have effected for its demoralization? Nay, how much more beneficially would these hundreds of workmen be employed, if government devoted their labor to the manufacture of such unpicturesque instruments as hoes, spades, rakes, axes, pitchforks, plows, and reaping machines; and if the army, which is to wield the perilous weapons that are strewn in every direction, were transmuted, under national patronage, into cultivators of those “homesteads” which politicians so cheaply vote them! But, alas! The soldier is epic, and the farmer only pastoral, and pageantry beats homeliness all the world over!

These lackadaisical fancies floated through my mind as I walked over the half mile of armory; and I hope I may not be set down as “too progressive” or “Utopian,” if I divulge them in this public confessional.

I don’t know about you, but I find Mayer’s observations rather interesting considering all that was on the horizon… both for Harper’s Ferry, and for the nation, in just a matter of a few years.  Remember, this article appeared in 1857 (but was likely written as a reflection taken in 1856), and in just over two (three) years there would be the John Brown Raid… and then, in four (five), the Civil War. Though not a veteran of war, Mayer was a historian… having “dabbled” in the study of war with his work History of the War Between Mexico and the United States (1848). As I’m barely familiar with the ins and outs of Mayer’s thinking, I won’t speculate as to what baggage he brought with him on his tour of the Arsenal, and how it impacted what he wrote in regard to his visit.

Still, even Mayer was able to see Harper’s Ferry for more than one thing…

It was noon when we left the Armory and climbed to the fragment of Jefferson’s Rock, which affords the best coup d’aeil of this celebrated scenery…

Engraving of Jefferson Rock, from Mayer's piece

Engraving of Jefferson Rock, from Mayer’s piece

It was a fatiguing tramp under a mid-day sun, but we found a breeze singing down the gorge of the Shenandoah when we rested under the old pine-tree among the cliffs The rock itself is of very little interest, except for its association with Mr. Jefferson’s name, and its remarkable poise on a massive base. The drawings at the beginning of this article presents an accurate view of the whole scene From the gap between the fragments the prospect combines the grand and beautiful in a wonderful degree. Beyond the brow of the hill very little of the town is seen to disfigure the original features of the prospect, so that the wilderness of mountain, forest, and water may still be as freshly enjoyed as they were by the earliest travelers Indeed it is impossible for language to sketch the spirit of the spot more vividly than is done in the bold penciling of Jefferson “You stand,” says he, “on a very high point of land; on your right comes up the Shenandoah, having ranged the foot of the mountain a hundred miles to seek a vent; on your left approaches the Potomac in quest of a passage also In the moment of their junction, rend it asunder, and pass off to the sea.” In a few distinct words of outline we have the geology and geography of the spot before us; but when the sun is lower and the shadows broader than at the time of our visit, so as to impart variety of tone and effect to the scene, it is difficult to conceive a wilder prospect than the mountains forming the gap, or a more placid landscape than that which waves away beyond it, till hill, forest, and river fade in the east. There is a remarkable contrast between the roughness of the foreground and the pastoral quiet of the distance, so that the very landscape seems to teach he need and harmony of repose after struggle.

We dined in the cars as they rolled along slowly to Martinsburg…

As I said, there are many angles in historic sites, and we should be conscious of our ability to partake of them in multiple ways. How many versions of Harper’s Ferry do you consider when visiting, and do you convey ability as an eclectic consumer, to others, when describing the place?

Again, my disclosure, of course… I’m biased… as I’m a frequent visitor to the place, whether that be physical or through my readings.