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West Virginia Marks 150th Anniversary of Harpers Ferry Raid

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Downtown Harper's Ferry.
Sabri Ben-Achour
Downtown Harper's Ferry.

It's cold and drizzling at Harpers Ferry, just as it was a century and a half ago - almost to the day - when John Brown tried to foment a slave rebellion. Diane Young, a professor of history at Youngstown University, leads me along the Potomac River to a small engine house.

"This is where Brown and his men were [held]up - with a few captives - and the building was surrounded."

Young said Brown believed slavery itself was a war that America had been perpetrating against African Americans for 200 years. His plan was to seize a vast federal arsenal and arm the half million slaves of Virginia. He failed. Brown was captured by U.S. Marines under none other than Robert E. Lee. But the event shocked the nation and scared the South.

"If Northern whites were going to be complicit and join four million slaves, slavery was in trouble," said Young.

While awaiting his hanging, Brown wrote "the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood." Violence was suddenly a real possibility.

"This was a catalyst for the Civil War," said Young.

Southern militia movements germinated. Abolitionists in the North galvanized. History tumbled toward war.

A week long commemoration is planned at Harpers Ferry and nearby locations, you can find more at www.johnbrownraid.org/events

Sabri Ben-Achour reports...

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